Thursday, June 9, 2016

Amateur night for satire and fun -- Kevin Willmott's DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO!

There are enough clever ideas and saucy dialog in the new comedy from Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq and CSA: The Confederate States of America) that one wishes the actual movie experience were better than it is. There is an amateurishness in DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO! that goes beyond the fact that the film intends to spoof the old and often silly space-travel movies from the 1950s (do you recall Rocketship X-M?). Instead, there is something amateur in the entire execution of this film that keeps holding it back from being as all-out enjoyable and funny as it should be.

Mr. Willmott (shown at left), who wrote, produced and directed the film (and also turns in one of its better performances) is a smart fellow, all right, and his satire/spoof of how were were back in the day (the 1930s, when this black-and-white film begins) and our current decade (when it changes to "color," as someone so nicely puts it), has a lot of clever riffs on current and past people and events. What's missing is the kind of tonal consistency needed to make the satire zing and the performances sing. Some of the actors seem to be on different pages at the same time so that necessary connections, including performance style -- too broad, too laid-back -- are not being made. There is also a matter of the screenplay, which is awfully expository without being consistently funny or clever enough to compensate for this.

The film begins with a meeting of cream-of-the-crop black leaders in the 1930s (above) as they decide how the black race can better prosper, with an array of ideas being tossed about from back-to-Africa to revolution to finally leaving for a better place -- which turns out to be... Mars.

Yes! So the usual group of intrepid explorers man (and woman) up for the ride, which includes a rip-off of Robby the Robot (above, left), speaking in a voice and dialect that are more grating and less amusing than Willmott probably wanted. Where this group ends up is not quite the place it expected: It turns out to have time-traveled rather than space-traveled. But the return to earth some 80 years later gives Willmott the opportunity to talk about everything from politics and elections to music and fashion (the film's funniest line has to do with a theory of why the modern black man cannot keep his pants up around his waist).

Selling out and the venality of politics, then and now, comes into play, too, but interestingly enough, the film's most incisive and thoughtful points regard homosexuality and blacks, with a young actor named Trai Byers (above) the standout who gives the film a much-needed shot of professionalism and sex appeal with his several appearances.

It all comes out (mostly) all right, with a finale that is romantic, as well as a bit moving and charming and even history-changing -- usually a no-no in time-travel movies but evidently A-OK here. (That's Wes Studi, above, who adds the theme of additional "others" -- Mexican immigrants and Native Americans -- into the film.)

Made back in 2013 and having played a film festival or two in the intervening years, Destination: Planet Negro! is at last being distributed, via Candy Factory Films, beginning tomorrow, Friday, June 10, to VOD and Digital HD -- on all leading platforms.

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