WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022)

July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is the kind of movie that requires upfront disclosure: have you read the book or not? Since it was number one on New York Times best seller list for 2019 and 2020, and remained on the list for almost three years, it’s a legitimate question and likely the driving force behind Reese Witherspoon producing the film. I have not read the book and came in with only a few preconceived notions, and enough background information to make it more interesting, not less. This is director Olivia Newman’s first film since her debut FIRST MATCH (2018), and Lucy Alibar (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) adapted the screenplay from the enormously popular novel written by Delia Owens.

Kya Clark is the youngest child of Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) and Pa (Garret Dillahunt). We get a quick glimpse at their strained existence in the marshes of Barkley Cove, North Carolina in 1953, including the violent abuse administered by Pa. It doesn’t take long for her parents and siblings to abandon her, leaving young Kya (JoJo Regina) to fend for herself in what most would consider a harsh environment. But Kya becomes one with nature. Though illiterate, she draws and charts local bugs, bird, and water creatures, while scrounging out a meager living thanks to assistance from local black store owners, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt).

Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”, FRESH, 2022) plays older Kya, the one townspeople refer to as “Marsh Girl”. Sensitive local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) shares Kya’s interest in nature and teaches her to read and write … surely having little to do with her being the prettiest marsh girl you’ve ever seen. When Tate heads off to college, adding another to the Kya abandonment roster, she’s pursued by local rich boy Chase (Harris Dickinson). This becomes another in the film’s storylines when Chase turns up dead after a fall from a fire tower. Despite no footprints, no fingerprints, and very little evidence, Kya is charged with murder and faces the death penalty. A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.

So let’s chat about what’s good and not so good. The Kya character is fascinating and certainly worthy of being the centerpiece of a story. There are similarities to other stories about those who were raised outside of society. NELL (1994) and Tarzan come to mind, but despite the marsh environment, Kya never is a wild creature, and only as a child do we see her dirty and unkempt. This is a flaw, as Kya should be more raw and primitive … at least until her mentoring by Tate. It’s a mystery how Kya is as smart and clean and refined as she appears, since it’s mostly just the store owners who provide even a dash of support. The structure of the film is decidedly fluid – bouncing from timeline to timeline and from story to story. This kind of structure requires superb writing, something that just isn’t in the cards. The courtroom drama and murder case against Kya are especially lightweight and sloppy. Most of it makes little sense and bears almost no resemblance to what an actual trial would look like. Instead, it’s slick for dramatic effect.

The cliches are to be expected, and Ms. Edgar-Jones is to be commended to making the most of a role that often requires her to sit with bowed head or gazing at nature. The narration is odd, with an inordinate number of words jumbled up to initially differentiate between a marsh and a swamp. The love story seems pulled directly from a romance novel, and in fact, that’s probably the best description of his, rather than a murder mystery. Chase and Tate are textbook examples of the extremes of men, and Kya’s Pa adds fuel to the argument that most men are experts at letting down women. Kya’s attention to nature and emphasis on survival instinct vs morality are used multiple times to guide us toward the ending, which evidently is supposed to be a twist reveal. Cinematographer Polly Morgan inserts some nice shots of nature, and the music from Oscar winning composer Mychael Danna (LIFE OF PI) is excellent. Taylor Swift’s new song, “Carolina” plays over the closing credits. It’s not likely a film that will win over anyone who wasn’t a fan of the book, but those devoted readers will surely be on board.

It should be noted that a story more interesting that what we see in the movie, is the real-life events of writer Delia Owens and her husband from their twenty plus years in Africa. This includes a murder case with some curious similarities to what she wrote about. If you are interested, track down the 2010 New Yorker article, “The Hunted”, researched and written by Jeffrey Goldberg.

Opens in theaters July 15, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


ALL I SEE IS YOU (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Marc Forster has crafted a career of making movies that are readily watchable, though for the most part, not especially memorable. These include: FINDING NEVERLAND, STRANGER THAN FICTION, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, WORLD WAR Z, and his best film, MONSTER’S BALL (2001). His latest falls short of those, but thanks to Blake Lively and some creative visuals, we remain interested enough.

This is Ms. Lively’s follow up to last year’s surprise summer hit THE SHALLOWS, her nearly one-woman sea-based spectacle. This time out she does an admirable job of carrying the film in spite of script flaws. It’s co-written by Sean Conway and director Forster, and despite teasing some fascinating psychological aspects, we find ourselves constantly waiting for the movie to show us what we already know is about to happen. Predictability is rarely an asset for a film, and here it acts as a ball and chain to the pacing.

The first third of the film works to establish two things: what Gina’s (Lively) daily life is like as a blind person, and the type of relationship she and her husband (Jason Clarke) have. We get an abundance of distorted light flashes to simulate what she has lived with since the car accident that took away her parents and her vision during childhood. Her marriage finds her very dependent on her husband and Clarke’s character thrives on this … even giving brief glimpses of his demented personality that will eventually take over the film in the final act.

Gina’s doctor (Danny Huston) performs a transplant which successfully restores her vision. The bulk of the story revolves around the changes that vision brings to her life and how the marriage begins disintegrating. The best message here is what happens to a relationship as the individuals change and evolve. Specifically in this case, the wife gains an entirely new perspective, while the husband longs for the days where she was dependent on him.

At times it feels as if director Forster is working hard to create the look and feel of an experimental movie, rather than focusing on the story. There are some interesting visuals provided by locations and camera angles, although the moody atmosphere never really clicks. Ms. Lively singing “Double Dutch” provides an ending that is both odd and mesmerizing in a strange way. We are reminded that evil and self-centeredness can take on many forms, though this film never quite packs the dramatic punch it might have.

watch the trailer:


FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

July 13, 2013

fruitvale1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not politically correct to criticize this movie, yet it seems only fair to treat it as I do every other movie on which I comment. If that sounds like a bashing is coming, you are mistaken. In fact, this is an emotionally-charged, well written and exceptionally well-acted movie that provides much anticipation for the future projects of its first time director Ryan Coogler. However, in my opinion, it is also flawed in its “Based on a True Story” placard that is then followed by much manipulation (3 Oprah references), some of which could even be considered misleading.

If you are unfamiliar with the tragic story, 22 year old Oscar Grant was inexplicably shot and killed (while subdued and face down) by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop after watching New Year’s Eve fireworks with his girlfriend and buddies. An altercation/fight occurred on the train and the officers pulled Grant aside to detain/arrest. Much of this was caught on cell phone video by train passengers, and the aftermath brought protests in the city. The officer was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser.

fruitvale4 No one can argue that this was anything but a senseless tragedy. Director Coogler even begins his movie with actual cell phone footage of the incident. The ending is known and seared in the viewer’s mind before the story even begins. Whether the senseless shooting was racially driven is a topic for debate, but the current media focus on the George Zimmerman trial, and his killing of Trayvon Martin, makes the timing of this movie quite compelling.

Coogler certainly points out that Grant (adeptly played by Michael B Jordan) was no angel. We learn about his prison stints, his drug dealing, his unfaithfulness to his girlfriend (the mother of his daughter), his lack of responsibility (losing his job due to chronic absence), his string of lies, and most glaringly … his terrifyingly quick and violent temper. My issue with the film is the seemingly inordinate amount of time Coogler spends on the flip side — the focus on Oscar’s desire to get his life back on track. So fruitvale2much effort and so many scenes are written to exhibit how Oscar is a charming guy with a big heart. He helps out a white lady in the grocery store, he takes a big step towards leaving the drug dealing life, he plans his mother’s birthday party, heck … he even cradles a poor dog that was hit by a car. This inequity in storytelling apparently has only one purpose … to create another symbol of racial injustice. We are not left to ponder if the real Oscar is the one who inspires his daughter to brush her teeth or the one who bows up to a foul-mouthed convict, rather than ignore him. Instead, Coogler wants us to believe that Oscar was now a good guy who had put his past behind him … all in the 24 hours leading up to his death.

The fact is, there are two sides of Oscar, just like everyone has multiple facets to their personality. Most of us learn to control the sides that don’t mesh well with society … others really struggle to do so. Michael B Jordan delivers a powerful performance as Oscar, and he and Octavia Spencer (who plays his mom) will both garner awards attention. Other supporting work is provided by Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his precious daughter, Ahna O’Reilly as the shopper, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the BART cops.

fruitvale3 This film was the hit of both Sundance and Cannes, and was produced by Forest Whitaker. A major tip of the cap to BART for allowing the filmmakers to work on location at the actual Fruitvale station, for a level of authenticity. Coogler chooses one last bit of manipulation with his closing video of Oscar’s daughter Tatiana at a recent memorial outside of Fruitvale station … followed by on screen text of the officer’s two year sentence. We get no details on the trial, only the assumption that the sentence does not deliver justice, but rather another example of racial bias.

Lastly I’ll say that the decision to make a dramatization rather than a documentary was interesting. This allowed the director to focus on Oscar the good guy. A documentary would have required facts from the trial, a better perspective of the train disturbance and probably fewer Oprah references. The dramatization makes the movie more emotionally charged and more effective at inspiring outrage, rather than debate. Despite all of that, this is extraordinary filmmaking from a first time director, and I will certainly look forward to Ryan Coogler’s next project.

**NOTE: An interesting take on the real life events that led Oscar to this moment, could have been an analysis of the many decisions he made in his short life. Parents are always trying make their kids understand that every decision and every choice has a consequence. What if Oscar had never dealt drugs or gone to prison?  The altercation on the train would not have occurred and the tragedy would have been avoided.  I am by no means blaming Oscar for what happened that night, it’s just another example of how even the smallest decisions add up to impact our life.

***WARNING***

Rather than post the trailer to the film, I have elected instead to post a 1:42 YouTube video of the actual incident,  The video is short but contains very harsh language and you can hear the gun shot.  It is not easy to watch and certainly not appropriate for kids

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0P8TSP2YJU&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DS0P8TSP2YJU&has_verified=1