CLEMENCY (2019)

December 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. You surely complain about your job. Most everyone does. But what if your career path had led you to oversee a dozen court-mandated executions, and the next one was already scheduled? In her first feature film, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes us inside the world of Warden Bernadine Williams, who manages a maximum-security prison, including inmates on death row. It’s the rare film in this sub-genre that doesn’t preach anti-death penalty politics, and instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes on those who must carry out the sentence.

Warden Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a seasoned prison professional who keeps her emotions in check, while sticking to policies and procedures. She is a restrained, often stoic person – both at work and at home. Early in the film, a lethal injection goes awry, and the warden finds this inexcusable. She wants answers and she prepares to make sure the next one scheduled … for inmate Anthony Woods … goes smoothly. Aldis Hodge plays Mr. Woods, a death row inmate for 15 years. His execution date is fast approaching despite his claims of innocence and the evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer. Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff) has informed him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor.

Bernadine’s job involves dealing with family members, protestors, lawyers, media, guards, medical staff, procedures, final statements … and even the search for veins. The stress is obviously taking a toll, and even her home life is a wreck. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is frustrated at her aloofness. He’s a high school teacher and reads a passage of “Invisible Man” to his class – words that hit home for him. Bernadine must also deal with the prison priest (Michael O’Neill) and the two share a powerful moment that relays the strain on both. Bernadine speaks matter-of-factly to Mr. Woods as she outlines the procedure of his execution. In another powerful moment, Mr. Woods attempts to exercise his last bit of control over his life and death. It’s brutal to watch.

Even though the death sentence is for convict Anthony Woods, most every other person involved expresses some desire to retire or walk away. This speaks clearly to the burden associated with taking the life of another human being. In a meeting with his former partner Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods is given hope of a legacy outside of crime, while Evette expresses what she needs to him. This life is no fairy tale, and hard edges and difficult moments are around every corner.

Ms. Woodard has long been an underrated actress. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1983, and she has been outstanding in most roles since TV’s “St Elsewhere” in the 1980’s. She manages to convey humanity and realism in most every character she plays. Mr. Hodge starred in the title role of BRIAN BANKS earlier this year, and in both roles, he possesses a strength of character that allows the audience in. In Ms. Chukwu’s film, both are isolated in some way and struggling with how to deal.

Although the film spends very little time on the question of guilt or innocence, or whether the death penalty is a law of morality that fits within society, the approach of examining the psychological impact of those involved proves worthy of discussion. We do wish the script had not delivered such stand-off characters … ones so difficult to connect with. But perhaps that’s the inevitability of the environment – one that cuts much deeper than following the ritual of preparing for the next execution.

watch the trailer:


THE LION KING (2019)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is at times so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded of a National Geographic program with ultra-High Definition photography. So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-animated/generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains. The look of the film is as revolutionary as when the first TOY STORY stunned us in 1995. We had never seen animation like that then, and we’ve never before seen computer effects like this. What is familiar are two early songs, “The Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago. Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s US), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble. James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodard voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa the warthog and Timba the meerkat. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple. Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as IRON MAN 2 (2010), IRON MAN (2008), and ELF (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (BRAVE, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version. Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

The beloved 1994 version didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature film because the award didn’t exist until 2002; however, it did spawn the 1997 Broadway smash musical. This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago. The story and characters, while familiar to those age 30 and up, will be a whole new viewing experience for today’s kids. So while we may prefer the 1994 animated version, kids today will likely be enthralled by this updated look. And we all better get used to it, because Disney has 18 more “live action” remakes in the works (some of which will actually be “live” action).

watch the trailer:


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodard, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk