TILL (2022)

October 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t look away. Whether referring to Mamie Till-Mobley telling family members to look at the disfigured boy in the casket, or to the general counsel to all citizens in this day of division, the sentiment is the same … see with your own eyes so that you understand the injustice. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (CLEMENCY, 2019) and her co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp allow us to see the tragic story of Emmett Till through the eyes of his mother, and it’s a powerful approach. It’s Mr. Beauchamp who has diligently researched this story for almost 25 years, and was the driving force behind the 2005 documentary, THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL.

The film certainly benefits from the powerhouse performance of Danielle Deadwyler (THE HARDER THEY FALL, 2021) as Mamie Till-Mobley. Mamie’s love and concern for her 14-year-old son Emmett (a terrific Jalyn Hall) is only surpassed by her strength and dignity after his death … and all of this is masterfully portrayed by Ms. Deadwyler in her surefire Oscar contending role. We see just enough of young Emmett to realize he’s a well-raised, considerate, and fun-loving boy who sometimes stutters. He’s so excited for his trip from Chicago to Mississippi to meet some of his relatives, while seeing and doing new things. It’s 1955, and Mamie tries to caution Emmett on the differences between their world at home and the southern world he’s about to enter.

There are varying accounts of what Emmett actually did or didn’t do to Money, Mississippi store clerk Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett, SWALLOW, 2019), but the shock of seeing Emmett’s disfigured face and body is handled brilliantly here, and though the actual violence occurs off screen, the impact remains. Against all of her motherly protective instincts, Mamie seizes the power of the moment to have a photograph taken and demand an open casket so that the world can witness the result of the atrocity. Her ability to think clearly catapulted the case to national attention, and allowed Emmett Till to become a name and example that is still studied today.

The supporting cast includes Frankie Faison (Mamie’s father), Whoopi Goldberg (Mamie’s mother), Sean Patrick Thomas, Tosin Cole (as Medgar Evers), John Douglas Thompson, and Jayme Lawson. The trial of the men accused of beating and killing Emmett plays a part here, but the only real courtroom drama occurs when Mamie takes the stand. It’s in that moment when Ms. Deadwyler truly shines and allows us to feel a mother’s pain and disgust. Afterwards, we get a taste of her activism … something she continued until her death in 2003 at age 81. Filmmaker Chukwu benefits from the performance of Deadwyler and the years of research by Mr. Beauchamp, and she delivers a film that allows us to experience a dark moment in history from a different perspective – the eyes of a mother.

Opens in theaters on October 21, 2022

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THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN (2020)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. No one denies law enforcement officers have a tough and demanding and risky job. However, with cell phones putting video cameras in the hands of just about everyone, any poor decision by cops … and certainly any tragic one… is likely to get recorded and then plastered across all media. Writer-director David Midell delivers a dramatized reenactment of a tragic and inexplicable interaction between one man and a team of frustrated cops whose actions proved deadly.

On November 19, 2011, former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr was asleep in his White Plains, NY apartment. He rolled over and accidentally enacted his LifeAid alert pendant. Since he slept without his hearing aids, Kenneth didn’t hear Candace, the LifeAid operator, try to reach him. Following protocol, Candace ordered a welfare check. 90 minutes later, Kenneth lay dead – killed by police after they broke down his front door. The tension during that 90 minutes is nearly unbearable.

Frankie Faison (“Banshee”) gives an excellent and gut-wrenching performance as Chamberlain. We ‘feel’ everything he says. As he talks to the cops through the door, we learn he has a heart condition, as well as a mental health issue (likely bi-polar). His constant pleas of “leave me alone”, “I’m fine”, the alarm “was an accident”, and “you’re not coming in” all heighten the sense of impending doom he feels. We feel it too. His experience tells him to expect something to go wrong anytime the police are involved.

The three cops banging on his door are Sergeant Parks (Steve O’Connell), Officer Jackson (Ben Martin), and Officer Rossi (Enrique Natale). Jackson is the racist, hot-headed gum-smacking cop (blond of course) who has judged Chamberlain simply by the demographics of the run-down complex he lives in. Rossi is the empathetic rookie cop who has a feel for the pressure Chamberlain is under, and his attempts at preaching patience are shot down by the more experienced cops. Parks has little time for Rossi’s cuddly approach or Jackson’s on-edge nature, but he’s not appreciative of Chamberlain’s refusal to cooperate, and certainly can’t relate to his distrust of the badge.

Midell’s film has been well received at film festivals the past couple of years, and his ‘real time’ approach coupled with the performances and the claustrophobic setting (it all takes place in Chamberlain’s apartment and the stairwell outside his door) work to give us a feel for the emotions and nervous energy of the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain communicates with Candace at LifeAid and his own family on his cell. The opening quote tells us that depending on who you are, the sight of a police officer could mean “safety” or “terror”. This film relays the latter, and the actual audio and photos over the closing credits prove this horror film was unbearably true. “This is my home” was not enough for Kenneth Chamberlain. One small quibble: Chamberlain’s hearing aids come and go through the film.

In select theaters and VOD on September 17, 2021

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AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

Watch the trailer: