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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CYRANO (2021)

December 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Joe Wright has proven how adeptly he can re-make a classic love story. You’ll likely agree if you’ve seen his versions of ANNA KARENINA (2012) and/or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2005), which are in addition to his best film (also a love story), ATONEMENT (2007). Working from the terrific script Erica Schmidt adapted from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Wright delivers a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac that delivers all of the intended “panache” of the original tragic-romance.

Peter Dinklage (THE STATION AGENT, 2003) stars as Cyrano, a master swordsman and orator who entertains with words that cut like a surgeon’s scalpel … except when he’s weaponizing those words for love. Haley Bennett (SWALLOW, 2019) plays Roxanne, the secret object of Cyrano’s desire, though she views him as but a close friend and confidant. Instead, her gaze is upon the newly arrived Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a virile and handsome man lacking the charisma and common sense required to court Roxanne. This dilemma lends itself to the melding of Cyrano’s word being delivered by the preferable packaging of Christian.

Rather than Cyrano’s oversized nose, the film uses Mr. Dinklage’s diminutive stature and feelings of unworthiness of Roxanne’s affections to create the division, and yet it’s the musical aspect that takes a bit of getting used to. Dinklage excels in the film’s best sequence, as early on he humiliates a poor stage actor, a rebellious act that ends in a duel … entertaining for the play’s audience as well as us as viewers. It’s the connection between Cyrano and Christian that leaves us missing the good stuff. It all happens quickly and efficiently, rather than a slow transition from foes to partners. The film is at its best when Cyrano’s loneliness is at the forefront … Dinklage excels in these scenes. In fact, Wright and the actors (Dinklage and Bennett) nail the ending which packs the punch Rostand intended.

Mr. Dinklage has long been married to the film’s screenwriter Erica Schmidt, and Ms. Bennett and director Wright have a daughter together. These ties may have contributed to the effectiveness of the best scenes, though we do wish Ben Mendelsohn (as De Guiche) had a bit more screen time. The three most well-known film versions are CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1950) starring Jose Ferrer, ROXANNE (1987) starring Steve Martin, and CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1990) starring Gerard Depardieu. Wright’s latest version is set apart with the musical aspect, and certainly the Dinklage performance ranks amongst the best. Edmond Rostand’s play was a fictionalized version of the life of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), but the romance, ego, and self-doubt applies to all eras.

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HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020)

November 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “We don’t use that word.” That is law school student JD’s reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He’s understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar nominated for THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance’s own memoir.

The first thing noticed about this film is that it stars Amy Adams (6) and Glenn Close (7), who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That’s a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams has been seen recently in the TV mini-series “Sharp Objects” and as Lynn Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in THE WIFE (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in SWALLOW earlier this year), Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), and Gabriel Basso (THE KINGS OF SUMMER, 2013).

As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky … and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown, after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only “hope”. The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it’s Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It’s an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top … a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.

For such a stereotypical “simple” family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD’s sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. And JD’s law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.

It’s at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing that mother Bev has overdosed on heroin. It’s yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD’s family pie. When his “old” life collides with his “new” life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces decisions that are legal and/or morality based, and given his circumstances, it’s never as straightforward as it should be.

Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it’s not the Oscar bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard’s decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD’s dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it’s here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.

Premieres on Netflix November 24, 2020

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SWALLOW (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever picked up a marble and wanted to ingest it?  How about a push-pin? A battery? Any other items normally considered inedible? If not, you likely don’t suffer from the psychological disorder known as pica – an eating disorder at the center of the feature film debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis. While pica may be new and confounding to most of us, the real story is what drives someone to swallow items that could be harmful and cause severe pain?

Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN) stars as Hunter Conrad, a newly married trophy wife to spoiled and handsome Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell). Richie is so entitled that his even more entitled dad (David Rasche) makes a big deal out of promoting his son to partner by proclaiming at a dinner party that “he earned it.” Oh and this is after the parents bought the newlyweds a stunning home with a view. It’s obvious Hunter ‘married up’ from a socioeconomic perspective, but her GQ husband pays more attention to his cell phone than he does to his wife or the picture perfect dinners she prepares. Hunter’s Mother-in-Law (Elizabeth Marvel) offers up awkward support and passive-aggressive compliments … such as a self-help book entitled “A Talent for Joy.”

The book is a gift to Hunter immediately after Richie tells his parents “We’re pregnant!” A passage in the book mentions to ‘push yourself to experience new things’. It’s at this point where Hunter sees herself become even more of an accessory within the family. One morning she spots a decorative marble and pops it in her mouth. She seems to take pleasure in this, and … um … after it passes, displays it as some type of trophy. Soon other items join the marble on display, until finally, Hunter is in so much pain, she’s rushed to the hospital for surgery.

Pica is a disorder that’s difficult to understand. Haley seems to be complacent, having no real persona other than her pretty face and pristine wardrobe. Swallowing the items evidently delivers the feeling lacking in her life – a life where her job seems to be becoming the perfect wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Worried about the safety of the unborn baby, the family hires Luay (Laith Nakli), a Syrian live-in nurse, to keep an eye on Hunter. Oddly enough, the war-toughened Luay shows more compassion to Hunter than anyone in the family.

The film shifts gears a bit when we start learning more of Hunter’s backstory during her trips to the psychiatrist (Zabryna Guevara). This backstory is of course tragic and explains a great deal about Hunter’s strange compulsion. It also leads to a sequence with Denis O’Hare, who is a welcome presence in most any movie. The two share a scene that allows Hunter to fill in the gaps of her life.

Director Mirabella-Davis doesn’t treat the rich as caricatures, but rather symbolic of the self-centeredness that seems to go with wealth. We see good in places we don’t expect it. We lack the trust in places we should be able to depend on. Additionally, we question whether finding one’s true self through genetics makes any real sense when compared with just making up one’s mind about the kind of person they want to be. This is a disturbing, trippy, darker-than-expected film with an interesting score from composer Nathan Halpern. When it veers from the skirts of horror and suspense towards political and social topics, the film loses steam and tries to cram in a bit too much. Still, it’s an unusual and creative film with a terrific performance from Ms. Bennett, and leaves us looking forward to the next Mirabella-Davis project.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

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