HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL (2022)

September 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the Greater Paths Baptist Church. Or what’s left of it. Writer-director Adammo Ebo has expanded her 2018 short story (same title) into a feature film that serves up a satirical look at the proliferation of mega churches and all that entails – ego, greed, self-absorption. Her best move was casting Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown in the crucial lead roles.

In the faux-archival footage, we see Pastor Lee-Curtis Brown (Sterling K Brown) eloquently and passionately sermonizing to the massive congregation. At its peak, his church had 26,000 members who filled the offering plates each Sunday. We know this because this pastor is not shy about flashing his designer label clothes or collectible cars, or mentioning the private jets and helicopters. He uses these glitzy material goods to reinforce what good Christians each member is. But that was then, and this is now. The church has been closed due to a very public scandal involving Pastor Lee-Curtis and his inappropriate behavior with teenage boys.

The story here involves the pastor and his first lady wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they strategize about creating excitement for the grand re-opening of their church. The scandal is clearly the biggest hurdle; but so is Heaven’s House, a local church run by ‘Pastor Sumpter and Pastor Sumpter’, a husband and wife team played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie (so good in BREAKING, 2022). After the scandal, Heaven’s House welcomed many transferring members and is now in the process of growing their church to a new level.

This is a mockumentary and the “documentary” filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie around most of the day, sometimes even when they aren’t particularly welcome. Because of this, we see Lee-Curtis as a narcissist mostly devoid of any semblance of reasonable perception of how others view him. He may seek the road to redemption, but that trust has been broken. Trinitie stood by her man through the hard times, and it seems clear they are both desperate to regain the power and privilege that is now lost.

Sterling K Brown and Regina Hall are both fully committed to these roles. Brown’s intensity, no matter how displaced his character feels, absolutely works. And Regina Hall’s performance is even more fun to watch. She’s especially effective at showing Trinitie’s inner turmoil of maintaining dignity versus the desire for the power lifestyle. She excels at biting her tongue and struggles to avoid letting her true feelings show … she’s a pillar of loyalty behind a cheerleader’s fake smile. She also delivers the perfect final shot.

This mockumentary isn’t funny in the Christopher Guest way, but rather with a bleak commentary on power-hungry people and megachurches, with a few exceptions. What once was a congregation over 20,000 is now only the “Devout Five”. We get the best ever pinkie toe joke, and Ms. Hall and Mr. Brown go all in on their rendition of Crime Mob’s “Knuck You if You Buck” while driving. It’s a bit confusing that the faux-doc doesn’t fully follow the idea of only showing what the camera crew captures, but the description of “EGO” as ‘edging God out’, and a marketing plan seemingly tied to a glittery handheld sign and statue of Jesus give us some idea about these two. In TOMBSTONE, Doc Holiday states, “My hypocrisy knows no bounds”, and that’s so true for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. While there are flashes of brilliant satire, unfortunately the target is just too easy, and the filmmaker chooses to remain on the surface rather than dig deep for the juicy part.

Opens in theaters on September 2, 2022

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BREAKING (2022)

August 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Bank robbers are commonplace in movies, and some focus on the planning stage, while others look to the actual robbery or the escape. Writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah tell the true story of a man who went into a bank, made a bomb threat, and took hostages … all while having no intention of stealing the bank’s money. A former Marine went to this extreme to make a very visible point about how veterans are mistreated, especially by the VA.

John Boyega (Finn from “Star Wars” franchise) stars as Brian Brown-Easley, a veteran struggling in a day-to-day existence, when a clerical error at the VA results in his latest disability check being withheld. This leaves Brian homeless, and the only assistance the VA offers is a brochure. Brian chats lovingly with his young daughter Kiah (London Covington), but their conversation is cut short because he can’t afford to add more minutes to his phone. Brian is so disturbed by the situation that he builds what appears to be a bomb and heads down to the local Marietta Wells Fargo branch.

The tension escalates quickly when Brian drops the handwritten note at the teller window, “I have a bomb.” Rosa (Selenis Leyva) tries to stay cool, but, Estel (Nicole Beharie), the Branch Manager, notices the panic in her eyes and quickly ushers out as many customers and employees as she can. Brian allows everyone to leave except Rosa and Estel, and he encourages them to call 911. It turns out he wants all law enforcement and media to show up so he can tell his story and relay the lack of respect from the VA.

Soon, Brian is chatting with a local TV news producer (Connie Britton), and then, after a delay, the hostage negotiator (the final big screen appearance of the great Michael Kenneth Williams). Brian and the negotiator form a quick human connection that is contrasted with the macho SWAT team leader played by Jeffrey Donovan and his world class condescending smirk. Brian is likely the most sympathetic stick-up man you’ll ever see. What we quickly realize is that the movie is a bit manipulative in making its point that the VA is the villain here, but some tremendous work by the actors keeps us engaged and caring about Brian. His interactions with Rosa and Estel are terrific, and the chats with Williams’ negotiator are even better. All four actors go above the material, and Ms. Beharie is a standout. Additionally, this is one final reminder of how Michael Kenneth Williams made every role his own, and every show and movie just a bit better.

Opening in theaters on August 26, 2022

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42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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SHAME

December 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Can a film be a beautifully crafted work of art AND also a movie that very few will enjoy, or even have an interest in seeing? Clearly, I am in the minority here as critics are raving about the insight and genius of writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger). McQueen is an art school graduate and has a terrific eye for color, tone, texture and visual acumen. Those talents (and plenty more) are all on display in Shame.

For me, there are two separate aspects to discuss: the look of the film, and the effectiveness of the story. The first deserves recognition and kudos, while the second has resulted in a total lack of interest and ambivalence. Evidently the goal was to detail and humanize the diagnosis of sex addiction, detailing the lack of emotional connection that follows this most personal of activities. The film is rate NC-17 for good reason. Not only are the two stars uninhibited, but much of the supporting cast joins in … too many to count.

I will not itemize the number of ways in which Brandon (Michael Fassbender) tends to his addiction. On the surface, he is a normal looking guy with a normal job in a generic Manhattan office building. We quickly learn that he is always alone and in angst … regardless if he is in a group at hour hour, hooking up with one of his endless stream of partners, or handling his own business. This guy is unable to find joy in anything that life offers.

His isolated world is one day invaded by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). We learn that their up-bringing has much to do with his always dour mood, and her desperate need for attention and care. They are both a mess … just in different ways. She has a line via voice mail that says “We aren’t bad people. We’re just from a bad place.”. That is meant to explain the rotting foundation without exposing us to another story of poor parenting skills. 

 The clearest indication that Brandon’s emotional issues are well beyond frayed, occurs when he actually starts to see a glimmer of relationship hope with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), only to have that end in performance failure. He quickly fixes the problem by resorting to what he does best … with no meaning attached.  The best sequence in the film occurs while Brandon eye flirts with a subway passenger, whom he loses in the crowd after the ride. She re-emerges late in the film clearly open to his attention.

Carey Mulligan is building a strong film career and her performance here is wonderful. Michael Fassbender has had a remarkable year with the latest X-Men, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, and Haywire. That is a dream year for an actor. The film is beautiful to look at and has stunning performances. All that for a movie that is not really very interesting and certainly lacks substantive entertainment value for the normal movie-goer.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the beat down of the story and focus on the artistic film qualities OR you just like to see movie stars naked.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching characters in the midst of life-long emotional abyss is less than appealing to you, not matter the high level of art direction

watch the trailer: