Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

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Trouble is My Business


A tough-as-nails gumshoe waits for the right dame to come along.

(2018) Mystery (Random Media/Lumen Actus) Tom Konkle, Brittney Powell, Vernon Wells, David Beeler, Mark Teich, Jordana Capra, Ben Pace, Benton Jennings, Steve Tom, Mollie Fitzgerald, Paul Hungerford, William Jackson, E. Sean Griffin, Laine Scandalis, Carl Bryan, Ksenia Delaveri, Pete Handelman, Steve Olson, Doug Spearman, Lauren Byrnes. Directed by Tom Konkle

 

Of all the art forms cinematic, one of the greatest – and hardest to do right – is film noir. Most of us when we think of noir think of classic films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and Out of the Past and writers Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. While the heyday of noir ran from the 1930s through the early 1950s, from time to time attempts have been made to resurrect or at least pay homage to the genre, sometimes effectively (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), other times not so much.

In a world of corrupt cops and hard-bitten detectives, Roland Drake (Konkle) has seen it all. Once one of the best missing persons men in the business, his reputation has been tarnished by a botched job in which Natalia (Delaveri), a missing girl, ended up dead and the newspapers blamed Drake. Business has dried up, his partner Lew MacDonald (Beeler) has moved on to start his own agency and he’s about to be evicted from his shabby office.

Then in comes Katherine Montemar, a sexy brunette with a sob story; her father has disappeared, the police are dragging their flat feet and now it appears someone is targeting the Montemar family because her uncle has disappeared as well. One thing leads to another and she spends the night with Drake. When he wakes up in the morning, there’s an ominous pool of blood next to him and no brunette.

That might have been the end of it but Katherine’s sister Jennifer (Powell) shows up with incriminating photos of Drake’s roll in the hay with Katherine and a .38 special. Eventually Drake takes on the case and runs into a variety of characters; Jennifer’s overbearing mother (Capra), the cross-dressing and likely insane butler Rivers (Teich), Jennifer’s handsome but inept boyfriend (Pace) and most ominous as well, the corrupt and vicious cop Barry Tate (Wells). They all are revolving around a missing black book and a fabulous diamond that is priceless. Drake will have to think fast, talk faster and know how to use his gun if he’s going to get out of this one alive.

Konkle is a bit of a triple threat man here, directing, starring and co-writing (with co-star Powell) and probably sweeping the floors after shooting. He certainly has a good knowledge of noir tropes and uses them effectively for the most part. He creates a dark and dangerous atmosphere and I certainly won’t complain about the production design although sometimes it is a little obvious that green screen is being used.

The script could have used some polishing. The rapid-fire patter of typical noir dialogue is present but Konkle and Powell are no Raymond Chandler or even Elmore Leonard. The dialogue is generally okay but sometimes it sounds a little clunky and forced. Not every line needs to sound like it’s being uttered by Sam Spade. Also the score is like a Mikos Rosza score from back in the day, only played on synthesizers like a bad 80s thriller. It totally wrecks the mood; the score is also constantly playing. In this case, a little dead air wouldn’t have hurt.

Some critics have judged this a comedy although I don’t think that was the intent of the filmmakers, although there are some fairly funny lines throughout. I do think that this is occasionally over-earnest, sometimes star-struck but never anything but a genuine tribute to a style of film which has become truly a lost art. While I can quibble with the execution in places, I certainly can’t fault the intentions

Oh, and for those who like choices the DVD/Blu-Ray of this release (available on Amazon) comes with both full color and Black and White disks. For my money, the Black and White version is much better, much more authentic. Purists should go for that; those who dislike black and white can always go for the color edition, but I think you miss something that way.

REASONS TO GO: The aesthetics are done just right.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is a bit clunky and delivered stiffly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as more than a little bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lumen Actus is a production house that not only makes films but does all their special effects in-house. This film is the first of two productions they are working on.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Falls
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Black Panther

Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

Django (2017)


Django Reinhardt doing what he does best.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Under the Milky Way) Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mireté, Johnny Montreuil, Vincent Frade, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Esther Comar, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Hugues Jourdain, Hono Winterstein, Etienne Mehrstein, Levis Reinhardt, Nestle Sztyglic, Ulrich Brandhoff, Clémence Boisnard. Directed by Etienne Comar

 

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest jazz guitarists – jazz musicians of any instrument in fact – of all time. His music has helped define the music of France in the decades since he burst onto the club scene of Paris in much the same way as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry defined American music.

Django (Kateb) is really a pretty laid back guy; before a big concert in Paris in 1943 he is late arriving because he’s too busy fishing in the Seine. Once he gets there, he captivates the crowd with his virtuoso style, fingers dancing over the fretboard in his unusual style (he didn’t have the use of two fingers on his left hand after his hand was burned in an accident as a young man, so he had a peculiar three finger style). We are reminded that this is occupied Paris with all the Nazi uniforms in the audience and a stern admonition of “No Dancing.”

Django is married to Naguine (Palya) who is devoted to him; his mother Negros (Merstein) also lives with him. Django was born in Belgium to Romani (what some would call gypsies although that’s a politically incorrect term these days) and the gypsies, along with the homosexuals and of course the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of Django’s fans is Louise de Klerk (De France) who as it turns out is part of the French resistance and she warns Django that the Nazis are rounding up the Romani all over the country. She admonishes him about a German tour he’s about to undertake; he responds that he doesn’t care who’s in the audience so long as they respond to his music.

Soon Django’s apolitical stance is put to the test as it becomes clear he needs to get his family out of France and that his protection because of his international stardom wouldn’t remain for much longer. He heads to a Romani encampment near the Swiss border and his perceptions of politics are changed forever.

Kateb took some intensive training to learn how to duplicate Reinhardt’s distinctive style and he looks pretty authentic on-camera. Oddly, a modern jazz group dubs the sound of Reinhardt and his Paris Hot Club Quintet; neither the on-camera musicians nor Reinhardt are heard on the soundtrack which seems a little odd that in a movie about a great musician we never actually hear his work.

Kateb is a fine actor and he does a decent job here but he isn’t given a lot to work with. There’s little character development for anyone else around me, including the fictional De Klerk (who for the purposes of this film was also his mistress) and the very real Naguine. The music is amazing but you’re never given the opportunity to care about the people playing it.

Mostly we get a generic World War II suspense piece that has elements of Casablanca (not a bad thing), music documentary (not a bad thing) and Schindler’s List (still not a bad thing) but never quite pulls together as a movie that grips and excites the viewer. I don’t feel like I know anything more about Reinhardt than I would if I just listened to a couple of his albums.

On the positive side, the filmmaker does call into focus the persecution of the Romani people which other than the Jews suffered the most in terms of the number of dead. There is a chilling but moving photo collage of the missing that is the last image shown in the film and a fitting memorial for those who died. Django no doubt would have approved.

I don’t think he would have approved of this movie which lacks the passion that he consistently displayed in his music. Certainly the musical sequences are dynamite and there are also some really nice camera shots in the film but overall, you would profit better by downloading some of his songs onto your playlist and giving them a listen.

REASONS TO GO: The music is incredible. Some of the cinematography is spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is surprisingly pallid and uninspiring. The soundtrack could have used some actual recordings of Reinhardt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Battle of the Sexes

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

Allied


The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

(2016) War Drama (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Marion Bailey, Ian Batchelor, Ėric Thëobald, Josh Dylan, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Anton Blake, Fleur Poad, Vincent Latorre, Daniel Betts, Sally Messham, Charlotte Hope, Celeste Dodwell, Maggie O’Brien, Anton Lesser, Angelique Joan. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Espionage is a lonely affair. After all, how can you trust anyone who it is a given that they are at the very least manipulating the truth if not outright lying? Relationships do not survive without trust, after all.

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian airman/spy who parachutes into North Africa during World War II. His assignment is to make it to Casablanca and there attend a party where he will assassinate the German ambassador (Blake). Assisting him will be Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French resistance who will pose as his wife and get him into the party.

At first, both of them are consummate professionals, maintaining the illusion of a loving marriage while retaining their objectivity but that objectivity begins to crumble. Imminent danger turns feigned affection to the real McCoy. On the eve of the party, they go out to the desert to clear their heads but a sandstorm traps them in their car where they finally smash through their pretensions and give in to what they’ve both been feeling.

After completing their mission, they return to London and marry; shortly thereafter Marianne gives birth to a daughter in the midst of an air raid. They find a quaint cottage in Hampstead while Max is a desk jockey in the British war department. One afternoon on what is supposed to be a weekend off, he is summoned to headquarters and his superior (Harris) and a officious military intelligence officer (McBurney) drop a bombshell of their own; Marianne is in fact a German spy. She’d assumed the identity of the real Marianne Beauséjour after murdering her. They’ve intercepted transmissions of classified material that they have traced to her. Max is given false information to make sure that Marianne can discover. If that information turns up in a new transmission, then all doubt will be removed and Max is ordered to execute her by his own hand in that case. Failure to do so will result in his own execution.

Max, of course, doesn’t believe that the love of his life and the mother of his child could betray him like that. Despite orders to the contrary, he does some sleuthing of his own trying to discover the truth about his wife. Is she, as he believes, falsely accused or has she lied to him all this time and is actually using him?

To Zemeckis’ credit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other. The audience is completely in the dark of Marianne’s innocence or guilt until the very end of the film. Also to his credit we care about both characters enough that we are genuinely rooting for the accusations to be false. It is also a credit to both actors that their relationship is completely believable.

What isn’t believable is the whole trope of that the accused spy, if she is a spy, must die by the hand of her husband. I suppose that the logic there is that it proves the continued loyalty of the Max character and that he isn’t an accomplice to Marianne’s alleged chicanery but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense. It would seem more logical that if Marianne is guilty that anybody but Max execute her. Certainly war can change morality but it doesn’t seem to me that forcing a man to kill his wife would do anything but turn him against the agency making such an order. There are also plenty of ways to get Marianne to receive false information without involving her husband. It would be in fact more efficient to leave him ignorant. Of course that would also remove the tension of the movie’s third act.

Pitt and Cotillard are both legitimate movie stars and with all that implies; Zemeckis is a master at utilizing the abilities of the stars he works with. Pitt and Cotillard have never been as radiant and charismatic as they are here. They both captivate equally and their relationship as lovers makes absolute sense and is believable without question. The movie is essentially a primer for the advantages of star power.

What I liked most about the film was that it is very a movie that puts to lie “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” This is absolutely the way they used to make ‘em like. It is no accident that the first act is set in Casablanca; the iconic Casablanca is not only name-checked but several elements from it are slyly referenced. The costuming is absolutely superb. I don’t often notice the costumes but they are superb here; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film gets an Oscar nomination in that department. Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, certainly deserves one here.

What I didn’t like about the movie is that it runs a little bit too long particularly during the second act. Da Queen, in the interest of full disclosure, actually liked this part of the movie much more than I did; she felt that Max acted the way she thought any good husband would.  In all honesty I can’t dispute that, but again that’s why any intelligence agency would not inform the husband of an accused spy that she’s under investigation, if for no other reason that they would better be able to determine his own complicity if any in that manner.

I have to admit that I liked the movie a few days after seeing it than I did when I left the theater and it’s entirely possible that when I view this a second time (as I certainly will since Da Queen really liked the movie much more than I did) I will find myself liking it even more. That said, it did leave me a bit flat despite everything it had going for it; that could be chalked up to me not feeling well when I saw it. There are definitely some flaws here but for those who love movies the way they used to be you’re bound to find this right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt and Cotillard are legitimate movie stars who use their star appeal to full potential here. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in the best sense of the term.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long and drags a whole lot in the middle third. Some of the plot points lack credibility.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some wartime espionage violence, some sexuality, a brief scene of drug use and a slight amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one scene, a photo of King George VI can be seen behind Jared Harris. He played the monarch in the Netflix series The Crown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Jones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Almost Christmas