Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Where She Lies


Peggy Phillips manages to keep a positive face despite a life filled with heartache.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Peggy Phillips, Zach Marion, Suzanne Smith, Marguerite Nocera, Doug Scott, Vondie Stinet, Susan Farrar, Doug Cox, Jody Brooks, Steve Lawson, Jewell Scott, Curtis Ottinger, Evelyn Burroughs, Trey Monroe, Tom Bokkin, Jimmy Phillips, Melanie Marion Oliveira. Directed by Zach Marion

 

We often are confronted in our lives with tragedy, injustice, or a combination thereof. It can shape our lives and alter our perception of who and what we are permanently. Some respond to it better than others.

Peggy Phillips was an ordinary 19-year-old girl living in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962. While her parents were authoritarian and strict Baptists, Still, she was fairly happy but like most girls her age, she chafed a bit at her parents restrictive household, and then her naivete led to her being sexually assaulted by a married man (who told her she was separated) and to a pregnancy.

At that time, there was a whole lot of stigma attached with an unwed mother, a stigma visited both on the mother and the child. Despite the fact that Peggy was unwilling and in truth a victim of rape, her father was as cold as ice to her. This had to be her fault, somehow. There was no question that the baby would be given up for adoption, except for one thing – Peggy didn’t want to.

Peggy’s dad threatened to disown her and throw her out of the house; even Peggy’s obstetrician counseled her to give up the baby for adoption but Peggy was adamant. The stubborn girl was sent to live with her aunt and eventually, the big day came. Peggy was in a fog of anesthetic and remembers nothing about the delivery. She awoke the next morning, only to be told that the baby had died shortly after birth. Peggy was heartbroken but went on to live her life, but the relationship between her and her father was soured forever.

However, incredibly, her mother on her deathbed confessed to Peggy that the child hadn’t really died; her father had given the baby up for adoption, forging her signature on the paperwork. Now, Peggy went on a crusade to find her lost baby. At last, a woman stepped forward; Suzanne Smith, who had been adopted by neighbors of Peggy’s family. A lot of signs pointed to Smith’s story being true, but her testimony was unreliable to say the least; she was a chronic drug addict who was in and out of prison. Still, Peggy formed a bond with Suzanne and began to think of her as a daughter.

Peggy had a lawyer named Doug Cox on her side, and the grave where Peggy’s baby had supposedly been buried was exhumed. The remains of an infant were found. There were some things that didn’t add up though, but nevertheless Peggy was eager to have a DNA test done to prove once and for all the infant in the grave those 30 years were not hers. Unfortunately, Peggy didn’t have the funds to get a DNA test done so definitive proof remained elusive.

Years later, aspiring filmmaker Zach Marion ran across Peggy’s story while researching another potential subject for a documentary. He decided this would make the perfect subject for a feature and asked Peggy if it would be okay to do an interview. Peggy agreed and it led to a detective story as Zach set out to obtain the answers to the questions that had essentially defined the now septuagenarian Peggy her entire adult life.

Marion sets this up essentially like a detective story, but doesn’t succumb to the tropes of a true crime documentary – at least, not much. Peggy isn’t the most charismatic subject in the world, but then again it’s hard to blame her for being reserved; most of the people she trusted in the world had betrayed her about as completely as a human can betray another. She remains good-hearted and optimistic, although she seems to be less interested in finding facts than in having her hopes validated. It is a little troubling to think that is essentially how our political decisions are being made these days.

There are a lot of twists and turns here, not all of them expected. Generally, it is never a good idea for a documentary filmmaker to become part of the story, but Marion becomes inexorably linked to Peggy’s story and so the cinematic faux pas doesn’t sting quite as much. The story is compelling enough that you’ll want to sit through it and find out what happened. The big issue is that Peggy is a bit of a wet noodle as a subject, but with good reason. She’s been through a lot in her life and her situation is essentially a poster child to how women have been regarded for centuries. You will feel sympathy for her, but there is a feeling of resignation in her that may prevent you from thoroughly relating to her as you might ordinarily.

REASONS TO SEE: Keeps you guessing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Peggy hides her emotions so well that it is hard to get caught up in how sad the story really is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a mention of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peggy suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and generally had to walk with the aid of a cane towards the end of her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In Silico

Green Book


Driving Mister Daisy.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorksViggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Geraldine Singer, Iqbal Theba, David Kallaway, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Anthony Mangano, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar. Directed by Peter Farrelly

 

Few Oscar Best Picture winners have gotten the backlash this film has. Directed by Peter Farrelly, stepping away from the comedies he’s known for (co-directed with his brother Bobby), this is an account of a business and personal relationship between concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), so named because of his penchant for chatter.

Set in 1962, the street-wise bouncer Tony applies for a job driving the fastidious Shirley through a Southern concert tour in the winter of 1962. At first possessed of the casual racism common in the era (he throws out a glass that black workers drank out of in his home), Tony soon sees for himself firsthand the ugly realities of racism. He also grows to admire the cultured kindness of Shirley who helps him with his diction and with writing letters home to his wife Dolores (Cardellini).

For Don’s part, he is brought out of his self-imposed shell to appreciate the uncouth but honest life lived by Tony. It’s all so very Driving Miss Daisy but the relationship between Don and Tony, as interpreted by two of the better actors working in this part of the 21st century, makes the movie magic required to elevate this above the sometimes generic parable on racial relations that the movie can sink into from time to time.

There are a few cringe-inducing scenes (including one where Tony introduces Don to the joys of fried chicken, and another where Tony exclaims “I’m blacker than you are!” when Don confesses he’s not familiar with the music of Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Otis Redding) but there are also plenty of scenes with genuine warmth.

The film focuses mostly on Tony which is unsurprising since it was co-written by Tony’s son Nick; the Shirley family has also complained that the relationship between the two was purely employer-employee, a claim that was proven false when an audio interview with Shirley surfaced in which he specifically said it was not.

One of my favorite scenes is where Shirley faces a crisis of the soul. A gay man when that fact alone would be enough to end his career, uncomfortable with his fellow African-Americans and unaccepted by the white society that acknowledges his talent as a pianist, he cries out “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m not a man; what am I?” If you want to see Ali at his best, that’s the scene to watch.

I realize that woke readers for whom this movie doesn’t pass the purity test will likely take exception with this review; certainly, those folks are entitled to their opinion. I do agree that there are some tone-deaf moments that don’t reflect well on the film overall, and quite frankly I tend to agree with those who thought that the film was a little too flawed to be named Best Picture. Still, there’s enough here to make for worthwhile viewing and that should be acknowledged as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
REASONS TO AVOID: Less than fully factual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including racial slurs, adult thematic content, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortensen gained weight for the picture mainly on a diet of Italian food – pizzas, pastas and the like. He did so much on-screen eating that he never utilized the on-set catering.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Streetlight Harmonies


A walk down Memory Lane.

(2020) Music Documentaries (Gravitas) Lamont Dozier, Lance Bass, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, Ron Dante, Brian Wilson, Freda Payne, Al Jardine, Brian McKnight, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, Anthony Gourdine, Sammy Strain, Vito Picone, Jimmy Merchant, Scherrie Payne, Diz Russell, Charlie Horner, Jeff Barry, Tony Butala, Leon Hughes, Janis Siegel, Florence LaRue, Lala Brooks. Directed by Brent Wilson

 

It was a different time. Kids used to gather on the street corners of Brooklyn, Harlem and Philadelphia, singing under the lights in the summer evening twilight, using close harmonies. And why not? Teenage girls loved it and there is nothing a teenage boy likes better than being the center of a teenage girl’s attention. Well, the straight ones anyway.

The style was called Doo-Wop and it would eventually come to be one of the most influential forms of music ever. You can draw a straight line from the Doo-Wop groups of the 40s and 50s through the girl groups of the 60s to the boy bands of the 90s. As Lance Bass of N’Sync notes, other genres will come and go but there will always be pop bands that utilize harmonies.

Some of these performers have been singing these songs for 60 years and more, and there are plenty of great bands here, like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Chantels, Jay and the Americans, the Orioles and so on, playing songs like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Sh-Boom.”  There are some stories that are heartwarming but a lot are anything but. Racial prejudice was common for these predominantly African-American groups who were often discriminated against by the very audiences dancing to their records. Many of those who were responsible for some of the most iconic songs of the 20th century were never paid royalties, or amounts that were almost insulting.

This isn’t really a definitive documentary – they’d need a mini-series for that – and it glosses over the history to a large degree. Wilson does a pretty good job using a clever motif of a 45 record to delineate various chapters of the documentary, and further graphics give a sense of what year various songs came out. Still, if you’re looking for more information, the film barely scratches the surface.

The good thing, though, is that you get to hear some of the music and it is essential music. Sure, it’s from a much more “innocent” time (even though Doo-Wop did play an essential role in the Civil Rights movement) and may sound a bit dated to modern ears, but the harmonies are timeless and so are most of the songs themselves. For some, this might make for a lovely walk down Memory Lane while for others this might serve as an introduction to a style of music that has influenced the pop music of every era since – including the current one.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is absolutely essential. Nice use of graphics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as informative as other docs of this type have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life Could Be a Dream
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hunter Killer

First Man (2018)


One small step for a man…

(2018) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg, Gavin Warren, Luke Winters, Connor Colton Blodgett, Lucy Brooke Stafford. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

One of America’s most triumphant moments – right there alongside VJ Day – was the landing on the moon. It was a triumph of ingenuity, courage and will. Most know the name of the first man to walk on the moon – Neil Armstrong. Most don’t know much more than that about him.

Armstrong (Gosling) was in many ways the perfect test pilot; smart, cool under pressure, tightly focused on the mission. He wasn’t the sort for hi-jinx. He suffered the death of his two-year-old daughter to cancer and appears to have shut down emotionally at that point; unable to grieve with his wife Janet (Foy), he throws himself into work and the business of getting Americans on the moon.

Chazelle is a highly visual director and he really knows how to insert the audience into a place and time, and he does so here, exceeding his own excellence in that department. The scenes in aircraft that threaten to rattle themselves apart, or on spacecraft where the force of gravity is crushing to the point of near-death, has that you-are-there feel. However, the use of handheld cameras becomes an issue after the third or fourth instance of vertigo-inducing cinematography.

One of the reasons Armstrong hasn’t had a biopic done on him, despite his status as a national hero, is that he was an intensely private man who rarely granted interviews or discussed his feelings or observations with anyone. In life he was a quiet man, stoic to the point of stoniness and Gosling plays him here as a man unwilling to deal with his own emotions which makes it extremely difficult for audiences to identify with the character, but that was the way Armstrong was.

His wife Janet was a different matter and she was an extraordinarily strong woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. She rarely puts up with NASA’s bullshit and certainly takes her husband to task for leaving her holding the bag while he is off turning his attention to other heavenly bodies. For my money, Foy’s performance here was the best of the year and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (she didn’t).

The film is augmented with an amazing score utilizing period-correct instruments like the theremin (an electric instrument that Armstrong apparently was extremely fond of) and period recording techniques, making the movie feel even more like a product of the Sixties. The lunar landing sequence is also magnificent in its visuals, even more so than the test flights and spaceflight sequences.

I think it would have been a difficult proposition to make a movie about Neil Armstrong to begin with. While there’s no doubt he was courageous, a hero to his very core, he was the kind of hero who was uncomfortable with adulation and preferred to keep to himself  We will probably never know much about the inner Neil Armstrong and certainly if you are looking for it here, you won’t find it. I suspect that this film is as close as we ever will come.

REASONS TO SEE: Foy delivers a powerhouse performance that deserved a Best Actress nomination (but didn’t get one). Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Chazelle has directed in which he didn’t write the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From the Earth to the Moon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Children Act

Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

Extra Innings


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2019) Drama (Ocean Parkway) Geraldine Singer, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Alex Walton, Albert Dabah, Robby Ramos, Mara Kassin, Simone Policano, Avery Powers, Ryan DeLuca, Erika Longo, Dylan Pitanza, Gavin Swartz, Juliette Gold, Victoria Ric, Ed Bergtold, Ava Curry, Meg Scanlon, Natasha Coppola-Shalom, Elise Finnerty. Directed by Albert Dabah

One of the great joys of movies is that often we get a glimpse into someone else’s life. That life may be harder than our own or easier; there may be more tragedy in it or less, but it is inescapably different than our own. In observing another person’s experiences, fictional or not, we learn something about our own.

David (Brennan) is a young middle school kid who loves baseball and why not? It is the early 1960s in Brooklyn and while the Dodgers are gone leaving a gaping open wound in Brooklyn’s heart, there is still the joy of playing out on the diamond. He has raw talent and his coach (Bergtold) thinks he has real potential.

David’s situation at home though makes it difficult for him to put all his energy into the game. David’s parents are Jewish of Syrian descent and while not Orthodox, his dad (Dabah) is strict about Jewish traditions and what is expected of his son. The family is also dealing with Morris (Ramos), David’s much older brother who is suffering from what appears to be some form of autism (at least to my untrained eye) at a time when it was little understood. Morris is essentially a shut-in and spends his days listening to classical music, sometimes at ear-splitting volume, and memorizing classic literature. Sometimes he finds it hard to communicate at all. David’s mom (Singer) is certain she is seeing some progress from her eldest son following a trip to Israel to consult with top doctors there.

David’s dad sees his younger son’s obsession with baseball as childish and foolish; it is nearly time for David’s bar mitzvah and he’s concerned that David isn’t devoting enough time to study. He also believes that David’s dream of playing baseball professionally is absolutely a fantasy; David should remain in his Brooklyn community, take a Jewish wife, raise a Jewish family and join the family business that Morris is clearly not equipped to handle.

The only person who appears to understand David is his older sister, free-spirited Vivian (Kassin) who lives in California with her husband although her marriage is on the rocks. She’s the only member of his family to see David play and is a manic cheerleader for him when she’s around. However, the family would soon be rocked by tragedy.

Fast forward to David’s senior year in high school. He’s still playing baseball and has become the star of the team; his family has come to more or less tolerate David’s obsession but the opinion of David’s father hasn’t changed at all. Still, things are going pretty good for David; he has a girlfriend in Natalie (Policano) and best of all, David’s coach has gotten him noticed by a West Coast university that wants David out there in the fall to play center field.

Naturally, David’s family is very much against this. They want him to stay local, play at a community college and then give up this baseball foolishness and get married, get a job yadda yadda yadda. However, David stands up for himself and puts his foot down; he’s got a golden opportunity and he’s going to take it. An ecstatic Vivian is thrilled for her baby brother and offers to put him up at her place in L.A. until he can get settled into a dorm. Unfortunately, tragedy isn’t done with David.

Dabah, making his feature film debut in the director’s chair, based the movie on his own experiences as a teen. While some of the events depicted in the film are slightly different than they occurred in reality, the basics are there. Dabah takes on the unusual challenge of playing his own father; one wonders if he got any insight into his dad in doing so.

This is clearly a project that has a great deal of personal meaning to Dabah and that passion shows in his meticulous attention to character development. There are no cookie cutter characters in this movie and for the most part the actors cast do their jobs well. I felt a little badly for Brennan; he has a scene in the film where he’s informed about a terrible personal tragedy and handling the emotional aspect of it was clearly not something he was experienced enough for. Dabah would have been better served to either keep David’s reaction off-screen or have the actor turn away from the camera. Just indulging in a little armchair directing there, but it would have spared the child actor from a difficult emotional scene and made the movie a little better as well.

While the budgetary restrictions were in evidence (although David’s team plays several games during the course of the movie, they’re always against the same team) what money Dabah had to work with is all onscreen. He does a decent job of recreating the 60s given his limited budget and more importantly, he makes the family products of the era as well.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; there seems to be some extraneous scenes that really reinforce what has already occurred in other scenes but brevity is a skill that is hard to master from a filmmaker’s point of view. Regardless of the movie’s flaws, it ended up growing on me the longer I watched it. Right now, the movie is just starting to show up in film festivals and at one-off screenings at Jewish community centers around New York but the producers hope to branch out at film festivals nationwide (are you listening, Central Florida Jewish Film Festival?) and hope to be on an online streaming service down the road.

REASONS TO SEE: Obviously made from the heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rockaway
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)

Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods

Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True