Redemption Road


Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn't looking.

Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn’t looking.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle Releasing) Morgan Simpson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Luke Perry, Kiele Sanchez, Taryn Manning, Tom Skerritt, Melvin van Peebles, Linds Edwards, Catherine McGoohan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Brooke Byam, Heather Simpson, Charlie Poe, James Cook, Lee Perkins, Wendy Keeling, Cinda McCain, Denise Johnson, Elizabeth Ayers. Directed by Mario van Peebles

 

Singing the blues has few requirements, but they are important. For one, you must have an expressive voice. It doesn’t need to be pretty, but it needs to convey pain and heartache. In fact, sometimes the roughest most un-lovely of voices are best-suited to singing the blues. Secondly, you must be authentic – true believers can spot a phony a mile off. Finally, you must have lived your blues to at least some extent.

In the case of Jefferson Bailey (Simpson) he’s lived those blues to the fullest. A blues singer with stage fright, he is a raging alcoholic deeply in debt living hand to mouth in Austin, Texas. One night a mysterious stranger named Augy (Duncan) shows up with news – his grandfather has passed away and has left him an inheritance. Rather than stick around and wait for an angry loan shark to take payment out of his hide, Jefferson elects to blow town and head to Huntsville, Alabama to collect. As it so happens Augy is headed his way.

The two form a kind of a bond on the way to Huntsville. This is no trip down the Interstate; this is a ride through the back roads of the Deep South. Once they arrive, Jefferson will discover that there is more than meets the eye to his friend Augy and that some things happen for a reason. There is also a cuckolded husband hot on his trail and even though the road to redemption stretches out before him, he must first confront his past in order to make his way down that road.

This is one of those movies that sounds a lot deeper than it actually is. Lots of the characters spend time pontificating on the nature of the blues and how it relates to life. The truth about the blues is this – nobody really knows what it is exactly but they know it when they hear it. Trying to put a handle on the blues is like trying to create an absolute definition of love – it changes from person to person.

The late Michael Clarke Duncan also co-produced this and this is one of his better performances since his Oscar-nominated turn in The Green Mile. There is an air of mystery about him but as the movie progresses we get to see a more human side of Augy. Duncan gives the character the distinct gravitas of his trademark baritone but also the humanity he brought to roles like John Coffey. Those fans of the actor who haven’t seen the film should by all means seek it out; it is a reminder of just what a tremendous actor he was and what a great loss his passing was.

On the flipside, Simpson – who co-wrote the script – seems to be a little bit out of his depth. Much of the movie hangs on his….well, redemption and we don’t get a sense of the journey the man is taking. Sure he has made some incredibly bad choices but we don’t get a sense of who Jefferson is, what prompted him to make those choices and to a great extent that cripples the movie overall.

Those who love the blues will be in for a treat as there are several noted blues artists on the soundtrack including the criminally ignored Blind Willie Dixon. One gets a sense of the roadhouses and juke joints, the summer night sweat with a cold beer and the blues being played well. There may be no more quintessentially American experience than that.

Cinematographer Matthew Irving and director Van Peebles both seem to have a deep abiding affection for the South because it is photographed so beautifully here. There are some beautiful Southern sunsets, small towns and rural fields juxtaposed with neon beer signs and a battered pick-up truck making its way up the highway.

This is a movie meant to appeal to both the heart and the mind. While it has its moments, it just doesn’t quite pull it all together as a whole. While the performances of Sanchez, Skerritt and especially Duncan merit a look, that’s about all I can recommend about it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great soundtrack and cinematography. Duncan, Sanchez and Skerritt excel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly sentimental. Too many homilies. Simpson lacks the charisma for a role as central as his.

FAMILY VALUES: Definite adult themes along with some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29,384 on a $2.3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Snake Moan

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: My Week With Marilyn

Advertisements

Black Snake Moan


Black Snake Moan

"Pappy" Jackson will make you watch this movie by any means necessary.

(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips.  Directed by Craig Brewer

Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.

Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.

Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.

The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.

He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.

There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.

Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far. 

This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.

I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.

There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.

Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive.  Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?

WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music.  Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.

FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Mirrors

Kings of the Evening


Kings of the Evening

Linara Washington discovers how fine Tyson Beckford can look.

(2010) Drama (Indiecan) Tyson Beckford, Lynn Whitfield, Glynn Turman, Linara Washington, Reginald T. Dorsey, James Russo, Bruce McGill, Steven Williams, Clyde Jones, Lou Myers, Willard E. Pugh, Justin Meeks, Terrence Flack. Directed by Andrew P. Jones

When times are hard, sometimes the only things that sustain us are our own sense of self-worth. Even the best of us can use a boost of self-confidence every now and again.

In the Great Depression, the African American community was hit harder than most. Already struggling for employment, jobs have become even scarcer and some have resorted to crime just to put food on the table. Homer Hobbs (Beckford) just got paroled from a chain gang after having stolen some worn tires. He ambles into town looking for work and a place to stay and not having very much money for either. He meets up with Benny (Dorsey), a bit of a dandy and a hustler who promises him work and a place to stay for a fee.

Benny is as good as his word; he hooks up Homer with work in a quarry and lodging at the boarding house of Gracie (Whitfield), a no-nonsense lady who is just hanging on by the skin of her teeth. The only other boarder who’s got steady employment is Lucy (Washington) who works as a seamstress and is trying to save up enough cash to open her own dress shop.

Putting a crimp in that is a loan shark (Russo) who wants to collect debts owed by Lucy’s ex-husband and is willing to do whatever it takes to force poor Lucy out of her hard-earned cash. Homer becomes sweet on her nearly immediately.

Also living in the boarding house is Clarence (Turman), a gentleman relying on a long-delayed government relief check that has yet to arrive. His desperation and plummeting self-confidence (and feelings of being a failure) are driving him to the edge of doing something drastic.

Keeping them together is a men’s fashion show hosted every Friday night. To the winner goes the princely sum of five dollars and the title “King of the Evening.” When there’s not a whole lot to look forward to, this becomes a central driving force for most of the men because, as the master of ceremonies proclaims, “If a man can stand up to the mirror, he can stand up to anything.”

While the cast is full of unfamiliar names (Beckford is a former male model who is just now crossing over into the acting realm), it does a pretty stellar job, particularly the veterans Turman as a man hanging on by a thread to his dignity and Whitfield as the practical but harried boarding house owner. Beckford and Washington also make a fine couple with plenty of chemistry and Dorsey provides additional spice.

Jones does a fine job of re-creating the Depression – not just in the look of the film but also in the tenor. The feeling of desperation, despair and of lowered self-worth – all captured beautifully, as well as the camaraderie of people rowing together in the same leaky boat. While some might look at this as a movie aimed primarily at African-American audiences, I found it to carry a lot of universal truths. The pacing may have been a bit slow and there isn’t much in the way of action – even the confrontation with the loan shark is low key – but still in all, not a complete sin.

That’s not to say that the experience of being an exploited minority doesn’t play heavily into the story here. Certainly there are racial overtones that wouldn’t exist for a white cast, although Jones suggests that the heavier prejudice is more class-oriented than ethnic-oriented, a point that is well-taken. He does give all of the characters a goodly amount of dignity, although Washington’s Lucy is a bit shrill at times (which is understandable given her background – Lucy’s that is).

This is a movie that sat on the shelf for years while it was shuffled about from one indie distributor to another before getting a microscopic release and quickly being slotted into home video. Sometimes, there are good reasons why a film doesn’t get the kind of release it deserves. Here, I think distributors didn’t see a cast they could sell and figured that this would get only a niche audience – African Americans into art films. I think they sold the movie short.

WHY RENT THIS: A great sense of place and time. Nice performances evoke the desperation of the period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a bit too slow-moving and low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of foul language and a smidgeon of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glynn Turman was once married to soul legend Aretha Franklin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $99,270 on an unreported production budget; it appears that the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: MacGruber

The Secret Life of Bees


Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

(Fox Searchlight) Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood

Circumstances can often lead us to feel powerless in a world that seeks to put us down. It takes courage and a strong belief in ones self and the rightness of our path to make it through sometimes.

Lily Owens (Fanning) has had to live with a terrible burden. As a four-year-old, she was the witness to a terrible fight between her father T-Ray (Bettany) and her mother (Hilarie Burton), who had just returned after walking out on the both of them. During the course of the fight, she accidentally shot and killed her mother. Since then, her father has treated her as a burden, more of a possession than a person. When Lily transgresses, he forces her to kneel on powdered grits poured on a concrete floor (try it sometime and see how long you last – Lily was often forced to kneel for hours until her knees were raw and bloody). When he notices her at all, it is for her failings and not for anything that she might accomplish. She is a non-entity, a constant reminder for all he has lost.

Lily’s only real friend is her nanny Rosaleen (Hudson). A snuff-chewing tough gal who dreams of better days when LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act (the movie is set in 1964 South Carolina), she stands up to a trio of racist rednecks when she and Lily walk into town so that Rosaleen can register to vote. For her efforts, she is savagely beaten. The hysterical Lily calls the police who respond by arresting Rosaleen, perhaps for assaulting the lead redneck’s boot with her face. While the movie rarely lets us forget that we are in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South, this is the most vivid rendering of the African American experience of the time and place.

Disgusted that her father refused to stand up for Rosaleen and tired of his abuse, Lily decides to run away with her. She cleverly breaks her friend out of the hospital jail ward, which Rosaleen goes along with – only to discover that Lily really doesn’t have a plan beyond that. Actually, Lily is headed for Tiburon, South Carolina. She found a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the name of the town amongst her mother’s effects and decides to head over there to find out more about her mother. T-Ray had told her, in a fit of cruelty that her mother had come back the day of the fatal argument not to fetch her daughter but to pick up her things.

Walking and hitch hiking, the two eventually make it to Tiburon. At a local restaurant, Lily spies bottles of honey with the same label as the picture in her mother’s things. Turns out that the honey is made locally, “best in South Carolina” the proprietor of the diner crows. He directs the two to a large pink house on the edge of town. It is inhabited by August Boatwright (Latifah), a strong, big-hearted woman and her sisters June (Keys), who is very bright but cold, and May (Okanedo), who feels things so keenly that she is liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Worried that she’ll be returned home if she tells the Boatwright sisters the truth (and certainly June seems disposed to doing that anyway), she feeds them a line that she is in transit to visit her grandmother who has been hospitalized. They don’t have enough money for a train ticket to Virginia, and no local hotel will take a black woman. Over June’s objections and to May’s delight (she is immediately taken by Rosaleen), August allows the two to stay in her honey house, the separate building where the honey is made. In return, Rosaleen and Lily will work off their expenses.

Lily, already fascinated by bees, is in absolute heaven with the Boatwrights. She takes to the work…well, like a bee to honey. In return, August and her sisters teach her something about strength, character and love. When Lily brings the outside world into the special environment engineered by the Boatwrights, it threatens to tear everything apart for all of the women. They will need each other to get through the tribulations – and tragedy – that await them, and Lily will learn something about herself and who she truly is.

Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the film version could easily have sunk to a maudlin Lifetime movie-of-the-week level. Instead, the strong cast (including, surprisingly, Keys, best-known as a singer) elevates the material from treacle to comfort food. There are some questions that aren’t really answered here – for example, why would a town that refuses to let their African-American residents sit on the main floor of the movie theater or serve them in the diner allow a black woman to own a business on a substantial plot of land close to the town? It was rare enough for a woman to own her own business in 1964, let alone a black woman in South Carolina.

Latifah is becoming the kind of actress who fills up a screen with her personality. The warmth radiates from August on the screen and fills the viewer with it. She’s almost a fairy godmother in many ways, untouched by failing or foible. She must endure tragedy, however and her grief is palpable when it occurs, but she takes a character with almost no flaws and makes her human.

Okonedo is also a marvelous actress and her child-like May whose surface joy often ripples with the pain of having a beloved twin sister die. I’m not sure I can put a finger on it, but I noticed that whenever May was on-screen my focus tended to shift to her. Keys is also marvelous – in many ways, her portrayal of the cold, emotionless June was the most layered here. Bettany takes the most thankless role and brings some humanity to it, making the cruel and abusive T-Ray at least understandable. Fanning is transitioning from child actress to young actress; time will tell if she is successful but judging from her work here success is possible.

The beautiful cinematography brings to light an idyllic South, full of the golden light of late summer. This is a place of fantasy, of cool ponds to dip one’s feet and bees buzzing around in the twilight. It is a place that is comforting, one we pull around ourselves like a warm blanket and feel safe. That feeling of warm, safe security is what stands out about the movie. The Pink House is not only a place you’d like to visit, you’ll almost certainly want to stay a spell.

I know that the movie is a bit manipulative and I don’t care. I don’t mind being manipulated when it’s being done this skillfully. I also know that the movie is a bit unrealistic, but then again it’s a movie, not a documentary. You know things are going to end up well – in a place like the Pink House, they can’t help but do. Call it cliché if you want to, but for my part, I found the characters of The Secret Life of Bees fascinating and I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. As far as I’m concerned, that makes for a successful movie.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie engenders a feeling of warm, safe security that the fine performances of the lead actresses are largely responsible for. Nice cinematography contributes to the idyllic atmosphere, and you wind up longing to spend more time in this world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not the most realistic depiction of the Civil Rights-era South, although there are a couple of moments that are genuinely frightening.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and language but largely suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Novel author Sue Monk Kidd based the character of Rosaleen on her own nanny, who was also fond of chewing snuff.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author on the movie’s Pink House set, and an extended director’s cut in addition to the theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Earth