Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want

The Jesus Rolls


Nobody rolls a ball like Jesus.

 (2019) Dramedy (Screen Media) John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, Sable Boykin, Tim Blake Nelson, Margaret Reed, Michael Badalucco, Sonia Braga, Gloria Reuben, Nicolas Reyes, Ken Murach, George Sheanshang, Tonino Ballardo, Matt Lake, Kathryn Kates, Rosa Gilmore. Directed by John Turturro

The Dude abides, but Jesus saves, or so some would have it. The Big Lebowski was a 1998 Coen Brothers cult hit that may have had the most interesting characters in a single cast, so much so that more than 20 years after it was released it is getting its first spin-off. Don’t count on many more happening.

Jesus Quintana (Turturro) is released from Sing Sing on a sex charge that is, to put it mildly, suspicious. The warden (Walken) sends Jesus on his way, Jesus having led the intramural team to the state bowling championship (in one of the film’s most amusing moments, he is literally played out by the Gipsy Kings, who are also behind bars). He is picked up by Petey (Cannavale), his best friend and also an ex-con.

The two promptly go on a spree of petty crime, with temperamental French hairdresser Marie (Tautou) in tow. On a kind of misdemeanor-laden road trip, they go forth to look for America. Along the way they meet a hairdresser with a gun (Hamm), another ex-con (Sarandon), a black market doctor (Nelson), an overzealous convenience store security guard (Badalucco) and Jesus’ sex worker mom (Braga).

And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes. The movie is somewhat based on the French director Bertrand Blier 1974 comedy Going Places with Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as a couple of sex-addicted lowlifes on the run, but with the Jesus character from The Big Lebowski in the main roll. Known in the earlier film for licking the ball before he bowls, that scene opens the way for a bowling session with Jesus in which he most definitely licks the ball. Take from that whatever you will.

This is one of those movies where a lot of decent actors make cameo appearances for a few moments and then we move on to another Merry Prankster bit with Turturro and Cannavale, whose character gets shot in the huts by a vengeful hairdresser who cares more for his vintage Duster than for his employee. The movie is mostly a series of stolen vehicles and chases with interludes of sex and not just what the beautiful Tautou either.

The movie suffers from a noticeable lack of the Coen brothers; they are masters at characterization and snappy dialogue. Here, the movie seems forced, rushed and poorly planned out, a very disturbing issue indeed. It’s not nearly as funny as it could have been, or should have been. Turturro is a fine actor, but as a writer he’s no Coen.

Turturro has evidently been thinking about bringing this character back to the screen for some time; I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for a Jesus Quintana spin-off other than Turturro but I suppose if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s John Effin’ Turturro.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as funny as it could be.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of profanity, plenty of sexual content, some nudity, and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turturro has been trying to get a spin-off film about the Jesus Quintana character made since 2005; after several aborted tries he came up with a script that everyone was satisfied with.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic:  44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Pacified (Pacificado)


You have to grow up fast in the favelas.

(2019) Drama (ReAgent MediaBukassa Kabengele, Cassia Gil, Débora Nascimento, Léa Garcia, Raphael Logan, Jefferson Brasil, Rayane Santos, José Loreto, Thiago Thomé, Shirley Cruz, Rod Carvalho, Murilo Sampaio, Mariana Lewis. Directed by Paxton Winters

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro have long been the home of the working and poor classes of the city and as such a breeding ground for crime. They have also been a fertile location for some of the best films to come out of Brazil over the years.

Prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian government decided to crack down on the favelas, making sure that the image of the city wasn’t tarnished. Several of the more notorious crime bosses were rounded up and tossed into jail. Among them is Jaca (Kabengele) who is released just after the closing ceremonies of the Games. He receives a hero’s welcome in the favela for as the boss there he took care of the residents and was their arbiter and go-to guy when they needed help, since nobody else gave a toss about them.

Jaca, however, doesn’t want to resume his old life. He knows that his reappearance has made the man who took over for him after he went to prison, Nelson (Loreto), somewhat nervous. He reassures Nelson that he, Jaca, has no interest in resuming his former life and that Nelson will remain in charge. Nelson, though, isn’t buying it.

What Jaca really wants to do is open up a pizzeria, something that Nelson finds amusing. However, Jaca’s former partner (and brother) Dudu (Logan) isn’t laughing. Dudu is eager to have the position of power and prestige he enjoyed when he was Jaca’s good right hand. Jaca’s wife Andrea (Nascimento) has become a drug addict and sells stuff to get buy, although now that Jaca is out, nobody wants to sell to her anymore for fear of being in Jaca’s crosshairs.

Then there’s Tati (Gil), his 13-year-old daughter who longs to emerge from the shadow of her parents and spread her own wings. However, the cops don’t believe that Jaca has gone straight, neither does Nelson and things are going to blow as soon as the pacification project is discontinued – which will be soon.

=Winters gives us some rich characterizations; most of the main cast are well-drawn and come off as three-dimensional people rather than one-dimensional clichés. Kabengele has a quiet intensity that makes him perfect for the role of Jaca, while Gil expresses a wisdom beyond her years, born of a harsh life in the favela. As for Nascimento, she just might be the most beautiful woman on Earth right now; but she is also an exceptional actress, giving what could have been an unsympathetic role a kind of dignity and pathos.

The camera is always moving in the film, sometimes to the point of vertigo-inducing. Strangely, the pace of the film doesn’t match the kinetic movement of the camera, giving the movie a kind of dichotomy of speed. It is a little bit off-putting.

Still, this is a solid tale of life in the favelas blending a kind of 1930s Warner Brothers gangster aesthetic with gritty modern urbanism. It’s a heady combination that, with a little judicious editing, might have been one of the cinematic highlights of the year.

REASONS TO SEE: Kinetic camera work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced despite the above.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winters is an American director working for the first time in Brazil with a Brazilian cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of God
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Dog Doc

Nobody’s Fool (2018)


A buncha girls in cars.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount PlayersTiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Mehcad Brooks, Amber Riley, Whoopi Goldberg, Missi Pyle, PJ Morton, Michael Blackson, Jon Rudnitsky, Chris Rock, Nev Schulman, Max Joseph, Adrian Conrad, Courtney Henggeler, Candace West, Crystal Lee Brown, Peyton Jackson, Al Hamacher, Victoria Ealy. Directed by Tyler Perry

 

Tiffany Haddish is one of the hottest comedians in the world. Tyler Perry is literally a brand name in African-American cinema. It would seem to be a match made in heaven. Instead, it’s a godawful mess.

For one thing, Haddish is basically an extended cameo. She plays Tanya, the recently released from prison sister to affluent, successful Danica (Sumpter) who has just landed a big contract at the marketing firm she works at, and is long-distance dating Charlie (Brooks), a man she has never seen or been in the same time zone with. Tanya thinks she’s being catfished – ironically (or not) a program on MTV, which is owned by Paramount’s parent corporation. Tanya even gets the hosts of Catfished (Joseph and Schulman) to investigate. Meanwhile, there’s lovesick Frank (Hardwick), the coffee house owner who is completely smitten with Danica but doesn’t quite measure up to Danica’s succinct list of qualities her husband must have. Apparently in Tyler Perry’s world, all single women have such a list.

The problem with the movie is that it really isn’t very funny, and when you’re talking a rom-com, that’s half the promise. Oh, there are a few momentary chuckles – mostly supplied by Haddish – but she’s a fish out of water here. This really isn’t a movie that utilizes her talents very well and quite frankly, there have been damn few of them that she’s been in that have. It’s like she’s trying to out-Madea Madea and we all know that’s just not possible.

Sumpter does a lot better. She’s a natural rom-com lead and while she looks somewhat flustered when she’s with Haddish, she does the upscale African-American woman maybe better than anyone. Sadly, the plot goes meandering into all sorts of different territories – a Perry trademark, and like most of his films it hits and misses. This one is much more of a miss; it’s one of the weakest movies in the Tyler Perry catalogue and it shouldn’t have been. I think he would have been better served to make a movie around either Haddish or Sumpter – but trying to do both doesn’t serve the film well, and since Haddish is absent from nearly the entire second half of the movie, it leaves audiences giving puzzled looks at their TV screen, wondering where their star went to. I’ll tell you where she went – she’s on an extended coffee break in Frank’s shop. Watching her do that would have made a better movie than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Sumpter has real talent and should be getting better parts.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many rom-com clichés. Too much overacting from Haddish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity (including sexual references) as well as sexual situations and some drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Perry’s first film for any studio other than Lionsgate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews: Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Why Did I Get Married?
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Murder Death Koreatown

Tomorrow, Maybe


Father doesn’t always know best.

(2017) Drama (Random MediaRobert Blanche, Bethany Jacobs, Grant Davis, Brian Sutherland, Robert McKeehan, Garfield Wedderburn, Erin Hagen, Pamela O’Hare, Kyle Vahan, Todd A. Robinson, John Branch, Roy Frank Kirk 1st, Jeffrey Arrington, Jace Daniel, Alysse Fozmark. Directed by Jace Daniel

 

Making amends is no easy thing. It is, first and foremost, an admission of wrongdoing, taking ownership of mistreatment. Taking ownership of our less proud moments is difficult even for the saintliest among us. The hardest part, however, is often getting those we have wrong to allow us to make amends in the first place.

Lloyd (Blanche) has just been released from prison and is a changed man  He realizes full well that he has wasted most of his life to petty criminality and drug abuse. The relationship with his daughter Iris (Jacobs) is certainly strained; he essentially abandoned her early on and she has been disappointed by him again and again and again, ad nauseam.

Lloyd is looking to leave his past behind him and start a new life on the straight and narrow. In so doing, he hopes to get a second chance with his daughter and become a part of her life. She is understandably reluctant to trust her dad but gradually his sincerity begins to win her over.

He’s picked a pretty good time to return to her life; her husband Bobby (Davis), a cop, has developed a savage drinking problem and is spiraling out of control. He has begun to get violent and Iris doesn’t know what to do about it. Lloyd wants to help salvage things with her husband but things get so bad that Iris kicks Bobby to the curb. Bobby is growing more irrational by the day and blames Lloyd for the issues between him and Iris, believing that Lloyd is turning his daughter against him. The three are on a collision course with tragedy if they’re not careful.

Actually, the film is essentially told in flashback form with audiences being told somewhat of the crowning incident which I will not spoil here even though the filmmakers sort of do. That’s a bit of a tactical error; the director/writer Daniel is trying to pull off a twist in the plot but I think it would have been more effective if we didn’t have an inkling of what all this was leading to.

Otherwise, the movie gets kudos for tackling domestic abuse in a realistic way as well as the issues of making amends. Yeah, at times the film goes for easy answers rather than slogging through some rough emotional terrain while at other times Daniel seems quite willing to do that. Those moments tend to be the highlights of the film.

The three leads need to deliver powerhouse performances and they aren’t quite up to the task. Blanche fares best, giving Lloyd a rough-hewn charm, a man clearly reaching out and a bit confused by the vagaries of life. It’s hard not to root for him and while we clearly understand that his difficulties are largely his own doing, you end up hoping his daughter will give him that chance he so desperately desires.

Jacobs is less successful but truth be told is given less to work with, even though she’s the emotional center of the film. As a woman who has been consistently let down by the men in her life both as a child and as an adult, there is a wariness and a weariness to her manner but at times Jacobs is a bit flat in her line delivery. Davis is a little bit in the middle although it is essentially a thankless role; Bobby turns out to be a fairly irredeemable a-hole so even when we learn the source of his pain, his rage and his drinking, there’s not a lot of sympathy there.

The movie’s tiny budget is evident; often the scenes are underlit or might have used a few more takes. Still, as independent dramas go this one isn’t bad. It’s not Oscar material by a long stretch but it at least has a certain amount of ambition and seems to have at least honest intentions. Not all indie films can claim that.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a tendency to go for easy answers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three leads all at one time or another appeared in the TV series Grimm.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Peanut Butter Falcon

Sollers Point


McCaul Lombardi looks like he just walked in on something.

(2017) Drama (Oscilloscope) McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Zazie Beetz, Everleigh Brenner, Imani Hakim, Wass Stevens, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ashley Shelton, Lynn Cohen, Greg Crowe, Liam Hughes, Pete Papageorge, Michael Rogers, Kazy Tauginas, Grace Doughty, Brieyon Bell-El, Vincent De Paul, Maya Martinez, Hilary Kacser, Marin Ireland. Directed by Matthew Porterfield

Redemption isn’t easily obtained. It requires a genuine determination to change and to make amends which requires hard work on the part of the seeker. Sometimes – often, in fact – even the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

Keith (Lombardi) has just been released from prison and has transitioned from incarceration to house arrest. He has moved in with his father (Belushi) who is wary of his son who had made a lot of mistakes and had hung out with the wrong crowd. A low-level drug dealer for local Baltimore gangs, Keith wants to put that life behind him and make something of himself.

He is not on good terms with his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Beetz) who also has his dog, or at least that’s how Keith sees it (she sees it as she’s got their dog which is at least equally hers). Some of the gang bangers from his past have come back, intimating that he owes fealty to them but Keith turns down the offer to rejoin, angering Aaron (Guiry) who harasses Keith in an escalating series of confrontations.

Keith’s biggest obstacle, however, is Keith himself. He wants to learn a trade that his father would find honorable like air conditioning repair but Keith misses the first class and is late for the second which gets him thrown out of class. He does some odd jobs here and there but he finds that in order to make real money he has to skirt closer and closer to his old life. Lonely, he initiates hook-ups with strippers that he knows which leads to a further falling from grace. And as Keith’s temper begins to get the best of him, he finally crosses the line and may bring his freedom to a crashing halt

This is Porterfield’s fourth film, all of which are set in his hometown of Baltimore. While there’s clear affection for the city coming from the director, it is not unconditional love – he sees its issues clearly and without sentiment. There is crime, racial division and an erosion of the ability of the working class to find jobs and dignity. Most cities have the same types of problems, particularly those that relied heavily on industrial economies in decades past.

Lombardi is a find; he’s had supporting roles in high-profile indies up to now but this is his first lead and he hits a home run. Facially a cross between John Cena and Mark Wahlberg, he carries the latter’s charisma and the former’s physicality. It makes for a very promising performance; keep his name in mind as I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Beetz, who has a high-profile role in the upcoming Deadpool 2 comes off less impressively. Perhaps her character was written with less to work with than Lombardi’s but she came off flat and without energy for most of the film; I couldn’t for the life of me see what Keith saw in Courtney at all. The chemistry was much stronger between Lombardi and Belushi although to be fair they had a lot more screen time together. While I was disappointed in her performance here – she’s done some compelling work in Atlanta – I’m hoping she does better the next time out.

Jim Belushi has come a long way from The World According to Jim and he shows some pretty serious dramatic chops here. There’s a scene with him and Beetz in which he pleads with her for the sake of his son, made all the more poignant for what Keith is doing at that moment. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie for.

This isn’t the first film to explore the reintegration of ex-cons into society and the hurdles facing them. In many ways, this is a well-trodden path. Keith though is his own worst enemy; he loses his temper when he should keep it, he is passive when he needs to stand up for himself and he does the wrong things for the right reasons – and sometimes, the wrong reasons. He isn’t a guy I’d probably want to hang out with for very long. It is a testament to Lombardi’s charm that the audience still ends up rooting for him. While I wouldn’t say this is Porterfield’s best film yet, it is nonetheless a solid one that is elevated by the strong performances from Lombardi and Belushi.

REASONS TO GO: Lombardi has some potential. There are some sweet and satisfying moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Beetz didn’t impress me at all. The character of Keith doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Porterfield and Lombardi visited a state prison to get ideas on how Keith would behave in certain situations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Crimes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Fade

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Hell or High Water


Chris Pine finds that those "Beam Me Up, Scotty" jokes get old fast.

Chris Pine finds that those “Beam Me Up, Scotty” jokes get old fast.

(2016) Crime Drama (CBS) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Debrianna Mansini, Kevin Rankin, Paul Howard Smith, Christopher W. Garcia, Heidi Sulzman, Richard Christie, Gregory Cruz, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Berg. Directed by David Mackenzie

 

Sometimes things happen to us. Other times, we make things happen. There are also occasions when things that happen to us force us to make things happen, things that we would never do under ordinary circumstances. When times are tough, that becomes a far more common occurrence.

A small regional bank in Texas is having its branches getting robbed. The two robbers are very clever and seem to know the workings of each bank thoroughly, although they are prone to making mistakes. The frequency of the robberies gets the attention of the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team) and elder statesman Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), just short of retirement, is assigned to the case along with his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham), who is of Mexican and Indian descent which are both causes for un-PC teasing for Marcus.

Marcus is a dogged detective and he follows the thieves through their next few strikes. He correctly deduces that they are only taking small bills (harder to trace) and seem to be working towards a fixed number. He is confident that given the mistakes they have made that he will catch them soon enough.

As for the bank robbers, they are in reality two brothers. Tanner Howard (Foster) was recently released from jail after a stint for armed robbery. He has a wild streak and can behave unpredictably. His brother Toby (Pine) is more restrained; a family man in the midst of a divorce. The boys’ mother recently passed away and her property, a farm which has been in the family for generations, is about to be foreclosed on by the same bank that they are robbing unless they can pay off the remainder of her loan by Friday of that week. The boys are using a local casino to convert the ill-gotten gains from cash to chips and back to cash again – sometimes with a little extra that Tanner won at the tables.

But the law is closing in as is their deadline. To make matters worse, the boys are having a bit of a disagreement on certain aspects of their plan. Still, they are brothers and blood is thicker than water. They are determined to meet their deadline come hell or high water – and a certain Texas Ranger means to catch them before that.

In the dry dusty desert that has been the summer movie season of 2016 this is like a desert rose. The script is smarter than usual, even if there are a number of tropes present here, like the bank robbers who aren’t really bad guys, the bank as main villain, the brothers who have each other’s backs even when they are squabbling. Blood is certainly thicker than water, but only just; the relationship between the Rangers is portrayed as being as close as that of the brothers Howard. There is a moment of shock late in the film when Hamilton is faced with an unspeakable tragedy from his point of view; he literally loses it for a moment. It is one of Bridges’ best moments as an actor ever.

Pine also does some of his best work as the smarter brother. On the surface it seems that Tanner is the more violent one and the one to be feared but as the movie develops, we discover that Toby is the true rattlesnake who is in many ways even more cold and vicious than his brother, who is more of a ball of fire exploding overhead.

Foster, who is proving to be a very versatile and talented actor, has fun with his role. Tanner is occasionally mean and certainly amoral but he’s loyal to a fault, and Foster captures all of the facets of his personality, making the character kind of an anti-hero and showing both sides of him without putting undue emphasis on one side or the other. It’s a bit of a tightrope he walks but he walks it perfectly.

Mackenzie has some well-regarded films on his filmography including Asylum and Tonight You’re Mine. It surprised me that he is an Englishman; he certainly gets the rhythms and the pulse of West Texas really well. He also was smart enough to hire Nick Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis to do the soundtrack. That’s reason for going to see this right there.

The movie takes place in the midst of economic recession and the reputation of banks, never sterling to begin with, is still as low as ever. Most people believe banks are run by money-grubbing scoundrels who care only about getting every last penny they can for themselves and aren’t above screwing over the working people to get it – largely because that seems to be the case. In a sense, this is a bit of revenge porn for most of us who have been screwed over by financial institutions one way or another, either through predatory loans, outrageous fees and onerous interest rates or all the way down to shitty customer service. Most people these days look at banks pretty much the same way they look at drug cartels and if we can see a movie about a person sticking it to a bank, most of us are quite all right with that. If you’re not okay with that, you might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by the three leads, all worth savoring. The cinematography of the desolate West Texas plains is starkly beautiful. The juxtaposition of the relationships between the brothers and the Rangers is thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: The commentary on economic issues may be unwelcome to conservative sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence and bloodshed, profanity throughout and a couple of scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Pine and Foster also co-starred in The Finest Hours earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The People vs. Fritz Bauer