Finding Kendrick Johnson


Nobody deserves to end up like this.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Gravitas) Jenifer Lewis (narrator), Jackie Johnson, Mitch Credle, Kenneth Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Austin, Barbara English, Dr. William R. Anderson, Michael Moore, Tyrone Brooks. Directed by Jason Pollock

 

\One of the basic tenets that holds our society together is the rule of law. The laws of the United States are particularly enlightened in many ways; nobody is theoretically supposed to be above the law. We have seen over the years that isn’t always the case.

Kendrick Johnson was a typical teenage boy living in Valdosta, Georgia. He liked sports, was close with his family who were devout Christians (all of the Johnson children have the initials “KJ” which stands for King Jesus, mother Jackie explains). He played video games, hung out with friends and was by all accounts a decent, nice guy.

On January 10, 2013, he didn’t return home from school. His mother, frantic, called her husband Kenneth – a truck driver, who was on the road at the time. He hurried back home, knowing that being out late without calling home was unlike his son. When he got home, he went straight to Lowndes High School, where he discovered that Kendrick had been found dead. His body was rolled up in a gym mat.

The coroner ruled that his death was an accident; that he had tried to reach down into the mat to get his shoe and had fallen into the hole made by the rolled up mat and asphyxiated, all while other kids were nearby.

But it didn’t make sense. For one thing, the dimensions of the mat were too small for Kendrick to just fall in. Jackie, who at first believed the Valdosta police’s explanation, began to get suspicious. She wanted a different forensic medical examination of her son’s body, so it was exhumed. Dr. William Anderson was hired to do the autopsy for the Johnson family. When he opened up the body, he discovered to his shock and horror that all the internal organs were gone; in their place were rolled up bits of newspaper. However, there was enough left that it was plain to Dr. Anderson that the boy had not died of positional asphyxia. There were also wounds on the body that indicated that he had been badly beaten before he died.

The Johnsons suspected a cover-up and launched a campaign to get justice for their son. At first, it seemed like their pleas were being heard; a federal investigation was launched. The case became national news. But abruptly, the investigator quit and the case was transferred to an office in Ohio, where it was quietly closed. But why? Why would anyone want to cover up the death of a high school kid?

The filmmakers try to give the crime larger context. We’re shown the history of crimes against the African-American population of the South, particularly in Valdosta, starting with the lynchings that took place locally as well as the Emmitt Till murder in Mississippi. The crimes are made relevant, showing footage of the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Kendrick Johnson, the filmmakers are saying, is part of a larger pattern. Would the crime of his murder have been covered up had he been white?

To the credit of the filmmakers, they uncover some damning evidence that the federal investigators had been made unaware of (one of them, a Washington DC homicide detective named Mitch Credle, was absolutely gobsmacked that a filmmaker had uncovered the evidence but a federal investigation couldn’t). Was Kendrick Johnson the victim of a modern-day lynching?

Well, I’m not so sure on that score. That he was murdered I think is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That there was a cover-up, absolutely for sure. Was the crime racially motivated? That is less clear. The filmmakers do point at a couple of likely suspects – fellow students at Lowndes whose father happened to be an FBI agent. But if the son of an FBI agent have been involved with the murder of a white boy, would the father still have covered it up? I think the answer is likely yes.

There are crime scene photos of Kendrick’s body as well as autopsy photos, along with pictures of Emmitt Till’s corpse and other victims of lynching, so this really isn’t for the squeamish. The film doesn’t give any warnings of the disturbing content, so do take this seriously – it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s ghastly, but I understand why it was done – the brutality of these crimes should not be overlooked.

I do feel for the Johnson family. Certainly they have been denied justice and I do hope that this film helps them achieve it. However, when you compare the death of Kendrick Johnson to the death of Emmitt Till, the comparison doesn’t hold up. It seems likely that Johnson’s death was a dispute with another student that got out of hand. Whether or not it was racially motivated….well, given that Valdosta doesn’t have the most savory reputation when it comes to race relations, it seems likely, but there’s this whole “reasonable doubt” thing. That is also a part of the rule of law.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story that engenders sympathy for the Johnson family.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly lurid.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing crime scene, historical and autopsy photographs.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The filmmakers spent four years investigating the case.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Smartest Kids in the World

Enemies of the State


An all-American family? Or victims of a government conspiracy?

(2020) Documentary (IFC) Paul DeHart, Joel Widman, Christopher Clark, James Donahower, Leann DeHart, Lillian Tekle, Adrian Humphreys, Gabriela Coleman, Tor Ekeland, Ralph Nichols, Carrie Daughtrey. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

 
We have come into an era where, as Leann DeHart puts it in this film, truth does not matter. We are all quick to believe what we’re going to believe anyway, whether informed through tribal affiliations or long-held beliefs. Either way, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

On the surface, the DeHart family is one you’d find just about anywhere, USA. Father Paul is a pastor and ex-military; his wife Leann is also formerly in the military and their precocious son Matt was in the National Guard. Like many kids his age, he was into computers in a big way and his technical skills got him top secret clearance.

But Matt had grown to admire hacktivist groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks. His parents knew nothing about what he was up to until the FBI came knocking at their door with a warrant. Matt said that the government was out to keep him from whistleblowing about crimes and misdemeanors the government was routinely committing on US soil, and painted himself out to be cut in the mold of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

But the government insisted that wasn’t what was happening at all; Matt was accused of being a sexual predator and creating child porn. For Paul and Leann, this is absolutely preposterous and proof in their eyes that their son is telling the truth – the government is setting him up and using these heinous charges as a diversion. Matt further claims that the FBI is torturing him while in their custody. With nobody to turn to, and determined to keep Matt out of the hands of a government that they feel sure will kill their son once he is in custody, the DeHarts get in their car and drive to Canada where they apply for asylum.

This all sounds very convoluted – and it is – but then all the best mysteries are, aren’t they? Sonia Kennebeck’s second feature is very much set up like a Robert Ludlum spy thriller and relies heavily on dramatic recreations of certain events (in the case of the Canadian immigration hearing that the DeHarts were involved with, utilizing actual audio from the proceeding) and talking head interviews with family, friends, law enforcement and one journalist who is certainly on Team Matt.

But the final third of the movie has some jaw-dropping revelations in it. It’s just a shame the first two thirds of the film are so slow-moving that less disciplined viewers may give up on the film before they get to the good part, and the good part is definitely worth getting to. At times, Kennebeck seems to be delivering a screed about the state of the truth in an age where it is so easy to lie, and it takes a good while for us to get to that truth, but any journey that ends up at the truth is one well worth taking.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a bit of a Robert Ludlum-esque feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be too densely packed, although it does improve in the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Documentary filmmaker legend Erroll Morris is an executive producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Steal Secrets
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Never Gonna Snow Again

My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

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

The Old Man & The Gun


A couple of screen veterans doing their thing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Lisa DeRoberts, Carter Bratton, Mike Dennis, Tomas “Dutch” Dekaj, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Patrick Newall, Daniel Britt, Leah Roberts, Elizabeth Moss.  Directed by David Lowery

 

The benefits to having a real, honest-to-goodness movie star in your film is that no matter what, there will be something positive about your film because in the case of stars like Redford and Spacek, they have enough screen presence and expertise on how to best utilize it to make any film they’re in just that much better.

 

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a man getting on in years, but like others his age still shows up at work. Of course, Tucker’s job is robbing banks and he gets a big kick out of getting away with it. Tucker is not the kind of bank robber who terrorizes folks in the bank and thinks nothing of shooting unarmed people; he’s a gentleman who gives an implicit threat, remarks on gee whiz what a shame it would be if he were forced to resort to violence and he really doesn’t want to shoot you because, for goodness sakes, he really likes you. What bank teller or bank manager would not be charmed?

Decidedly charmed is Jewel (Spacek), a widowed horse rancher whose pickup truck breaks down at the side of the road just as Forrest is trying to get away from the cops after a bank job. Spotting the opportunity for misdirection, he pulls over and assists her while the cops go whizzing by. However, the decoy turns into a romance and Forrest feels comfortable enough with her to tell her what he really does for a living over pie and coffee, although she doesn’t believe him at first.

Decided not charmed is Detective John Hunt (Affleck) who is in the bank while it’s being robbed with his two daughters. Burned out on his job to the point where he’s considering leaving the force, the robbery under his very nose gives him motivation to go after Tucker full throttle. Talk about lighting a fire under one’s butt.

The movie rests on the charm of its actors and Redford, Spacek and Affleck have plenty of charm to go around. They also have plenty of talent at their craft – all of them have Oscar nominations (and wins, in some cases) – to sustain the fairly light-tempered movie. Although the running time is only 93 minutes, it seems a bit longer because the story moves along so slowly and is filled with quite a bit of unnecessary material. Still, it is enjoyable to watch old pros (extending down into the supporting cast) do what they do best, even if what they’re doing essentially is a bit of fluff, despite the opportunity for social commentary – Lowery chooses to simply tell his story simply. I can’t really fault him for that.

REASONS TO SEE: Redford, Affleck and Spacek all deliver excellent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; could be argued that it’s too low-key as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) which Redford also starred in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Senior Escort Service

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

Kin


Some ordinary boys hide extraordinary secrets.

(2018) Science Fiction (SummitMyles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Dennis Quaid, Zoë Kravitz, James Franco, Carrie Coon, Ian Matthew, Gavin Fox, Stephane Garneau-Morten, Michael B. Jordan, Lily Gao, Lukas Penar, Carleigh Beverly, Milton Barnes, Michael Grisley, Khalid Klein, Sean Fowler, Carson Manning, Dave Lewis, Bree Wasylenko. Directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker

Some movies create their own genres by being something original. Others try to create their own genres by taking aspects of others and forcing it into a mold. This film is one of the latter.

Eli (Truitt) is the adopted son of construction boss Hal Solinski (Quaid) whose biological son Jimmy (Reynor) has just gotten out of jail. Hal is full of hope for the 14-year-old Eli (who is smart but introverted) but disappointed on the older Jimmy. However, it is Eli who discovers an alien weapon when scrounging around for scrap metal in an abandoned factory near his Detroit home.

Jimmy owes crime boss Taylor (Franco) a whole lot of money and in order to protect his dad and kid brother (whom he genuinely cares for) decides to steal the cash to pay Taylor. Things don’t go according to plan and soon Jimmy and Eli end up on the road (with Eli blissfully ignorant of the real reason why) being chased not only by vengeful gangsters but also by mysterious aliens who want their gun back.

This late summer sci-fi action crime road coming of age film actually has some things going for it. For one, the special effects – a combination of the digital and the practical – aren’t half-bad. For another, Franco makes for a truly hissable villain. A late-film cameo by A-list habitue Jordan is also a welcome sight.

But the movie is, oh, so predictable. The plot feels unnecessarily manufactured and none of the characters seem particularly personable. They’re all pretty one dimensional without much depth to them at all. The story feels like something you’ve already seen – and yeah, there haven’[t been a lot of alien weapon movies in the archives, but there have been a few.

There isn’t a lot here to recommend it but then again, there isn’t a lot here either to discourage you from seeing it. This is the kind of movie you watch and forget about ten minutes later. If that sounds like something you need, have at it. Otherwise, there are plenty of much better sci-fi action films out there to occupy your time.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot and generic characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of both the gangster and sci-fi variety, some sexually suggestive material, profanity and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Solinski home in the film was the same one used for the 2005 John Singleton film Four Brothers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.X.L.
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Crazy Rich Asians

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie