Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Nestor Carbonell, Joel van Liew, Bill Camp, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Carlos Hendricks, Ron Canada, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Shana A. Solomon, Brian Tyree Henry, Sarah Goldberg. Directed by Matt Ruskin

 

Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced set of scales. This is meant to convey the impartiality of justice. In modern America, experience has taught us that justice sometimes peeks behind the blindfolds and the scales are weighted against the poor and those of color.

Colin Warner (Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is no saint – one of the first things we see him do is steal a car – but he’s not the devil incarnate either. He’s just a guy trying to make it in a world that isn’t well-disposed towards people with his skin color or economic station. He hopes for a better life and along with his best friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha) is attending a school to become a certified auto mechanic. He also has an eye on Antoinette (Paul), a neighborhood girl who has unfortunately put him in the friend zone.

One night as he walks home with his mother’s television set which he picked up from the repair shop, he is arrested by a pair of New York’s finest. When he learns that the charge is murder, he is almost incredulous. The more he discovers about the crime, the more confident he is that he’ll soon be freed; for one thing, he didn’t do the crime. He didn’t know anyone involved. He had no motive and no record of violence. Surely the police will see that and let him go.

To his horror, they don’t. Even after they find the man who actually pulled the trigger (Forbes), they refuse to let him go. An eyewitness puts him on the scene; never mind that the 15-year-old boy (Brooks) has a criminal history of his own, or that his story is wildly inconsistent with other eyewitnesses. Even the presiding judge (Canada) admits the evidence is flimsy. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicts the shocked Colin and he is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Colin’s family and particularly KC are livid and on a mission to get Colin home where he belongs. The appeals process turns into a nightmare as the lawyer that is hired is so woefully unprepared that it is clear that he’s all about getting the cash up front and after that, he doesn’t really much care. KC’s determination leads him to take the process server’s exam so that he can circulate among lawyers and perhaps find a good one to take Colin’s case. Eventually it leads him to William Robedee (Camp) who together with his Irish wife Shirley (Goldberg) run a tiny practice. The lawyer agrees to take the case after looking at the transcripts and discovering what a shockingly inadequate defense Colin received. Still, the system is grinding Colin down and although Antoinette has thawed on the whole romance thing, it looks like Colin might just rot in prison.

This is based on true events which should be enough to make your blood boil. These things really happened and Colin Warner really spent a ridiculous amount of time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ruskin uses contemporary clips of various presidents talking tough on crime to illustrate the tone of the times and reminds us that crime is the political equivalent of a slam dunk – everybody wants to be perceived as tough on crime. The results of the rhetoric was largely cosmetic; the effects on the poor and those unable to afford good representation, devastating.

Stanfield has been turning heads over the past few years with performance after performance, always delivering something special. This might be his best work yet, showing us a man who is pretty laid back and soft-spoken most of the time but frustrated by the injustice of his situation, driven to despair (he wakes up each morning murmuring to himself “Please don’t let it be a cell”) and eventually rage, lashing out at brutal guards and equally brutal inmates. Only his love for Antoinette, his mother and grandmother back in Trinidad and the support of KC keeps him going. Stanfield captures the full range of Colin’s emotions.

I’m not sure where this was filmed but I suspect it was either in a working prison or a decommissioned one. It looks a little too authentic to be a set. I could be wrong on that count of course and if I am, the production designer Kaet McAnneny is to be doubly commended. Ruskin also gives a very stark look at life inside. It isn’t as brutal as, say, Oz but it does capture the feeling of simmering anger and violence that exists in a prison and especially the hopelessness.

The movie suffers from an inconsistent pace. Certain parts of the movie seem to move very quickly (the arrest and initial trial, for example) and others seem to drag. Ruskin utilizes graphics to tell us how long Colin has been incarcerated. There are some jumps in time and quite honestly there is a lack of consistent flow here. I didn’t get a good sense of time passing; other than the graphics, all of the action could have taken place within the same year with the viewer being none the wiser.

Stanfield is impressive here and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line he became one of the very best in Hollywood, the sort of actor who is a threat to win an Oscar every time he signs up for a movie. He elevates this movie and he is supported by a thoroughly professional cast. The acting is uniformly good and other than what I discussed earlier there aren’t really any serious faults to really distract from what is a very good film. It tells a story that will outrage but sadly isn’t uncommon as graphics near the end of the film show. Definitely this is one if you’re looking for a serious movie to see that may have some outside Oscar implications later on.

REASONS TO GO: Stanfield delivers a performance that just sizzles. A cathartic ending enhances the gritty portrayal of the brutality of everyday prison life.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is inconsistent..
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of profanity, some violence and sexuality as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asomugha is a pro football player who is a two-time All-Pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man in Red Bandana

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The American Experience


The American ExperienceAs America gears up to celebrate Independence Day, we at Cinema365 like to sit back and consider just what it means to be an American and reflect on American life in general. Both of my own parents are immigrants to this great land as is my wife’s mother; this country gave them opportunity and a home so better than many we have a great love for this country, even as we sometimes are critical of the political divisions that separate us.

Even with all our flaws this is still a great place; not only is it a country of great natural beauty and a warm, giving people (for the most part) it is also a nation that even in these tough economic times has a can-do spirit of optimism that things will get better eventually.

This year due to personal issues we’re only doing this for two days instead of the usual three but the two movies we have in store are pretty indicative of the American spirit. We hope the reviews inspire you to go see them and enable you also to reflect on the meaning of America which we feel these films do quite well.

So to our American readers we wish one and all a happy and safe Fourth of July. To our readers from other nations we hope you enjoy our little two day tribute to our native land and gain some insight into the American psyche, Cinema365-style.

Eastern Promises


Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen seite)


The Edge of Heaven

Tuncel Kuritz listens raptly as Nurgul Yesilcay explains the Zorba the Greek reference.

(2007) Drama (Strand) Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Devrak, Tuncel Kuritz, Hannah Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nunsel Kose, Asuman Altinay, Onder Cakar, Emre Cosar, Nurten Guner, Elcim Eroglu, Sevilay Demirci, Yelda Reynaud, Turgay Tanulku. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

The one truth about life is that none of us survive it. Along the way to our inevitable destination we suffer bumps, bruises and sometimes whole amputations that make many of us, at one time or another, wonder if it’s possible to go another step. Yet it’s the joys, both large and small, that get us through the rough patches.

Ali (Kuritz) is an elderly Turk living in Bremen, Germany. He is alone; he is occasionally visited by his son Nejat (Devrak) who is a professor of German literature at a German university, but the two have only an uneasy connection. Neither one can really relate to the other, let alone understand one another. The gulf between father and son, already deep as with all fathers and their sons, is made wider by the cultural differences they grew up with. Ali is still at heart a Turk and Nejat is essentially a German.

Ali, being a lonely man, sometimes purchases himself a prostitute. One in particular, Yeter (Kose), is a favorite. She, like Ali, is a Turkish expatriate and is doing  the best she can to survive. She misses her daughter Ayten (Yesilcay) who is still in Turkey and is ashamed of her mother. Ayten is also a revolutionary whom the Turkish government is after.

Muslims in Bremen are not too thrilled with Yeter’s profession of choice and urge her, in no uncertain terms, to think about a career change or face the wrath of their community. Ali, discovering this, invites her to live with him so that she might continue to practice her profession (and this isn’t all altruistic – Ali wants her to provide her professional services in exchange for the room and board). It’s a pretty sweet arrangement for Ali but a momentary loss of control leads to a tragedy that has life-altering consequences for the both of them.

Nejat, horrified at what has occurred, travels to Turkey to find Ayten so that he may tell her what has happened and, if needed, do whatever he can to help. He is taken by his homeland which he has never seen and winds up impulsively buying a German-language bookstore in Istanbul which comes with two apartments over the store. He lives in one and rents the other to Susanne (Schygulla).

Susanne is a German mother who is in Turkey for her daughter Charlotte (Ziolkowska) who has travelled to Turkey for…well, let’s backtrack a moment. You see, even as Nejat had travelled to Istanbul, Ayten had fled to Germany to find her mom and to escape arrest. She hooks up with Charlotte, whose relationship with her mom is – you guessed it – strained. Susanne is an ex-hippie who went from that lifestyle to becoming a more bourgeois woman in order to provide for her daughter for which Charlotte has never forgiven her. Charlotte is fascinated with Ayten, whose status as a revolutionary on the run excites Charlotte’s sense of political romanticism. However, when Ayten is arrested, she is deported back to Turkey to be arrested. Charlotte goes to Istanbul to try and help Ayten be freed and then….life happens.

Akin, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents, presents a film with three distinct storylines. All of them are linked but ingeniously enough, none of the characters are aware of how closely linked they are. All of them crisscross their way through the various storylines without knowing their effect on each skein of the tapestry. This takes some pretty sophisticated writing and directing to pull off without throwing in serendipitous devices that exist only to move the plot from A to B. Here, you feel an organic flow and nothing ever seems forced.

The mood here as you can tell is somewhat bittersweet. None of these characters has easy lives or make the right choices in every case. They, as we alluded to earlier, suffer bumps, bruises and amputations and not all of them will be alive when the end credits roll. While the movie can get heavy-handed with the tragedies to the point where you want to scream “We get it! Life sucks! Let’s move on shall we” at the screen (or monitor if that’s your means of viewing).

There are some very nice performances. Many of the actors are well-known in Turkey but almost completely unknown here. Schygulla might be remembered by older readers as the muse of Rainier Warner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s legendary directors of the 70s and 80s. She lends some grace and gravitas to the movie and serves as the audience surrogate to a large extent. She is unfamiliar with Turkish culture (which we get a nice deep look at here) and navigates through a tricky emotional maze with her daughter.

This is the kind of film that will stay with you for a long time unless you’re the sort that don’t like to use a lot of grey matter when it comes to watching movies. There are a lot of themes to consider here, a lot of intellectual fodder for the engine. It is a film that sets out deeply drawn characters and allows them to interact and breathe. You’ll feel like you know all of them, see them at the market and run into them on the street for a 5 minute conversation about trivial things. But there’s nothing trivial about this film. Nothing at all.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing, bittersweet mood. A look inside Turkish culture. Solidly acted.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed in places, particularly in the Job-like suffering.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, as well as adult themes, language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the police officers in the film are actual cops.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.8M on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Janie Jones

The Class (Entre les murs)


The Class (Entre les murs)

"I'm not going to tell you again, my name is NOT Mr. Chips!"

(Sony Classics) Francois Begaudeau, Franck Keita, Boubacar Toure, Henriette Kasaruhanda, Eva Paradiso, Laura Baquela, Rachel Regulier, Nassim Amrabt. Directed by Laurent Cantet

Education isn’t what it used to be. Teachers have little control over their students, administrators have little control over their teachers and everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. How do teachers stand a chance with students, having to compete with iPods, cell phones, video games and the Internet?

Francois Marin (Begaudeau) is a new teacher at a school in the 20th arrondissment of Paris, a multi-ethnic neighborhood. He teaches grammar and literature to what would be the equivalent of high school students. The students are ambivalent at best about the prospects of learning a language they already think they know. What good, they question, is this education going to do them?

A valid point, indeed. Marin is fairly hip as teachers go, treating his students with respect although he is only human; he gets exasperated when they push the limits, as teenagers will do. At times he resorts to the tried and true axiom of “because I said so” when questioned. Still, he’s fairly easy-going and makes a real effort to communicate to his students.

Many of them are the children of immigrants, such as Souleymane (Keita), a troubled young man with a bad temper and Khoumba (Regulier), who believes M. Marin has it in for her. These aren’t always the easiest kids in the world to get to know

Still he does try, and seems to be making a connection when he gets them to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then assigns them each an essay to write about themselves. In some of the cases, he gets a glimpse of understanding something much deeper although with most it’s just a skim across petty surface likes and dislikes.

However, when two classroom representatives at a teachers meeting blabs to the class that M. Marin said something unflattering about one of the students, tensions threaten to derail the fragile bond that ha been forged among the members of the class.

Director Laurent takes a bold innovative step in disposing of a script for the actors playing the students and instead gets them to improvise, with three cameras covering the classroom and only Begaudeau getting the outline of the action that is meant to occur. This leads to honest, natural performances with the students essentially playing themselves in a classroom setting and reacting as they would to incidents occurring in their own classrooms.

Begaudeau is himself a teacher and wrote the book on which this is ostensibly based. He co-wrote the “script” along with Cantet and Robin Campillo and is the heart and soul of the movie. He is one of those teachers who genuinely want to see his students thrive but is frustrated by their lack of motivation to care about their own futures. He wants to get through to them, but at the same time he’s only human and not only makes mistakes, but does not treat them all equally.

I did have problems with the subplot of the classroom representatives. I grant you I’m not an expert on the French educational system, but it seems to me that having students attending meetings in which confidential information about their fellow students is being discussed is an unlikely scenario at best. Here in the States, that’s the kind of thing that would lead to lawsuits. While there might be classroom representatives at teacher meetings, I can’t imagine that those teachers wouldn’t be aware that anything discussed at those meetings, particularly if it were something the teachers didn’t want getting out, would be blabbed to their fellow students the next day. I mean, these are TEENAGERS for chrissake – passing on inappropriate information is what they do.

Still, this is a marvelous movie that, while it shares a certain pedigree with classroom dramas like To Sir with Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, is much more authentic particularly in the way that the students are depicted. We don’t have a Mr. Chips sort here who inspires by reading from Dylan Thomas; instead we have a beleaguered teacher doing the best he can to inspire kids who aren’t looking for inspiration (at least from school). It is also a wake-up call to our global society that the education system needs to be reformed as the needs of the students are changing.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic look at the challenges facing educators today. Organic, unforced performances mostly by first-time actors or non-actors makes for a natural setting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole sub-plot about having two classroom representatives at a meeting in which confidential information about students is being discussed is far-fetched to say the least.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of rough language and a little bit of sexuality, but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first French film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival since 1987.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is intriguing footage of some of the improvisational sessions that set the tone for filming, as well as the young actors reading essays they’d written about themselves, some of which were incorporated into the final film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Winter’s Bone

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled for release until June 18th. A full review will be posted then. In the meantime, here is a short mini-review.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a tough life in the Missouri Ozarks. Taking care of her two young siblings and her mentally ill mom is taxing enough for a 17-year-old girl but to find out she needs to find her absent meth cooker dad or lose their house (which he used as collateral on his bail bond) with no help from the insular mountain community is almost too much for her to bear. This outstanding performance is matched by veteran character actor John Hawkes turn as her Uncle Teardrop, the wiry man who nobody wants to mess with. This is a moving, harrowing movie that will keep you squirming in your seat. Highly recommended.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret of Kells