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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New Releases for the Week of September 8, 2017


IT

(New Line) Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton. Directed by Andy Muschietti

Beneath the streets of Derry, Maine, lives an evil that periodically rises to take the town’s children. Four particularly brave and prescient kids are aware of what’s going on and they are ready to fight but they are up against a monster without pity or seemingly without limits. Pennywise the Clown will haunt your dreams, courtesy of the mind of Stephen King and this movie.

See the trailer and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language)

9/11

(Atlas) Charlie Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Gina Gershon, Luis Guzman. On one of the grimmest days in the history of our country, five total strangers are in an elevator in the World Trade Center when an airplane crashes into their building. Trapped and without a hope of rescue, they must work together and find a way out, not realizing that the clock is ticking and time is running out.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cobb Plaza, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for language)

Crown Heights

(Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox. Colin Warner, an immigrant from the Caribbean living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, was accused of a murder he didn’t commit. Despite only the testimony of unreliable eyewitnesses, he was convicted and sent to prison. His best friend, Carl “KC” King and his childhood sweetheart Antoinette stood by Colin despite a system that had taken everything from him, believing that one day they would set him free and justice would prevail. This is their incredible true story.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs

Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and violence)

Fallen

(Vertical/Destination) Addison Timlin, Jeremy Irvine, Lola Kirke, Joely Richardson. A 17-year-old girl with an attitude is sent off to a reformatory after being unjustly blamed for the death of another student. Once there, she is drawn to two different boys, each of whom has an incredible secret. In the meantime, she is experiencing inexplicable events and strange visions, leading her to the conclusion that she must figure out the secrets of her own past in order to navigate a very rocky road that could lead to a cataclysmic destination. This is based on a series of young adult fantasy novels.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, violent images, some sensuality, language and teen partying)

Home Again

(Open Road) Reese Witherspoon, Nat Wolff, Lake Bell, Michael Sheen. A woman newly separated from her husband and raising their kids on her own agrees to allow three young men to live in her home and share expenses. However, things get super complicated when her ex-husband decides to try and win her back especially since she’s developed feelings for one of the guys.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic and sexual material)

I Do…Until I Don’t

(Film Arcade) Lake Bell, Ed Helms, Paul Reiser, Mary Steenburgen. Three couples, all in different places in their marriage, are the focus of this ensemble comedy from writer/director/actress Bell who has made some compelling films recently both in front of and behind the camera.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for sexual material and language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Daddy
Gunshy
The Midwife
True to the Game
Yuddham Sharanam

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Calle 54
The Good Catholic
The Last Mentsch
The Limehouse Golem
Man in Red Bandana
True to the Game
Yuddham Sharanam

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Gunshy
The Limehouse Golem
Rememory
True to the Game
Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk
Yuddham Sharanam

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

England is Mine
Love You to the Stars and Back
True to the Game
Yuddham Sharanam

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Crown Heights
Home Again
It
Man in Red Bandana
Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

Get Out


Daniel Kaluuya finds out we like him…we really, really like him.

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Lil Rel Howery, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey,Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander. Directed by Jordan Peele

 

Given the situation and history of race in America, it could be forgiven if some African-Americans might have nightmares that white America is out to get them. Certainly given institutional racism in the past, the need for Black Lives Matter in the present and not a lot of hope for change for the future, life in these United States might seem like one great big horror movie for people of color.

Chris (Kaluuya) is a photographer who’s just getting started in his career. He is an African-American with ties to the community but he also has a white girlfriend – Rose (Williams) who has yet to inform her parents that she’s dating a black guy. But not to worry, she tells him – her parents are liberal progressives from way back. They’ll have no problem with it. When you’re taking your boyfriend to meet your parents for the first time, please understand that those words offer no comfort whatsoever.

Rose’s parents are pretty well-to-do – they have a vacation home in upstate New York that most would probably classify as an estate. Her Dad (Whitford) is a neurosurgeon and her Mom (Keener) a psychiatrist specializing in hypnotherapy. Dad is that kind of guy whose attempts to sound hip and current are awkward and unintentionally funny (“So how long has this thang been going on?” he  asks much to Chris’ bemusement). Mom offers to help cure Chris of his smoking habit which he politely refuses. He doesn’t want anyone messing with his head.

But awkward first meeting weekend gives way to some legitimate misgivings. The African-American domestics Walter (Henderson) and Georgina (Gabriel) seem anachronistic. The bonhomie of a family and friends gathering reveals racism bubbling just under the surface. The drunken brother (Jones) seems unusually aggressive.  Chris has nightmares and realizes that someone has been messing with his head after all. But the messing with Chris’ head is nothing compared with what’s going to mess with ours.

Peele is best known up to now for being part of Key and Peele who have one of the most respected shows on Comedy Central. Methinks that he has something else that he’s going to be best known for. He shows a confident, deft hand which is unusual for a first-time director and he took a nearly microscopic budget for a movie released by a major studio and parlayed it into what is sure to be one of the most profitable movies of the year.

He does it with a smartly written film that lightens the tone of the deeper issues it explores and doesn’t allow the audience to get angry or frustrated given the climate of the times. While I’ve heard some mutterings that the movie is racist towards whites, I would tend to disregard that kind of talk and compare it to certain SNL sketches that poke fun of white stereotypes. We all, after all, have our prejudices whether we admit to them or not.

He also does it with a near-perfect cast of largely unknowns from a feature standpoint although Whitford and Keenan are both veterans and Jones and Stanfield have some good performances under their belts as well. Each cog in the wheel performs exactly as they need to which helps ratchet up the creepy factor when it appears that Chris has entered a weird Stepford Wives town for Caucasians.

As light as Peele keeps it he does save room for some heavy horror moments although there’s not a lot of viscera here. It’s more the concepts that are horrifying rather than any visual gore although there are a few images where Peele brings on the red stuff. He’s not shying away from it so much as using it effectively.

Kaluuya, a British actor playing an American here, has star written all over him. He is absolutely mesmerizing onscreen and delivers an excellent performance that’s bound to get him noticed for more high-profile roles. He reminds me a lot of John Boyega and we all know that his career brought him into the Star Wars universe; something similar could conceivably happen to Kaluuya who I think would make a fantastic John Stewart in the upcoming Green Lantern Corps movie for DC/Warner Brothers.

This is one of those occasions where the critics and the general public have both embraced a film. It’s certainly bound to be one of the better horror movies to come out this year and some might well keep it in mind for one of the best movies of the year period. I’m not quite on board for that kind of lofty praise but this is definitely a movie worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it already and savvy movie buffs are likely to add it to their collection when it comes out on home video later on this year.

REASONS TO GO: A comic-horror look at African-American perceptions and racial stereotypes. There are some good laughs as well as some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might be made uncomfortable by the film’s attitudes towards racism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of violence, some bloody images, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peele became the first African-American director to earn over $100 million at the box office on his debut feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Life as a Zucchini