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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ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

That Evening Sun


That Evening Sun

Despite first impressions this is NOT an outtake from Lolita

(2009) Drama (Freestyle) Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, Barry Corbin, Dixie Carter, Barlow Jacobs, Anthony Reynolds, Brian Keith, Bruce McKinnon, William J. Mode, Jacob Parkhurst. Directed by Scott Teems

There isn’t always a reason why we hate other people. Developing a strong dislike might come out of having been wronged, or perceiving that we’ve been wronged. Sometimes it’s just instinctive, bad chemistry if you will. Other times, it’s because we see the worst aspects of ourselves, the ones we don’t like to face, in that other person.

Abner  Meecham (Holbrook) is a crusty 80-something old cuss who decides to check himself out of the retirement home his feckless lawyer son Paul (Goggins) has placed him in and sets off back home to his farm in rural Tennessee.

Except it isn’t his anymore. His son has rented out the farmhouse to the Choat family, whose patriarch Lonzo (R, McKinnon) is not exactly on Abner’s Christmas list. In fact, the two men have an apparent history of intense dislike. Abner isn’t about to go crawling back to the home on hands and knees and decides to occupy an old tenant farmer shack on the property.

The other Choats, long-suffering wife Ludie (Preston) and friendly daughter Pamela (Wasikowska) are welcoming but Lonzo and Abner are pretty much like oil and gasoline. When Pamela mentions that Lonzo hates barking dogs, Abner persuades neighbor and friend Thurl Chessor (Corbin) to part with his loudest and most howl-prone dog that he owns. Abner takes great satisfaction in watching the noise driving Lonzo crazy.

It doesn’t take much to set them off and when Pamela returns from a date with a boy Lonzo doesn’t approve of, he beats her with a garden hose, turning on Ludie when she attempts to defend her daughter. Abner stops the abuse by shooting his pistol off. He calls the police on Lonzo and Ludie is furious that she has to bail her husband out of jail when they clearly not afford it.

When Lonzo returns home, things take a turn for the ugly. Stubborn old man takes on stubborn young man and the stakes grow progressively higher. Where will this escalating feud end?

Some will be reminded of the works of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Certainly there are elements of Southern gothic here, although writer/director Teems doesn’t have the flair for dialogue that either of those great Southern writers possessed – of course, very few writers do.

The name of Hal Holbrook might not mean much to younger readers (although he did garner an Oscar nomination a few years back for Into the Wild) but older readers will know him for being one of America’s most authentic actors over the past 50 years. Now well over 80 himself, this is a role he is well-suited for. It isn’t his best performance ever (he is best known for his stage work in one-man shows about Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln) but it’s right up there.

Like many plays and stories set in the Deep South, there is a certain languor that comes from the sound of cicadas and hot breezes that permeates the film. That pace might be intolerable for those used to having their film action served up at warp speed. Things unfold here rather than occur; the feeling winds up being more organic than forced, but it takes a bit of patience to get from start to finish.

Sometimes I’m in a mood to let a story just wash over me, and this one certainly does the trick. Having the great Hal Holbrook in the cast is a gigantic plus and although most of the rest of the cast (including the very talented Mia Wasikowska in a Lolita-esque role) doesn’t stand up to Holbrook’s performance, nobody disgraces themselves either. I would have preferred to see a bit more on the backstory of Lonzo and a bit more of Abner’s relationship with his wife (Carter) but even so there is plenty here to interest even the casual moviegoer.

WHY RENT THIS: Holbrook is one of America’s greatest actors and any chance to see him is worth taking.  Fans of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams might get a kick out of this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow moving and a bit on the Southern gothic side.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of bad language, a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of violence and some mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Dixie Carter’s final film appearance. Ironically she plays Holbrook’s deceased wife here; in real life, she was married to Holbrook.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $281,350 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killer Elite

The Change-Up


The Change-Up

Jason Bateman knows that no matter how much Ryan Reynolds pleas he's not getting Leslie Mann's teddy bears.

(2011) Comedy Fantasy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Mircea Monroe, Gregory Itzin, Ned Schmidtke, Lo Ming, Sydney Rouviere, Andrea Moore, Craig Bierko, Taafe O’Connell, Ed Ackerman. Directed by David Dobkin

It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side and as with most clichés, there is a good deal of truth to it. It is human nature to want that which we don’t have. However, most times when we finally get to the other side we come to the understanding that the greener hue was just a trick of the light.

Dave (Bateman) is a family man with three children, two of them infants. He’s married to Jamie (Mann) who is beautiful and loving. He’s also a hard-working corporate lawyer who’s about to shepherd a merger that will virtually guarantee him the partnership he’s been working towards for a decade. However, Dave is working so hard juggling family and firm that his family focus has begun to suffer and Jamie is beginning to question how present he is in the relationship as husband and father (he has the breadwinner thing down cold).

Mitch (Reynolds) is Dave’s best friend, a ladies’ man and perpetually unemployed actor who spends most of his day getting stoned, playing video games and having every kind of sex with a wide variety of beautiful women. The two hang out at a local bar one night, watching a baseball game and talking about their lives. As the shots flow and the evening wears on, each professes admiration for the lifestyle of the other. As they stumble from the bar well past last call, nature calls and the two find a fountain in a public park nearby. As they urinate into the fountain, they both manage to say simultaneously “I wish I had your life.” The lights go out dramatically and the two go home to sleep it off.

Except when they wake up they are in each others’ bodies. Mitch suddenly has to cope with changing babies, attending meetings, seeing things through and the kind of intimacy in a relationship that goes beyond sex. Dave has to cope with kinky sex, loneliness and learning how to relax. However without meaning to, each one is screwing up the other’s lives. They must become the men that the other one is in order to get back to their own lives.

This may be a first for body switch movies – transference via urination. Certainly I for one am going to be much more selective into which troughs I pee into and with whom from here on out. However, pee isn’t the only bodily fluid you’ll be encountering here; in the first five minutes Dave gets a face full (and mouthful) of baby poop. That kind of sets the tone.

At least it does for the first half of the movie. From going Judd Apatow-raunchy in the first half, the second half is all Frank Capra-sentimental as the men learn the value of appreciating what they have. That almost sounds like a studio shying away from a complete raunchfest which is kind of bizarre because in addition to the scatological you’ll find sex with an EXTREMELY pregnant woman as well as with a decidedly mature woman, not to mention masturbation and extra scrotums. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of carnal delight.

Bateman is scaling comedy heights that will soon have him rubbing elbows with Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Here he shows off that he can be much more versatile in his range, playing both the irresponsible horndog as well as the conservative family man. Reynolds seems to be more involved doing action movies lately but it’s easy to forget he’s done some pretty solid comedic roles as well (Definitely Maybe, Waiting…) and is quite good at them. Bateman and Reynolds have some good chemistry together and in fact the whole ensemble fit together nicely as a whole.

Mann has some genuinely affecting moments as Dave’s long-suffering wife who isn’t quite sure if she and her children have the place in Dave’s heart that they used to. The always reliable Alan Arkin has a few scenes as Mitch’s estranged dad and Olivia Wilde looks gorgeous as a law clerk with a thing for Dave…err, Mitch…err, Dave. It’s hard to get straight.

Body switching movies are as old as the hills and have been done in as many different ways as you can think of. This one purported to be a raunchy sexy version of the genre but only really sticks to it for the first half of the movie before being roped into the schmaltz that Hollywood seems to demand of its comedies. Not every great comedy has to come with a heart-warming ending, after all.

I wish The Change-Up had the courage of its convictions and had stuck to the raunchiness throughout. That seemed to be where the movie was in its comfort zone. I had hoped with the leads that the movie had it could have ended up a lot better of a movie. It’s still not that bad but it is a bit disappointing given my expectations for it.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds and Bateman are extremely appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie veers wildly from crude to cuddly. Humor is hit or miss, usually the latter. Been there done that factor is high.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit more nudity here than is usual for most Hollywood films of the 21st century; also there’s a good deal of salty language, drug use and innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bar scenes were filmed at an Atlanta watering hole called Joe’s on Juniper.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one you can save for your Netflix queue.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Another Earth

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)


Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations