ROMA


Cleo enjoys the view from the rooftops of suburban Mexico City.

(2018) Drama (Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Damesa, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, Andy Cortės, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Josė Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis López Gómez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

 

Some movies assault our senses frontally; others wash over us like a wave. Roma, the Oscar-nominated Netflix opus from acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the latter types of films.

Set in the upscale Roma neighborhood during the turbulent 1970s and loosely based on the director’s own childhood. Cleo (Aparicio) is the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, including Sra. Sofia (de Tavira) and the father (Grediaga), a medical doctor. On the surface, life is good for the family; they have a lovely home and enjoy evenings of watching TV together as a family with the maid and the other servant Adela (N. G. Garcia) taking care of the family’s every need.

But when the doctor leaves for a conference in Canada which turns out to be a euphemism for leaving his family for his mistress, things turn upside down for the family. Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house. The children begin to act out. In the meantime, Cleo gets pregnant courtesy of her jerk of a boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) and she goes into labor just as the notorious Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 is underway. The family begins to disintegrate from within.

In many ways the movie feels more Italian than Mexican; the slice of life aspect that sees the dual deterioration of Sofia and Cleo has the fatalistic yet dreamlike – albeit strangely realistic – quality that marks the films of some of the great Italian directors of the 70s through the 80s. Cuarón shoots the film essentially in medium shots nearly exclusively, making u feel like flies on the wall but oddly detached. We are not so much part of the family but spies within. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a gigantic tape recorder.

Shooting in black and white usually produces either a retro or documentary feel but again there is that feeling that we are voyeurs in the household. In fact, I would venture to say that this is reality television in the sense that movies once fulfilled that role. It is at once mundane and beautiful.

While Cuarón is specifically examining his own background in a specific time and place, this movie is equally applicable to virtually any time and place. Not all of us grow up with servants but nearly all of us grow up with challenges in our family, whether it be the sudden loss of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse or simply that the times they are a’changin’, we all know heartache in our lives.

This may be too slow-moving for some. The story unfolds like a rose even though there is more rot than rose to it. Parts of the movie are difficult to follow although Cuarón does tie everything nicely by movie’s end, I suspect that there aren’t a lot of Americans who will be patient enough for the two hours plus running time. Also, most of us are going to see this on television or computer screens at home or in some other distraction-heavy environment. If ever there was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a movie theater, it’s this one. Here in Central Florida, the movie was only available in The Villages which is a real shame. That’s partly due to the onerous rental terms that Netflix set for the film, making it nearly impossible for a theater to turn any sort of profit for running the movie. Maybe at some point kinder heads will prevail at Netflix and they will make the film available for a more reasonable theatrical release. I think the goodwill that such an action would generate among their subscribers (and potential subscribers) would be worth far more what they are profiting from the film currently.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see this year. Aparicio is a major find. The cinematography is compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow moving and occasionally disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, graphic nudity and adult themes throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Point Man

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How It Ends


Theo James gets a glimpse of how it ends.

(2018) Action (Netflix) Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Grace Dove, Kat Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Mark O’Brien, Kerry Bishé, Aaron Hughes, Lanie McAuley, Josh Cruddas, Aidan Ritchie, Eric Keenleyside, RJ Fetherstonhaugh, Nancy Sorel, Storm Greyeyes, Haig Sutherland, Cory Chetrybok, David Lewis, Charis Ann Wiens, Juliette Hitchcock, Anett Rumanoczky. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

How will the world end? Will it go out with a bang or a thud? What will become of those who survive? These are questions that people have wondered about since…well, since there have been people. The movies wonder about it too, offering generally special effects-heavy looks at nuclear holocaust, approaching meteors, deadly plagues and so on and so forth. Sometimes the end of the world is the sound of the power being switched off.

Will (James) is a lawyer in Seattle whose girlfriend Samantha (Graham) is pregnant. They want to get married; she wants him to, in the best traditional sense, ask her father for her hand in marriage. That’s not something Will is especially looking forward to as Sam’s dad Tom (Whitaker) is a very conservative ex-Marine who doesn’t look with much favor upon Will who moved his baby girl all the way to Seattle and worse yet crashed his boat.

The meeting between potential father-in-law and son-in-law goes awkwardly and then falls apart. Will is about to head back home to Seattle and calls Sam to let her know he’s on his way when the phone call is abruptly cut off with Sam uttering a disturbing “Something’s wrong! I’m scared…” before the connection goes dead. Then the power goes off in Chicago and pretty much everywhere.

Tom, being a man of action, determines to drive to Seattle since air traffic is grounded. He gets Will to go with him, reluctantly at first. What they encounter in America’s heartland is nothing short of disturbing, with civilization falling apart, roaming bandits murdering and stealing with impunity and signs that the military has attempted to regain control unsuccessfully. The two manage to get Native American auto mechanic Ricki (Dove) to accompany them West in hopes that she can make it to California. Seattle’s in that general direction after all.

While this movie is beautifully shot (thank you cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg!) it feels like you’ve seen this movie before in a dozen disaster end of civilization films that have come before it. I don’t mind a movie borrowing ideas from other movies – after all, as Shakespeare once said, there is nothing new under the sun – but a movie needs to add something, something that at least reflects a point of view. At first, I thought that would be the relationship between Will and Tom which seems to be at the center of the film. And yes, Whitaker and James both put forth some fine performances which you would expect from Whitaker but James delivers what I think is his best performance so far. The problem is that the chemistry between the two is often cold; there should be more heat between them. After all, Tom neither likes nor trusts Will but grudgingly realizes he needs him if he is to save his baby girl – assuming she’s still around to be saved

There’s just too much typical post-apocalyptic cliché here, with people turning into selfish monsters willing to kill for anything that would allow them to survive for one day longer. There are signs that it didn’t all totally go tumbling down the drain – a small town which has essentially cut itself off from the chaos around it but one gets the sense they probably won’t be able to stand too long intact.

And I have to talk about the ending. I won’t reveal too much about it, only that it’s godawful and abrupt  You are left looking at whomever you are watching the movie with and wondering aloud “Why did I just watch this if that’s all there is?” Of course, you might ask the same question if viewing alone but the answer is likely to be you throwing your TV (or laptop) across the room in frustration. The moral is, don’t watch this alone.

That’s not to say that this is all bad; there are some poignant moments and Dove’s character Ricki actually has some memorable scenes but it gets lost a bit in the march to lawlessness. I think we all get that civilization is a terrifyingly thin veneer and that it won’t take much to strip it completely away. It just gets tiresome to see that concept being demonstrated over and over again with the characters refusing to learn that lesson along the way.

REASONS TO GO: Whitaker is as mesmerizing as always and James delivers his best performance to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is a bit slow and the ending a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Christmas Chronicles


He sees you when you’re sleeping…

(2018) Holiday (Netflix) Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Steven van Zandt, Oliver Hudson, Vella Lovell, Jameson Kraemer, Solla Park, Seth Mohan, Kayla Lakhani, Glen McDonald, Danielle Bourgon, Tony Nappo, Martin Roach, Lamorne Morris, Marc Ribler, Jeff Teravainen, Elizabeth Phoenix Caro, JaQuita May. Directed by Clay Kaytis

 

Every year at Christmas time there is a plethora of made-for-TV Christmas films that generally are barely tolerable. Once upon a time though, major studios made Christmas films that were heartwarming, sent a positive message and were actually entertaining but frankly, there hasn’t been one like that in the multiplexes since Elf.

Netflix has the last couple of years looked to fill that gap, with this being the crown jewel in this year’s crop of four or five Christmas releases. It has a big star, a well-known name in family filmmaking behind the camera (producer Chris Columbus) and a fairly big budget for effects and such. Does this have the makings of a Christmas perennial?

Through a series of home movies we are introduced to the Pierce family. Doug (Hudson), a firefighter, is one of those guys who puts a ton of effort into Christmas. His kids adore him and his wife is head over heels for him. Firefighting is, sadly, a very dangerous occupation and one year Dad is not there at Christmas. His wife Claire (Williams-Paisley) works in the local Emergency Room and on Christmas Eve she’s called in to cover a shift. Times being what they are – single moms need to work all the shifts they can, particularly at Christmas – she puts teen Teddy (Lewis) in charge of moppet Kate (Camp) and off sh goes to earn a living.

Kate still believes in Santa Claus which Teddy finds to be an eye-rolling mess. Teddy has fallen in with a bad crowd and is doing some underage drinking and worse, stealing cars. Kate clings to Dad’s massively outdated camcorder like Linus clings to his security blanket. She manages to convince Teddy – who against all odds decides to stay and babysit rather than go out with his friends as he’d planned to – to set up the camera to catch Santa in the act. To Teddy’s absolute shock, they do.

Going outside to get a better look at the magical sleigh, the two are accidentally taken along when Santa (Russell) takes off for his next destination. When he discovers the stowaways, he is taken by surprise and in the process loses his magic hat (which allows him to deliver presents at lightning sped), his sack of presents, the flying reindeer and the sleigh itself which crashes to Earth – in Chicago. Had Alex Jones made this movie, Santa would have had to be packing in order to make it out alive.

In any case the two kids responsible for Santa’s nightmare have to help him reclaim all his items and deliver the presents before dawn or else Christmas spirit would be drained from the world. The last time that happened, Santa tells us, the Dark Ages ensued. Somebody needs to tell Santa that there’s a good chance that the Second Dark Ages have already begun.

On the way to rescuing Christmas Santa gets arrested (!) and performs a blues musical number with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in the jailhouse (!!) while Kate scrambles to find the elves who turn out to be Minion-like merchandising opportunities creatures who speak in an unintelligible language. But can these two kids help Santa save Christmas – and can Santa save this family in crisis? Duh – it’s Christmas!

Russell was an inspired choice for St. Nick. He’s not the jolly old geezer that we’ve seen in past films, nor the hot mess that Tim Allen made him to be. This Santa is a straight shooter, a bit rough around the edges and well, some female reviewers have taken to calling him “hot Santa” which was enough to curl the mistletoe in my home.

As a counterpoint though are the two children. The performers are okay but they needed to be more than that to carry this film, which ends up being a Kurt Russell-fest because of it. Not that it’s a bad thing mind you but the film spends a lot of time following the kids and quite frankly you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them after the first few minutes. Kate’s actions imperil Christmas but there are no repercussions, no remorse really on her end; it’s just “they made a mess and it got cleaned up so everything’s copacetic.” Worse, there are absolutely no consequences for Teddy’s crimes which is criminal for a family film, and in fact Santa participates in a carjacking himself! It’s enough to make an elf burst into tears.

The special effects lack the wow factor of previous Santa-themed Christmas films and the stock aerial footage looks outdated. Much of the action is fairly predictable and rote and while the blues number seems a bit against the grain, it’s actually one of the best moments in the film overall – Russell really brings it. Still, it really doesn’t hold up to the Christmas movies that we tend to watch year after year. This one might get an occasional viewing once you’ve seen it once but even the least discerning Netflix viewers will probably think twice about a second streaming session but Russell’s performance is worth viewing at least once.

REASONS TO GO: Russell makes for a terrific Santa.
REASONS TO STAY: Parents might want to consider the message the film is sending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and kid mischief.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kurt Russell grew his beard out for the role; that’s actually his hair and beard he’s wearing as Santa, not an appliance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lasso

Chasing Coral


As water temperatures rise the coral reefs begin to die.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Richard Vevers, Zackery Rago, Ruth Gates, Andrew Ackerman, Mark Eakin, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, James Porter, Trevor Mendelow, Jeff Orlowski, Justin Marshall, John “Charlie” Veron, Phil Dustan, Morgan Pratchett, Neil Cantin, Manuel González-Rivero, Joanie Kleypas, Rupert Ormond, Luiz A. Rocha, Sue Wells. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

 

Despite the continued denials of those affiliated with various facets of industry and politics, there is no doubt that the planet is warming up. Warmer air temperatures also lead to warmer sea temperatures as well, despite the continual melting of the polar ice caps. Those warmer seas are having devastating effects on the ecosystems of the ocean.

One demonstrable effect is that the coral reefs are dying. Thriving living organisms that help supply the planet with oxygen and its inhabitants with food, they are losing color in a process called bleaching and turning into barren wastelands like an undersea lunar landscape at a terrifying rate. The largest coral reef on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef near Australia, lost 22% of its mass in 2016 alone. At current rates – which are likely to accelerate – the coral reefs will be dead in 20 years. All of them.

Richard Vevers, a former advertising executive, was moved enough by the situation to shift his focus into becoming an activist. Orlowski, the documentary filmmaker whose project on the shrinking of glaciers proved a powerful motivation for many who were on the fence about climate change, was enlisted to help document the process of bleaching.

Using innovative time lapse cameras that can survive prolonged exposure to salt water, Orlowski and his team show the sobering process in which living coral ecosystems wither and die in a matter of weeks. One of the developers of the camera, Zack Rago, is a self-described coral nut who became interested – almost obsessed – with coral as a young boy in Colorado, is one of the more entertaining interviewees. His obvious passion and love for the coral shines through and even if at times he’s a bit bro-tastic, there’s no doubting his sincerity.

As grim as the subject matter is however, there is hope – organizations founded by Vevers and legendary marine biologist Charlie Veron (who is a hero of Rago’s) are working to protect and preserve the reefs that are still alive and possibly use coral from those reefs to seed new reefs. However, the continued rise of the ocean’s temperature will need to be halted before the latter an happen and that will mean cutting back severely on the use of fossil fuels.

There are plenty of charts and figures that are used to measure the damage being done, but the most damning and depressing footage is that which shows a reef going from alive and beautiful to dead and barren. Some of the scientists trying to explain what’s happening get a bit jargon-happy which can lead to confusion but at the end of the day this is an essential documentary that everyone who loves their planet – or hopes for their descendants to actually live on it – should see. The sad truth however is that those who truly need to see it probably won’t.

REASONS TO GO: The underwater footage is stunning. The message is terrifying.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scientific explanation was confusing and difficult to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film won the audience award for Best Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Shiner

Mercury 13


Even goofing around, these ladies all had the Right Stuff.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

 

There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.

Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.

They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.

The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.

The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.

Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Choosing Signs

Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer