Paddington 2


This may be the ultimate “oh dear” expression.

(2017) Family (Warner Brothers) Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw (voice), Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris, Michael Gambon (voice), Samuel Joslin, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Ayoade, Peter Capaldi, Joanna Lumley, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Robbie Gee, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Claire Keelan. Directed by Paul King

 

Sequels so very rarely get to be better than their originals but here’s one that is true for that will appeal mainly to the parents with small kids set. The series of British children’s books by the late Michael Bond has made a smooth transition to the big screen and while it didn’t get the box office numbers of a big hit mainly due to circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers (more on that in a minute), it has all the earmarks of being a great franchise.

The plot is simple; Paddington’s (Whishaw) Aunt Lucy (Staunton) is about to celebrate her 100th birthday and for the special occasion the animated bear wants to get her a special gift. He even finds one – a pop-up book that tours London. However, the price is a bit beyond the bear’s meager savings so he goes out to earn enough to buy the book but on the eve of his being able to afford it, someone steals it and Paddington is blamed and sent to prison for it.

Hawkins who returns from the first film as Mrs. Brown, the mom of the family that adopts Paddington, continues to excel in every role she takes on. The last few years in particular have seen some wonderful performances by the actress including an Oscar nomination but this is while not up to that level is nonetheless really, really good.

Grant gets a chance to let his inner ham out as he plays a has-been actor which could have led to lots of really inappropriate jokes, but Grant not only sets to the role with a fine sense of self-deprecating humor but with a lot of gusto as well. He very nearly steals the movie but the fact of the matter is that the film is so well-written, so warm and fuzzy that it’s like pulling a favorite blanket over you on a rainy day and curling up with a nice hot cup of tea and a beloved book you’re re-reading. It doesn’t hurt that the ending is such a feel-good moment that only the most hard-hearted of people will not get misty-eyed. There is no bigger group of unrepentant hard-hearts than film critics but the acclaim for this film has been nearly universal. If you didn’t see this one in theaters – and chances are you didn’t – you owe it to yourself and particularly your kids (if any) to catch this one on home video when it becomes available on it next month.

REASONS TO GO: The climactic train chase is a great deal of fun. Hawkins is becoming one of my favorite actresses. The ending (not including a scene while the credits are running) is one of the most touching and beautiful I’ve ever seen.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in the middle. Some of the acting is a little silly and lots of the humor is very, VERY British.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of action on a kids show level as well as some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing, Paddington 2 holds the distinction of having the most positive reviews (192) on Rotten Tomatoes without a single negative one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garfield
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cocote

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Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People

Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

Big Sonia


Big hearts can come in small packages.

(2017) Documentary (Argot) Sonia Warshawski, Regina Kort, Caroline Kennedy, Morrie Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Debbie Warshawski, Marcie Sillman (voice), Chris Morris, Ehsan Javed, Rachel Black, Kollin Schechinger, Grace Lamar, Isabella Mangan, Leah Warshawski. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski

 

After the events in Charlottesville and as we watch the rise of white nationalism and an emergence of racism in the wake of last year’s Presidential election, one has to wonder what Holocaust survivors must think, particularly those who came to the United States to heal, raise families and move forward with their lives. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for them to hear our president characterize those low-life scumbags as “fine people.”

Sonia Warshawski is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors living in the United States, in her case in the Kansas City area. 90 years old at the time of filming (she turned 92 this month), she continues to run her late husband’s (also a Holocaust survivor) tailor shop, the last remaining storefront in an otherwise deserted mall. It is her lifeblood, where she is able to interact with long-time customers, sew and help people dress with somewhat more panache. She’s the kind of gal who is fond of leopard prints and is unembarrassed by it – “(they) never go out of style” she crows at one point in this documentary. Still beautiful even in her 90s, she has a style and glamour all her own.

A somewhat recent development in her life has been her willingness to speak out about her experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She had rarely spoken to her own children about the war, although they were aware that both their parents were haunted by their experiences (daughter Regina Kort speaks about John screaming in his sleep at night which is why she never hosted sleepovers at her own home). However when she heard about Holocaust deniers and American Nazis, she felt it was her duty to those who didn’t survive to speak about her experiences and share them with high school kids while she still could.

Even more recently Regina has been accompanying her mother on these speaking engagements, usually presenting a sobering preamble before her mother speaks. Displaying a family photograph of about 20 people, she points out an 11-year-old Sonia and her sister as the only two who survived. Sonia’s entire family was wiped out almost overnight. At 15, she witnessed her mother being herded into the gas chamber; she recalls vividly that the last act she saw her mother perform was to comfort a fellow prisoner headed for certain death. Afterwards, she would discover that the fertilizer she was spreading in the fields was the ashes of the victims that had come straight from the crematorium.

Speaking at a prison, hardened convicts describe her as “WAY tougher than (we are)” and reduced some of them to tears. One high school student, Caroline Kennedy (not JFK’s daughter) was so moved by her encounter with Sonia that after graduation she formed an organization to help inspire other students called Empower. Sonia has that effect on people.

Like many Holocaust survivors, family is of the utmost importance to Sonia and she has instilled that value in her children, her grandchildren (one of whom is co-director of the film) and even her great-grandchildren. Sonia makes homemade gefilte fish for Passover and Rosh Hashanah and seems to be surrounded by members of her family nearly all the time.

Her life isn’t without challenges though; the property owners of the mall are dithering whether to demolish the property and build condos or rebuild it. Either way, Sonia’s beloved tailor shop is in a state of flux in many ways. She’s survived so much worse however and it is clear that regardless of what happens she will survive this too.

This is absolutely a labor of love; yes, her granddaughter is one of the directors but it goes beyond that. Much of the film revolves around an NPR interview Sonia gave a few years ago with Marcie Sillman, but that’s only a framework. The centerpiece of the movie is Sonia herself.

Nearly everyone who encounters Sonia in the film becomes an admirer but the filmmakers manage to give the film a sense of balance. Sonia is no saint, but she’s pretty dang close. Some of the interviews with her children are heartbreaking, recalling how guilty they’d feel for giving their parents hell when they’d both lived through hell. Morrie, Sonia’s writer son, breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother during a passage where he describes her whistling a tune her brother used to hum to her while they were hiding from the Nazis, an uncle who he would never meet. There are quite a few scenes of similar emotional power.

Buoyed by almost incongruously light animated sequences that show visually some of the most horrible moments from Sonia’s time in the camps, the movie isn’t a downer although it could well have been. Rather, this is uplifting that makes you want to cry and laugh and sing. You will want to take this woman in your arms and give her a hug and it might even give you a renewed determination to see the forces of racism and tolerance be made to slink back under the rocks they’ve crawled up from under. Those who shouted “We will not be replaced by Jews” should only be so lucky.

In any case, this is a movie that can change your life and I don’t say that lightly. It played the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival here in Orlando recently and has begun a brief theatrical run in New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City and hopefully other cities will show the film as well. This is certainly one of the year’s very best and I can’t recommend it enough.

REASONS TO GO: Sonia is a major inspiration. This is most definitely a labor of love. The pain she and her family feel isn’t kept hidden. A movie that makes you appreciate the things you have.
REASONS TO STAY: There is some repetition that goes on with Sonia’s presentations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very adult themes regarding the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The diminutive Sonia stands at 4’8” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Despicable Me 3

All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata

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