Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fundamentals of Caring


Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

(2016) Dramedy (Netflix) Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Julia Denton, Megan Ferguson, Samantha Huskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Ehle, Donna Briscoe, Alex Huff, Alex Boell, Bill Murphey, Frederick Weller, Matt Mercurio, Robert Walker Branchaud, Eric Singer, James Donaldio, Matthew Pruitt, Ashley White, Kristi Von. Directed by Rob Burnett

 

One of the truths about caregiving is that often the caregiver receives from their charge as much if not more than they give to them. That isn’t always the case, but most of the time we see things in those whose care we are charged with that change how we see ourselves.

Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is entering the field of caregiving after having spent most of his life as a novelist. He has been unable to write following a tragedy that left him devastated and he and his wife (Denton) on the brink of divorce. Picking up the pieces, he wants to help someone in need rather than just bag groceries or flip burgers.

His first client is Trevor (Roberts), a young man with Muscular Dystrophy and  a frazzled mom (Ehle). His American dad abandoned the two of them; the two ex-pat Brits are also starting over in Seattle, with mom working for a major bank but going through caregivers as caustic Trevor is a bit of a handful, with a penchant for playing practical jokes and insulting those closest around him.

Ben urges the routine-bound Trevor to get out of the house; Trevor has a fondness for cheesy American tourist traps, particularly those things that advertise themselves as the “Biggest” anything. Ben knows that watching specials on the Travel Channel is nothing compared to seeing these plays in person in all their chintzy glory. With mom getting ready to go on a business trip to Atlanta, Ben begins planning a road trip of his own with Trevor. At first, mom is appalled but eventually relents.

They pick up a foul-mouthed hitchhiker on the way, a comely girl named Dot (Gomez) who is headed to Denver and art school. They also pick up another stray, the very pregnant Peaches (Ferguson) whose husband is overseas. On Trevor’s say-so, this ragtag group makes a detour to Salt Lake City to confront Trevor’s no-account used car dealer dad (Weller) but eventually they make it to the Nirvana of Trevor’s bucket list – America’s biggest pit. Yes, he aspires to see a tourist attraction that is essentially a great big hole in the ground.

Trevor and Ben are in fact mirror images of one another; both are bitter at the hand life has dealt them and both have been shutting out others, using their sense of humor and/or grief to push the world away from them. The caregiving has, by movie’s end, gone both ways; Ben is able to move on and Trevor is able to live life more fully. That’s a bit of a Hollywood cliché and I’m not sure that was what the Jonathan Evison novel, which I haven’t read, intended.

One of a handful of projects that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that was picked up for theatrical and streaming distribution by Netflix, the movie has a somewhat accelerated pace that makes one feel like Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel) was trying to cram too much into an hour and a half. The pace of the story isn’t organic at all as the closed-off Trevor seems to accept Ben way too easily, while for his part Ben who started off the movie sullen and uncommunicative seems to open up much faster in the film than humans usually do; there’s no sense of progression, only that the filmmakers wanted the relationship to reach the stage where the road trip could begin quickly.

Rudd is one of the most charming actors in Hollywood; he is so likable onscreen that even in off-beat roles (which are often the ones he takes) he still manages to capture your rooting interest. Here, it starts off with Ben deep in the throes of depression and the character is morose and grief-stricken. It doesn’t take long for Rudd to shine through even in those extreme circumstances and in some ways that’s not a good idea; Ben’s grief is part of the central aspects of his character and he seems to pull out of it way too quickly. It isn’t until the movie ends in fact that we realize that the movie has been about Ben all along and Trevor is the caregiver; the title is about how they both learn to care about life but the focus is certainly on Ben. Rudd pulls that aspect of it off well.

The movie is riddled with cliches and is predictable throughout. Gomez with her baby face looks is somewhat miscast as the fiercely independent Dot, while the character of Peaches seems to be unnecessary baggage. Cannavale turns up in an uncredited glorified cameo as Dot’s father who turns out to be following his daughter, making sure she gets to Denver all right.

I expected a bit more out of this film than it delivered. I enjoyed the road trip dynamic but there was no build up to it that would have given the personal growth more meaning. It just seemed to be too rote for a movie that came out of the independent pedigree it had. This could have easily been a remarkable film about the nature of caregiving, but in the end the script doesn’t serve the subject matter well. Netflix subscribers who are Paul Rudd films should check it out if they haven’t already; if you can take or leave Rudd, you are well-advised to find better movies to stream on the home video giant.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Rudd is as charming as always. Some fun road film moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels really rushed. The scrip is somewhat pedantic.-
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, sexually suggestive content and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rudd and Cannavale both appeared in Ant-Man last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jack of the Red Hearts
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The BFG