Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

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Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18

Tsotsi


Tsotsi

Not so much a candlelit dinner for two.

(Miramax) Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Thembi Nyandeni. Directed by Gavin Hood

We are most often a product of our surroundings. Those who live in poverty and despair become what that poverty and despair make of them. Some have the strength to rise above, but more often than not, they become urban primitives, doing what is necessary to survive.

Few places on earth know more poverty and despair than Soweto, the ramshackle township southwest of Johannesburg. That is where Tsotsi (Chweneyagae) lives. A young man barely out of his teens, he lives on rage and whatever funds he can steal. He and his gang – fat, loyal Aap (Nkosi), bookish Boston (Magano) and cruel Butcher (Ngqobe) go out to the local train station every night to steal something, then repair to a Soweto bar to drink away their ill-gotten gains.

On this occasion, they choose a well-dressed mark to mug, then kill him ruthlessly and senselessly on a crowded train, quietly and efficiently so that none notice. Back at the bar where bartender Soekie (Nyandeni) dispenses beer, Tsotsi glares while Boston, sickened by what they have done, berates Tsotsi and tries to get him to admit to what he feels. He doesn’t even know what Tsotsi’s real name –  “tsotsi” means thug in the slang of Soweto. Tsotsi reacts with sick violence, beating Boston nearly to death.

Tsotsi leaves the bar and finds himself in an upscale suburban neighborhood. He sees a professional woman trying to get the gate to her home open as her remote isn’t working in the pouring rain. Tsotsi shoots her and takes off with her car, but is a marginal driver at best (something of a running joke throughout the movie). After having driven some distance, he discovers that he has an unwanted passenger – a small baby. Up to now, Tsotsi hasn’t hesitated to kill and one’s mind works overtime, wondering what terrible fate will befall the baby, but the street thug elects to take the baby home with him.

Thus Tsotsi’s journey begins, motivated by the helpless creature that comes into his life. After running out of condensed milk to feed his stolen baby, he encounters a young widow (Pheto) who is nursing a baby of her own. He forces her to breastfeed his baby at the point of a gun. Eventually, they strike up a relationship of sorts. She sees in him not a core of goodness, but something within him that is capable of turning away from the life of violence he has existed within all his life. She doesn’t convince him with some semblance of a great speech as a Hollywood writer might have done; instead, she allows nature to take its course.

Filmmaker Gavin Hood tells a movie that is not so much uniquely South African (although it is based on a novel by Athol Fugard) as it is a universal tale set in South Africa. Cruelty and despair are not unique to Soweto, nor is poverty but there is a unique spin exhibited here. For one thing, the soundtrack is propelled by the Kwaito music of South Africa, a kind of African rap. It fits the mood here very effectively, as is the incidental music, which is more spiritual. Either way, they help enhance the emotional qualities of the movie.

This won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie last year, but there is nothing foreign about it. This speaks a language that we all understand, from the performances of Chweneyagae and Pheto to the simple response of a wheelchair-bound man that Tsotsi is hassling. When asked why he goes on living when his life is so bad, the man replies “Because I can still feel the sun on my hands.”

This is a powerful movie, one that isn’t about redemption so much as it is about finding the decency within us. It is unusual as it shows us a bad man who becomes better, rather than a good man becoming bad. I suppose the message is that if we can be corrupted by evil, so too can we be corrupted by good. That’s not something I had ever considered before, so this movie gets a lot of points just for that.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an outstanding movie that depicts not so much redemption but the first steps on that journey. The script is not so much innovative as imaginative but not in a fantasy way; it simply tells a story from a viewpoint that I haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tsotsi’s actions and cruelties sometimes make it very difficult to relate to him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some scenes of baby nursing and a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be released by Miramax after the founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left the company.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The disc features an early short film by Hood.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Duck Season