The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

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Crisis


Greg Kinnear makes his point to Gary Oldman.Cinema

(2021) Drama (QuiverGary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Cudi, Indira Varma, Lily-Rose Depp, Mia Kirshner, Guy Nadon, Michael Aronov, Adam Tsekhman, Veronica Ferres, Nicholas Jarecki, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Marcel Jeannin, Eric Bruneau, Duke Nicholson, Ellora Torchia, Daniel Jun, Luke Evans, Billy Bryk, Meghan Allen.  Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

One of the major problems facing our country right now – and yes, there are many – is the opioid epidemic. Something like 100,000 people die every year of overdoses of opioid painkillers, most of which began as prescriptions and moved on into full blown addictions.

Claire (Lilly) had been an addict, hooked on oxycodone. She’d managed to kick the habit, though, and had a career as a successful architect in Detroit. She asks her hockey-mad son (Bryk) to stop by the corner grocery on his way home from practice and pick up some tortillas. He never arrives back home. She goes out looking for him with her sister (Kirshner) but can’t find him; then she gets the news every mother dreads – her son is dead, of a drug overdose. Claire is stunned. “If he was an addict, I’d know!” she blurts out. Something doesn’t sit right about this whole affair and she is determined to get down to the bottom of it and figure out what happened to her boy.

Jake (Hammer) is a hard-bitten DEA agent who is trying to stem the flow of opioids coming into the country. He’s currently working on some Armenian gangsters who are importing them from Canada, and they are particularly interested on obtaining Fentanyl, which looks to be the new hot opioid-of-choice for the discriminating addict. He arranges a buy with Montreal-based drug kingpin Mother (Nadon) who turns out to be a lot more bloodthirsty than his name implies. Jake is under pressure from his boss (Rodriguez) to make a quick arrest; he’s been undercover for a year now with nothing to show for it. Jake is also trying to hide the fact that his own sister (Depp) is also an addict in rehab.

College professor Tyrone Brower (Oldman) has brought in a healthy revenue stream for the university by testing new products for Big Pharma in his lab. When on of the more unscrupulous companies touts a new wonder drug that is a non-addictive painkiller, the FDA is falling all over itself to approve the drug and stem the tide on the opioid crisis. But as Dr. Brower discovers that far from being non-addictive Klaratol is actually far more addictive and leads to death among his test subjects, he wants to blow the whistle, but the FDA doesn’t want to hear about it, the drug company will do anything to squelch his research and his obsequious dean (Kinnear) tries to convince him to forget his research. A crisis of morality beckons.

The three stories all parallel but only two of them converge – that of Claire and Jake. The Dr. Brower story, while interesting, never really touches what’s going on in the other two stories and seems like it should have been an entirely separate movie, but that kind of laxness in execution characterizes Crisis which has the advantage of being timely – the opioid crisis is certainly on the minds of many.

The cast is stellar and they all do pretty good jobs, particularly Lilly who has an excellent scene with Kirshner early on in the movie as her grief overwhelms her. The former Lost actress who is better known for her work in the MCU these days has always been a fine actress, but she rarely gets the opportunity to show off her mad skillz and so this is a refreshing change.

Jarecki cuts between the three stories rapidly and without any sort of linking device, so the changes are often jarring and inorganic. All of these stories have a certain amount of dramatic tension built in but Jarecki scuttles it by moving from story to story so quickly and so often that whatever momentum he builds up gets lost and the audience loses interest.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t worthwhile; it is certainly well-acted and has a compelling subject, but the stories are so interesting that you want to spend more time on them, which Jarecki fails to do, ending up giving short shrift to all of them. He probably could have eliminated the Brower story completely and padded out the other two with further character development and made a more effective movie – and kept the Brower story as a separate, stand-alone movie. That would have been a more satisfactory solution. Perhaps he can still do that with a director’s cut, someday. I wouldn’t mind if he did.

The film is currently playing in limited release around the country but will be available starting Friday on most major streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play, to name just a few. Check their website (click on photo above) for further information on where the film can be streamed on Friday.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely exploration of different viewpoints of the opioid crisis.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dramatic tension is sabotaged by the quick cutting between stories.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug content, profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Dreamland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
‘Til Kingdom Come

The November Man


One Bond reference too many.

One Bond reference too many.

(2014) Spy Action (Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Akie Kotabe, Will Patton, Patrick Kennedy, Dragan Marinkovic, Ben Willens, Milos Timotijevic, Dragan Dvojakovic, Tara Jervrosimovic, Nina Mrdja, Milutin Milosevic, Lena Milan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, in describing his character from the film A Walk Among the Tombstones, declared that people need a hero who is a bit of a loner; one who has one foot on the side for justice and one foot on the side that is lawless. Our heroes can’t be completely pure, otherwise we have trouble relating to them.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is an operative for the CIA, a veteran and crafty one at that. His partner and protégé is David Mason (Bracey), a brash and arrogant sort who doesn’t always listen to those with years of experience on him. When on a mission to protect an American ambassador targeted for assassination, Mason’s inability to follow orders ends up with an innocent child getting killed in the crossfire. Devereaux takes early retirement soon after that.

He is running a small bar and cafe in Lausanne, Switzerland when his old friend and handler for the CIA Ray Hanley (Smitrovich) turns up, telling him that a double agent buried deep in the employ of Arkady Federov (Ristovski), a war hero from the Chechnyan civil war and favored to become the next Russian president, has discovered something big and needs to be pulled out. However, Peter is the only agent she trusts to get her out of Russia.

So, reluctantly, Devereaux heads to Moscow to pull out the secretary Natalia Ulanova (Musliovic) and get the flash drive with her information on it. However, things go sideways quickly and Russian security is hot on their tails. A CIA higher-up, Perry Weinstein (Patton) gives the order to terminate the asset. The woman is then shot by a company sniper.

Furious, Devereaux gives chase to the assassins and takes out most of the team. When he discovers who the trigger man is, he is momentarily shocked and walks away. The man who killed the asset – David Mason.

Now, Devereaux and the CIA are in a race to find the one connection that can take down Federov – a girl named Mira Filipova (Mrdja). The girl however seems to have completely disappeared off the face of the Earth – the only link to her is Alice Fournier (Kurylenko), the director of a refugee agency. Luckily, Devereaux gets to her first. However, now the race becomes a game of cat and mouse between Devereaux and the CIA. Just who the cat is and who the mouse is in the equation is anyone’s guess.

Based on the seventh in a series of novels by Bill Granger written back in 1979 in this specific case, the movie combines the action of a Bond film, the realistic spycraft of Le Carre and even elements of the Bourne series. That kind of leaves one with a been there-done that feel pretty much throughout.

The saving grace is Brosnan who steps into the shoes of a superspy and finds them a comfortable fit. He is just as suave and sophistication as he was in his heyday as Bond nearly twenty years ago. He dominates the screen and adds a hint of sadness and weariness to the character that was absent from Bond. Brosnan has done some really good acting jobs in films like The Ghost Writer since hanging up his Walther PPK and there is a level of depth here that wasn’t really necessary in the Bond films but adds additional flavor to the role. It might be the best action hero performance of the year. Devereaux is also far more ruthless, willing to slice open the femoral artery on an innocent girl in order to get in the head of Mason.

The action itself is pretty old school with plenty of car chases and Devereaux being chased by dozens of lethal, highly trained agents but getting away with some ease. He has survived as long as he has by always being a step ahead of his quarry or his pursuers and that aspect of the character looms large throughout the film.

The movie seems anachronistic at times, with modern cutting-edge technology on the one hand, but cell phones with flip cases – which have been out of style for almost a decade now – are everywhere. I’m wondering if that is what is new and cutting edge in Belgrade, where this was mostly filmed. I think not however and no mention is ever made of the action taking place in 2005 or thereabouts which it sometimes seems to be.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you’d expect in an espionage thriller, a little too many for my taste. While I understand the need to keep your audience guessing and as off-balance as the filmmakers can make them, the movie seems overly complicated which it really doesn’t need to be. A story like this can be told without quite so many moving parts and still be quite effective.

As action and espionage thriller material goes, well, it’s what you’d expect to find in the dregs of summer. It’s not anything that is going to make you want to run right out to the theater, but it isn’t anything that will make you regret being there either. It is nice to see Brosnan in the type of role that is right in his wheelhouse and I can’t help hope that there are more roles like it in his future, although he is getting on a bit. Still, while the Devereaux series doesn’t seem to be likely to be continuing any further given the anemic box office for this film, the acclaim for Brosnan makes me think that there may be other producers perhaps ready to hand over to Brosnan the types of roles that Neeson has been getting for the past decade now.

REASONS TO GO: Brosnan is an old pro at these sorts of movies. Some fairly nifty old school action scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems oddly dated. Plot unnecessarily over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, some of it brutal, as well as a sexual assault. There’s a good deal of foul language, some sexuality, brief nudity and one scene in which drugs are used.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When we glimpse Devereaux’s file, the birthday given for Devereaux is the same as Brosnan’s actual birth date. Also, along with Brosnan, Kurylenko also has Bond experience in Quantum of Solace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Life After Beth

Speed Racer


Speed Racer

Apparently Speed Racer is out-running the Aurora Borealis.

(2008) Science Fiction Action (Warner Brothers) Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree, Ji Hoon Jung, Benno Furmann, Roger Allam, Kick Gurry, Paulie Litt, Christian Oliver, Art La Fleur. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

When I was growing up (a preface my father used to make to what would turn out to be a long-winded lecture about why his generation was superior to my generation which sucked rocks), part of my afternoon routine after getting home from school involved turning on the television and watching an anime double feature (although I didn’t know they were called anime at the time) of “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” I had no conception that what they were doing were anything like groundbreaking – having seen some of those episodes again recently I can tell you with great confidence that they were anything but from an animation standpoint – but I knew they were in color, they were fun and even if they weren’t animated as well as my favorite shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Wacky Racers,” they at least had storylines that I found to be a little bit better than the very light stuff that were common for the time.

The Wachowskis (then still known as brothers) were evidently of the same mindset as I growing up. Fresh off of their world-beating success that was the Matrix trilogy, they basically could do whatever they chose and a live-action remake of the beloved Japanese cartoon series was what they chose. In hindsight it may seem a trifle…ill-advised.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a talented young racer in the World Racing League. He is haunted by demons – the death of his brother Rex in a gruesome crash during an unsanctioned race – and yearns to break the records his brother set. Unlike most of the racers in the League, Speed is an independent without corporate sponsorship; his father Pops (Goodman) builds the cars, Sparky (Gurry) maintains them, Mom (Sarandon) makes pancakes and his little brother Spritle (Litt) gets into mischief. Usually around is Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) who spends so much time with Speed’s family you wonder if she has a family of her own.

Into their lives blows Arnold Royalton (Allam), chairman of Royalton Industries, one of the leaders in WRL sponsorship. He is impressed by Speed’s record-breaking pace and wants to take him to the next level – the championship of the WRL. He is urbane and charming and loves pancakes. However, Spritle snoops around and discovers that there is a dark side to Royalton and eventually Speed declines the offer. Royalton turns petty and vindictive and vows to destroy the Racer family and does everything within his power to do just that.

Then there’s the mysterious Racer X (Fox) who turns out to be working undercover for Inspector Detector (Furmann) of Interpol who enlists Speed to help find out who’s responsible for the illegal race fixing that has plagued the WRL and caused economic chaos. In order to do that he’s going to have to conquer the unsanctioned race that was responsible for his brother’s death and is the most grueling, dangerous race on the planet – the Crucible.

The Wachowskis have an amazing visual sense and this might be their most brilliant movie from a visual sense ever. The movie uses a palette of bright neon-infused colors, like someone had thrown Slurpees across the screen and then black lighted them. The world of Speed Racer is more brilliant than the cartoon it sprang from, with supercharged cars hurling at you at breathtaking speeds. Much of the movie was filmed against a green screen (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and much of the world of the WRL is computer generated.

However, as good looking as the movie is it lacks a few things. Like, for instance, a plot that doesn’t disintegrate upon any sort of inspection. I can forgive that to a certain degree – all that technology is fine and dandy but it would have made for a better movie with a bit more attention to detail when it came to the writing. However, there are a few things that just dropped the movie from being a game changer.

The length, for one. Two hours of visual assault begins to numb the senses; there were too many car races and not enough plot development for this type of time commitment. You can only see so many cars racing around a highly stylized track before you begin to yawn unless you’re a dedicated Formula 1 or NASCAR maniac.

And for another, the presence of Spritle and Chim-Chim. Yes, I know they were integral parts of the original cartoon and they were meant to be the avatars for the kids the cartoon was aimed at but I think they outstayed their welcome. They were too much at the forefront of the film and quite frankly, the characters are annoying and they dumb down the movie way too much to be comfortable. Nothing against Litt, the young actor who plays Spritle – he didn’t write the part after all – but I’m to the point that when I see his character onscreen while watching the DVD I hit the Fast Forward button.

Hirsch was cast in this movie after an acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and it seemed his career was on the rise. Unfortunately I never got a sense that Hirsch was motivated to do much more than read his lines. This is an unfortunately flat and lifeless performance that harkens back to the emotionless voice acting that characterized the original cartoon and to be fair that might well be a deliberate decision on either the filmmakers or Hirsch’s part; it’s just a bad decision and if it is the case, is another reason why remakes should never try to import things that don’t work from the original just for nostalgia’s sake.

Allam makes for a fine villain and for some quirky reason channels Tim Curry who is also one of the fine villains of recent years. Here he’s both venomous and urbane; always  a lethal but delicious combination when it comes to movie villains. Fox, who was heavily in the public eye for his work in the cultish TV show “Lost,” shows off a different kind of heroism and is one of the best things about the movie. Certainly my attention perks up whenever he’s on the screen.

This is definitely the case of a movie that is innovative and lovely to look at, but falls apart upon too close an inspection. The cure for that? Don’t inspect too closely. Look at it for what it is – an eye candy sugar rush that is going to put you in a happy coma after two hours of non-stop bliss. This is entertainment, pure and simple – imperfect to be sure but entertainment nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Brilliant visuals. Allam is an over-the-top villain and Fox shows off his heroic chops as Racer X.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About a good half-hour too long. Spritle and Chim-Chim are far, far too annoying.  Hirsch a little bit flat as Speed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of violence. Some of the car crash scenes are a little bit gruesome. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, the English voices of Speed and Trixie in the original cartoon series, voice race announcers in the feature film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a game and a couple of extra features not found on the DVD edition which itself is nothing to write home about.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $94.0M on a $120M production budget; the movie was a major box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man