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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Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli Davis Conspiracy


Michael Borelli meets the press.

Michael Borelli meets the press.

(2014) Documentary (Benaroya) Michael Borelli, Bob Davis, Robert Fullerton, Cindy Parmenter, Robin Levine, Liz Borelli, Kim Peterson, Melody Davis, Alan Dill, Frank Moya, Sam Raskin, Ron Kavanagh, Marge Gindro, Terry D’Prero, Larry Addeo, Chuck Brega, Rhoda Goldstein, Anna Venditti, Stanley Perlmutter. Directed by Sheldon Wilson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but then again, truth can sometimes resemble fiction. Take the cases of Michael Borelli and Bob Davis, for example. It feels like a movie about corrupt cops, the unjustly accused and a heinous murder but every word of it is true.

Borelli was a retired New York City police officer who wanted to utilize his skills as a baker. He moved west to Denver in the mid-70s to order to open up a New York City-style bakery which he felt would be a great success. He was persuaded instead to open up a restaurant; one of his partners was Hal Levine, a furniture store owner.

Levine was a gambler, and not just in a business sense. He had an addiction that he kept hidden from his partners and used the funds from Borelli’s successful restaurant to pay down his own debt which had become out of control. A life insurance policy was taken out on him with the partnership the beneficiary. Five months later, Levine was dead, gruesomely murdered with his wife also nearly killed during the assault.

The Denver police at the time had an organized crime unit which was on the verge of being broken up because, let’s face it, there wasn’t any organized crime in Denver. Sgt. Cantwell, one of the members of the unit, knew that if the unit went away so would his fairly cushy job that had little accountability. So he looked for Godfathers where there weren’t any. And he decided that the Levine murder fit all the earmarks of the crime.

He saw Borelli as guilty by reason of being Italian; the quick-tempered ex-cop was certain to be a foot soldier in one of the big crime families. He was Italian, wasn’t he? So Cantwell looked into the crime. Now with a suspect, he had to get through the inconvenient fact that Borelli had an alibi – he was in New York when the murder happened. No problem. He just through in Bob Davis, a former colleague of Borelli’s and a close friend. Even though Davis had only been to Denver once and there was no proof that he was there at all. Except…

…for the testimony of one Terry Lee D’Prero, who claimed to have been in the house (for which there was evidence) but wasn’t there to kill anybody but to put the fear of God into Levine. It was Davis who pulled the trigger. On D’Prero’s testimony alone were both Borelli and Davis convicted since the evidence against them was sketchy at best.

Too sketchy, in fact, as defense attorney Alan Dill started looking into the case deeper. He discovered that D’Prero’s testimony was full of holes, but because D’Prero had allegedly testified against high-ranking Mafiosi, he had been put into witness protection and had disappeared from view.

In prison, Borelli was actually treated as if he were Mafiosi and he didn’t dissuade the general prison population of the notion. He knew that if they learned that he wasn’t, he’d just be an ex-cop and that might very well be a death sentence for him so he played the part. Even prison officials bought into it.

At least Borelli had that to fall back on. Davis suffered brutally and throughout the affair was treated far worse than Borelli was. Amazingly, both men remained close friends – and are so to this day. Such a thing even had the somewhat creepy judge who presided at their trials shaking his head.

This is one of the more compelling stories you’ll find in a documentary this year. It has everything – corrupt police officers, a brutal murder, a judge possibly more interested in notoriety than justice, two former cops and best friends – everything but a book by Mario Puzo to base it on. The story is what keeps you going and there are quite a few twists and turns. Some of the things are astonishing; I won’t ruin them by stating them here, only that you’ll end up wondering why they don’t make ’em like Michael Borelli and Bob Davis anymore.

Initially, the filmmakers used an old radio interview with Borelli as narration which I thought was a nifty move. I wish they had kept it up throughout, just for continuity’s sake. Otherwise this is pretty standard stuff – talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs from the time. There also really isn’t any testimony from the opposing side; although the judge who decided the case was interviewed, none of the police were for obvious reasons.

They also have crime scene photos of Levine and his wife and be warned, they are graphic and disturbing. Those who decide to venture to see this should be aware that those images are in there; some may be upset by them. Personally, I question the need to have them in the film; we understand from the interviews that the murders were brutal. We didn’t need to see the visual evidence to confirm it.

So ultimately this is a terrific tale told in a somewhat pedestrian manner. Wilson should be commended, however, for perseverance in ferreting out the truth over the course of years investigating the case. I found the story so intriguing that it overcame the documentary 101 style that it is told in. Others may not be so charitable. In any case, it’s a story that deserves the telling and reminds us that justice ideally is blind but in reality, the justice system rarely is.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Borelli is an interesting interview. Ties things up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary use of crime scene photos. A bit too rote in terms of how the story is told.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic crime scene photos. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Sheldon Wilson once served as an instructor for film direction at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Aspie Seeking Love