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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RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria