Avenging Fred Hampton

Judas and the Black Messiah

by Hope Madden

Daniel Kaluuya’s range is simply unreal. From the vulnerable hero of Get Out to the chilling sociopath of Widows, he’s prepared us for quite a gamut of characters. I’m not sure he’s prepared us for his Chairman, though.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party circa 1969, in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A feeling of mortality permeates his performance, and with it a melancholy sense of urgency. His quiet moments swell with tenderness and turmoil, and his speeches burn through the screen. We’ve seen some great performances this year, but we’d give Kaluuya the Oscar right now.

That’s a lot to live up to, but the balance of King’s cast meets the task. LaKeith Stanfield, as police informant Bill O’Neal, strikes the right balance between cowardice and regret. He doesn’t try to make us pity O’Neal and the deal he’s struck with the devil, but he gives the character an energy that suggests more emotional and psychological layers than what’s found on the page.

As FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, Jesse Plemons is as solid as ever, delivering lines with enough genuineness that Mitchell doesn’t become an outright villain until he, along with O’Neal, have gone too far to pretend they’re anything else.

Their performances draw support from an understated Dominique Fishback as a firmly but not blindly committed comrade—Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, Dominique Thorne has badassedness to burn as part of a deep ensemble that impresses in most every turn.  

The film never feels like a biopic. The rendering is far more crime thriller, and had this been a simple fictional account of a mole in a political organization, King’s film would have been riveting. Performances alone would have elevated the genre beats.

The real star may be King’s script, co-written with Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas. There’s no placating. There’s no playing to the masses. King doesn’t water down Hampton’s message of unifying the poor or throwing off the oppression of a police state. In fact, this is a film that means to show the difference between revolution and the “candy coated façade of gradual reform.”

Pretty as a Picture

The Photograph

by Hope Madden

Tis the season, and as Valentine’s-aimed romantic dramedies go, the blandly titled The Photograph could be worse.

Issa Rae (Insecure) leads the cross-generational love story as Mae, NYC museum curator trying to process her grief and an incredibly long letter, both hers now because of her estranged mother Christina’s recent death.

Christina (a solid Chanté Adams), mainly unveiled via flashback, broke from her own difficult mother as well as the love of her life back in Louisiana years ago to follow a career as a photographer in New York.

As Mae learns some painfully obvious truths by way of Christina’s letter, writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) weaves two romances together across time to look at the wages of a woman’s ambition and the ways we relive our parents’ mistakes.

There’s plenty to like here, and Meghie’s film certainly looks like a dreamy romance waiting to happen. Scenes are beautifully lit, gorgeously filmed and romantically scored. You can’t fault the casting, either.

LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) has an easy chemistry with Rae as the journalist interested in Christina’s life, and Meghie surrounds her leads with vibrant supporting characters. Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance and an underused Kelvin Harrison Jr. all round out the ensemble, adding much needed life.

Rob Morgan (Mudbound, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Just Mercy), wonderful as always, steals his few scenes with a restrained, mournful presence that enriches an insubstantial story. There’s a ragged weariness to his character, one that’s all the more poignant when offset by the buoyancy of Y’lan Noel’s turn as the younger version of the same character.

Meghie has assembled a fine cast, she just doesn’t give them enough to do. Neither love story gets enough room to grow and Mae’s arc feels forced and rushed. Because Christina is gone before the cameras role, Meghie handles Mae’s conflict with her mother exclusively through clunky dialog, and the usually reliable Rae has trouble conveying any convincing inner turmoil.

For a low stakes romance, The Photograph is a very pretty picture.

Parasites

Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

Salander. Lisbeth Salander.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

by George Wolf

This far along, it’s no surprise some freshness has wilted from the Lisbeth Salander franchise. But now, as the fourth book in Steig Larsson’s “Millennium” series makes it to the multiplex, some of its identity seems to be slipping away as well.

Claire Foy hops on the speed bike as the latest Lisbeth, Stockholm’s most infamous hacker/vigilante/all around badass. Her latest impossible mission is to recover a top secret computer program known as Firefall.

Developed by a weirdly tall code wizard (Stephen Merchant), the program can breach all missile defense systems and put them under the control of a single user. Though the program can’t be copied, it can be moved, and when the Americans steal it, Lisbeth is contracted to steal it back.

The job comes with plenty of attempts on her life and open wounds from the past, and as Lisbeth is pursued across Sweden by a Washington NSA agent (Lakeith Stanfield), her old pal Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) tries to help sort it all out.

Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead) trades the cold, sterile atmospherics that marked the previous films for a more standard thriller tone. Despite a few nifty sleights of hand, the film always seems to be working from another’s playbook.

It’s less grisly, less ambitious and more comfortable settling for overly convenient plot turns and painting the female action hero in more of a male fantasy world. Salander has been an anti-Bond since book one, making this shift particularly disappointing.

For her part, Foy is a serviceable Salander but more of a blank slate. While Noomi Repace brought more instant menace and Rooney Mara more mystery, Foy can’t define her turn much beyond hurtful stares and beatdowns.

Spider’s Web is always watchable, and engaging enough to keep you invested. But Lisbeth became memorable by being uniquely compelling, not merely satisfactory.





Feel the Burn

Sorry to Bother You

by Hope Madden

The stars are aligning for Boots Riley. The vocalist and songwriter for The Coup—the funkiest radical socialist band you’re likely to find—has managed to produce a wild and relevant satire of capitalism that might possibly find a mainstream audience.

And that’s not because he whitewashed his message.

Sorry to Bother You uses splashes of absurdity and surrealism to enliven the first act “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tale of a weary young man’s ascension through the ranks of telemarketing. It is a funny and pointed send-up of cubical hell that—unlike most office comedies—focuses quickly on a system that benefits very few while it exploits very many.

There is so much untidiness and depth to relationships, characterizations, comedy, horror, style, message and execution of this film that you could overlook Riley’s directorial approach. He expertly uses the havoc and excess, first lulling you into familiar territory before upending all expectations and taking you on one headtrip of an indictment of capitalism.

Led by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) and Tessa Thompson (star of Creed, Thor: Ragnarock and her own gleaming awesomeness), Sorry to Bother You finds an emotional center that sets the friction between community and individual on understandable ground.

Thompson offers bursts of energy that nicely offset Stanfield’s slower, more necessarily muddled performance as the “everyman” central character for a new generation.

And who better to embody everything a capitalist system convinces you is ideal than living Ken doll Armie Hammer? He is perfect—an actor who entirely comprehends his physical perfection and how loathsome it can be. He is a hoot.

Riley’s film could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.

Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight and number of comments.

Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. A tidy or in any way predictable conclusion would have been a far greater disaster, though. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about goddamn time?





The Long F*cking Goodbye

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

by Matt Weiner

For a character who’s supposed to have trouble holding down a steady job, Izzy is putting in some serious work: Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town is a road trip movie that never leaves its first city, a shaggy dog celebration of Los Angeles with characters who could rival those in any LA noir. But more than anything it’s a sharp inversion of the manic pixie dream girl and the role she inhabits.

Written and directed by Christian Papierniak, Izzy GTFAT is disjointed by design. Mackenzie Davis (Tully) holds everything together as Izzy, a once-promising musician who is now too strung out to keep a catering job, let alone the man of her dreams. When she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Roger (Alex Russell) is getting engaged, she sets off across Los Angeles to make it to the big party and win him back.

At each stop in her journey, Izzy gets help from a standout supporting cast. Lakeith Stanfield, Haley Joel Osment, Alia Shawkat and Annie Potts run the gamut from wistful and strange to funny and strange to… well, strange and strange. These vignettes have the feel of early Richard Linklater, so while the structure of Izzy’s Odyssean journey gets repetitive midway through, the actors keep it interesting.

Papierniak gets the film back on track with Izzy’s major confrontations: first a bittersweet reunion with her sister (Carrie Coon), which hints at a lifetime of backstory in just a few tender minutes. And then finally with what has been teased all along: Roger’s engagement party.

Without giving too much away, the confrontation and aftermath go in a remarkable direction, serving up an altar of clichés only to mercilessly destroy them—a sacrifice to Izzy’s rebirth. She has spent the entire film careening from one manic pixie trope to the next in her desperate attempt to be the catalyst in somebody else’s story. So it’s pure delight to watch the way in which Izzy takes control after spending her adult life in thrall to her own fantasies, failures and dreams deferred.

There could easily be a version of this movie from Roger’s perspective. And ten years ago, we would all be expected to care about what happens to that bearded thumb and be happy for him. It’s probably the reality Izzy would have been happy with at that point in her life, too.

But times change. People change. Slowly, unevenly. And maybe not in ways we always hoped, but hopefully still, in some small way, for the better.

 

 





Innocence Lost

Crown Heights

by George Wolf

An innocent man is convicted of murder and sent to prison. For decades, his appeals are ignored while family members refuse to give up hope. Tragically, Crown Heights tells a story we have seen before, and while the film’s commitment is never lacking, a true depth of feeling is never quite realized.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin adapts the true story of Colin Warner, who spent twenty years in a maximum security prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The victim of mistaken identity, a backlog of cases, overzealous prosecutors and the systemic inequality of criminal justice, Warner became little more than a voiceless statistic, where “no matter what I say, nobody gonna listen.”

Ruskin is able to convey the enormity of all that is stacked against Warner, aided greatly by two stellar performances. As Warner, Lakeith Stanfield (Straight Outta Compton, Get Out) uncovers the desperate confusion of innocence, while Nnamdi Asomugha (also one of the film’s producers) is the picture of quiet strength as the friend who sees Warner’s plight as universal and refuses to give up on him.

Warner’s story is another tragic example of a nearly unthinkable wrong, and Crown Heights does plenty right with it. But too often, the film misses the chance to make any intimate details resonate or to cut its own path, settling instead for a well-assembled summary of gut-wrenching events.