Tag Archives: Michael Kenneth Williams

The Grapes of Something Something

The Public

by George Wolf

Emilio Estevez just does not do nuance.

The Public marks his fifth feature as writer/director, and it sports the conviction of his best work while also suffering from his familliar lack of restraint.

Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a dedicated, stoic manager at the Cincinnati Public Library. While Stuart and his staff deal daily with an array of homeless citizens using the library, he finds himself a “good son” under fire when complaints about body odor lead to one vagrant’s eviction – and a lawsuit.

And then things get complicated.

Beyond the free computer use, the library also offers respite from the bitter winter cold, and when a deadly deep freeze grips Ohio, Stuart sits at the center of an armed standoff between the city and homeless folks needing shelter.

And it’s not just the homeless question The Public is addressing. From addiction and recovery to tabloid journalism, political cowardice and civic (ii.e. “the public”) responsibility, Estevez has plenty of heart available for numerous sleeves, getting admirable support from a solid ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Taylor Schilling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gabrielle Union and the ever-ageless Jena Malone.

Characters and subplots converge through dialog that’s too often desperate for authenticity, and a film that decries “intellectual vanity” seems overly proud of its own moments of clumsy enlightenment.

Case in point: a callous TV reporter (Union) is pumped at the social media traction she’s getting for her live reports from the library conflict. While her cameraman points out the plight of people at the heart of the story, she stays glued to her phone.

Point made, but Estevez can’t leave it there.

“Huh? What?” she answers, then a cut to the cameraman rolling his eyes. Second that.

Similarly, the stunt Estevez engineers for the big resolve gets a bystander explanation that is not only unnecessary, but factually dubious at best.

It’s just a culmination of the slow slide from good intentions to self-satisfied finger-wagging. The film has a respect for books and libraries that is indeed admirable, but by the time Goodson starts reading from Steinbeck on live TV, it becomes painfully evident what The Public wants to be when it grows up.

 

Tryin’ to Get Over

SuperFly

by Hope Madden

The 70s blaxploitation classic Super Fly was no masterpiece, but it was a provocative time capsule of flash, style and soulful soundtrack. Any attempt to recapture the spirit seems doomed to failure.

But Director X, with a decades-long career in flashy music videos showcasing the same kind of decadent lifestyle first glamorized by films like Super Fly, has the cred to take a good swing.

Plus, he throws in some Curtis Mayfield just when you missed him the most.

It’s clear X and screenwriter Alex Tse (Watchmen) are fans of Gordon Parks Jr.’s first and most important film. Tse is mostly, surprisingly faithful to the original. Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is a successful drug dealer who wants out while he still looks good, but The Man and an assortment of less-controlled colleagues complicate an already difficult process.

Less provocative than the original by a wide margin, X’s vision still takes some hard-earned enjoyment in scenes of comeuppance that are, unfortunately, as timely today as they were when Ron O’Neal outwitted corrupt New York detectives 46 years ago.

The update is marginally more respectful of women and boasts an impressive supporting cast including the always welcome Jason Mitchell, the always intimidating Michael Kenneth Williams, and a great turn by Esai Morales.

Oddly enough, that splashy support, which enlivens the film immeasurably, also helps to showcase its weakness—Jackson. There’s no conflicted soul inside that leather duster and skinny jeans, no tormented mind beneath that pompadour. Sure, O’Neal’s karate and cape now seem embarrassingly of-the-moment, but his performance evoked a restlessness and internal conflict that Jackson cannot manage.

A clever new image built on the skeleton of the groundbreaking ’72 film, SuperFly does not manage to provoke, intrigue or satisfy in the same way as the original. It does have style, though, and something relevant to say.

Mistakes by the Lake

The Land

by George Wolf

In case you’re not hip to the lingo, “The Land” is Cleveland, city of champions! Sure, that recent RNC downtown was a tire fire, but a basketball championship and a contending baseball team have brought some new found respect home to the North Coast.

Writer/director Steven Caple, Jr.’s gritty feature debut keeps the winning streak going.

Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) is a restless Cleveland teen, skipping school and skateboarding around the inner city streets with his crew Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron) and Boobie (Ezri Walker). Stealing cars for quick cash, the boys pop one trunk to uncover a large stash of MDMA capsules, and quickly enter a more lucrative business.

There’s never a doubt that the local drug pusher (a terrific Linda Emond) will come calling, and the familiar genre trappings that follow do hamper the film’s ambitions. That Caple is able to prop them up with other stellar elements says much about both his raw talent and future potential.

His eye for atmospheric detail is sharp, as Caple contrasts intimate settings of the boys’ tough homelife with more panoramic shots of familiar Cleveland landmarks, achieving a nicely subtle reinforcement of the desire to escape.

Impressive instincts for camerawork are here as well, especially during the skateboarding sequences, but Caple has enough restraint to never become overtly showy. The urgent, pulsating soundtrack is another plus.

Even better, and the main reason The Land rises above its lack of freshness, is Caple’s obvious rapport with his cast, and the effective characterizations that follow.

Lendeborg and Arias have the look of real keepers, but all four youngsters are able to convey a desperation that resonates. Kim Coates and Michael Kenneth Williams provide veteran support while Emond channels Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom, stealing every scene with polite menace. In a smaller role, Cleveland native Colson Baker (aka rapper “Machine Gun Kelly”) again shows a charisma that could bring more substantial film offers.

There’s nothing in The Land we haven’t seen before, yet there is a style and a vision here that’s welcome, more than enough to brand Caple as a filmmaker full of promise.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em and What Not

The Gambler

by George Wolf

“I tell the truth, that’s all I got.”

So says Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) in The Gambler, an intermittently tense thriller that doesn’t feel all that truthful.

Bennett is a college literature professor with a secret: he’s a high stakes gambler, and he’s deep in debt to the kind of people you shouldn’t be deep in debt to. Jim borrows from everyone and his mother (Jessica Lange) to get out, but his compulsion leads to a deeper and deeper hole.

If it all sounds familiar, then you remember the original 1974 version starring James Caan, a film that doesn’t exactly beg for a re-do. Still, if you’re going to do it, the writer/director team of William Monahan and Rupert Wyatt is a pretty good building block. The exciting, well-paced opening sets the hook for a more effective crime drama than the one that materializes.

Monahan wrote The Departed, and Wyatt helmed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which makes The Gambler‘s resulting missteps all the more surprising.

Though John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams make solid gangsters, you never believe Jim is in any real danger if he fails to pay up. Sure, they rough him up a bit, but Jim just keeps on cracking wise like he’s in Lethal Weapon 6 and someone who’s too old for this shit is coming with the cavalry.

Even worse, when Jim gets involved in a point-shaving scheme, the resulting basketball footage makes you wonder if Wyatt has ever watched even five minutes of an actual college game.

Still, there are stretches that suggest The Gambler could have been more of a contender. Wahlberg is always better with a confident director, and he realizes Jim’s self-loathing without letting it become a caricature. Brie Larson is equally fine in an under-developed role as a student who has seen Jim’s dark side.

There are characters here that are ripe for exploring, amid the stylish depiction of a seedy underbelly worthy of illumination. It’s been done well before, but doing it well again requires hedging your bets with a few risky moves, and The Gambler is just too quick to fold ’em.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars