Coffee & Kareem

Release: Friday, April 3, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Shane Mack

Directed by: Michael Dowse

I really like Ed Helms. He is an actor I apparently will follow even into the seedier, more desperate corners of Netflix. I don’t know much about director Michael Dowse, other than the fact his résumé is populated with such silly titles as It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), Goon (2011) and Stuber (2019). Now there’s Coffee & Kareem, a ridiculous, over-acted (and, at times, ridiculously over-acted) crime comedy set in Detroit where the only things being enforced are stereotypes about white cops and black citizens.

Objectively speaking, this movie is uh, it’s . . . well, not . . . uh, not very good. Did I laugh, sure. I suppose the more accurate word would be giggled, like fans of Anchorman do the first six times they listen to Steve Carell utter random nonsense. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel kinda bad about it later. Coffee & Kareem is a really crass movie that annoyingly uses racism for the basis of most of its comedy. The crime is that this Netflix “original” casts the likable Helms as James Coffee, a feckless cop who gets swept up in an increasingly violent and ludicrous conspiracy plot involving dirty cops and inept criminals.

The cards are stacked against Coffee from the moment he appears on screen rocking a “molester ‘stache.” He’s the laughingstock of the precinct and Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin) has it out for him. He gets demoted after allowing a criminal to escape his squad car, which, yeah that’s justified. What isn’t justified is the violent plot being fomented against him by his girlfriend Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson)’s bratty teenage son Kareem (introducing Terrence Little Gardenhigh), who already harbors a disdain toward white cops. But this is personal, so he seeks help from a thug to scare away Coffee once and for all. Actually, he wants him crippled from the waist down. He’s a charming kid, one who makes the foul-mouthed child actor from Role Models look like an angel.

In step one of like, a thousand in this grand plan to show his commitment to getting to know the family Coffee reluctantly gives sweet little Kareem a ride to his friend’s in a bad part of town, but really he’s inadvertently expediting his own wheelchair-bound fate. Kareem then witnesses the murder of a cop and soon the two find themselves scrambling to escape a trio of thugs (RonReaco Lee; Andrew Bachelor; William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) and then things go really pear-shaped when Vanessa becomes involved. Hell hath no fury like a mother tased by her own child, and later assaulted by the same thugs after her son.

If cliches were a crime, screenwriter Shane Mack would be doing hard time. If predictability were its only offense, Coffee & Kareem might have gotten away with just a slap on the wrist. I get it; madcap is supposed to be high-energy and kind of crazy, but this particular story just falls apart the further it progresses. The wannabe-gangster kid becomes an irritant while the adult actors flounder. Helms is given few scenes in which he can shine, and Henson even fewer (though she does get one of the film’s highlight scenes in a motel room when she gets to open a can of whoop-ass on her assailants). Meanwhile, Gilpin has to be a better actor than what I’ve witnessed here.

With sloppy attempts at social commentary, ridiculous caricatures and often shockingly violent exchanges Coffee & Kareem is, in the vernacular of kids these days, a bit extra.

Don’t roo-doo-doo-doo-doo it, Andy!

Recommendation: Contrived odd couple comedy shoots for the heart but ends up hitting you right in the crotch instead. Fans of Ed Helms could leave disappointed with what he’s able to contribute. And I think I need to see another movie with some of these other actors (specifically Gilpin and Gardenhigh) in them before I make a decision on them. But on this evidence alone, yikes . . .

Rated: R (for ridiculous)

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You f–k my mom, I’m gonna f–k your life.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.
“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.collider.com

Get Out

get-out-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Fences

fences-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

ten-dolla

4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Free State of Jones

free-state-of-jones-movie-poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Green Room

'Green Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Jeremy Saulnier continues to polish the edges on his unique brand of filmmaking in 2016. Green Room is electrifying. It’s intense. It’s bloody. It’s raw. It’s wrong. But man, is it watchable. And I’m liking the theme here: last time it was Blue Ruin . . . now it’s Green Room. What’s next, Red Rum? No, but seriously. So far all of his movies have involved or in some way been built around murders, and murders that go horribly awry.

His sophomore effort, the mysterious crime drama Blue Ruin, afforded the young up-and-comer a much larger and more intrigued audience following his 2007 crash landing with Murder Party. So it wasn’t really any secret to those whose allegiances had already been established that his next offering would be bloody as well. All the same, his third feature is still likely to catch everyone off-guard as it offers a wicked(ly original) premise, and a performance from Patrick Stewart so cold Saulnier’s begging to be trashed by every filmgoer expecting Professor X’s world-weary wisdom to offer our mortally endangered musicians some hope.

Then again, Saulnier’s just as likely to be venerated by anyone looking for the next great genre film, as Green Room seduces with one gut-wrenching twist after another, offering a thrill ride that’s difficult not to watch, even despite the cruelty and the gore. Down-on-their-luck punk band The Ain’t Rights are on the last leg of a failing tour that very well could spell the end of the band after the latest stint at a decrepit restaurant half-heartedly thanks them with a measly sum of chump change. It’s gotten to the point where they’re having to siphon gas from random cars they find just so they can make it from venue to venue, and they’ve been subsisting on a steady diet of rice and beans. Rice and beans and fucking attitude, man.

In a small Portland suburb, a mohawk-wearing rocker named Tad (David W. Thompson) hooks them up with a gig at a third-rate club in the backwoods of god-knows-where Oregon, a snake pit filled with neo-Nazis, leather-clad hooligans and possible future victims of dominatrixes, all expecting the next sonic boom of bad music to throw them right back into their nightly frenzy. Even though they tout themselves as an angry clash of misfits, this lion’s den ain’t right for The Ain’t Rights, but they do need the money. So they play a set and while they almost get booed off the stage they make it through without actually being mobbed, so that’s a good thing.

An already uncomfortable situation turns nightmarish when they — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) — are preparing to leave only to stumble upon the aftermath of a murder backstage. What ensues is a series of increasingly dire cover-ups, all orchestrated by the ruthless skinhead Darcy (Stewart), the proprietor of this hateful little establishment. He has one goal: to pin the death of a random groupie named Emily on the visiting band so he and his fellow Nazi sympathizers can carry on as they were. So he traps them in the back with Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) and Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of Emily. If they have any hope of surviving, it lies in the band’s ability to outwit the horde of haters.

Green Room, complete with an inspired cast, a script provocatively grounded in reality, and a deeply cerebral soundtrack that evokes mood á la Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive, functions best as a slash-’em-up horror. Many of the deaths are played up for shock value — getting eaten alive by dogs works wonders in that regard. But this is every bit as compelling as a psychological mystery thriller given the perpetual shift in perspective as cameras rove in and out of the darkened facility, keeping track of both parties as one struggles to keep things under wraps and the other desperate to survive. It’s kinda obvious who we should be rooting for, but there’s also something darkly compelling about Darcy’s intelligence.

Saulnier keeps the suspense just this side of bearable as he powers toward a brutal final confrontation that somehow manages to match the intensity of everything that has preceded it. Implementing sparse dialogue, haunting and often claustrophobic shots of the surrounding wilderness, and, absent the trumpets of another bombastic score designed to signal that the movie is almost over, the standoff might be the very reason to see Green Room. But given everything that Patrick Stewart brings to the table, and the story’s grounded, simplistic composition, there are many elements supporting the theory that it won’t be long before Saulnier becomes a household name. He is a gifted filmmaker and the power that Green Room projects is proof of that.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 7.27.52 PM

Recommendation: Bold, bloody, brutal. Jeremy Saulnier steps up the violence in this delightfully trashy backwoods horror-thriller hybrid that makes his previous effort look like a pleasant bedtime story. Fans of Patrick Stewart, be prepared for a wild ride. While others, fans of Saulnier perhaps, buckle in for the ride you’re expecting. He’s done it again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t die here with you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Paul G — #3

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was being a real bastard to the beloved, but troubled Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson in the wonderful music biopic Love & Mercy. The character was another great demonstration of how unlikable the actor can become on screen, putting such distance (hopefully) between his on and off-screen persona with a suitably slimy and obsessive round-the-clock psychotherapist whose smothering practices eventually become the crux of the entire picture. Today we explore a character that might be even less likable and less redeemable, a nasty slave trader who plays a huge role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

Paul Giamatti as Freeman

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Plot Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Character Profile: Despite the character’s name being a bit overkill (do we really need the irony of a slave trader being named ‘Freeman?’) he nonetheless plays a crucial role both in shaping the very uncertain future of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup and his cold, businessman-like personality in trafficking people around epitomizes the very institutionalization of prejudiced thinking. A blue collar worker likely perceived by his peers as a decent, upstanding man, Freeman’s job is to determine where the slaves are to be sent when they arrive at Port New Orleans. Despite Solomon’s protests of being a free man who’s been abducted, Freeman slaps an entirely new identity on him, that of Platt, a Georgia runaway. It is Freeman’s gruff hand that steers Solomon/Platt in the direction of slave owner William Ford, by comparison a saint of a plantation owner compared to the one he is sent away to later, the vile Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave demonstrates a number of terrible wrongdoings but it is Freeman’s intervention in New Orleans that has one of the biggest impacts on his harrowing journey.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti shoulders the weight of playing a despicable racist, a character who is by definition of their job a terrible person, with aplomb. I doubt any of the roles in 12 Years a Slave were easy to play but Giamatti’s slave trader is so vile he comes only second or third fiddle to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. That’s company you don’t really want to keep, but if you’re a solid character actor who thrives on the challenge of embracing difficult-if-not-impossible-to-like individuals, you do accept the challenge and become one of the most memorable notes in a symphony of powerhouse performances.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Race

'Race' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joe Shrapnel; Anna Waterhouse

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

No sports film is strictly a celebration of athleticism. Tethered to that name or group of names is the burden of understanding, not of themselves — the athlete knows specifically what he or she is — but rather that their actions represent a broader community even beyond family. Some names simply become associated with significant social, cultural or political shifts because of who, what and when they are. Timing certainly factors into the story of Jesse Owens.

It took 40 years before the White House officially recognized Owens’ accomplishments, before President Gerald Ford in 1976 bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and another 14 years (and several more presidents) before he earned the Congressional Gold Medal. Just as his accomplishments took far too long to become engrained into American culture, the wait for the definitive movie about the man is going to last a little longer.

The bluntly-titled Race is a film that dutifully serves as a highlight reel of an extraordinary figure, but its movements are a far cry from the elegance and power of this sprinter/long-jumper. As a dramatic reenactment of two key moments on the track — Owens’ record-setting performance at the Big Ten meet during which he broke three world records and tied a fourth and his four-time gold medal appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the film is a decent watch. Even though these insights come so infrequently as to threaten the film’s status as a sports film, at least the action looks good.

Race is thoroughly burdened by the weight of its champion on its back. Unfortunately it couldn’t even make that aspect entirely captivating either. Stephan James is nice enough as the mild-mannered and gifted young track star but this is a forgettable performance. Quiet power is actually a thing, but that’s not what we get with the 22-year-old Canadian actor, whose stoicism often teeters on the edge of being boring. Who knows though; if meeting the icon in real life were still possible perhaps the moment would be surprisingly innocuous. But boring?

The film opens as a baby-faced Owens is preparing to leave behind the grayish-blue of his Cleveland community, the first in his family to board the bus to college. The scene is as expected: mother hurries through a few last-minute words of wisdom while father, who has been out of work for some time, sits silent. The burden’s on us to interpret what he’s feeling. The departure happens with little fanfare. So far, so good. Race is clearly born out of a deep respect for the athlete’s humble beginnings. It’s unfortunately once he steps foot on Ohio State campus where the film starts stumbling over its feet uncontrollably.

Owens finds himself immediately embroiled in the racial tensions of the day, a major state university seemingly serving as the epicenter for hatred. (“But just you wait,” the film seems to caution us. “Wait until you get to Germany . . .”) Not even the locker room is safe. It’s not long before he’s summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and the ensuing Obligatory Scene In A Coach’s Office deals with business as matter-of-factly as possible: “Your life is now mine. I don’t care about the girl you have back home, you have to prove to me how serious you are about winning. Blah, blah, blah.”

Sudeikis’ first lines are a literal check list of sports coaching clichés. Like a timid Owens we kind of just sit there, accepting them as they’re forced upon us. Sudeikis, typically a source of hilarity, takes on a seriousness that’s hard to take seriously. Lines that are meant to resonate prophetically, such as his dreaming of becoming an Olympic-bound coach once more, fall surprisingly flat. As it turns out, his hard-ass demeanor is just a front for a much more amenable, softer personality, one that’s even easier to access than the end of the 100 meter dash.

Less difficult to believe is Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee. Irons exudes the kind of intensity suited to a role of this magnitude, as a man who finds himself in an uncomfortable position negotiating with Hitler’s close associate and Olympic overseer Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), telling him America is prepared to withdraw their competitors given the ongoing persecution of the Jews and the German government’s exclusive list of who they want competing in the Games. Brundage may have to sell his soul if he is to get what he wants out of these talks.

Irons may stand out as the only Olympic Committee member worth talking about — heck, one of the only characters in the film worth talking about — but not even he is immune to awkwardness in a story that’s written with such a sense of conformity. Race is a passionless affair, so obliging to the typical structure it’s hard to reconcile the unique brilliance of Owens the racer with Owens the cinematically bland inspiration.

At least the moral conundrum is presented clearly. In that way, it’s even more frustrating that it’s the less tangible stuff that the film actually juggles better than anything. There are a few scenes where hostility is truly palpable and the way the political climate is taken into consideration is well-handled. The Americans believed withdrawing would show solidarity with the oppressed while participating would carry with it the burden of winning, for the alternative would mean allowing the Nazis to keep thinking their Aryan competitors — their RACE — are superior. In big open rooms surrounded by his stuffy-looking peers Irons commands attention. And he must, because this is by design.

As is everything else here, including our desire to connect with Owens on a personal level. Nothing is executed with emotion, it’s all mechanical. Hagiographic may be one word to describe Stephen Hopkins’ big screen treatment of an American icon, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, but definitive it definitely is not. It’s more of a burden to have to watch it.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 11.18.05 PM

Recommendation: Utterly mechanical, obligatory, routine, predictable and any other adjective you might necessarily associate with a sports film, Race falls well short of the potential it had to tell the definitive story about Jesse Owens not just as a competitor but as a member of Ohio State’s elite team and as a citizen of the United States. Only those with almost no knowledge of Owens at all might stand to benefit from this thoroughly uninspired telling. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins. 

Quoted: “You can run. And boy, can you jump. What I want to know is — can you win?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Marc Silver

Directed by: Marc Silver


This review marks my first contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings, which I am happy to announce will be an ongoing process where I will publish a review or two each month. I’d like to thank James for this opportunity and for introducing me to this film.


3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a quietly devastating, award-winning documentary that tells a story no other genre nor filming style could. It follows the trial of Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old software developer who was involved in an altercation with a group of black Jacksonville, Florida teens in which he fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The November 23, 2012 slaying only added fuel to the public outcry fire as it marked the second high-profile case (the February shooting of Miami teen Trayvon Martin being the first) in which self-defense and bigotry created confused situations that both ended in tragedy.

In the case of Davis, he and three friends were listening to rap at a fairly loud volume in the parking lot of a Gates gas station when Dunn approached and asked them to turn it down. The situation soon escalated as Dunn claimed that Davis began threatening his life and that he saw what appeared to be a barrel of a rifle or a large gun pointing out of one of their SUV’s windows. Dunn grabbed his pistol and fired ten shots at the red Dodge Durango, fearing for his fiancée’s life (she was in the convenience store and could have walked out at any moment). The boys left the gas station and quickly noticed Davis had in fact been hit three times.

The film does not include any footage of the confrontation, but the scene is painted vividly thanks to the testimony of key witnesses as well as the defendant himself. Marc Silver brilliantly assembles footage of the ensuing and rather protracted court case that implicated Dunn in first-degree murder, with three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing into a vehicle tacked on for good measure. These four counts alone carry a sentence of 75 years (20 per attempted murder charge and 15 for firing into a vehicle). With a camera fixated on the witness stand, Silver uses these moments to color in the lines while he sketches out the shape with interviews with Davis’ parents as well as Jordan’s friends Tommie, Leland and Tevin.

It’s an emotional scene, which might be too obvious of a statement to make, but then not mentioning it would largely ignore the art of this particular craft. The omnipresence of the camera perpetuates this feeling of privileged access — even though we have read these headlines and may have even seen it on the news (I haven’t, sorry to say, as these situations are becoming far too common and can often get lost in the media), we feel like we’re on the ground-floor of this process. Perhaps what 3 1/2 Minutes does even better than establishing the passage of time — shots of field reporters seconds before they go live to report on the case reveal fidgety people consumed by thought; court officers shuffling feet from having standing in one place for a lengthy period of time — is relaying the emotional and even physical toll these legal proceedings must take on those involved.

Once again I might be stating the obvious, but Ron and Lucia Davis appear visibly worn out from the opening shots, well before the trial gets under way. The documentary is very much of the moment, conscious of the urgency with which this family needs to find closure in this unimaginable situation. While the first trial doesn’t quite provide the ruling the Davis’ seek — that particular jury could not reach a verdict on the count of first-degree murder, though they found Dunn guilty on all others — they try again (in September) to find justice for Jordan. Meanwhile, a scene outside the court finds protestors gathering, pleading that the right decision be made. Indeed, an atmosphere of despair and sorrow hangs heavy over proceedings. If you have a pulse you will find certain revelations difficult to listen to, much less accept as fact.

And though some parts of the film wade around in a fair amount of legalese and Silver dedicates at least half of his time within a court house where not much transpires other than cross-examinations, 3 1/2 Minutes often engages the adrenaline system. Given that we are only now two or three years removed from these incidents, there’s a great tension in watching the drama unfold. Was Dunn a racist man? His fiancée’s testimony is quite telling. Did Davis provoke him? Was there actually a weapon in their vehicle? What can the state of Florida do to un-muddy the waters when it comes to describing ‘stand-your-ground’ as it relates to self-defense laws?

Wisely Silver allows the outside world to weigh in on the sociopolitical commentary: a variety of news sources, public officials and radio show hosts (and their guests) are interspersed throughout in measured soundbites that give significance and context to the potential verdict. Most voices are those of dissent, almost unanimously damning Dunn’s actions. What happens if he is found guilty? Or, what happens if he’s not?  If he gets acquitted has the legal system yet again failed those who looked to it for some modicum of peace and resolution?

If nothing else, the documentary is a barometer of the racial tensions that continue defining one of humanity’s great flaws. The senselessness of each violent act that ends up having tragic consequences is painful to recognize, but this is where we still are, apparently. We’ve certainly had this conversation before in dramatic, fictional cinema but the pairing of trial footage with interviews concerning those closest to the victim lend a perspective that is simultaneously heartbreaking and powerful. The whole package amounts to essential viewing that will remain so years down the road.

Recommendation: Packed with emotion and fascinating, revealing glimpses into a painful and costly legal proceeding, Marc Silver’s work here must be seen by as many people as possible. In an era where the public has unprecedented access to information, 3 1/2 Minutes really ought to factor prominently in any conversation about race-related violence going forward. I can’t rate this one highly enough. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 85 mins.

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