Movie Review ~ Clemency


The Facts
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Synopsis: Years of carrying out death row executions are taking a toll on Warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares for another one, Williams must confront the psychological and emotional demons that her job creates.

Stars: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, LaMonica Garrett. Michael O’Neill

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When the Oscar nominations were announced there were a few titles and names I was hoping, but not necessarily expecting, to see.  Sure, I was crossing my fingers that Taron Egerton’s solid singing and dancing dramatic performance in the Elton John biopic Rocketman would sneak in and my heart was with previous acting Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen landing a songwriting nom for her lovely tune from the underseen Wild Rose, not to mention holding out a sliver of hope the Academy would see past the genre lines and give Lupita Nyong’o a nod for the dynamite work she did in the horror feature Us.  Yet there was one name I really wanted to see in the mix and even though it was a longshot I half-believed a surprise Best Actress nomination for Alfre Woodard in Clemency would turn up.  You can head over to my Oscar 2020 nominations page to see who landed a nomination instead of Woodard.

It’s a shame Woodard was left out of the big night for her career high work in Clemency, a small but mighty picture from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu that premiered around this time last year at the Sundance Film festival where Chukwu became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  Ever since it debuted, the buzz around Woodard’s turn as the warden of a maximum-security prison in charge of death row inmates was strong and that low hum continued throughout the rest of the year.  Here was an actress (a previous Oscar nominee in 1983 for Cross Creek, starring Steenburgen of all people!) that had worked steadily in Hollywood for the last four decades and built up a strong resume, appearing in projects with top directors and stars that was finally getting a lead role.  Certinaly, this was a role to be celebrated and rewarded.  Still, how did the movie match up to her performance?

The opening moments of Clemency are as gripping as they come.  Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard, Annabelle) and her small team of death row guards are accompanying a condemned inmate through the final steps of his execution and the audience is taken through the agonizing procedure with them.  What seems to be an unfortunately routine process doesn’t go as planned and it has a devastating effect on all involved, spurring a sort of awakening in Bernadine to reflect on her position and the emotional toll carrying out death sentences has taken.  Though she claims to her colleague (Richard Gunn, Dark Places) to just be doing her job, it’s evident from her increased reliance on alcohol and a disconnect with her husband (Wendell Pierce, Bad Moms) that a measure of uncertainty and roiling guilt is running just below her calm surface.

It’s with the delivery of an execution date for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, What Men Want), a prisoner maintaining his innocence, that the cracks in Bernadine’s surface start to show.  Her marriage suffers, her once friendly relationship with a anti-death penalty lawyer (Richard Schiff, Man of Steel) is strained, and her own beliefs on what really is the correct punishment that fits the crime unavoidably start to enter into her life, blurring the once solid lines between the personal and professional.  It’s not all Bernadine’s story, though, with a good chunk of time in the middle devoted to Anthony and his attempts to be granted a reprieve from the governor for a crime he says he didn’t commit and a late in the game encounter with his ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks, Orange is the New Black) and mother of his young child.  This conversation between two people so close together physically and emotionally but so far apart divided by the glass of a prison visiting room starts one way and veers into a surprising direction.  Hodge and especially Brooks play it fantastically and for maximum effect without resorting to overly dramatizing what is already a emotionally heightened scene.

The film belongs to Woodard though and when some people say an Oscar is often won by one particular scene you could point to a long unbroken take on Woodard’s face where the actress takes you on a remarkable journey.  Everything you see informs you about what this character is feeling, thinking, harboring, and deciding and Chukwu hangs on it just long enough for you to realize you’ve been leaning far forward in your seat, holding your breath.  Much like Margot Robbie’s mirror scene in I, Tonya where she practices her “game face”, battling back her fears and aggression, Woodard does the complete opposite and lets her guard down. The results are chilling and that one scene alone should have bumped out at least one of the talented women that received a nomination over her.

Acquired by Neon distribution, Clemency was added to its already busy slate of 2019 films and I think Woodard’s nomination hopes suffered because of it.  Neon also distributed Parasite and the small but growing company likely could only put their efforts behind one film and obviously Cannes Best Picture Winner Parasite was it.  Note that in addition to Parasite, in 2019 Neon released the Oscar nominated Honeyland as well as the aforementioned Wild Rose and other well-regarded titles like The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Biggest Little Farm, Amazing Grace, and Monos.  So you can understand why they may have spread themselves a little thin.  While Woodard should have received an Oscar nomination, I’m glad she was recognized by the Independent Spirit Awards.  Who knows?  Maybe she’ll pick up  a win there!

I saw Clemency in the morning before heading to the theater to see Just Mercy and it was interesting to see both movies back to back as they are dealing largely with the same social justice issues, just from different sides of the prison wall.  I found strength in both perspectives and might give the edge to Clemency only because it isn’t wrapping its tale in any crusade after the fact.  Both are clearly anti-death penalty and if I’m being honest I found myself challenging my own feelings about these sentences when presented with the numbers and facts of just how many people have been exonerated by evidence while on death row…and thinking of all those that didn’t get that chance.  I haven’t been exposed to it as much as the fictional characters in Clemency or the real live ones in Just Mercy so my eyes aren’t open as wide, but they are open.

Movie Review ~ The Lion King (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Stars: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There seem to be two camps of Disney animation aficionados. The first feel the studio hit its apex of its second golden age of hand-drawn animation in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast and the other side believe the tipping point was 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Both are a little right because each represent new advances not just in animation but in storytelling and musicality. Fans of the The Lion King are many and while I don’t count myself as one of the ride-or-die devotees of this Hamlet in the Serengeti tale I do appreciate it’s mature themes and humanistic approach to life and loss.

Even though I don’t find the film to be as precious as others, I was considerably surprised Disney would take the risk of adding this beloved classic to their growing roster of revisited films for a new generation.  It was easy to get Cinderella to go to the ball, Aladdin to find his magic lamp, and Pete’s Dragon was downright delightful…though it was considerably harder to convince audiences to see Dumbo take flight. Even so, how would they capture life in the African veldt in a somewhat realistic way? Going off of the success of the photorealistic computer generated animals created for 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney handed the reins to back to director Jon Favreau and asked him to fully immerse himself in the technology to bring The Lion King to life.

Frankly, while the film is gorgeous to look at and makes the transition to screen far better than any other 2019 release has, it’s ultimately a bit of a pointless endeavor due to it being a nearly shot for shot remake of the animated original with very little creativity added in. At times, the film is frustratingly stuck in 1994, completely ignoring all of the new music added into the subsequent 1997 behemoth Broadway musical and many of its wise decisions in narrative structure. Once I resigned myself to it being so furiously beholden to the original film, I was able to settle in and admittedly got swept up in some of the grand scale of majesty, both visual and emotional, on display.

I have a feeling there will be a lot of audience members coming out of this 2019 retelling of The Lion King looking for someone to blame for the film not living up to their expectations so I’m going to run down the list of blame-ees to see if we can’t land on a culprit.

Blame Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home). This one’s easy. Blame the director who brought only a concept to the table. Yes, the technology for The Jungle Book was a massive undertaking and the results quite splendid but the same magic doesn’t translate here. Going for realism over fantasy limits the film with rules in ways the animated one didn’t have to abide by. There’s little ingenuity to how the movie is constructed, with much of it, including the still goose-bump inducing ‘Circle of Life’ opening (sung by long time London Rafiki Brown Lindiwe Mkhize), just a complete copy of the first film.  I’m familiar enough with that opening sequence to recognize similar focus pulls and camera zooms so I’d love to see the two sequences side by side to see how close they are to each other. I’m a bit taken aback at how frightening Favreau let this one get. Animals that were slightly menacing as animated cells are positively terrifying when realistically rendered – parents should take note of the trio of teeth gnashing hyenas that are decidedly not played for laughs. There’s an attack/chase scene in this that rivaled Crawl for it’s tension and element of surprise.

Blame Julie Taymor. Poor Taymor has long been a scapegoat in the industry so why not throw her to the aforementioned hyenas here as well, right? I guess you could say she “ruined” The Lion King for multiple generations by creating such an unforgettable Broadway musical out of the original material. With brilliant costumes, soaring additional music, and a genius creativity flowing through each and every nook and cranny it set a new standard for what was possible in translating a film to stage.   Actually, she did what I feel the studio should have done here and that is to take the original film, retain the best parts about it and make something equally amazing out of it that lets both exist independently of the other. That doesn’t happen here. I can’t imagine people will be more inclined to watch this 2019 version over the 1994 original and then only if they couldn’t get tickets to the Broadway show.

Blame the cast. While it was nice to hear James Earl Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) back as Mufasa and Billy Eichner is dang delight as Timon, much of the casting falls flat. What’s worse, several of the actors just plain and simple can’t sing. As perfect a villain voice as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes) provides as Scar, his speak-singing his way through a stupefyingingly truncated ‘Be Prepared’ and unsure high notes are a real bummer. As Pumbaa, Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) is the worst offender and while the part doesn’t require a good voice it at least requires someone to stay on pitch. Donald Glover (The Martian) is also a bit of a dud as the adult Simba showing little fire while Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala (Dreamgirls) doesn’t exactly sound like she’s part of a regal pride of lionesses.  Everyone sounds like they’ve just been woken up from a nap, the lions were definitely sleeping tonight before recording their lines.

Blame the Disney executives. Here is where I think we have our winner, the big baddie of them all. Though this can’t be called a live-action remake seeing that the entire film is computer-generated, it represents another attempt by Disney to again cannibalize their catalog. For what purpose? The argument I’ve heard is that “every generation deserves their version of these stories” but that’s just…stupid. By signing off on giving The Lion King a CGI upgrade but not bothering to incorporate any of the new music (aside from Beyonce’s incredibly mediocre Oscar-bait single which has no place in the film) or making inventive creative choices they’ve not provided a purpose for the movie to exist other than lining their purses.  At its best, this new Lion King takes flight because of the durability of the source material and at it’s worst it’s merely a product crafted mindlessly for consumption with a pretty awful Elton John sung tacked into the credits for good measure.

Yet I’m still encouraging people to see this film and will likely see it again myself in theaters.  It’s absolutely better than the dull Dumbo and wooden Aladdin and operates on a different scale of filmmaking.  When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the movie is incredible to look at and what works the best is what has made The Lion King a classic since it was first released 25 years ago. The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are melodic and will stick in your head, Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing, and the storyline of parental loss and finding strength within is as resonant as ever. I’ve listened to the soundtrack now a few times since seeing the movie and still get chills when the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ fully kick in. No improvement on the original was needed to reinforce those feelings, though.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annabelle

annabelle

The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola

Director: John Leonetti

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s just something so unsettling about dolls, isn’t there?  I’m not talking about Malibu Barbie or He-Man but those frilly dolls with big eyes and faces stuck in permanent, and often pained, smiles.  Creepy dolls have been the subject for many a nightmare in movies, most memorably in films like Magic (a ventriloquist dummy plays a devious role in murder) and Child’s Play (the spirit of a serial killer takes the form of a benign doll) but everyone seems to have some film they can point to where something meant for snuggling winds up being deadly.

In 2013 The Conjuring made a big impact with critics and audiences (not to mention at the box office) thanks to director James Wan’s clever turning of the screws as he told the tale of a family haunted by an ominous spirit in the early 70s.  The family was aided by two paranormal investigators, The Warrens, introduced at the beginning of the film handling the Annabelle case.  Supposedly causing mayhem for two pretty nurses, The Warrens wind up keeping the doll (Annabelle) in their Occult Museum where they can keep an eye on her.  Though she figures into some events later in the movie, Annabelle isn’t really the focus of the film.

With the box office so big, the sequel ideas started flowing and the filmmakers wisely let their minds drift not just to continuing to follow The Warrens (a sequel is expected in 2015) but creating a spin-off centered on the origins of Annabelle. So that’s why we find ourselves a little over a year later with this sequel which maintains the same fine production values of The Conjuring while delivering some fine frights but which unravels just when it should all be coming together.

It’s the time of the Manson Family in California when we meet young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, Snow White and the Huntsman), and John (Ward Horton, The Wolf of Wall Street) who are the picture of blissful perfection in their sleepy suburban bungalow.  She’s quite pregnant and content to spend her days watching soaps and sewing while he finishes up his residency as a doctor.  Mia (the first of many nods to Rosemary’s Baby) also collects dolls and after a minor squabble John’s mea culpa present to her is a familiar looking doll.

Unfortunately, the first big scare sequence in the film was largely given over in its entirety in the preview yet I still found myself squirming with a sense of dread.  Long story short, after a terrifying nighttime encounter in which the doll plays a factor things start to get pretty scary for John and Mia, prompting their move to a high rise apartment building where they have more square footage to get freaked out in.  It isn’t long before more strange occurrences happen leading to the true terror manifesting itself at the most inopportune of times.

All this is well and good and it gave me the appropriate dose of the willies but the movie starts to collapse in on itself at a rapid pace becoming highly disappointing in the process.  John Leonetti, the cinematographer of The Conjuring steps into the director chair here but doesn’t have Wan’s good instincts in knowing how to bring all of the elements together.  We can only have so many shots of the camera slowly pushing in on the doll’s face (which gets dirtier and more menacing with each passing event) or following Wallis as she slowly walks down a hall or sloooooowly reaches out to move a curtain aside to see what’s behind it.  The key word here is slow.  There’s a lot of repetition going on in the film and in the end Annabelle is merely a series of the same set-up repeated on a loop.

Wallis, for her part, has a nicely ethereal quality to her that helps her build to the frenzy she works herself into as we approach the finale.  She and the handsome Horton make for a nice couple and the acting is above par considering this was a prequel rushed into production.  I’ve always liked Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) and though she may be slumming it here the actress never gives off the air that she’s an Oscar nominee in a barely realized supporting role.

So it’s not everything The Conjuring was…but it’s a lot better than the majority of the sequel trash we’re subjected to year after year.  Yes, it’s bloodier and less fully realized than the film that preceded it but it’s clear that some effort went into it and it’s far more effective than it probably should be considering how formulaic it all is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Annabelle

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Synopsis: A spinoff of The Conjuring that follows the origins of the demonic doll featured in the 2013 film.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: It was around this time last summer when The Conjuring opened in theaters, scaring the pants off of audiences (this reviewer included) and increasing the sales of nightlights everywhere. Not to be confused with the late summer horror film Jessabelle, Annabelle is a spinoff focusing on the creepy doll featured in the prologue of The Conjuring that factored into the final act of the scare-fest. Little is known about the plot of the picture, but I’m not sure how much of it was taken from the actual case files surrounding the real life horrors brought on by the titular doll. Rather long to be a true teaser and possibly giving away some of its spooks in advance, I’m still on board to see what evils this doll gets up to when she was younger.

Movie Review ~ 12 Years a Slave

twelve_years_a_slave

The Facts:

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

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: How do you say that you loved a movie that’s about the horrors of slavery and not sound like a backwards monster?  That’s the question I’ve been pondering weeks after seeing the truly remarkable 12 Years a Slave and perhaps why it’s taken me a little longer to move forward with a review of the movie.  No doubt about it, this is one of the finest films of 2013 and its handsome production design, score, cinematography, and almost flawless pacing make it a triumph on a technical level too.  Still…the subject is so horrifying that it’s thrown me for a loop how to praise it respectfully.

An adaptation of the 1853 novel by Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle Northrup’s abduction from Washington D.C. in 1841 and how he winds up in slavery on several southern plantations.  Though he was born a free man in New York City, Northrup’s rights are discredited and he endures over a decade of life as a slave.  How Northrup survives to write his tale shows a fortitude of the human soul that’s at the heart of this powerful work from director Steve McQueen (no, not that one…the one that directed Shame and Hunger).

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name you’ll want to familiarize yourself with because you’ll be hearing it at the top of the awards buzz as the end of the year draws near.  A familiar actor with a diverse background of roles, Ejiofor takes the reins of the film ably and leads a starry cast of A-List actors…but make no mistake, this is Ejiofor’s movie all the way.  With a wise earthiness that gives humanity to his oppressed character, Ejiofor delivers a performance of dignity and thoughtfulness that makes the movie even more electric.

Ejiofor is just but one of a long list of impressive performances in 12 Years a Slave…so impressive that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Ejiofor not being the only winner come Oscar night.  Making a powerhouse film debut is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, a slave Solomon meets when he comes to live on the plantation run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).  Nyong’o’s role is ever so tricky and she’ll knock your socks off the way she handles several of the cruelest scenes the film has to offer.  Fassbender too is monumentally effective as the evil owner that delights in working his slaves throughout the day and whipping them when they don’t meet his criteria of daily success.  This is McQueen’s third collaboration with Fassbender and while Fassbender’s work in Shame and Hunger were strong, they pale in comparison to how he navigates into the truly unforgivable places Epps has to venture.

Among the other impressive actors are Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the first plantation owner Solomon encounters and the one that does the best he can for him even as he struggles with his morality, Adepero Oduye is heartbreaking in her brief turn as a slave separated from her children, and Alfre Woodard is positively dynamite in her cameo.  The only actor striking an off note here is the biggest star of all…producer Brad Pitt (World War Z) who shows up late in the film in the kind of role that probably should have gone to someone else when you consider how it factors into the overall scope of Solomon’s tale.

Yet the reason why the film hits you at such a deep level is the way that McQueen never lets anyone (good or bad) come off as merely “acting”…the characters all feel like real people because they are played with a commitment that was essential.  As evil as the most wicked person is in the film (that’d be either Fassbender, Mud‘s Sarah Paulson as Epps cruel wife, or Paul Dano, even more frightening here than he was in Prisoners) McQueen never lets us forget that these are people with their own set of beliefs and are acting upon them as they feel is right.  We, the audience, know that slavery is wrong but it would have been too easy to craft these characters as simply soulless…that they are following what they were brought up to know gets the message home loud and clear that the root of the evil lies in the history, not the present.

Though the agony of slavery has been captured before in films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, the landmark mini-series Roots, and yes…even Django Unchained there’s a different feel to McQueen’s work on 12 Years a Slave that sets it apart from the rest.  It’s such a well-made, worthy film that I’m hoping audiences and Oscar voters aren’t turned off by the themes and horrific violence (there’s a whipping scene that I wound up having to avert my eyes for).  To miss the movie would be missing a film that I believe will stand the test of time.