Movie Review ~ Candyman (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood were terrorized by the word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer known as Candyman, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, a visual artist’s chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer exposes him to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman, unleashing a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, Christiana Clark

Director: Nia DaCosta

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even as the Delta Variant rages through the U.S. and hints of another shutdown begin to loom large, films that were delayed from a year ago are sliding into theaters and making their rescheduled dates and for that I’m grateful.  Of all the movies that were bumped around the calendar due to the original pandemic lockdown in 2020, I was most disappointed that producer Jordan Peele’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to 1992’s Candyman was affected because as a huge fan of the original I was looking forward to what Peele and director Nia DaCosta could do with this property.  More than that, I was intrigued to see what it was going to be in the first place.  We knew it wasn’t a remake, but was it a direct sequel, a stand-alone film, a re-imagining of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” that inspired the first movie?  We had to wait a whole year to find out but Peele (Us) and DaCosta kept us engaged along the way with creative trailers and morsels of hints that showed more of the movie yet still didn’t reveal all of their cards.

As it turns out, this is one of those films that was well worth the wait.  A rare delight that pays service to fans of the original while addressing a new generation of devotees that have come onboard over the years (and maybe during this last year alone), DaCosta’s Candyman picks at the fabric lining the jewel box the 1991 movie was placed in and uses it to craft a horrific new garment all its own.  There’s a distinct voice present throughout that isn’t just Peele’s with its direct or indirect societal symbolism but a generational one that lives, works, fears, and loves in the environment DaCosta and her crew probe to terrific results.  That it manages to cover a lot of ground in such a short time frame without ever feeling rushed is a testament to efficiency on all levels.

The original Cabrini Green towers have long since been torn down but their dark history remains nightmare material only spoken about in hushed whispers or, better yet, not at all.  Now, new housing has been built on the same site and after a brief prologue set in the late ‘70s we meet two new tenants of the gentrified Cabrini.  Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) and her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman) are settling into their new digs when Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, The Kid Who Would Be King) tells them the story of Helen Lyle, a grad student that went crazy after visiting Cabrini looking for an urban legend known as Candyman.  With a hook for a hand, the killer was said to haunt the projects and called Cabrini his home, but Helen took the investigation too far, becoming obsessed with her own research, killing numerous people, and abducting a small child that almost died at her hands before she was finally burnt alive.  Scary stuff that Brianna doesn’t want to know about. (But viewers of the original know the story isn’t quite accurate…)

Once stunted artistically, the terrifying tale inspires Anthony in surprising ways.  Researching Candyman by visiting the old part of the neighborhood and meeting a long-time resident (Colman Domingo, Without Remorse), he comes away with a new zeal for expression, just in time for an art show at the gallery Brianna works at.  The piece he creates is a mirror and he provides instructions on how to ‘call forth’ the Candyman by saying his name five times to your reflection.  One unfortunate soul does it, then another, and before you know it, bloody death is everyone around Anthony…but is he to blame for all the carnage or is he simply fulfilling a destiny that started long ago and was never truly finished?  Perhaps a visit to his mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) will explain it all…

Originally written as a short story set in London’s tenement neighborhoods, the director of the 1992 film wisely moved the action to Chicago’s projects and it gave the film some credibility as a statement on how communities create their own legends.  Sometimes it is to protect themselves from the evil that lurks within but often it can be to keep the more wicked outsiders from entering.  Peele, DaCosta, and co-screenwriter Win Rosenfeld latch onto that notion and run with it, exploring how the tale of Candyman has evolved overtime and why it’s possible that a society might need a Candyman just as much as he needs them to believe in him.  It’s surprisingly not as tangled or heady as it could have been and the script isn’t interested in making more out of it than that. 

I also appreciated that while this new Candyman is brutal in its violence, much of it is restrained and either shown at a distance or just offscreen.  After the last year, many of us have seen death firsthand and so anything we see portrayed on film could never been as disgusting or horrific as what we’ve witnessed real people, not actors, doing to each other.  When it’s appropriate, DaCosta lets the audience have it but there’s ample build up to get to those moments of bloodshed.  Accompanied by stellar production design from Cara Brower (Our Friend), unique cinematography by John Guleserian (Love, Simon), and a nerve-jangling score courtesy of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, all of the elements are there to keep you on the edge of your seat, breathless, waiting for the next shock to arrive.

There was a time when remakes of these old titles felt like betrayals of trust but when they’re handled with such intelligence and care like Candyman has been, I find that I can relax a little bit when the next one is announced and hope that future filmmakers learn a thing or two from it.  This is how you take a fan-favorite property and do something of your own with it, while at the same time allowing that previous film to live on (and thrive) because your film is equally as terrifying and well-crafted.  Sweets to the sweet is a famous bit of graffiti seen on the walls of Cabrini Green in the original film and that goes double for DaCosta and her crew.

Movie Review ~ Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An elite Navy SEAL uncovers an international conspiracy while seeking justice for the murder of his pregnant wife. 

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce 

Director: Stefano Sollima 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 111 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6.5/10) 

Review:  I must confess to being a huge fan of the Tom Clancy films of the Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford days and not so much from the later chapters when Ben Affleck took over for Ford, Chris Pine took over for Affleck (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and John Krasinski took over for Pine in the popular TV series for Amazon Prime.  Each actor had their own spin on the role of Jack Ryan so you were bound to have someone along the way you could call your favorite.  Movies just aren’t made at the breakneck speed necessary to keep up with the pace that books are written so much of Clancy’s material has been left un-adapted and even the properties that were already brought to life have had to jettison key characters with stories too complex to include into larger narratives.

Take John Clark, Jack Ryan’s close friend and onetime bodyguard.  Featured in a number of Jack Ryan novels and eventually becoming nearly as popular as Ryan himself, Clark fits into many of the operations Ryan undertakes throughout Clancy’s blockbuster espionage thrillers.  However, it was in 1993’s Without Remorse that Clancy gave readers Clark’s origin story, including how and why he changed his name from John Kelly and why the CIA helped him change his identity.  Though the film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years trying to get made with several big names attached, it wasn’t until red-hot star Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) showed interest that the title became a must-have commodity again.  Now, as Jordan gets ready to direct and star in Creed III, he’s set himself up with another franchise starter but how would Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse measure up to the level of thrillers it has followed?

It’s a little bit of the whole good news and bad news situation right now.  Ripping the band aid off, I’ll say that the bad news is the overall ambiance of the movie doesn’t feel like the big budget production it should, considering the studio funds behind it and the producers involved.  A number of films originally intended for theatrical release acquired by a streaming service look like they were made for the big screen when you see them at home.  With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, everything feels scaled down like the original goal was only to be for in-home distribution.  More on that later but for now let’s talk about the positives.  The good news is that Jordan is a natural for the role, well suited to be playing a skilled Navy SEAL back from a dangerous mission in Syria involving the CIA and the Russian military.  When members of his team are assassinated and his pregnant wife is killed, he’s left for dead by an attacker’s gunfire but survives.  This turns out to be, ironically, a good news/bad news situation all over again.  Good news for John Kelly and bad news for anyone that gets in his way of finding those responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child.  Taking the title of the movie literally, Kelly is a one-man machine of vengeance as he mows his way through high ranks of government both foreign and domestic to get the answers he wants. 

The final script was re-written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River and the upcoming Those Who Wish Me Dead) and it shows with his vernacular and tendency to use shorthand in his technical terms.  He has the actors speak like these professionals would talk and it assists in the authenticity of it all.  Working with his Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima, Sheridan took over script duties form Will Staples so I can’t say who made the majority of alternations from Clancy’s original novel but the changes seem to be for the better in allowing this story to grow in future installments…because it should and will.  Apart from it filling a gap for representation in people of color as action heroes, Kelly’s a complex character like we haven’t seen much of lately.

Much of that complexity is owed to Jordan’s performance as well as his platonic relationship with Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) a friend and SEAL team member he can trust that has been watching out for him while he’s healed.  Working with the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce, Lawless) and a not entirely trustworthy CIA Officer (Jamie Bell, Rocketman), Kelly and Greer use their government resources to further their serach for the truth. Of course, this being an action film built around large(ish) scale set piece, Kelly stages some daring acts of aggression in order to extricate information from sources that can help them locate who put a target on all of their backs.

You’d likely be able to write down who the bad people are at the beginning the film, seal it, and open it again at the end of the film and find your correct answer within.  Along with a strange look that gives it almost a B-movie vibe, there’s little in the way of surprise as the plot moves from Point A to Point B.  Extended fight sequences are periodically thrilling but endless gunfire scenes start to get old rather quickly, especially when it becomes a challenge following the action.  Several times, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Beautiful Creatures) leaves us lost amongst the action with no direction on where to look.  It’s all disorienting.

It might not rise to the ranks of The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games but for a first outing with John Kelly, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a sufficient introduction to the character.  This was a Saturday evening choice in my house and it proved to be a popular and rather perfect selection for a movie night.  Jordan is said to be coming back for a second film and if that proves successful I’m wondering if we’ll ever see him team with Krasinski or another new Ryan feature film in the future – now that would be the event film I’d like to see.

Movie Review ~ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Since April, Broadway and musical theater fans have been starved for ways to watch live performances and have had to settle for pre-recorded shows from the archives of regional and national theaters or newly produced live streams that don’t always go off without a hitch.  Nothing is going to replace that feeling of actually being in the theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor, hearing the rustle of the programs, the annoying cellphone noise, and, of course, the badly timed cough which will only be more of an annoyance in the future.

As theaters continue to look for alternative arrangements until the lockdown on Broadway playhouses has ended, Netflix has been bringing a little bit of Broadway to audiences in ways they may not even realize.  First there was the September adaptation of the revival of The Boys in the Band, then the recent movie version of the fun musical The Prom (sadly, not provided to me in time for an official review), and an upcoming taped recording of Diana, the stage musical that was in NY previews when COVID-19 shut down Broadway in April 2020.  Jury is still out on how Diana will fare and The Prom transitioned nicely to the small screen but The Boys in the Band, though entertaining, felt like the stage-bound play it was…and that’s not the only stage-to-screen adaptation premiering on Netflix before the end of 2020.

Looking at the cast for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix is enough to make one want to shell out the price of a premium ticket to see a production of August Wilson’s 1982 play in person on the New York stage.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) is the real-life “Mother of the Blues”, one of the first African-American professional blues singers who recorded her music early on, becoming a pioneer in that field for her race and gender.  In Wilson’s play, a fictionalized recording session for Ma Rainey and her band that quickly goes off the rails, there’s a real fire to the dialogue and it bristles with the sweat and heat of the late 1920s summer day it takes place on.  The scenes between the veteran band members and Levee the cavalier trumpeter crackle and anytime Ma Rainey gets fired up demanding the respect and quality treatment her white agent provides his other clients, the electricity starts to create massive sparks.

The trouble is, this isn’t live on stage or even a performance that was filmed to be broadcast later.  It’s an adaptation using Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and directed by George C. Wolfe.  That it doesn’t have the same verve and pulsating rhythm Wilson’s work has when seen in the intimacy of the live-theater setting isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors, but it does have to fall on someone, somewhere.  The scenes feel stagey, almost more-so than any stage-to-film movie I’ve seen in recent memory and it becomes so reverential to Wilson’s work that it begins to do damage to the motivation of the piece.  At least Denzel Washignton’s superior adaptation of  Wilson’s Fences in 2016 was able to find ways to open-up the story beyond the backyard setting of Wilson’s original work.  Keeping everyone cooped up is part of what makes the tension boil over during the recording session, true, but there are a number of interludes that could have more movement and Wolfe has directed enough films to know how to keep the camera moving while continuing to establish character.

What the film also has is the responsibility of carrying star Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) final performance in a leading role before tragically passing away earlier in 2020 after a private ongoing battle with cancer.  A genius actor with years ahead of him, I think a number of people want this film and the performance to be at a certain level of greatness as a way to memorialize him and that’s unfair to put all that weight solely onto the actor.  Thankfully, while the film may not live up to the expectations I had going in, Boseman  does and turns in a haunting performance…another in a long line of winning acting choices the young actor had under his belt when he passed away.  You can’t hang the whole movie just on him but he’s definitely due the kudos of his performance being a knockout.

As for Davis, the role tends to overwhelm her just like her outward appearance and prosthetics threaten to overtake her performance at times.  It’s odd; the garish eyes and glittering teeth, body glistening with sweat and ample bosom feel like they are from a different iteration of this character.  Pictures of the real Ma Rainey are shown at the end and none of them have the type of matted, dripping, ghoulish make-up we see her in throughout the film.  I don’t doubt it is historically accurate but I would have loved to see some kind of context for the look so we have a comparison.  Match that with a voice that is supposedly Davis with some “extra help” (that needs to be investigated) and there’s something that just feels like the dial was turned too far with this one…Davis is one of the best actresses working today and if this were onstage I’d probably be insanely crazy for how good she was.  On screen though, it comes off as overkill.

Where more attention should really be paid is the three supporting actors making up the rest of the band.  Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and especially Glynn Turman are dynamite as old friends who have seen it all as members of Ma Rainey’s bad.  They have the war stories to tell of their touring days with her and the injuries to back them up.  There’s also pain bubbling below the surface and it takes a wild card like Levee to raise the heat while they wait for Ma Rainey to get ready to sing.  Each get a nice moment in the spotlight with Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) emerging as the mediator between the band and Ma Rainey and Turman (Bumblebee) hilarious at one point but ultimately heartbreaking in the film’s final moments.

Even at a short 94 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels longer than it should.  It’s one of those watches that you wind up feeling like you should be getting more out of for your own sake more than the sake of the movie and that’s when you need to let go and admit a movie just isn’t working for you.  Boseman’s final leading performance is a memorable turn and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent in supporting roles, but everyone is working with material that is unavoidably stage bound and immovable.  Watch the movie now but seek out a live performance of it when things get back to some sense of normalcy in 2021 (hopefully!).

The Silver Bullet ~ Candyman (2020)

Synopsis: Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Release Date:  June 12, 2020

Thoughts: As I recalled in my 31 Days to Scare review, 1992’s Candyman remains one of the rare movies that still manages to frighten me to this day.  It scared me terribly when I first saw it and I get a little rush of sweat in my brow when I know I’m going to be seeing it again.  It’s just that well-crafted of a horror film.  So I was more than a little curious when a remake was announced, thinking it was just another in the long-line of ill-conceived reboots that no one asked for.  It’s when Oscar-winning screenwriter and surging director Jordan Peele (Us) came on board to co-write the script and director Nia DaCosta signed on to direct that I really got interested and if this first trailer is any indication, this 2020 Candyman is going to pack that same scary sting as the original.  With an enviable cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and even original cast member Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) returning as what looks to be the same character this one is something to look forward to.  Looking over the cast on IMDb reveals Peele is either making a sequel ala the recent Halloween or remaking the original with a twist…either way I’m in for some sweet screams.

Movie Review ~ If Beale Street Could Talk


The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  In 2016, writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight, telling a unique story about a heretofore underrepresented population of the black community onscreen.  It was a bold, beautiful movie that challenged viewers and our own prejudices not only to skin color but to our perceptions of love and acceptance.  While Jenkins missed out on winning Best Director, Moonlight famously went on to win Best Picture is an Oscar snafu that first saw La La Land announced as the victor only to have Academy officials quickly rush the stage to say presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read the wrong winner and the small indie Moonlight actually took the prize.

Two years later, we were all waiting with baited breath wondering would the next Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, capitalize on his momentum and solidify that Moonlight wasn’t just a flash in the pan moment of greatness.  Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins has again adapted a work of great beauty that juggles multiple timelines and emotions and creates an utterly transporting experience.  While it couldn’t be more different from Moonlight in subject matter, it captures a similar spirit and builds on that earlier work, bringing audiences deep into the lives of two young lovers and their families dealing with a terrible situation.

Tish (KiKi Layne, Captive State) and Fonny (Stephan James, Selma) have grown up together in Harlem, their childhood friendship blossoming into teenage affection and then into adult love.  When the film opens, Fonny is in prison awaiting trial for a raping a woman and Tish has to tell him that she’s going to have his baby.  Through flashbacks intercut with present day scenes of Tish and her family seeking assistance in clearing Fonny’s name, we see how these two young people got to this place and time and mourn the likely loss of the shared life they’ll never get to begin.  Is the woman accusing Fonny doing so because he’s black?  Or was she instructed to pick him out of a line-up by a cop (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) that had a previous run-in with him?  What about the darkest question of all?  Could Fonny have actually done it?

Even though this is only the second film I’ve seen from Jenkins, I can already see a calling card style to his work. Like director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Jenkins favors having his actors staring directly into the camera, which functions as a way of drawing audiences into the action and makes you feel like they are delivering their lines directly to you.  You suddenly become the character being addressed and the effect is unsettling, yet thrilling all the same.  Much of If Beale Street Could Talk are just conversations between ordinary people and the film isn’t afraid to keep things quiet and reflective, like in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) recounting to his old friend Fonny what a black man’s psyche feels like after being in prison.

At the center of the film are the two impressive performances of Layne and James, navigating countless emotions throughout from the nervous excitement of a first coupling to elation in the face of fear at the news of their upcoming child to the desperation and eventual resolute acceptance of a broken legal system.  The work here, especially Layne as the film progresses, is outstanding.  The young actors are strongly supported by Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Tish’s mother who is mighty and moving in several key scenes without ever resorting to the kind of showboating acting the role could have leaned toward.  For me, it’s not quite the Oscar-winning performance people are claiming it is but King is always such a solid presence I get why she’s at the top of the conversations this year.  I also enjoyed Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) as Tish’s no-nonsense sister, and Michael Beach (Aquaman) and Aunjanue Ellis (Get on Up) as Fonny’s parents who come calling for but one scene early on in the film and leave a sizable impression in their wake.  Familiar faces Diego Luna (Contraband), Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) show up in smaller supporting roles that thankfully don’t get in the way of our leads.

Nicholas Britell’s (The Big Short) brass heavy score is fantastic as is James Laxton’s (Tusk) golden-hued and period specific cinematography, all playing their role in picking you up and placing you exactly where Jenkins wants you to be.  Jenkins has a way with casting even the smallest of roles pitch-perfectly, with no one betraying this is a movie set in 1974 made in 2018.  While Moonlight was more of a film that led to further discussion, If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t quite have that same “Let’s talk about it” feel to it when the picture ends.  That’s not to say it isn’t highly effective or incredibly moving – it’s a movie made with emotion that you can’t help but be swept away with and that’s largely due to the performances and the way Jenkins brings many elements together to create a true movie-going experience.  One of the best of the year.