Movie Review ~ Concrete Cowboy


The Facts:

Synopsis: Sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, a rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys.

Stars: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Method Man, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, Ivannah Mercede,s Liz Priestley, Michael Ta’Bon, Devenie Young, Albert C. Lynch, Jr.

Director: Ricky Staub

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It wasn’t that long ago when many thought Idris Elba was overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his role in Beasts of No Nation, a film released by Netflix globally shortly after it had a small theatrical release to qualify it for award contention.  This was 2015 when Netflix was still not considered a “movie studio” and the war-themed Beasts of No Nation, though well-reviewed, bore the brunt of an unfair bias against the streaming service which left it and a number of its actors out in the cold come Oscar nomination morning.  This was particularly outrageous because Elba had been nominated (or won) at nearly every other awards body that season…clearly The Academy wasn’t ready to chill with Netflix quite yet.

Now, we all know what has happened in the years since then where Netflix was concerned and now that the subscription site is a viable player I half expected a film like Concrete Cowboy to be held until later in 2021 when it could have generated a little more buzz for its star.  Though not the be-all, end-all of uplifting inner-city dramas, this is still an exceedingly well crafted feature with another standout performance from Elba that only serves to remind everyone that he’s a star of the most underappreciated variety.  Add to that a valuable look inside the too little talked about urban African American horse-riding culture in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Concrete Cowboy becomes a film worth discussing and promoting. 

Detroit high-schooler Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, High Flying Bird) has just been expelled from another school for fighting and his fed-up mother has come to the conclusion that works for her because she’s through with finding a solution that meets his needs.  Driving through the night, she deposits him on the front steps of his father’s house in Philadelphia, says her good-byes, and leaves.  It’s the only way to take the tough love message for her son (and, though we don’t know it yet), her son’s father to it’s full extent.  Though he barely remembers his dad, he does vaguely remember the neighborhood and Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint, The Glorias) the woman across the street who points him in the direction of where he can find his father who is rarely at home.

Discovering his dad sitting around a campfire of sorts with a bunch of other cowboy-hat wearing weary souls, all Cole wants to do is call his mom and go home.  We can’t quite tell if Harp (Elba, Prometheus) was expecting Cole that night or if he’d been expecting Cole to show up eventually due to his troubles, but either way the reunion isn’t one of instant joy.  Neither is up for small talk that night or the next morning and though Cole’s attempts at returning to Detroit fail, he tries any and all alternative arrangements to avoid living with the father he doesn’t know or understand.  Harp spends his days down the block and around the corner at one of the last inner-city stables that house horses, part of the Fletcher Street riders.  It’s more than just taking care of horses in the dilapidated stables and attempting to keep city officials from closing them down to make way for new residential space, it’s the preservation of a culture that is slowly being decimated after being winnowed down through the decades.

Between hanging out with his old friend from the block Smush (Jharrel Jerome, Selah and the Spades) who soon gets Cole up to his neck in dangerous business, Cole begins to learn the ways of the stables not from Harp but from the men and women who work there, including real-life Fletcher Street riders Ivannah Mercedes, Michael Upshur, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, and Albert C. Lynch Jr.  Writer/director Ricky Staub adapts Greg Neri’s 2011 book Ghetto Cowboy with screenwriter Dan Walser and mostly keeps the melodrama out of the way of the strong actors and surprisingly strong non-actors who fill the screen with their engaging presence.  Though it starts to fall into predictable beats as it winds toward the conclusion and follows a well-worn path instead of blazing its own trail, it ultimately succeeds on the strength of the emotions it stirs within and that’s thanks to the characters created.

While Elba creates that strong aura from the start, he’s got some competition from McLaughlin as a simmering Cole.  You can see the anger and frustration within McLaughlin’s character from the start and feel what his untethered youth must be going through, struggling to find his way forward without any true confidence yet.  He’s all emotion and no restraint and that comes out in ways that do damage to his relationship with both parents.  I’ve liked McLaughlin ever since season 1 of Stranger Things and he’s consistently the best of the child actors on that show, he continues that impressive range here.  There’s also good work (as always) from Toussaint as a longtime neighbor familiar with Harp and Cole’s complicated past but knowing how to keep her distance and from Philadelphia actor Liz Priestley as Cole’s mother. Originally written as a drug addict, the role was reconceived as an overworked nurse at the end of her rope after Priestly’s impressive audition.  Toussaint is also gifted with several of the film’s enlightening moments detailing the history of the black cowboy over time and how the country has sought to erase them from the record books.  Aside from the two women, there are powerful passages from real life members of the Fletcher Street riders both in the film and throughout the credits that drive home how real these real people are.

Sure, Concrete Cowboy may cover some familiar ground and you’ll be able to call the ending long before it arrives but there’s a real propulsion Staub, Elba, McLaughlin, and the rest of the crew find fairly early on and hold on to longer than expected.  It’s so engaging, in fact, that I almost wish Netflix would keep this movie in mind if they ever wanted to expand it into a series.  I think this would be a perfect project to explore as a limited series of one or two seasons to give us a little bit longer to know these people and the environment they live in.  After spending two hours with them, I’m ready to hop in the saddle for many more.

Movie Review ~ The Glorias

Available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Kimberly Guerrero, Enid Graham

Director: Julie Taymor

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  One thing 2020 has definitely needed is more empowerment.  We’ve gone through this year feeling like we’re just behind in a lot of ways, from our health to our control over what happens within our government, even to what goes on in the neighborhoods we want everyone to feel safe in.  No one wants to be at odds with each other (at least I don’t think the majority of us do) and it becomes draining to watch news reports on the great division that appears to be widening between numerous groups that used to be able to find common ground.  The rise of social media and the ability for those that hid in the shadows to now speak their hateful rhetoric from the comfort of their anonymity has only added fuel to that and the spiral just continues downward.

That’s why in some small way a biopic like The Glorias feels like a welcome bit of relief right about now, even though it too focuses on an upward battle for acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity.  While a number of documentaries have been made and work has been written about the activist Gloria Steinem over the years and just in the last decade alone, this is the one that has sprung from her own words and is based on her 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, written when she was 81.  Adapted by celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl, directed by lauded auteur Julie Taymor, and starring two Oscar winning actresses sharing the role of Steinem at various points in her adult life, on paper The Glorias feels like a project that sounds like an ideal convergence of the right people.  Why, then, does it wind up feeling like a artistically curated Cliff Notes version of a colorful life, only finding some true resonance with its audience in its final half hour?

I honestly doubt a life as large and full as Steinem’s could ever be fully captured in a feature film and to whittle down eight decades into 140-some minutes does seem like a Herculean task, but Ruhl does her best by not taking the traditional biopic route.  This is not a straight-timeline kind of film, but rather one that seems to go from one memory to another, at least at first.  That may be frustrating for audiences that are used to seeing where someone began and watching their life unfold until they wind up in the present (or their version of the present if it’s a person that’s no longer with us) and discover what they learn along the way.  Here, Ruhl and Taymor make use out of the multiple Glorias (Becky’s Lulu Wilson and IT: Chapter Two’s Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s play younger Glorias) to replace others seemingly at will as a way of commenting on what is to come in her life or in service of reflection on her past.  It’s cinematic trickery that works some of the time, mostly when Julianne Moore (Still Alice) as the eldest Gloria subs in for one of her younger counterparts who may not have found her authoritative voice yet but it gets a little showy if a smaller one takes over for an adult.

This narrative alignments also makes it harder to review The Glorias in such a straightforward way.  Taymor and Ruhl jump around through different periods of Steinem’s life with such apparent abandon that it’s a bit of a whirlwind.  One moment we’re with the youngest Gloria (Armstrong) as she dances with her huckster father (a stalwart Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) on the music hall pier he owns before he packs up the family and hits the road in search of another easy money opportunity.  The next thing we know, Taymor has us with ¾ Gloria (Vikander, The Danish Girl) on her travels through India or her early journalist days where she goes undercover working at the Playboy club.  Then we’re back to teenage Gloria (Wilson) caring for her bedridden mother (an excellent Enid Graham) before meeting the Gloria in full bloom Gloria (Moore) as she comes into her own as an activist fighting for the ratification of the ERA, forms Ms. magazine, and in her later years develops a friendship with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, A Wrinkle in Time), the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

What I found the most interesting in The Glorias was not the typical biographical data that makes up the usual films of this type.  Steinem’s upbringing, dealing with a dreamer Father that lived in the clouds and a Mother who toiled away making up for his frivolity, doesn’t feel so dissimilar than many that would go on to champion the rights of women who served unnoticed for so long.  Though Steinem had a number of relationships over the years (and was questioned often about them in interviews), the film bypasses any of these tangents in favor of exploring her friendships with other women, including feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe, Harriet), U.S. Representative and a leader of the Women’s Movement Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus), and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).  Those that watched the FX series Mrs. America earlier this summer may be surprised to see how little the ratification of the ERA fits into the film, it’s almost a good thing to have watched that nine-episode series because it gave more context to conversations between Gloria and Bella that those who aren’t as familiar with the movement might feel a bit at sea in.

As she does with all of her projects, Taymor brings a keen eye to The Glorias but occasionally lets her artsy side get the best of her.  This is never more obvious than a misguided sequence where Moore’s Gloria steps in to respond to an interview question on live television and sends the studio into a Wizard of Oz-ish tornado that’s not entirely rendered with the same style or polish as other flights of fancy.  Another animation of the Hindu goddess Kali that becomes the first cover of Ms. magazine feels awkward and a tad childish in the context of what has been a more maturely delivered movie until that point.  Taymor’s blending of dreamy fantasy works best when its done subtly, like when the camera that’s focused on one Gloria will pan back to show another iteration of Steinem gently resting her head on the shoulder of her younger self.  It’s brief specialties like these that Taymor is so adept at that The Glorias needs more of throughout.

Even as it races through the decades, it’s when The Glorias finally slows down a bit in Steinem’s later years that Taymor and Ruhl strike something special.  Moore ages forward and with the help of believable prosthetics manages to look remarkably like Steinem without becoming a grotesquerie of plastics in the process.  These quieter later scenes of The Glorias make up for the frenetic earlier part of the movie and lead to a final transition that I should have seen coming a mile away but didn’t.  When it happens, you suddenly realize that Taymor and Ruhl have done what they set out to do and connect Steinem’s past to our present with a graceful sincerity.  Essentially, they hand the film back to their subject as a way of communicating “If this is what Gloria Steinem’s legacy is to be, then let the final word on the matter be hers.”  And, simply, it is.

Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


Synopsis: It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time—stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

Release Date: August 9, 2019

Thoughts: I can still vividly picture the covers of the three books that comprise the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark canon. I can also close my eyes and remember how my mind would play tricks on me long after I had finished a story, concocting various ways for the fictional tales of terror to become reality.  Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) produces this big screen adaptation directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and the presence of these two guys with an eye for scares tell me to brace myself for more tingles up my spine.  This first look at the period set film isn’t at all what I was expecting and it feels like the movie will have some creepy images but may struggle in…other areas.  Still, the youngster in me is more than a little excited to see these stories come to life after all these years.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

selma

Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.