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.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Lost World: Jurassic Park

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A research team is sent to the Jurassic Park Site B island to study the dinosaurs there while another team approaches with their own agenda.

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Arliss Howard, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, Richard Schiff

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I remember December 13, 1996 very well. I was in a theater at the Mall of America for the first showing of Tim Burton’s wack-a-doo sci-fi flick Mars Attacks! and was far more excited for the coming attractions that the feature presentation. You see, our local newspaper had let us know that the Mall of America would be one of a few theaters outfitted with a special “lighting surprise” that went along with the teaser trailer for director Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.

OK…before we move on, take a moment and look at the teaser trailer I included above. I’ll wait.

Did you watch it?

OK…now for some explanation.

The lights go down and the trailer begins – a fairly simple teaser over all but every time there was a lightening flash when the words Something Has Survived appeared on screen the specially installed high powered strobe lights in the theater would flash a blinding light so it felt like you were right in the middle of the action. True, the effect was fairly unique but it also showed how downright dingy the walls and ceiling of the theater were.

I tell you this story because the gimmicky nature of the preview of The Lost World: Jurassic Park wound up being the most interesting thing about the movie. Fanboys and fangirls around the world were pretty bummed out when the sequel to one of the biggest films of all times landed like a soggy thud on Memorial Day weekend. Oh the film made bank at the box office, no question, but it lacked the energy and awe of its predecessor and played like a quick cash grab.

It’s been several years since the disaster at the original Jurassic Park and the mystery around the island still remains. When a British family picnicking on an island not too far away has a close encounter with some tiny dinos and a second site of dino creationism is revealed, mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is called in by billionaire and Jurassic Park creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to…well…it’s never really clear why he eventually agrees to be dropped in the middle of the dinosaur action again. It’s not for any sense of loyalty, that’s for sure…in the years after the park failure Hammond’s company tarnished Malcolm’s professional reputation.

Accompanied by a team that includes Richard Schiff (Entourage) and Vince Vaughn (The Internship), Malcolm is reunited with his girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, slumming it for a chance to work on a big budget project with a high powered director), a research conservationist sent ahead as bait for Malcolm to follow. There’s also a pitiful subplot introducing Malcolm’s child (Vanessa Lee Chester) who stows away to spend more time with daddy.

There are just so many things going on in the film that it’s hard to pick up any thread to follow. There are too many people as well, part of the beauty of the original film was that it was easy to track the half dozen characters that fought for survival…there’s hundreds of people in the sequel and the end result is that you don’t really care who gets chomped and who lives to tell the story.

While there are a few perilous edge of your seat sequences there are far too many more stretches where nothing of import happens. A reliance on extra screen time for the dinosaurs seems like a ploy to pad the story and don’t even get me started at the hare-brained finale through the streets of San Diego. The entire film reminded me of King Kong, a film that Spielberg would toy with remaking almost a decade later.

Everyone here looks exhausted (when you can see them at all, too much of the film takes place at night or deep in the jungle ) and Spielberg himself seems to have given up halfway through. Rushed into production and only loosely based on Michael Crichton’s sequel to his mega-selling novel (Spielberg was the one that goaded him into writing it), the film feels so very heavy and devoid of the magic that made Jurassic Park a landmark achievement.

The Silver Bullet ~ Decoding Annie Parker

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Synopsis: Love, science, sex, infidelity, disease and comedy, the wild, mostly true story of the irrepressible Annie Parker and the almost discovery of a cure for cancer.

Release Date: May 2, 2014

Thoughts: Though the cast for Decoding Annie Parker is filled with celebrated actors like Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Samantha Morton (In America), and Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) and surrounds an important subject (searching for cures/causes of breast cancer) I can’t help but feel overall that this is a movie that was originally intended for the small screen. Yeah, yeah, the film is distributed as an indie but something about it reads television movie to me. That’s not to say it won’t work just fine in your local cinema and I’m interested enough in the true life story of the title character to make the effort to catch this one, but will it be one I’ll be happy I left the house for?

Movie Review ~ Man of Steel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe, Michael Kelly, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I love 1978’s Superman: The Movie.  I figured I’d get that out of the way off the bat so you know where I’m coming from.  Richard Donner’s big budget epic was bolstered by the tagline: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly”…and audiences did…in droves.  Capturing the all-American charm of one Clark Kent aka Superman, Donner’s film successfully moved characters that had long lived on the pages of comic books and a television show to the silver screen with impressive results. 

So perhaps it was a bit too much to hope that 2013’s Man of Steel could provide some of that same magic in kicking off yet another reboot of the superhero with a giant S on his chest.  The trouble is that this updated hero is too aloof, too troubled a searching soul to mine any joy out of the proceedings.  It’s a chilly film with precious little in the way of true blue charm and moxie.  Instead, it’s largely a showcase for director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) to puff his special effects chest out and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) to put a Bruce Wayne-style glum-ness on the picture. 

Perhaps that solemnity also comes courtesy of producer Christopher Nolan who successfully reshaped the Batman franchise into a lean and mean money making machine.  What worked for Nolan and Goyer on the Batman films unfortunately doesn’t work here and mores the pity because several other key elements of the film are strikingly on point.

Take Henry Cavill for instance.  The Brit is possessing of a well toned eight pack to go along with his All-American features and cheekbones that could cut kryptonite.  The script never allows him to emerge too far from his gloomy gus hole but there are moments especially near the end where we can see a glint in Cavill’s eye that brings a little Christopher Reeve to mind.  In his newly redesigned suit, which does look better than the near neon colors in previous Superman films, Cavill is a convincing hero that has real potential.

I also found a lot to like about Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as refreshingly earthy incarnations of Jonathan and Martha Kent, Superman’s earth bound adoptive parents that provide stability even when his powers threaten to overwhelm their found child.  Most of their performances are relegated to flashbacks and much of the film is presented in a non-linear fashion as Clark wanders from job to job, only moving on when his powers put him in danger of being discovered. 

Costner has some of the best scenes in the film as he alternatively counsels his son and quietly fears for him if the outside world knew what he can do.   I’ve often found Costner to be too mannered of an actor, always holding back what he’s really feeling but here he’s given nice material that helps him shine. 

The same can’t be said for poor Amy Adams (The Master) who is terribly miscast as ace reporter Lois Lane.  Though it’s well documented she has auditioned/lobbied for this role on three occasions, it’s a shame she didn’t do more with the role when she finally got a crack at it.  I missed the plucky verve that Margot Kidder to the role and it’s something I’m disappointed Adams didn’t tap into more – that being said she’s light years more interesting than Kate Bosworth was in 2006’s Superman Returns.

I’m still not totally sure how I feel about Michael Shannon (The Iceman) as Superman’s main nemesis Captain Zod.  Talking out of the side of his mouth and sounding like he has a Lifesaver he wants to keep under his tongue, Shannon is an unlikely choice for the role and even wearing a costume that looks like a hand me down from KISS he manages to give the character more depth than was probably necessary.  Russell Crowe’s (Les Miserables) Jor-El can’t hold a candle to the “I can’t believe this works as well as it does” casting of Marlon Brando in Donner’s film but there’s a solid whiff of nobility given off by Crowe…and thank the Lord he doesn’t sing in this one.

Snyder is known for putting a rich visual spin on his films and that’s what almost saved his disastrous Sucker Punch from being totally relegated to the waste bin.  In Man of Steel the special effects gets the better of him though with too much of the film looking more cartoony than visually impressive.  Sure, the flying sequences are solidly entertaining and some of the larger action sequences (including a much too long go-for-broke finale) look mighty fine but it only adds to a strange hollowness to the entire film.

I may be a bigger fan of Superman than any other comic book character so I was very much looking forward to seeing where the next generation of Superman movies will take us.  This wasn’t the movie I really wanted to see and that’s a bummer…but then I remember that I wasn’t totally taken with Batman Begins either when I first saw it.  Time will tell if Cavill and company will find a way to truly take flight in their next outing but it’s possible that with more focus on the good and less on the glum a better franchise starter will emerge.