ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020) – Chilling, Disturbing Portrait of Black Life in America

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Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020).

If you want to know what it’s like to be a black man in the United States in 2020, then you need to watch ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020), a Netflix original movie that tells the story of a young man stuck in a hopeless fate that rings all too true.

When ALL DAY AND A NIGHT opens, we witness Jah (Ashton Sanders), a young black man from Oakland, California, shoot and kill another black man and his girlfriend in front of their teenage daughter. Jah is sentenced to life imprisonment, and it’s there through a series of flashbacks that we learn his story.

Jah grew up in a household where he was mostly raised by his mother Delanda (Kelly Jenrette) and grandmother Tommetta (Regina Taylor) because his father JD (Jeffrey Wright) is in and out of prison and rarely home. In fact, as Jah explains, that’s how it is for nearly every family in the neighborhood. The dads just disappear.

Later, when Jah is in prison, he’s not only reunited with his father, but he sees all those folks who disappeared during his childhood. They’re all living in prison.

Even as a young boy, Jah knows he wants to do something more with his life which is why he gravitates towards music, but inside he knows he’s not going anywhere. His mom and dad constantly argue over his fate, as his mother swears that her son is not going to end up like her husband, but JD argues that he has to teach his son street smarts or else he’ll never survive, which is why he beats Jah when a local bully steals his toy. Jah learns at a young age to hit hard and go on the offensive, making sure that other kids will not mess with him.

As a young adult, Jah and his best friend TQ (Isaiah John) navigate through a world of music, drugs, and gangs, with all of these things intertwined in a dangerous soup of murder and violence. Jah keeps away from the drugs, but his reputation for being a tough fighter catches the eye of local gang leader Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who keeps Jah close with the intention of grooming him to be his muscle.

Jah’s other friend Lamark (Christopher Meyer) vows to do things the right way and escape the confines of their neighborhood and their fates. He joins the army but returns an invalid.

Even as Jah enjoys a relationship with his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), who’s pregnant with their baby, he can’t resist the allure of his neighborhood’s code of ethics, that matters can be solved by violence, and that one takes care of one’s own problems, which is what he does, a decision that lands him in jail for life.

But he does it because he honestly doesn’t see anything else to live for. As Jah says in the movie, the judge when sentencing him told him he was seeing his last days of freedom, to which Jah responds that he never ever felt he was free in the first place.

And that’s the somber, depressing tone throughout ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. These men live in a world where there is no hope. They see their fathers, brothers, and friends go to prison. They struggle to find jobs, especially with a prison record, and as JD laments, not only won’t people hire him, but his prison record prevents him from getting food stamps, which only makes his ability to provide for his family even more difficult.

On top of all this, Jah and his friends are hounded by the white police, and when Jah takes a retail job in a shoe store, he’s often not recognized as an employee by the white customers who look at him with a suspicious eye, or worse, who actually ask him what he’s doing carrying shoe boxes, the implication being that they think he’s robbing the place.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a bleak picture of black life in Oakland which speaks to black life throughout out the nation. Writer/director Joe Robert Cole has made a no frills slice of life movie that offers a hopelessly depressing view of its subject. The dialogue is gritty and raw, the violence shocking but not glorified.

The acting is excellent. Ashton Sanders is perfect as Jah, a young man with hopes and dreams who is also a realist, and as such, falls back on what he believes is real, his fists and acts of violence, things he learned from his father. Sanders of course starred in MOONLIGHT (2016).

Jeffrey Wright plays Jah’s father JD, in a role that for most of the film doesn’t evoke a lot of sympathy, even though his life his hard, because of the harsh way he raises his son Jah. But in a juxtaposition of scenes, we witness Jah being born and JD predicting all the wonderful things he believes his son will do, that he wants to give him a better life than he had, and then we switch to the two men sitting in prison together, where Jah offers to teach his dad gardening, in an effort to form a bond finally and give something back to his father.

Wright has been in a bunch of movies, including playing Beetee in THE HUNGER GAMES films, and he played Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). He’s slated to play Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming THE BATMAN, which is set for a 2021 release.

Kelly Jenrette has some fine moments as Jah’s mother Delanda, as does Shakira Ja’nai Paye as Jah’s girlfriend Shantaye. I also enjoyed Isaiah John as TQ.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a disturbing picture of life in the U.S. for black males, but it’s one that goes a long way towards achieving an understanding of why things are the way they are.

As such, it’s required viewing if you really want to know and understand more about the racial divide which currently exists in the United States.

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

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