BRIAN BANKS (2019) – Inspirational True Story of One Man’s Fight to Clear His Name

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BRIAN BANKS (2019), based on the inspirational true story of Brian Banks, a black man wrongly imprisoned for rape who fought his way back to clear his name and eventually play football in the NFL, offers no surprises.

None.

The story plays out exactly as you expect it to, and yet, this hardly seems to matter because at the end of the day, BRIAN BANKS is a solid, well-told story that makes its point and moves its audience to tears.

Sure, it’s safe and sanitized, the type of movie that easily could have been the TV movie of the week back in the day. It’s not gritty. It’s not R-rated. Some would call this inferior filmmaking, missing an opportunity to tell a story well and make an impact. For me, it all comes down to how a film is executed. I like safe sanitized movies as well as hard gritty ones, as long they do a good job telling their stories. BRIAN BANKS tells its story well.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was an up and coming football star, breaking school records and attracting attention of college football scouts. But when he was 16 years old, he was accused of rape, a crime he said he did not commit. Encouraged by his attorney to plead “no contest” which would be the same as “guilty” but would most likely mean no jail time, the youth agreed, only to watch in horror as the judge slapped a six-year jail sentence on him, as well as requiring him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Most of BRIAN BANKS takes place after Brian has been released from prison, although his prison experience is shown via flashback. As a young man in his twenties, an ex-con and registered sex-offender, Brian struggles to find work, as no one will hire him, and he lives with his supportive mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). He also has to contend with an overbearing parole officer (Dorian Missick) who constantly reminds Brian when he’s too close to a school or playground.

Brian finds it next to impossible to move on with his life, but he knows he’s innocent, and so he contacts attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) who specializes in fighting for people who have been falsely convicted of crimes. Justin empathizes with Brian, but tells him that unless he can come up with some new and extraordinary evidence, his case will not be overturned, and so Brian sets out to do just that.

As I said, BRIAN BANKS offers no surprises. You know where this one is going to go, but since it’s going to a satisfactory place, the predictability of it all is not a problem.

At first, the screenplay by Doug Atchison raised an eyebrow. As Brian tells his story to Justin Brooks, he explains that he and the female student went to the section of the school known as a place where students make out, with the express intent of making out with this girl, but when a teacher walks by, it spooks Brian and not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes his future career, he changes his mind and walks away, leaving the spurned girl to make up the charge of rape.

Well, that’s believable.

Not.

You walked away? On your own? And the girl made the whole think up?

I don’t think so!

But the film covers its tracks by having Brian’s current girlfriend Karina (Melanie Liburd) be a sexual assault victim herself. When Brian first tells her his story, she apologizes and then leaves him alone at a restaurant table. But as she gets to know him, she finds herself believing in him, and eventually falls for him.

BRIAN BANKS really isn’t about the he said/she said of sexual assault. The film never really calls into question Brian’s innocence. He’s innocent. The system failed him. That’s the message of the film.  What BRIAN  BANKS really is about is resilience.

In prison. an angry and bitter Brian meets a wise old man, played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, who becomes Brian’s mentor. He teaches Brian to let his anger go, and presents him with a creed that states that life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life’s adversities.

And that’s really what BRIAN BANKS is about and why the film ultimately succeeds. Brian Banks is a man who simply refuses to give up, who believes that the one thing he can control is how hard he fights for his freedom, and it’s a fight he refuses to give up on. As depicted in the movie, Brian really is an inspirational character.

Doug Atchison’s screenplay deals with sexual assault and the failings of our legal system but largely avoids race issues. The fact that Brian is black is hardly mentioned in the film. More than a story about race, it’s a story about perseverance and the pursuit of truth.

Director Tom Shadyac takes what could have been a hard-hitting gritty story and sanitizes it to the point where it could have been made by Disney. But since Banks’ relentless pursuit of the truth is so admirable, it hardly seems to matter. Shadyac is a director known for his comedies, films like BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994). There’s nothing comedic about BRIAN BANKS, and Shadyak seems quite comfortable telling this story.

Aldis Hodge is solid and sympathetic in the lead as Brian Banks. He captures Banks’ spirit and makes his journey a believable one. Hodge has been in a bunch of things over the years, from HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) to the TV shows BLACK MIRROR (2017) and THE WALKING DEAD (2014) to name just a few.

Likewise, Greg Kinnear is very good as attorney Justin Brooks, who eventually is won over by Banks and decides to take his case. Although Kinnear has been working steadily, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on the big screen. I believe for me it’s been since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Both Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mom and Melanie Liburd as his girlfriend also turn in strong performances, as does Xosha Roquemore as Kennisha Rice, the woman who as it turns out falsely accused Brian of rape.

Likewise, Tiffany Dupont makes her mark as Alissa Bjerkhoel, who works for Justin Brooks and who was instrumental in encouraging Brooks to take Brian’s case.

And Dorian Missick is very good as the hard-nosed parole officer Mick Randolph. Missick has also been in a ton of things, from playing “Cockroach” on LUKE CAGE (2018) to appearances on LUCIFER (2016) and BETTER CALL SAUL (2015).

BRIAN BANKS is the type of film that at first seems difficult to recommend. It’s pretty straightforward, and the direction its story takes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But what it does do well is create a sympathetic and inspirational character, albeit based on a real life person, in Brian Banks, so much so that you can easily buy into his plight, feel his pain, and celebrate his victory.

—END—

 

 

 

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) – Racial Drama Has the Best Intentions

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) has its heart in the right place.

Its tale, based on the true story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater taking on KKK leader C.P. Ellis in Durham, North Carolina in 1971 over the issue of school integration, in which Atwater succeeded in converting Ellis to shed his KKK beliefs and see things her way, is a good one.

And its message of bringing two opposing sides together to hear each other out and learn from each other is an important one for the times in which we now live. For this reason alone, it’s worth a look, even if it’s not successful in everything it sets out to do.

It’s 1971, and Durham, NC is dealing with racism. The black community struggles to have a voice, as local officials are heavily tied to the KKK, who continue to promote racist attitudes and policies. When the issue of school integration arises, the Durham legislature calls in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to mediate the two sides, and when he calls for Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) to be co-chairs, it’s seen as a crazy move. Neither leader is interested, and Ellis can’t understand why he’s even being asked, but the local officials encourage him to take part, because they fear if he’s not there, then his spot will be filled with liberal voice, so he might as well be there to stop school integration from happening.

As the process continues, and Ann and C.P. eventually engage in a dialogue, each begins to see things from the other’s perspectives, and eventually C.P. changes his mind about the way he views black people.

This story might seem too farfetched if it were not based on a true story.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES has the best intentions. It shows both sides almost to a fault. I was uncomfortable watching parts of this movie which spent much time on a KKK leader, often showing how much the Klan meant to this man. The idea of anything positive associated with the KKK I find repulsive, yet this film gets into how it made a positive impact on C.P. Ellis’ life. Of course, C.P. eventually experiences a conversion, which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to the other side, which is the point—- and it’s a valuable one— that this film is making. For divisions to be overcome, both sides need to come to the table and need to be able to listen to each other.

Sam Rockwell does a fine job as C.P. Ellis, although I enjoyed his performance as George W. Bush in VICE (2018) more. Here, Rockwell plays Ellis as a man who was drawn to the Klan for a sense of belonging. He needed a place to fit in, and it didn’t hurt that he shared their same views of white purity and supremacy. As he listens to Ann Atwater, he is struck by some of the true things she says, like when she points out that he’s as poor as the black folks in town and economically speaking he has more in common with them than with the white lawmakers. And later when she helps his son who has Down’s syndrome, it strikes a chord deep within him.

Rockwell successfully captures this conversion, spending a lot of time looking confused and introspective, and as his eyes become open to the other side, he brings the audience in with him and allows them to know just what it is he his thinking and feeling.

Working against Rockwell here is he played a similar role in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). In THREE BILLBOARDS, Rockwell played a racist cop who also undergoes a type of conversion, although not as clear-cut as the one C.P. Ellis experiences. Of course, Rockwell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in THREE BILLBOARDS, which is a better movie than THE BEST OF ENEMIES since it had a livelier script and did a better job covering its controversial issues with nuance and gray areas, whereas THE BEST OF ENEMIES plays as more conventional straight-forward drama.

So, as I watched Rockwell here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES, I was reminded often of his work in THREE BILLBOARDS.

Taraji P. Henson is excellent as Ann Atwater, and for my money she gives the best performance in the film. She loses herself in this character, and having seen Henson in other movies, like HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), watching her here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES I often forgot I was watching her and instead believed I was watching the real Ann Atwater.

Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Atwater plays second fiddle to C.P. Ellis, as he gets more screen time than she does. I get the reason, since he’s the character who undergoes the conversion, but it’s a decision that’s not completely successful. For one, it keeps Henson off-screen, which is not a good thing, and two, it presents yet another story where the white guy is responsible for saving the blacks. That being said, the story told here remains a worthwhile one, but it’s a pattern in movies which is noticeable, and it’s not refreshing, and so it works against the movie.

Babou Ceesay is agreeable as mediator Bill Riddick, and Anne Heche, who I haven’t seen in a movie in ages, plays C.P.’s wife Mary, and she’s very good.

John Gallagher Jr., an actor who has impressed me in a variety of roles in such films as 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016), has a small but important role here as Lee Trombley, a hardware store owner who is sympathetic to black people, and who represents one of the swing votes at the table.

Writer/director Robin Bissell lets the story of C.P. Ellis’ conversion speak for itself. The production, pace, and tone of the film are all rather subdued. There are very few radical moments, places where the film has an edge and makes its audience uncomfortable. We barely see the true ugliness of racism.

The emphasis here is on seeing C.P. Ellis as a real person, and understanding his background and motivation. He is portrayed as a sympathetic character, which for me, for most of this film, was in itself disturbing. Why am I watching a positive interpretation of a KKK leader? And of course, the answer is so we can understand how and why he changes.

The sanitization of the issues does not work to the film’s advantage, however, and at times, especially towards the end, the film lacks oomph when it should have been pulling at its audience’s heartstrings with its story of racial division and conversion.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES means well and ultimately has a positive message and rewarding story to tell, and that is, if people from opposite view points sit down at the same table and listen to each other, good things happen.

It’s a message that needs to be heard, and THE BEST OF ENEMIES at the very least has no problem sharing it.

–END—-

THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

—END—

 

 

 

HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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TAG (2018) – Uneven Comedy Actually Based on True Story

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The craziest thing about the new comedy TAG (2018) is that it’s actually based on a true story.

So, as much as I want to say that the plot point of a group of adults still playing tag is rather ridiculous, it actually happened. There really were a group of childhood friends who continued to play tag well into adulthood.

As a famous sports announcer used to say, how about that!

And that’s exactly the story that TAG has to tell.

Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been friends since childhood, and now as adults, they continue to play the game of tag which they used to play as kids. It’s their way of both keeping young and keeping in touch, literally. Once a year, during the month of May, regardless of where they are, they find each other and play tag, and no one wants to be stuck being “it” for a year once the month ends.

And the one friend who has never been “it” is Jerry. He’s so good at the game that he’s never been tagged. Not once. And so the other four friends gang up on him with the plan of finally making Jerry “it.”

I have to admit, watching adult males doing whatever it takes to tag their friend and make him “it,” whether it be by taking fake jobs to get close to their target, wearing an old lady disguise, breaking into homes, and even crashing AA meetings, is fairly amusing. Up to a point.

I judge comedies by how much I laugh, and watching TAG, I laughed fairly often, but most of these laughs came during the first half of the movie. For the most part it’s a likable enough comedy, but it never becomes a laugh-to-you-cry type of experience. And that’s because even though this is based on a true story, the novelty of watching adult males playing tag only goes so far.

The jokes and situations needed to be sharper. The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen is okay.  It does a nice job showing the lengths these guys go to in order to win the game, but during the film’s second half it’s just begging for things to get over the top and completely out of control, but this doesn’t happen, as the story goes for some sentimentality instead.

The recent comedy GAME NIGHT (2018), another “friends” comedy with a different contrivance -friends playing a murder/mystery game that unknown to them was in fact real— I thought had a stronger screenplay, with more jokes that worked and much funnier situations.  TAG has its moments, but it doesn’t stay consistently funny throughout.

The cast is fine. Ed Helms sort of has the lead role, as his character Hogan seems to try the hardest to win the game. Helms can do this sort of thing in his sleep, which is part of the problem. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Helms do before. I enjoyed him much more cast against type in a dramatic role in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2017).

I’m a big Jon Hamm fan, and he kinda plays it straight here. He spends most of the time reacting to what his other friends are doing.  I would have preferred to have seen Hamm stretch his acting chops and go for some comedic timing.

The guy who is really funny is Hannibal Buress as Kevin.  He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Jake Johnson is okay as Chilli, but the character is rather annoying and is certainly the least likable of the friends, which is saying a lot since Jeremy Renner’s character Jerry isn’t likable either.  I enjoyed Johnson much more on the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18).

I can’t say that I enjoyed Jeremy Renner all that much either. His character Jerry spends most of the film talking down to his friends and acting superior to them. I get that he’s supposed to the tag champion, but the writing here does the character and the story no favors by making him a very unlikable guy.

And even though this is based on a true story, I doubt the game included the intricately choreographed stunts and fight moves that Jerry uses to elude his friends. Strangely, these CGI enhanced scenes, which reminded me a lot of the action scenes in the movie KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014) were among the least funny scenes in the film.

On the other hand, some of the earlier scenes of physical comedy, scenes where Chilli tries to leap from a fire escape and where Jon Hamm’s Bob tries to smash through some unbreakable glass, for example, are funny.  Much of the film relies on the use of heavy slapstick rather than verbal jokes, but with mixed results, as a lot of those polished staged action scenes just don’t tickle the funny bone.

The women in the cast actually score a bit higher than the men.  Isla Fisher is hilarious as Hogan’s wife Anna. She makes Anna an over the top intense character, and it’s the type of thing that’s missing from her male co-stars’ performances. As such, it’s my favorite performance in the movie

I’m also a fan of Annabelle Wallis, a talented actress who is still waiting for her break-out film role.  She’s been in such movies as ANNABELLE (2014), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and, ugh, THE MUMMY (2017), and she was also on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2016). She plays it straight here as the newspaper reporter who decides to tell the guys’ story, but she’s very good in what otherwise could have been a forgettable role. She’s someone to watch going forward.

Director Jeff Tomsic gets mixed results with this one. I thought the plot was a good one. It was fun to watch how far these guys would go to play tag, and early on the physical comedy was pretty uproarious, but the film actually becomes less funny as it goes along because the concept of adults playing tag gets old quick without a strong script to add depth and keep things going.

I also never got the feel for how close these guys were. They said they were friends, but we don’t really see it other than in the context of the silly game of tag.

And I didn’t really like the Jeremy Renner “action” scenes at all. I thought they were the most phony and unfunny parts of the film.

TAG has its moments, and these moments were good enough to make me laugh here and there, but taken as a whole, it’s not quite the solid comedy it starts out to be. Like most games of tag, it kinda fizzles out after a while.

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