REVIEW: “The Best of Enemies” (2019)

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File this one under ‘too crazy not to be true’. The deep personal friendship between outspoken civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader turned fellow civil rights activist C.P. Ellis is as inspiring as it is extraordinary. The new drama “The Best of Enemies” tells their remarkable story which is nothing short of improbable.

The film is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. It marks the feature film debut for Robin Bissell who directs and wrote the screenplay. Bissell spent a ton of time with Atwater learning from her experiences and getting valuable input. The two became close with Atwater giving Bissell’s script her enthusiastic stamp of approval. Sadly she would pass away in June of 2016.

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The film is driven by two equally big yet equally fabulous performances. Taraji P. Henson loses herself playing Atwater, a single mother raising her children in the powder keg that was 1971 Durham, North Carolina. A notorious fireball (even earning herself the nickname Roughhouse Annie), she was an ardent community organizer and the face of a local hard-working activist group.

C.P. Ellis is played by the always fiercely committed Sam Rockwell. In Bissell’s telling Ellis runs a small full service gas station (he was actually a college maintenance man) which barely offers enough income to support his wife and kids. But people around town mostly know him as the president of Durham’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This earns him the respect of the prejudiced white community, understandably draws the ire of the black community, and sets him up as a puppet for opportunistic local politicians.

A suspicious fire at a black elementary school pushes integration to the forefront of local conversation. The white supremacists see it as segregation’s last stand and they have a stacked City Council to back them. The outspoken Atwater leads the other side who are willing to defend their children and their rights regardless of the cost. As the threat of violence intensifies Bill Riddick (a pitch-perfect Babou Ceesay), a lawyer and organizer from Raleigh, is brought in to mediate a 10-day “Save Our Schools” community summit to find a public resolution. I bet you can guess who he chooses as his co-chairs?

Bissell’s script tees up several big scenes especially for Henson. They certainly come across as attention-getters but it helps that Henson knocks it out of the park. She’s also given some meaty monologues which not only highlights the performance, but shows Bissell’s smart handling of dialogue. Sure they can be a bit on-the-nose, but they always feel genuine and in tune with the characters and story.

The second half shifts more of its focus to Ellis and not because of some racially insensitive preference of the filmmaker (I’ve actually seen that intimated). Ellis’ transformation is not only key to where the story is going but true to the real-life relationship at the film’s center. Bissell doesn’t sugarcoat Ellis’ deep-rooted prejudice, but he does give Ellis some emotional complexities and personal insecurities which paint him as more than your run-of-the-mill stereotype. Rockwell is superb.

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Other strengths of the film – I like how it captures the early seventies southern setting complete with its boiling racial tensions. The ugliness of white supremacy and the powerful influence the Klan still brandished is captured and conveyed in a palpable way. I also can’t say enough about the supporting cast. Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, and John Gallagher, Jr. all deliver. My only real beefs – There are second half stretches where we simply don’t get enough of Henson. And at just over 130 minutes couldn’t a little more time be given to the personal side of Ellis and Atwater’s budding friendship?

It’s pretty easy to predict some of the reactions “The Best of Enemies” is sure to provoke. Expect plenty of critical snark and quick dismissals along with the inevitable “white savior” tag (I’m sorry, but if the film has a true “savior” its Bill Riddick). Sadly, for some it doesn’t matter how much truth is in the storytelling. Unless the film is blistering, brash and screaming at the top of its lungs it won’t penetrate those looking at this subject matter through their own specific prism. That’s a shame because the harsh labels and strange readings can’t keep this from being a thoughtful and worthwhile picture. And boy is there room for its message, especially in today’s far-from-colorblind society.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

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In my eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor has clearly established himself as an exceptional actor. Netflix’s latest original film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” proves that Ejiofor has more in his filmmaking skill set than what we have seen in front of the camera. Here he not only stars in the film, but directs and writes the screenplay for what is at its core a soulful and affecting family drama.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is based on the true story of a 13-year-old boy who built a wind turbine out of scrap to save his small African village from a devastating famine. So you kind of know from the start where the movie is heading. But as cliché as it may sound, this film is genuinely all about the journey and the characters who make up its center – characters who Ejiofor clearly cares about and who are given plenty of room to develop.

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Ejiofor plays Trywell Kamkwamba, a husband and father who farms a dry patch of land in the small village of Wimbe. It’s hard work but Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) have managed to put enough back to send their bright and resourceful son William (an excellent Maxwell Simba) to middle school. Their older daughter Annie (Lily Banda) anxiously awaits her chance to go to college once her turn comes back around.

But a series of misfortunes dramatically changes things not only for the Kamkwambas but the entire region. Flooding during the sowing season and a crippling drought that follows leads to a poor harvest. An upcoming election has the troubled government in political turmoil making it an unreliable source for any kind of aid. Economically-strapped villages are left to fend for themselves which sends many into chaos.

This brings a heartbreaking strain on the Kamkwamba family. During this time Ejiofor subtly shifts the point of view from Trywell to William. He observes his father slowly cracking under the pressure, his frustrated sister fighting the urge to leave the village, and his mother desperately trying to keep their household together. Ever the inventive one, William conceives a wild plan to build a wind-powered turbine to provide water for his village. But will anyone buy into his idea?

I really appreciate Ejiofor’s willingness to look at his characters through different lenses. These people are fleshed out and multidimensional with real strengths, faults, and a range of organic emotions. They feel like a living, breathing part of the world Ejiofor vividly presents. It also helps that he shot on location in Malawi. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, much as he did in “Mr. Turner”, creates a beautiful and immersive canvas that is visually stunning but with enough subtlety to keep from drawing attention to itself.

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I loved “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. The predictability may be a hurdle for some and it could be a bit too restrained for those looking for edgier storytelling. But I found it to be a beautiful and at times heartbreaking slice of real life. Ejiofor’s script and direction captures the heart of William Kamkwamba’s touching and inspirational memoir. The performances are even better with Ejiofor rivaling his Oscar-nominated work from “12 Years a Slave” and young Simba standing out as a true revelation.

Ejiofor has said he bought the films rights to this incredible story after being drawn by its optimism and hopefulness. Next he found it essential to be as authentic as possible by learning and incorporating the Chichewa language and by shooting on actual Malawi locations. Finally it was about telling William’s story – a young boy far removed from the privileges we tend to take for granted, living in a village crippled by a famine, but with the heart and know-how to help. The results of Ejiofor’s efforts are exceptional.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

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When you think of rock-and-roll biopics it’s hard to come up with a better subject than the incandescent and enigmatic Freddie Mercury. As lead singer for the legendary British rock band Queen, the wildly flamboyant Mercury became a household name across the globe. He would perform with Queen for over 20 years until his AIDS-related death in 1991. He was just 45.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” sets out to tell the story of Freddie Mercury starting around the time Queen was formed in 1970 and finishing up with their famous twenty-one minute Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985. In between it hits on a several significant moments in Mercury’s life while making up a few of its own. The results are a by-the-numbers musical biopic that feels pretty basic despite the compelling character at its center.

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The embattled Bryan Singer handled the bulk of the direction before being fired due to constant no-shows and clashes with the cast and crew most notably the film’s star Rami Malek. Dexter Fletcher replaced Singer with around two-thirds of the movie shot and ready for post-production. I’ll let others figure out which one deserves the most credit and/or the most blame for how things turned out.

Rami Malek is easily the film’s biggest strength. He seamlessly maneuvers between the two sides of Freddie Mercury – the shy and intensely private man and his garish, energetic stage persona. He deftly unveils Mercury’s quiet sensitivity and insecurity. But even more impressive is watching Malek lose himself onstage, perfectly reflecting Mercury’s rock-and-roll alter-ego. Whether strutting charismatically or belting out (kinda) classics with a four-octave range. It’s amazing to watch.

Mercury is very much the centerpiece to the point where the rest of the band almost gets lost in the background. It’s a shame because the movie is best when viewed as a simple celebration of their music. The very best scenes are when the band is together fighting over and making music. That includes a fabulous final twenty minutes which recreates Queen’s Live Aid concert performance and perfectly captures the band’s remarkable chemistry and energy.

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But the movie struggles when the focus is solely on Mercury. The filmmakers make several weird omissions and peculiar changes to his timeline. In the film’s most glaring bit of fiction an arrogant and selfish Mercury, enamored by his own stardom, breaks up Queen to pursue his solo career. In reality Queen never broke up. It’s a needless demonization. There is an attempt to representation Mercury’s descent into the grips of drugs and debauchery. It gets the message across but isn’t what I would call enlightening.

So with “Bohemian Rhapsody” you end up with a very safe and conventional biopic that aims more at being a crowd-pleaser than an in-depth character exploration. When viewed in that light it’s a pretty enjoyable film. Malek is fantastic as is most of the supporting cast (Gwilym Lee’s resemblance to Brain May is uncanny). And while I learned nothing new about Queen or Freddie Mercury, the movie concentrates enough on the music to make it worthwhile.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Beautiful Boy”

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Steve Carell is one busy guy. “Beautiful Boy” was one of three movies he put out in 2018 and his sixth in two years. The film also stars Timothée Chalamet, a good young actor who has essentially become the new Jennifer Lawrence. You know what I mean – a hot young newcomer who gets loads of critical attention and awards nominations for pretty much anything he does…at least for a few years.

I don’t want to cut Chalamet short. He is a good actor. Maybe not to a level matching the overflowing praise, but good nonetheless. For proof look no further than “Beautiful Boy”. His portrayal of a drug addicted 18-year-old calls for a big performance that grabs most of the attention. It’s a role that easily could have went the wrong way. But hats off to Chalamet for keeping his performance under control.

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At its core “Beautiful Boy” is a heartbreaking father/son story based on the memoirs of author David Sheff and his son Nic. Carell portrays Sheff, a father broadsided by the discovery that his teenage son Nic (Chalamet) is a drug addict. The two have always had a close loving relationship but the drug abuse drives a wedge between them. So as Nic tries to break the grip of addiction David tries to deal with the painful reality that his relationship with his son may never be the same.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen and adapted by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, “Beautiful Boy” has all the ingredients it needs to tell this story and it does a good job dividing its time between father and son. In many ways this is more about David and the problem of hope turning to naiveté. He believes that love and encouragement will cure his son and as a writer he has always had the right words. Reality shows him different. Carell hits most of the right beats, but there are moments, particularly the emotionally heavy ones, that aren’t quite as strong.

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At the same time they wisely don’t overdo it with Nic. He is a very believable representation of a young addict in part because of Chalamet, but just as much due to the the script. Flashbacks reveal a bright teen full of joy yet not always helped by his father’s decisions. But even as he unravels the script never loses sight of his deep human qualities and emotions. This makes the looming uncertainty all the more devastating.

Strangely not all of the film is as engrossing as the performances or the story material. It’s hard to put a finger on why. It’s not that it lacks a realistic edge or the characters fall short. It’s more to do with the rhythm of the storytelling which is a bit uneven in the second half. But it doesn’t undo the film’s ability to evoke empathy and heartache. And in the end that’s what the movie needed to do the most.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bird Box”

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Arguably the weirdest titled movie of 2018 has debuted on Netflix and with quite a bit of attention. According to the streaming giant “Bird Box” has been watched by 45 million accounts making it the “best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film.” Skeptics notwithstanding, those are pretty impressive numbers especially for a usually tight-lipped company.

“Bird Box” is a genre stew featuring slices of horror, psychological drama, science-fiction, and end-of-the-world thrillers. It’s based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 debut novel of the same name and adapted to screen by Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”). Danish director Susanne Bier is tasked with corralling it all together and she manages it with a satisfying effectiveness.

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The film opens with a mother named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) giving strict instructions to two children as they prep for a dangerous trek up a river. The three blindfold themselves before feeling their way to a fiberglass rowboat. After a few more pointed warnings they begin the treacherous journey upstream.

Flashback to five years earlier. A terrifying unknown presence surfaces causing anyone who lays eyes on it to suddenly kill themselves. Malorie, now pregnant and a soon to be single mother, finds herself holed up in a house with an assortment of strangers all trying to make sense of the rampant death and chaos.

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“Bird Box” bounces back-and-forth between the present day river scenes and the flashbacks which reveal what led Malorie to that point. Most of that time is spent in the house where survivors battle fear and uncertainty as supplies begin to run out and new survivors show up. A talent-rich supporting cast fill out the group. There’s Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Douglas (John Malkovich), Cheryl (Jackie Weaver), Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), and Charlie (Lil Rey Howery) among others.

Parenting is a central theme and we see it from both literal and metaphorical angles. When it works it’s mostly due to a stellar performance from Bullock who hasn’t lost a step and shows she can still navigate an intense range of emotions. But it’s not always easy to keep the theme in focus especially when the film stumbles into some familiar genre trappings. There is clearly a thematic throughline, but you never lose sight that this is very much a genre(s) movie.

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The film’s opening 20 minutes are its best, introducing its terrifying unseen threat that is undeniably menacing yet intentionally undefined. It turns society upside-down much like the killer first scenes of 2013’s “World War Z” yet on a smaller scale. Bier builds plenty of suspense and then carries it over to the film’s more character-focused house segment. Some of the characters work better than others. Rhodes is a standout. Malkovich is very John Malkovich-like. Weaver is sadly lost in the crowd.

“Bird Box” runs the gambit from riveting to predictable to kinda silly. At the same time it’s never boring and the performances are always worth watching. The convergence of survival and motherhood within such a sinister setting is a cool concept and Bullock wonderfully fleshes it out for us. She’s the movie’s backbone and even when the story sputters at times she puts it on her back and carries it to finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bumblebee”

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If you’re like me the very notion of a “Bumblebee” movie was easy to dismiss. I have been numb to the Transformers movie franchise since its second installment 2009. For me the movies spiraled into the kind of blockbuster I generally push back on – tons of CGI-fueled spectacle but barely a shred of story or character substance to sink your teeth into.

Then along comes “Bumblebee” and several things automatically grab your attention. For starters it’s the first Transformers film not directed by Michael Bay. Second, it stars a really good young actress in Hailee Steinfeld. Lastly, the movie is currently sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. That was just enough to lure me into letting my guard down and actually going to the theater.

“Bumblebee” is both interesting and surprising – a prequel to the 2007 original film and far more intimate and clear-eyed than any of Michael Bay’s concoctions. It’s the second film from director Travis Knight, his first being the exceptional “Kubo and the Two Strings”. He and screenwriter Christina Hodson place a heavy emphasis on character which gives “Bumblebee” an emotional pulse missing from the franchise’s other installments.

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As civil war rages on his home planet, Autobot soldier B-127 (later named Bumblebee) is sent to earth by leader Optimus Prime. His mission is to covertly establish a resistance base while protecting the planet if their enemies the Decepticons happen to show up. Bumblebee lands in 1987 California but has to fend off a testy government agency captained by John Cena and even worse a Decepticon who tailed him to Earth. Bumblebee survives the encounter but ends up seriously damaged, unable to speak and with a broken memory core. As a result he helplessly takes the form of a Volkswagen Beetle and shuts down.

Steinfeld’s Charlie is a bit of an outcast only days away from her 18th birthday. She still grieves the loss of her father and has been unable to move on like her mother (Pamela Adlon) who has since remarried. Charlie’s life is a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration whether it’s her downer job at a local carnival or she’s trying to fix up an old car she and her dad worked on together. She finds a glimmer of purpose in a dusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle (guess who) she discovers in her uncle’s junkyard.

While working on her new ride Charlie inadvertently wakes Bumblebee and in the process emits a signal quickly picked up by the Decepticons. The two quickly form a bond which Knight smartly spends a lot of time on. Both characters share a similar lostness but find a much-needed comfort in their relationship. This could have been an easy misfire but Hodson’s script has a legitimate heartbeat. It’s sweet and surprisingly tender without ever turning to mush. And Steinfeld is such a good actress either in the film’s softer moments or once the inevitable threat eventually arrives.

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Other things that work – the movie’s sense of humor. Most of the Transformers films have tried to incorporate some level of humor. Here it comes from a better and more digestible place. It’s far from the crude and obnoxious nonsense several of Bay’s movies would peddle. “Bumblebee” also leans heavy into its 80’s setting. There are fun little 80’s nuggets spread throughout the film (who else remembers Mr. T cereal?) and the soundtrack is a blast.

As for what doesn’t quite work – while I did fall for the 80’s vibe there are moments where it is glaringly on-the-nose especially with the music. This is most noticeable in the first half (admittedly I still got a kick out of it). And then there is John Cena who inevitably pops back up as the misguided government antagonist. The character isn’t well written to begin with, but Cena doesn’t really help matters. He’s a bit is stiff, cheesy and often too cartoony to be taken seriously.

I realize calling “Bumblebee” the best film in the Transformers franchise isn’t much of a compliment. So let me try this – “Bumblebee” is a good spin-off that easily stands on its own unique merits. It’s able to dodge nearly every comparison to the more abyssmal of Michael Bay’s efforts while also giving us hope that the franchise can offer something worthwhile. The question becomes is it a case of too little too late?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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