RETRO REVIEW: “Mississippi Burning” (1988)

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It was interesting to finally revisit 1988’s “Mississippi Burning” after so many years especially in light of the recent wave of fresh new filmmakers offering their own points of view on racism and the historical stain it has left on America’s social fabric. It was a movie that faced more than its share of criticisms, some thoughtful and others unfair.

The film is based on a true story about three young civil rights workers who went missing in 1964 Mississippi. The title comes from “MIBURN”, the code name given to the missing persons investigation by the FBI after the workers’ burnt-out car was discovered. It would become one of the signature cases in the long and painful road towards racial justice.

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Many of the criticisms were unfortunate especially considering the type of movie “Mississippi Burning” is. There were complaints, even boycotts aimed at the film’s inaccuracies, its choice of story perspective, and its lack of a central black character. And then there was the unwarranted white savior accusation, as if the situation in that small Mississippi town had been dramatically changed for the better by the end of the film. This was never meant to be a documentary. It’s clearly a fictionalization intended as a suspenseful police drama but with the guts to hold up a mirror to the segregated south.

Director Alan Parker starts his film with an impeccably shot opening sequence. At dusk three young men are driving down a country road in Jessup County, Mississippi. Within seconds three vehicles are barreling down on them. The foreboding beats of Trevor Jones’ score and Peter Biziou’s tension-soaked cinematography lets us know that something bad is about to happen.

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The boys go missing and the FBI sends Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman), a brash but seasoned g-man with southern connections of his own and Agent Alan Ward (Willem Defoe), a by-the-numbers bureau guy fresh out of the Justice Department. Their approaches to the investigation are drastically different. Anderson wants to melt into the community, getting information by mixing with the locals at the barbershop or the Main Street cafe. Ward wants to use every government resource at his disposal. That includes over 100 FBI agents who converge on the small Mississippi town much to the chagrin of Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain). He and his slimeball Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif) put up every wall of jurisdiction they can and work hard to convince the townsfolk that the feds don’t belong there.

Anderson and Ward find themselves in a boiling hotbed of deeply ingrained racism. With the KKK running free and a seemingly complicit local law enforcement, finding clues to the missing boys’ whereabouts proves difficult. This touches on one of most heart-shattering elements to the story which involves the black community and their unwillingness to share information with the feds.

This reveals a terrible circle of injustice. Anderson and Ward can’t tighten the screws on racist local suspects unless the black folks will talk to them. The black folks won’t talk to them for fear of violent retaliation from the racist locals. Anyone in the black community who speaks out ends up hurt or killed. Their families are terrorized and their homes burnt to the ground. As Anderson tells a discouraged Ward, “They have to live here long after we’re gone.” It’s a revealing truth that the film handles well.

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As a crime thriller “Mississippi Burning” maintains a simmering level of suspense. Interestingly the suspense lies more in how things play out rather than what the outcome will be. The longer the movie goes the worse things get. Hope dwindles and patience begins to wear thin. Several key players factor in most notably Deputy Pell’s wife (played by an excellent Frances McDormand who received her first Oscar nomination). We also get a young Michael Rucker playing a hate-fueled yokel with a disgustingly long leash.

But it all comes back to the two leads. DaFoe works at the perfect temperature for his character, a principled man with a sharp blend of smarts and naïveté. But it’s Hackman who steals the show reminding us of just how good of an actor he is. Effortlessly natural at every turn, convincingly fiery when needed, and with loads subtle flourishes that make his performance stand out.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Monsters and Men”

monstersposterOf the recent wave of movies dealing with the subject of racism, one of the lesser talked about films is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men”. It premiered at Sundance 2018, was picked up for distribution by Neon, and was released in late September to very little buzz. That’s a shame because most of what we get works exceptionally well.

The movie is broken into three acts, each linked by a single incident that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The first two are the most organically connected while the third is more out on its own. It’s also the one story that is the most obvious and easily the most predictable. While the story seems ripped from the headlines, Green attempts to dig beneath them to show three unique perspectives and the impact the incident has on these three lives.

A powerful opening starts things on a strong foot. A law-abiding black man is driving through the city singing along to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. For seemingly no reason blue lights flash and he’s pulled over. Director Green and his cinematographer Patrick Scola keep the camera on the driver’s face in an intense closeup that shows the boiling frustration but also the keen awareness of senseless danger. The black man is Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an off duty Brooklyn cop. We later discover it’s the sixth time he’s been pulled over in six months.

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The first act centers around Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) who lives in his mother’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood apartment with his expecting wife and their young daughter. While on his way to meet friends he witnesses an altercation between a local fixture Darius “Big D” Larson (Samuel Edwards) and the NYPD. Darius is shot dead and Manny captures it all on his phone. Now he must decide whether to share the footage with the world or keep it to himself and protect his family.

The second act moves back to Dennis, a well-respected police officer and devoted family man. His precinct faces strong public backlash following the shooting and Dennis struggles to make sense of it all. He’s a good cop who knows first-hand the reality of racial profiling in the department but also the dangers police officers face anytime they strap on the vest. Washington gives the film’s standout performance, deeply sensitive and effortlessly charismatic.

The third act doesn’t quite pack the punch of the other two and comes across as more calculated. It’s premise is good. Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a promising high school baseball prospect who has pro scouts salivating. This excites his father (the always good Rob Morgan) who sees this as his son’s ticket out of the inner city. But after the shooting of Big D, Zyrick is compelled to join a protest group and let his voice be heard. But at what cost to his bright future?

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Green makes several interesting choices. First we never see the altercation between Big D and the police with our own eyes. Instead we see the reactions to the video from the film’s three key players. Perhaps most interesting is how none of the three stories have a tidy ending. Is it because we still don’t have a satisfying real-world answer? Is it to allow us to wrestle with and resolve their stories for ourselves? Either way I found it effective.

Despite losing steam in its third act, “Monsters and Men” maintains a steady sense of intimacy and relevance. Its stories feel personal and offer unique points of view on a smoldering current issue. And they’re told through several really good performances, especially from John David Washington. With only a handful of films under his acting belt, he’s already shown himself to be one of the industry’s most charismatic talents.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot”

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Say what you want to about the film, but you can’t deny that the man behind it certainly went with an attention-grabbing title for his feature film debut. Robert D. Krzykowski’s  “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot” screams low-budget pulp. Who knew it was actually a meditative character study full of deep feeling and pathos. Don’t let it’s peculiar title fool you.

The film had a much different shape when Krzykowski begin writing the script some twelve years ago. His original concept was more of a playful exploitation film that fell in line with the quirkiness of its title. Over time it took on a more pensive form in large part due to real-life emotions Krzykowski was dealing with.

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It instantly makes a good impression by casting Sam Elliott as its lead. He has always been an actor who could instantly grab the audience’s trust. He’s effortlessly charismatic and consistently great. Krzykowski hands him a role tailor-made for his down-to-earth and quietly rugged strengths.

Elliott plays a melancholy World War 2 veteran named Calvin Barr. He’s a man coming to terms with his old age and still reckoning with past choices that he either made or in some cases didn’t make. Krzykowski gives us several of Calvin’s simple day-to-day moments. To be honest I would enjoy watching Sam Elliott walk his dog or get a haircut for a full 90 minutes. But these moments actually give some meaningful insight into his character and what makes him tick. He’s a lonely man who has an occasional conversation with his little brother Ed (Larry Miller) or his bartender friend George (Alton White). But his closest confidant is Ralph, his faithful Golden Retriever.

Interestingly there is a second timeline which follows young Calvin (Aiden Turner) both during and surrounding WW2. Several of the things we see there get to the roots of old man Calvin’s state of mind. They include him falling for a charming young school teacher named Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald) and of course the covert military mission alluded to in the title. Krzykowski clearly wants to give both timelines space to have their own identity but it’s almost unavoidable that we find ourselves wanting to getting back to Elliott. Still the flashback timeline works.

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While the film is fully aware of the absurdity it dangles in front of its audience, it manages to take itself seriously mainly because it takes Calvin seriously. It treats him in a way that both demands and earns our empathy. Whether he’s sifting through his feelings of remorse and regret or wrestling with the ideas of heroism and being an unheralded legend. So when Calvin in approached by government agents seeking his help in hunting down the plague-spreading Bigfoot, we strangely care about his decision despite the sheer nuttiness of it all.

That gets to what I love most about “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot”. It’s unashamedly preposterous yet so earnest where it counts most. There is a crazy yet fascinating harmony to these two seemingly opposites and the movie has a much deeper core than you might think. And it doesn’t hurt to have a fabulous Sam Elliott performance at the center. It’s a movie certain to clash with some people’s expectations, but once I got in with its unusual rhythms I was completely hooked.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Minding the Gap”

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Filmmaker Bing Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois a struggling city of approximately 150,000 people. At 14 he was given his first video camera and almost immediately he began making his first short films. At age 19 he began a project concentrating on growing up in the skateboarding community. This would become “Minding the Gap”, now an Oscar-nominated documentary which is anything but ‘another skateboarding movie’.

For Liu “Minding the Gap” is a deeply personal exploration. He serves as director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer, but his deeper connection is with the subject matter itself. The film revolves around three friends: Keire, Zack, and Bing. The film’s deftly shot opening shows the friends skateboarding across a seemingly vacant downtown Rockford. We quickly learn this is more than just social time. It’s their time to release and escape from the hands life has dealt them.

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A heartbreaking through-line becomes evident the more we get to know these three young men. Keire is African-American and sports a million dollar smile and an infectious personality. But beneath the surface he struggles with troubling memories of his late father who, despite their complex past, Keire misses greatly. He’s such an endearing person and your heart aches for him.

Zack is a bit of a wild-child with an unhealthy love for alcohol. His edgy and reckless lifestyle was his response to growing up with a cruel and oppressive father. But he smacks headfirst into reality after his girlfriend Nina finds out she’s pregnant. Liu’s camera careful documents Zack’s attempted transition from rebellious rowdy to responsible father.

Later Liu brings his own personal story into focus revealing that he too was the victim of an abusive father. For Liu making the film is a means of catharsis and it opens up an opportunity for him to reckon with his painful childhood. His story seamlessly intertwines with the others making each feel distinct and personal yet all part of a single powerful and moving theme.

You can’t say enough about the film’s subtle transformation from an observational study of young adulthood to a piercing examination of domestic abuse and its lasting effects. Liu displays such control of his vision and a good sense of how to bring it all together. He shows it most in the editing room (alongside co-editor Joshua Altman) where they cut through nearly twelve years of footage yet still create something strikingly intimate.

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I doubt “Minding the Gap” would be as effective without fully embracing the cinéma vérité approach. The rawness of Liu’s images and the bare, unrestrained conversations are purely organic and sole-baring. There are instances where Liu is perhaps so dedicated to allowing things to play out naturally that people suffer as a result. It poses an interesting question of how much a filmmaker (particularly a documentarian) should get involved when he/she knows something bad has happened. And how much (if any) responsibility lies at their feet? This was a question I still struggle with concerning a couple of the film’s darker moments.

Still, there’s no denying the emotional gut-punch “Minding the Gap” packs. It’s all about the heart-breaking struggles of Keire, Zack, and Liu and the different life paths each of them travel. Will they be able the mend the wounds of past abuse? Will they repeat the sins of their fathers? It can all be pretty tough to watch. But just when we need it, we’re given one of those freeing skateboarding sequences – beautifully shot and full of smiles, laughter and energy. They offer us glimmers of hope for these young men, so full of life yet burdened by their pasts and uncertain of their futures.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Miss Bala” (2019)

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I found the very concept of “Miss Bala” to be promising. It’s a female-driven crime-thriller with a predominantly Latino cast and crew built around an interesting story premise and with plenty of big action. I found myself genuinely hopeful and rooting for the movie to offer a new and unique point of view.

We certainly get glimpses of that as director Catherine Hardwicke tries to walk the line between fresh and conventional. For the most part she succeeds. To my surprise “Miss Bala” isn’t wall-to-wall action with story beats only meant to move us to the next set piece. Instead Hardwicke and writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer give more attention to storytelling than to bullet-soaked bravado. If only the script had covered all its bases.

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The film stars Gina Rodriguez who gives a truly eye-opening performance. She plays Gloria, an ambitious make-up artist working in Los Angeles. She heads to Tijuana, Mexico to visit and help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. The trouble starts when the two friends go to a swanky nightclub in hopes of making connections with some of the pageant bigwigs. A shootout breaks out, Suzu disappears and Gloria finds herself in the clutches of a ruthless boy band…..errr… drug gang.

The leader of this young and often shirtless band of hoodlums is Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova). He tells Gloria he’ll help her find Suzu but first she has to do some jobs for him (not that she really has a choice in the matter). At the same time the DEA gets wind of her and demands she works as their mole in Lino’s gang in exchange for their protection. Gloria ends up a pawn between two warring groups and must play both sides in order to stay alive.

“Miss Bala” is most effective when it centers on Gloria’s quest to survive in a world dominated by devious, power-hungry men. Rodriguez sells fear and dread at the perfect temperature. Her emotions ring true and every action she takes feels as though they are coming from a real place. In other words she is no female take on John Rambo. Hardwicke’s perspective always keeps her humanity in focus.

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Where the film falls short is in its characterization of its villains. First off it never goes as deep as it should in describing who these violent baddies are. Does the strangely dreamy Lino and his goons work for a cartel? Are they middlemen or do they run the show? The other group is just as undefined – generic corrupt politicians somehow linked to a sex trafficking ring. It also doesn’t help that most of them are as smart as a bag of rocks.

“Miss Bala” lacks the edge you would expect from this type of movie and its story plays out in the most implausible way. I also think you could argue that the film comes a little to close to glamorizing gang life. But Rodriguez is really good and she’s given just enough to keep us invested in her and her survival despite the pieces around her sometimes falling short. She ends up being enough for me to recommend the film while at the same team fully realizing it could have been a lot better.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Mule”

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Even at the spry young age of of 88 Clint Eastwood remains a captivating presence behind the camera and especially on the movie screen. With “The Mule” he shows he still has the acting chops to carry a movie and he’s still a solid director who can tell a good story even if the material isn’t always up to snuff.

“The Mule” is based on a 2014 New York Times article by Sam Dolnick. It detailed the crazy true story of 90-Year-Old Leo Sharp and his life as one of the most prolific drug mules in history. For over ten years Sharp transported thousands of pounds of cocaine across the country for the Sinaloa Cartel. The article was adapted by screenwriter Nick Schenk who previously worked with Eastwood on “Gran Torino”.

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Eastwood plays Earl Stone (inspired by Leo Sharp), an esteemed horticulturist known for his award-winning daylilies. But with the rise of the internet Earl finds his once bustling greenhouse out of business. His family wants nothing to do with him after years of neglect save his soon-to-be-married granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl’s ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) aren’t as forgiving and with good reason.

Broke and estranged, Earl takes the job of a “mule” for a Mexican cartel. Several successful runs later, he finds himself rolling in cash and in good standing with the the cartel boss (Andy Garcia). He hopes to use his newfound wealth to regain his community status and make amends with his family but finds out nothing is certain in such a dangerous and volatile business.

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We also get a parallel story of a Chicago-based DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) hungry for a big bust. This story thread follows him and his partner (Michael Peña) as they try to plug the flow of drugs into the city. It’s inevitable that they and Earl eventually cross paths, the trailer tells us as much. Interesting idea but unfortunately everything about their investigation up to that point is so restrained that it offers very little in terms of suspense or drama.

It’s tempting to go into “The Mule” expecting a tense crime thriller. That’s certainly how the trailer frames it. There are moments of that, but ultimately this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s all about a man running from his guilt, seeing the light, but still left to reckon with the choices he has made. It’s this primary focus that makes “The Mule” work. And don’t let his age fool you, Clint Eastwood remains a fascinating and immensely watchable presence.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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