REVIEW: “The Hate U Give”

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There seems to be a new wave of movies dealing with one of the hot button social issues of our day – police brutality. It’s an important issue but one often caught up in the mire of politics and emotion. Strong feelings on both sides often lead to the conversation spiraling away from the meat of the matter and into frivolous side debates.

Sometimes what we need is a pointed yet levelheaded examination. For the most part that is what we get in director George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give”, a film adapted from Angie Thomas’ young adult novel of the same name. Without question “The Hate U Give” is looking at its issues from a specific point of view, but that doesn’t undercut the relevance of what it has to say nor does it negate the power with which it says it.

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In what should be a star-making performance, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter. She’s a bit of a chameleon, taking on different personas in the two worlds she occupies. During the day she is one of the only African-American kids in her mostly white private prep school. While there she hides anything that may hint at where she is from. And where is she from? The lower income and predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she back-pockets and keeps quiet about her school life especially her white boy friend Chris (KJ Apa).

Keeping her two worlds apart is the easiest thing for Starr, but it’s not without complications. A portion of the movie deals with her bouncing between cultures and finding it hard to fit into either. For Starr it becomes about putting off the facades, discovering who she is, and finding her own distinct voice. Unfortunately the catalyst for Starr’s evolution is a senseless act of violence.

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At a late night party in Garden Heights Starr bumps into childhood friend and first crush Khalil (Algee Smith). After gunfire rings out, Kahlil helps Starr out of the party and drives her home. On the way they are pulled over by a patrolman for a lane violation. Minutes later the cop panics, an unarmed Khalil lay shot to death, and Starr is the lone witness.

News of the tragedy reverberates throughout the community, the city, and eventually the nation. Starr’s father Maverick (a terrific Russell Hornsby) wants her to use her voice regardless of her apprehensions. Starr’s mother (an equally good Regina Hall) wants her to stay quiet fearing the repercussions of the spotlight. As Starr is torn between defending her friend and protecting her family, others unknowingly treat her like a pawn for their own agendas. It makes finding her voice even more of a struggle.

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While police brutality is the film’s central topic, it explores a host of other racial and socioeconomic issues. It looks at urban poverty, profiling, drug dealing, protesting, among several other things. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly died earlier this month) leans on her big lot of characters to explore these subjects. The characters are a strength and even the smallest are authentic and believable pieces of the story. There are a couple exceptions. Her white friends from school often come across as clichés intended to move the narrative in certain directions. And I loved Anthony Mackie as a local gang leader and drug pusher. He is intense and menacing but too often relegated to giving intimidating stares from a distance.

George Tillman Jr. works with a lot of moving parts and manages them with an able hand. He tells a good story while only occasionally dipping too far into melodrama. His movie is very open about about its feelings which is to its credit. At the same time its earnestness occasionally leads the film to paint in broad strokes and dabble in generalizations. But those instances are rare. Ultimately “The Hate U Give” is a film that speaks its mind but does so with optimism. The filmmakers want to make a difference and they truly believe their film can help do so.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

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It’s easy to get lost among the huge and larger than life Marvel movie properties such as Thor, Iron Man, and The Avengers. Such was the case with Captain America and his 2011 film “The First Avenger”. Now don’t misunderstand me, Cap’s first solo movie project was still a hit and it raked in just over $370 million at the box office. But it is rarely mentioned in the conversations about Marvel’s growing cinematic landscape. Personally I loved “The First Avenger” and its distinct and unique flavor. Well obviously its success means a second film will follow, but unlike many sequels Cap’s new chapter legitimately excited me.

“The Winter Soldier” was an amazing storyline that ran through the Captain America comics starting in 2005. It was written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by the amazing Steve Epting. The two developed an engrossing story that has become one of my favorite comic book storylines ever put to print. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely desperately wanted to adapt Brubaker’s story. They ended up taking key elements of it, added a few slick and interesting twists, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was born.

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The first Cap film carved out its own little spot among the Marvel movies. It took place predominantly in the past, namely during World War II. While those connections are still present, this film is a modern day story. Chris Evans reprises his straight-laced Steve Rogers persona. He is still very much a man from the past struggling to find his place in the modern world. Whether it’s technology and pop culture or the complex attitudes towards global crisis and geopolitics, Rogers often finds himself at odds with the situations around him. The film does take some time with that but ultimately this is an old-school action flick that hearkens back to the old espionage pictures of old.

Cap is still working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha (a.k.a. Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson. The relationships between these three characters remain compelling. The contrasts between Steve and Natasha are sharp and always evident. Natasha and Fury have a relationship shrouded in secrecy. Steve and Fury are on the same side but are often at odds over what is the right approach. All of these things are stressed more when S.H.E.I.L.D. is compromised by a rogue force led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Several twists and turns follow, threats come around every corner, and the stakes shoot through the roof.

Director Joe Johnston did a fine job with the first film but I was blown away by what directors Anthony and Joe Russo give us in the sequel. The brothers, mostly know for their work in television, rarely take their feet off the accelerator yet they never let their film become a deluge of pointless, mind-numbing action. The battles always feel important and the consequences are dire. But they also look amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I shuffled in my seat with excitement over what I was seeing on the screen. The camera constantly grabs one beautiful angle or presents one breathtaking sweeping shot. It’s some of the best filmed action I have seen in years. And it’s also a case where the 3-D works pretty well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say you must see it in 3-D, but I certainly didn’t mind that I did.

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The action also goes back to days when we weren’t beholden to CGI. Now obviously there is plenty of CGI in this picture, but where it separates itself from most other Marvel movies is in its lack of dependence on the technology. Much of the action focuses on great hand-to-hand combat, some amazing high-speed chases, and a lot of classic-styled stunt work. The entire visual presentation is stunning and it matches or exceeds anything Marvel has done to this point.

But the looks of the film would amount to little if not for Markus and McFeely’s addictive story. They frame all of their action around cool spy movie and conspiracy thriller angles instead of the basic superhero formulas we are used to seeing. Equally surprising is the richness of character development which provides more depth to everyone on screen. Even more, the Winter Soldier is a fantastic villain. Not only is he incredibly cool and a perfect visual representation of his comic book counterpart, he also isn’t a faceless enemy. He may steal scenes with his physical presence, but he also brings a gravity to the situation that amps things up. The pacing is crisp, fluid, and never lulls. The tone is more serious, yet the sprinkles of humor are funny and well timed. It’s simply a well-oiled and well-conceived script that dramatically changes the landscape for upcoming Marvel films.

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Then there is the acting. Over time Evans has clearly gotten better as an actor and he completely embodies the role of Steve Rogers. Jackson and Johansson have also fallen right into their characters and their comfort level is obvious. It was great to see them both in bigger and more expanded roles. As I mentioned, Sebastian Stan is a scene stealer and my excitement level rose whenever he would appear. Also new to the franchise is Robert Redford who plays a S.H.E.I.L.D. senior head. Redford starred in a number of conspiracy films back in the 1970s so this is familiar territory for him. Anthony Mackie is also a lot of fun playing Sam Wilson who Cap fans know as Falcon. There were several other small supporting characters that caused my inner comic book fanboy to smile.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss this film but to do so would be criminal. Sure it’s a big, loud popcorn picture but I don’t mind that at all especially when the film is this exciting and entertaining. I was expecting big things from this movie, but I didn’t expect to be blown away by its craftsmanship and its storytelling. It takes what we love about superhero films, tosses in loads of bods to comic fans, and mixes it all with good old-fashioned filmmaking and the results are impeccable. I love this movie and it very well may be Marvel’s best film to date. More than that, It’s one of the most exhilarating action pictures I’ve seen in a long time.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“MAN ON A LEDGE” – 2 1/2 STARS

Some movies can take a pretty preposterous concept and still make a fun and entertaining film out of it. There’s no denying that “Man on a Ledge” has a pretty preposterous concept. The question is, is “Man on a Ledge” a fun and entertaining movie? Well…kinda. Underneath the surface the movie has a fairly interesting premise. But it gets bogged down in it’s occasionally lame dialogue, it’s run-of-the-mill characters, and some truly head-scratching moments.

Sam Worthington plays Nick Cassady, an ex-New York City Policeman who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for stealing a $40 million diamond from a shrewd and unscrupulous businessman named Dave Englander (played by an alarmingly thin Ed Harris). After being notified of his father’s death, Nick is allowed to attend the funeral where he evades the guards and sets out to prove his innocence. His plan? To check into the Roosevelt Hotel, have a final meal, then climb out on the ledge of the building prepared to jump. It’s certainly not the normal approach one would take in trying to prove their innocence. Officer Marcus (Titus Welliver) arrives and takes charge of the scene and, at the request of Nick, calls in negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).

Now it’s clear that there is more going on than just a man about to jump to his death. Nick has a bigger plan in motion that hinges on Lydia’s cooperation, the craftiness of his brother Joey (Jaimie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), and the rabid crowd that has gathered below. The story takes several different turns and throws a few twists at the audience, but it’s hard to fully invest in them. Things get a little outlandish and it’s pretty hard to believe at times. Now in the defense of director Asger Leth, he’s well aware that he’s working with some wild material. He keep things moving at a crisp pace and he doesn’t drag the movie out longer that it needs to be. Also, Leth really uses the camera well and I had read where they filmed several scenes with Worthington actually out on the ledge. Unfortunately the good looks of the film isn’t enough to save it from it’s glaring flaws.

There are numerous instances where the writing left me scratching my head. Some scenes will leave the audience asking themselves “Can the NYPD really be this inept?” and “Is the movie making fun of New Yorkers or are we really to believe that 99% of them are bloodthirsty animals?”. There are also several cheesy exchanges between characters that either feel out-of-place or are just plain goofy. The film also features some of the same character types that we’ve seen in so many other movies. We have the wicked, wealthy corporate businessman. We get the typical corrupt cop. We even have the self-serving reporter who is more interested in getting the story that public safety. We’ve seen them all before.

You have to be impressed just looking at the movie’s strong cast. I like Sam Worthington even though he’s yet to really show much range in his performances. He’s actually quite good here even though the role doesn’t require as much from him as you might think. His New York accent does give way to his natural Australian accent in some scenes but he still gives a solid performance. Banks is also pretty good as is Edward Burns as a fellow negotiator. But the biggest problem is none of these performers can truly rise above the material which lets them down on numerous occasions. The always strong Ed Harris and Anthony Mackie as Nick’s former partner are terribly underused and should have been given more to do.

If you can put aside the flaws and suspend disbelief, there is some enjoyment to be found in “Man on a Ledge”. It’s impossible to take seriously and I have no doubt you’ll be shaking your head more than once. But “Man on a Ledge” is a harmless film with some cool action and fun moments. And while it’s a decent little afternoon diversion, it’s an action thriller that’s ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you have some free time. Otherwise, you can probably find something better to watch.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) – 2 STARS

I think it would be fair to say that “The Adjustment Bureau” was a fairly big disappointment for me. The trailers and TV spots for the movie really sold it as something it’s not so I found myself expecting a little more than I actually got. I also felt the movie was going for an almost Hitchcockian feel. I mean look at the above movie poster that was released for it. Even it looks fresh out of Alfred Hitchcock’s creative mind. Unfortunately nothing in the film feels as creative as the poster and ultimately it’s a letdown.

In “The Adjustment Bureau” Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young hotshot Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, who loses his bid for office due to his questionable maturity and impulsive behavior. While rehearsing his concession speech he bumps into and immediately is attracted to the mysterious but beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt). The problem is they aren’t meant to be together, at least according to “the plan”. Enter The Adjustment Bureau, a group of stiff, ominous men in hats who intervene to make sure this sprouting relationship never takes place and that “The Chairman’s” plan stays on course.

“The Adjustment Bureau” could be called a romantic sci-fi thriller. Sadly the film’s romance has no believable foundation. While Damon and Blunt have good on-screen chemistry, it was hard for me to believe in their romance. Director George Nolfi never allows the relationship to grow, instead choosing to springboard their undying love out of a few short hours together. I also felt the sci-fi element was pretty underwhelming.  There’s nothing that stands out about it. Instead we get doors that transport you from one part of the city to another (which is cool the first 10 times they are used) and magical hats that serve as keys (yes, I just actually said magical hats that serve as keys). The film also lacks any real sense of urgency that’s found in better thrillers. I never felt any intensity nor did I ever feel that there was a steady or consistent buildup.

Most of these problems are the results of a slow, lumbering script. The film spends too much time in the first act examining David’s political ambitions instead of developing the romance which is the supposed centerpiece of the entire picture. Then we get numerous scenes of tedious dialogue between David and Bureau members, meant to inform the audience but instead ends up deflating any momentum the film may gain. As more is revealed the sillier things get and by the time we get to the rather flat and uneventful ending, I wasn’t that interested.

As I mentioned, Damon and Blunt have good chemistry and both give earnest performances and could have pulled this film off with better material. I enjoyed seeing Anthony Mackie in a bigger role but he seems out-of-place in this picture. “Mad Men’s” John Slattery and  the great Terence Stamp also appear but neither are given the chance to do much that’s memorable, again a result of the sub-par material.

If you watched the trailer for “The Adjustment Bureau” you would be expecting an action-packed, intellectual thriller. Instead you get nothing close to that. This is supposed to be a film that promotes thoughts of free will versus fate but honestly, I was never engaged enough to be moved intellectually. The film is well made, uses some great Brooklyn locations, and has some nice performances especially from it’s two leads. But the inconsistent script, lackluster ending, and flat-out silliness brings down what could have been a fun movie.