REVIEW: “CLEMENCY” (2019) Neon Pictures

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“CLEMENCY”  opens with an agonizingly difficult scene and is definitely not for the faint of heart. We are watching a man die. Actually, incorrect. We are watching Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) being served his death penalty execution sentence by injection where a good vein cannot be found for the needle and it’s going horrifically wrong in every which way possible. A scene so horribly difficult to watch that no amount of squirming or covering of the eyes will ever quite be enough to un-see it. This horrific opening scene leads us into  Chinonye Chukwu’s second film with a point of view rarely shared, a non-political look at the emotional toll something like this takes on those who must carry out the sentence.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is the female Warden of a prison in Texas where death penalty sentences are carried out per the courts orders. Bernadine’s job involves dealing with every thing from family members, protesters, lawyers, the media, picking of guards and medical staff, overseeing the procedures, even final meals. statements and last rites performed in conjunction with Chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill).  She performs these tasks in a very professional manner while trying to maintain a sense of duty and responsibility, in a seemingly matter-of-fact tone that comes across. This portrayed stoic persona is taking a toll on her life both personally and professionally. She drinks to much, fails miserably at having even the most basic of normal conversation, doesn’t sleep much which leads to more drinking and problems in her marriage to her husband Jonathan (Wendall Pierce), a high school teacher who dreams of them retiring together and taking a much needed sabbatical.

In the aftermath of the horribly botched execution, Bernadine is tasked with having to prepare for the next execution of convict Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) and is under pressure to make sure the same mistakes don’t happen. From the Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn) to Prison Major Logan Cartright (LaMonica Garrett), most every person she tries to have help, expresses a desire to walk away and this speaks clearly to the burden associated with the tasking of carrying out the sentencing.  In the meantime, Woods, a death row inmate for now for 15 years and with his execution date fast approaching, is feeling the desire to try to leave behind something besides a legacy of his life of crime for his son to remember him by, and for some closure.  Hope rises from him with a visit from his former girlfriend Evette (Danielle Brooks), sadly, as she expresses to Woods what it is she needs, that hope is crushed as well.

Despite his claims of innocence, his confession that he was there but did not commit the crime he is convicted for, and critical evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer, Woods’ attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) informs him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor as all legal appeals have failed thus far.  The rest of the movie’s parts work within each other to show the toll the past and present executions present and how they all must confront the demons put in front of them. Anthony’s lawyer character, equally damaged by not being able to save Anthony after putting all he had into it, tells him that this is to be his last case as he is on the verge of retiring, but not because he wants to, but because he simply can’t handle the despair of his job anymore. Hodge puts forth an almost non-verbal performance with his unspoken words reflecting his pain almost more than if he had spoken them. There are some moments between prisoner and lawyer that are touching and strong, especially as you realize that well, simply put, this isn’t going to have a happy ending.

But let’s be clear whose movie this really is and that is of course Alfre Woodard. Her ‘Bernadette’ is strong, but oh so pained and flawed. But yet she embraces her with every look, every nuance of this quiet performance is almost loudly done with micro moments that are seismic in the overall perspective. Only the character of Bernadine’s husband seems a bit thinly sketched here jumping into arguments and leaving Bernadine to cope on her own while in clear turmoil. Leaving the performances aside for a moment as the film itself misses something that’s hard to put a finger on. Maybe it’s the overuse of the jerky movement of the handycam in one nauseating scene where the roving camera didn’t fit in well, Maybe it’s the conflicted narrative at times, as we sometimes lose track of what exactly the film is leading us to. Is it Bernadine’s shifting attitude towards laws themselves or is it losing her composure with what the executions toll is taking from her emotionally & physically. Or is it about Anthony isolation for so many years and facing his impending death. Or we could go so far and make it about his lawyers impending resignation. Some of this leaves us hanging without balance, but once again it’s such a performance driven film and without said performances it wouldn’t be nearly so powerful that you almost forget you wished all of the characters were just people you wanted to like, but couldn’t grasp doing so.

Grade: B-

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Media Review Screening: Tuesday, December 3, 2019 ~ Courtesy of 42 West

“CLEMENCY” WILL BE OUT IN SELECT THEATERS ON DECEMBER 27, 2019 

REVIEW: “HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) 20th Century Fox

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), are more intelligent as children than most. But sadly, they have the wrong skin color for America of the 1960s, so educational opportunities aren’t as readily available to them as to most. And luckily for all of us, they don’t let it stop them.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” – written & directed by Theodore Melfi, is based on the true events of these three women’s accomplishments of beating the odds in a time when those odds were almost insurmountable. Although all three are working at NASA, they are widely under-ultilized, stuck in a mundane employee-temp circle with other African-American women. It is only when the ‘space-race’ heats up and NASA is concerned with the fact that Russia might beat us to manned space travel that they even get considered and their abilities are brought to light. But it is still a long journey to get from the temp pool to the point of where now-famed astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) had her double-check the numbers against a ‘new’ computer machine before his now-legendary orbit around the earth.
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The film does do well in summarizing the story and making the period of the early 60’s space-race look exciting. Melfi succeeds in revealing the perspective of the people who made it possible for a human being to be brought into an orbit were chiefly physicists and, above all, mathematicians. Making it truly special is the fact that three of these essential figures were not only women, but African-American women. In a time where different races were still strictly separated in everything from the bathrooms, to yes, even the coffee pot and how they had to fight not only to assert themselves into the circles of white, male-dominated NASA, but also with the colour of their skin.
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In addition, we have a decent supporting cast with Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell, head of the white secretarial pool and chief scientist, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who while blind to all the bias at first, gradually begins to notice Johnson’s intelligence and how she is being treated by her white, male co-workers and steps up to the plate. Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Olek Krupa just to name a few, are great additions to the supporting cast.
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Performances are all above par here and not being Costner’s biggest fan, he comes off very well here in one of what is surely one of his more likeable performances. Hands down winner for me though is Octavia Spencer, who not only steals the show, along with hopefully not only a nomination, but a win from this performance.

Finally, do I think some liberties might have been taken here with the story-line or some of the characters, most likely, and it’s in these spots that the film lags, but it is also very simple to just look up history and see this is accurate in the frame of what these women did at/for NASA and what they went on to do in leading the way for so many to follow is even more impressive.

HIDDEN FIGURES is emotionally stirring cinema and should leave a lasting impression on viewers.

Grade: B
@pegsatthemovies

Media Review Screening: Monday, November 21, 2016 ~ Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
In Limited Release: Sunday, December 25, 2016
NATIONWIDE RELEASE: Friday, January 6, 2017

REVIEW: “STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON” (2015) Universal Pictures

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Art comes in many forms. A Masterpiece for instance is usually a word used in the art world as a painting or portrait that is brilliantly done and is usually invoked by inner thoughts and feelings of so many emotions. That could sum up the feeling of this story and what a story it is. This film has everything you see invoked in a masterpiece painting. Love, war, death, money, drugs, power, sadness, happiness and most of all, music. It’s a story about art in the truest sense of the word. These 5 young men –
Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young,
Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright,
O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson,
Lorenzo ‘MC Ren’ Patterson, &
Antoine ‘DJ YELLA’ Carraby
changed the world with what they did and this more or less, is their story.

Director F. Gary Gray takes us through the years from the group’s origin in 1986 to Dr. Dre’s founding of Aftermath Records in 1996 and while it’s the N.W.A. story..it’s mostly a three-man show focusing on Dre, Cube & most especially Eazy-E. It does justice in recreating a Compton from back in the day so perfectly and dare I say it, beautifully, as if the time & place and what the street life of the city truly was like, came straight out of a time machine. This is a big plus throughout the film.
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Opening with a drug deal gone bad for Eric ‘Eazy-E’ might seem somewhat cliched way to enter the story but is actually quite fitting especially since Eazy is the truly the main focus of the first half of film. He was the money, albeit it was from those deals, that enabled them to get studio time to record “Boyz in the Hood” and it was that song that attracted and brought manager ‘Jerry Heller’ (Paul Giamatti) to them. Heller knocks on the doors and pounds the pavement to connects them to their 1st label, Priority Records and we all get a laugh when we find out from that the only group ‘Bryan Turner’ (Tate Ellington) and the company had ever recorded before signing N.W.A was the California Raisins. Yep..you have dig real deep and go way back to remember that one!! But cash those checks from that Turner did, enough to land the company N.W.A. As we watch the group go from playing skating rinks to huge massive arenas across the nation. Meanwhile, Jerry also manages to finagle himself into part of starting up Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records where we see everyone but E get underpaid & overlooked.
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This leads to acrimony between the guys and while on tour Ice Cube, reminding everyone that he is the one who has written most of the music, departs the group. But before he leaves though we do get the anthem that penned the groups title as ‘the world’s most dangerous group‘ mainly because they scared the bejesus out of middle America with their anthem “F**K the Police” which comes straight from Cube after we witness multiple scenes of humiliation and harassment of not only him, but the group, their friends, their neighbors for just basically being.
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The movie clearly focuses on the big three of the group, ‘Dr. Dre’ (Corey Hawkins) and ‘Ice Cube’ (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) with ‘Eazy-E’ (Jason Mitchell) taking the lead, with ‘DJ Yella’ (Neil Brown Jr.) & ‘MC Ren’ (Aldis Hodge) getting only minor attention. They easily brush right over their misogynistic lyrics as women here are barely given the time of day and only the wives or girlfriends of the moment get a few lines at best. Though as with most bio-pics, while we might not be getting the complete story here – it’s still a very good story.

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We see bits of the infamous East Coast/West Coast rivalry that started up. And once Cube is gone we get right in the middle of his lyrical riffs with the remaining members of the group badmouthing each other back n forth through their music giving us surely what is only a glimpse into this and then with Dre also going his own way with the ever and still unscrupulous ‘Suge Knight’ (R. Marcos Taylor) – showing the forming of and his subsequent abandonment of Death Row Records.

We catch beginning snippets of ‘Tupac Shakur‘ (Marcc Rose), ‘Snoop Dogg’ (Keith Stanfield) (or as his character notes – that’s Snoop D. O. double G.), ‘Jimmy Iovine’ (Mark Sherman) & the beginnings of Interscope Records. Along with this, we get clever allusions to what is to come – Everything from Cube’s films ‘Boyz N The Hood’, ‘Friday’ and it’s sequels, to Dre when walking out on Knight, almost cheesily referencing Aftermath. The film closes with updates on the band members careers post-1996 with various interview clips in large focusing on Dre and Cube’s successes, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and 50 Cent, among others, paying homage to Dre showing the fruition of what both his and Cube’s visions came to be. Also, the sad and untimely passing of Eazy-E from AIDS. Noticeably absent are updates on DJ Yella and MC Ren.

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For all it’s small flaws here and there, this is still a hellava story to be told. N.W.A helped to change the musical culture of the time because they actually told the world what was happening in their own backyard through their music. And in doing so they succeeded in making themselves one of the most powerful groups of the time.
Oscar buzz? Probably not. But fan favorite (and one of mine) – definitely.
RIP Eazy-E.

Grade: B+
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Screening: Wednesday, August 5, 2015 – Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Nationwide release: Friday, August 14, 2015