This is the true story of Fred Hampton, young Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his ultimate betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.
William, or Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), is a low-level hustler and car thief who gets caught by the wrong guy at the wrong time. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) is looking for a way to impress his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and Bill is just the kind of guy he could use. Dangling his crimes and the threat of life in prison, Roy will be able to manipulate Bill into doing just about anything, and the thing at the top of everyone’s list these days is increasingly noisy Fred Hampton and his Black Panther Party in Chicago. Fred (Daniel Kaluuya) is agitating for things like equality and education, which of course infuriates the institution. How dare he? Worse still, Fred is so charismatic and galvanizing that he’s actually uniting not just his own party, but members of different and sometimes adversary groups that share, at their core, some common ground. Roy will have Bill infiltrate the Black Panther Party to get close to Fred.
As FBI informant, Bill will eventually betray Fred, ultimately leading to his assassination, but Shaka King’s brilliant film tells the tale of not one but two lives ruined by the FBI and its machinations. Bill is a victim too, and the film finds empathy for a man even its title suggests is a villain.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield both had break out performances in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and both have chosen extremely well and wisely since, their careers pointed ever upward. How lovely to see them reunited here, and to such splendid effect. Kaluuya gives off such a strong, committed, and lyrical vibe that I must constantly remind myself that Hampton was but 21 years old when he died. Stanfield suffers quietly, his internal conflict not verbally expressed but no less apparent for it.
It can be difficult for an historic thriller to capture an authentic sense of excitement, but Shaka King’s perspective brings new urgency to the story, making for a compelling, electrifying watch, ready to pounce.
Extrapolating from known DNA exoneration, it is estimated that conservatively, at least 1% of prisoners are wrongfully convicted, which works out to over 20 000 people. But these are estimates drawn only from overturned verdicts, not the ones that are never discovered. The Innocence Project called 2018 “a record year in exonerations” and while we applaud their efforts, what it really boils down to is another example of how the system is badly broken.
Crown Heights is the story Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a man wrongfully convicted of murder based on no evidence whatsoever, and pretty flimsy hearsay. Numerous people told the cops and the court that they had the wrong man, and in fact the right man had indeed been arrested, but his plea deal refusal meant Warner got tried beside him instead of released. What a technicality to get sent away to prison for. Even the presiding judge seemed to agree, sentencing Warner to the minimum allowable time (15 years to life), and the actual bad guy to the maximum allowable time (9 years to life, because he was just a few months younger). Despite his innocence, Warner languishes in prison for decades; the only reason he’s not completely forgotten is his best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) who works tirelessly on the outside, with many personal sacrifices made, to free his friend. His wife feels like she and the kids play second fiddle to his crusade, but King knows that his friend is innocent, and does not know how to simply live with that.
Crown Heights is based on a true story. A true, very sad, very depressing story. We know this genre well by now, but it’s important to remember that behind every film are dozens of real people wasting away behind bars for crimes they did not commit. And of course these people are overwhelmingly likely to be black because the system simply does not work for those who cannot afford to adequately defend themselves. Innocence is a concept that can be bought; guilt and poverty are linked by circumstance.
When we say people die from racism, we don’t just mean the cops who keep killing black people. We mean that black people are 4 times more likely to die from COVID-19. Black people make up a disproportionate number of prisoner executions, and they’re more likely to receive the death penalty when the victim is white. America has created a ‘medical apartheid,’ with African-American infant mortality rates 2.2 times higher and black babies 3.2 times more likely to die from complications due to low birth weight, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (Incidentally, in Canada we have socialized medicine – it is free for everyone – while Americans have a privatized system which means if you can’t afford medical treatment, you don’t get it, but the truth is, the Canadian government spends less on health care per capita than the U.S. does! It makes NO SENSE).
Writer/Director Matt Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on the radio show This American Life. He was so moved by the story that he couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. I’m not sure his script quite gets to the heart of the story. To me, this is more than just another broken system story. It’s a real testament to enduring friendship and loyalty and I wish the movie had balanced things between the two a little more equally. But even if Ruskin doesn’t have much to add to the genre, he does present an affecting and effective film, mostly because he doesn’t overplay his hand. The temptation toward melodrama must be strong, but he avoids it in favour of a quiet kind of power. Nnamdi Asomugha shows us focus, determination, and steadfast support. Stanfield manages to find his character somewhere between anguish and apathy, rage and resignation, despair and desperation. The story earns our attention and rewards us with new trains of thought.
Reporter Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) flies to New Orleans to interview Isaac (Rob Morgan) about his first love, celebrated photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams), recently deceased. Back home in Manhattan, Michael follows up with an interview with her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae). Mae is a successful art curator, and doing a retrospective on her mother’s work is a way to get in touch with her grief; the only love that Christina could express was that for her work. Mae and Michael pool their resources to better understand the enigmatic artist, but after a while it’s pretty clear that this is just an excuse to spend more time together. Mae and Michael are falling for each other.
They don’t intend to, of course – she’s focused on her career, he’s about to move to London – but when has intention ever stopped cupid’s arrow? So we’re really getting two love stories for the price of one – young Christina and Isaac before she moved away to pursue her passion, and Mae and Michael, who are in the middle of pursuing theirs.
Writer-director Stella Meghie doesn’t quite figure out how to co-mingle the two stories satisfactorily, but the chemistry between Rae and Stanfield is so electric it almost doesn’t matter. Issa Rae was of course recently seen dazzling in The Lovebirds, and in The Photograph she proves that wasn’t a one-off; 2020 is the year of Issa Rae, and we can only hope that 2021 will be too.
Meghie’s love story is modern and grown-up: sensitive, vulnerable, unapologetically sexual. Rae and Stanfield have an easy and smart flirtation that draws us in too, rather intimately, as if we’re rooting for our own friends to finally find the love they deserve. Of course, adult love stories make one thing obvious: finding love is the easy part. Keeping love, maintaining love, nurturing love, sacrificing for love – those are the difficult, unglamourous things often left out, simply brushed under the rug with the mother of all euphemisms, “happily ever after.”
Two minutes into this movie, I was over it. Ten minutes later, I was completely done. I kept watching. I pushed through the pain, and it WAS painful. It was just a bunch of angry men shouting at, and over, each other. Scene after scene just yelly chaos, and it wasn’t really an energy I was expecting or felt I could handle. But I kept watching because I realized this was exactly what directors Benny and Josh Safdie wanted me to feel.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a New York City jeweler – not at Tiffany’s or Harry Winston’s, but in one of those shady-looking mess of stores in the diamond district where the real shit goes down. He’s got Furby pendants in his case and watches of questionable origin in his safe. It’s the kind of place you have to know about, or be lured to, and get buzzed in, which contributes to the seediness rather than a sense of security. Anyway, Howard is a wheeler and dealer always looking to get rich quick, and he needs to get rich because he’s got a girlfriend stashed in an apartment, hidden from his wife and kids, so he’s supporting at least two households that we know about. But his big score just came in: a black opal that’s going to net him a cool million. Except Howard’s not the kind of guy who does well with cash in hand, or even with just the possibility of it. He’s going to parlay that potential (but as yet unrealized) money into yet another high-stakes bet. Yup, Howard is a gambler, big time, and he owes money all over town. Because of course he does. The walls are closing in, the tough guys are getting antsier, and he’s pretty much out of moves.
So yeah. Howard’s life is pure and constant chaos, and the damn Safdie brothers are determined to make us viscerally aware of it. His frantic juggling act makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Adam Sandler is very good as a slimy man living on the brink. Rationally, we know that he’s on the brink of ruin, but addict that he is, inside the Vegas-like interior of his brain, with constant lights and sounds fooling him into believing him the next hit is sure to be the big one, he can’t stop. He just KNOWS that he’s due. And it’s actually very sad to watch someone hustle so hard, so deeply in denial, so dangerously mired in so very many bad situations. And Sean wants me to tell you that Kevin Garnett is also quite good…as Kevin Garnett. The he tried to show me some dated basketball clips so I pretended I needed to go for a very long pee. I think he got the hint.
Anyway, Uncut Gems is rough viewing and the only quiet moments are when we’re literally up his poop hole – and yes, that’s problematic in itself and definitely a weird kind of reprieve. It’s polarizing at best. Challenging for sure. Anxiety-triggering. A masterfully manipulated roller coaster that ends, I suppose, the only way it really could.
Every year there are a few TIFF titles that have everyone buzzing, and those tickets become nearly impossible to get our popcorn-greasy hands on. This year, those titles were Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Knives Out. I saw all 3 because I am very, very fortunate, but I was the only Asshole to see Knives Out, which also means that I have a pretty big responsibility to get this right.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a highly successful mystery writer. His family gathers under the roof of his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday, after which, they all retire to bed. The next morning, Harlan is found on his sofa with his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, both the local police and a private investigator are suspicious. As they start interviewing the family it becomes clear that each and every one of them has a motive, and that they’re all pretty enthusiastic about pointing the finger at someone else.
First, let’s get the cast of characters out of the way.
Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlon’s nurse, and the last to see him alive. She put him to bed after administering his meds. As an outsider, she becomes P.I. Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) go-to source for all the family secrets.
Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlon’s daughter, a successful businesswoman. She is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who is perhaps a bit of a leech. They have a son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who is way too old to never have worked a day in his life. He is supported by Grandpa Harlan because, though rebellious, Harlan sees a lot of himself in Ransom.
Joni (Toni Collette) was married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She and daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are still quite close to the family, and are supported by Harlan. Joni is a bit of a free-spirit and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the more conservative clan, though she may not realize it. She’s also at the other end of the political spectrum from brother-in-law Richard, and of course the two butt heads.
Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing empire, though with one hand tied behind his back as Harlan has no interest in selling movie rights or any other of Walt’s money-making suggestions. His wife Donna flies under the radar while his teenage son Jacob is a known weirdo and gossiped about as the family masturbator (does every family have one?).
That’s it. Those were all the people in the house the night Harlan died. It’s up to Blanc (a Poirot type, and not a little flamboyant) and police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) to sift through the pieces to try to assemble the puzzle. One helpful hint: nurse Marta is incapable of lying without barfing. It’s a tell that’s going to come in handy.
The movie is a lot of fun. First, there’s the fact that Harlan himself wrote murder mysteries. His house is full of mementos and artifacts – a display of knives behind the interview chair feels particularly ominous. But the ensemble cast makes it what it is. The script feeds them all some pretty snappy lines. I really loved Lakeith Stanfield’s referring to the Thrombey mansion as a “Clue board” – thanks for that, Rian. In fact, though the trailer bills Knives Out as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit,” the truth is, plenty of murder mysteries came before it, and Johnson is not afraid to reference them. Johnson is a movie lover, a genuine movie lover, which makes his own movies so goddamn much fun to watch. He’s winking at us from the director’s chair. Going to a Rian Johnson movie is like taking my 5 year old nephew to a frozen yogurt place. He fills his little bowl with the first flavour, then a second, and probably a third. His eyes are bigger than his little belly. But he’s just getting started. Next come the toppings, which are his favourite part: cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, bigs of sugary cereal, broken up pretzels, strawberry flavoured boba, chunks of chocolate bar, pieces of cookie, bits of brownie. Next come syrups. Just one? Ha. That’s for amateurs. Then you cover it in whipped cream. Then a few more sprinkles, for the colour. More is more. Every spoonful digs up a new layer of goodness. He (both my nephew and Johnson) delights in every bite. There’s a sumptuous deliciousness to Rian Johnson’s films. And I don’t even worry about the belly ache: Rian Johnson is the one time you can eat every last bite and you never quite get enough.
Which is not to say this movie is unsatisfying. Johnson elevates the whodunnit by throwing in timely social elements that take a bite out of the wealth and class systems that literally allow people like this to get away with murder.
Jenny has just suffered a soul-crushing breakup with forever boyfriend, Nate. After 9 years together, things end right before she’s about to move cross-country for a new job. Thank goodness for best friends Erin and Blair who are prepared to drop everything to grieve with her while celebrating one last night together, out in NYC.
A series of glowy flash backs convince us that yes, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) and Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) were indeed great but the truth is, in mourning a boyfriend, this movie really celebrates girlfriends. Jenny, Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) have a bond that’s outlasted all the other relationships in their lives.
Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow have terrific chemistry. Writer/director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson keeps things loose; it feels like the women spent time getting to actually know and like each other, rather than rehearsing. It feels real. It feels familiar, like they’re tapping into the weird naturalness and closeness of our friendships from early adulthood. Things will change for them, I bet, and soon. I want to tell them to treasure the fuck out of these moments. In fact, these women are on the cusp. They’re nearing 30: careers are taking off, relationships are getting serious. Kids, suburbs, and neglecting our female friendships tend to come next. That sounds sadder than I mean it to because this movie is surprisingly upbeat and fun. So maybe time won’t get away on them, and maybe phone calls won’t go unreturned for months at a time, and maybe they won’t find themselves saying ‘We should get together soon’ and never quite making it happen. Maybe.
But that hasn’t happened to them yet! They’re still the most important people in each other’s lives, and on this night in particular, they are super duper there for each other and it’s marvelous.
I hardly know how to talk about a movie like this.
Ostensibly it’s about “telemarketing” but that’s like saying Toy Story is about single parenting. It’s really about racism and assimilation and wage slavery and identity – by way of telemarketing, at least to start.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is thrilled to get a shitty telemarketing job, working for commission. There’s almost no way to actually succeed doing this kind of work, but Cassius stumbles upon the secret, magic key: a white voice. A persuasive, approachable, overconfident voice, like Tobias Funke’s, perhaps. Using this voice, Cassius shoots straight to the top, rocketing past his buddies and even his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who are trying to organize a union that will help the little guys make a living wage too.
On top, Cassius is of course hypnotized by the wealth and privilege, but now that he’s rubbing elbows with “the man”, he’s finding it’s a little different than he’d imagined. “The man” is of course Armie Hammer, like you ever fucking doubted it. Hammer was literally born to be typecast as a slave owner – his great-grandfather was a legit oil tycoon and philanthropist, and the family is worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200M. So yeah, he’s got owning slaves in his blood, and we can all read it in his cheekbones. In Sorry To Bother You, he plays a CEO who is “saving the world” by enslaving all the poor people and making them thank him for it. Signing a contract, they agree to work wage-free for him forever in exchange for housing (which looks surprisingly like prison cells minus the bars but with double the roommates) and food.
And everything is just gently pushing you. Pushing your boundaries, almost imperceptibly. In the beginning, things are near normal but they escalate, asking us to accept just one more inch of absurdity. It is THE best kind of satire, uncompromising but plenty challenging.
First-time writer-director Boots Riley has made a film that is gutsy and experimental. It feels like this is a guy who isn’t sure he’ll ever get to do this again, so he’s not leaving a single idea on the table. He takes huge risks and when they pay off, hot damn. Sorry To Bother you zigs and zags in unexpected places but the super talented cast helps this thing stay grounded. Riley is full of piss and vinegar and a comic outrage that’s infection. This is bold stuff, exciting to watch, fearless, outrageous, and I want more. Not for the faint of heart.
Finally! It’s hard to say there was a downside to TIFF but it monopolized my movie-watching for its entire 11 days. And since Jay and I were busy before that doing Amazing Races and Oddball Festivals and other summertime stuff, I didn’t get to see Straight Outta Compton until yesterday. Which was making me itch a little because I had heard really good things, and I am happy to report that those good things were accurate. Straight Outta Compton is a very enjoyable history lesson/tribute to some of hip-hop’s founding fathers, most notably Eazy-E.
Having been a 12 year old small-town Canadian kid when N.W.A. broke, they were a little fuzzy to me at the time. But now I’m older and wiser, and since turning 13 I got into mid-90s hip-hop, Ice Cube made a lot of movies, and as my record collection grew I got Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic (and All Eyez on Me), so this movie brought N.W.A. into sharper focus. It’s really staggering to think of how much talent was in this group and how soon it all ended. It’s also staggering to think about how much more to the story there is in the Aftermath, which gets hinted at in the end, and which was a nice touch.
I thought this movie flowed really well and was grounded enough in reality to feel authentic. Again, since I was 12 at the time, I don’t know much about Eazy-E aside that he died from AIDS when AIDS was just becoming real for me because Magic Johnson had it. So it was really neat to see him be the focus of this movie along with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. I expect that DJ Yella and MC Ren had more to do with the group than just being faces in the background but if you are fans of theirs, you will have to wait for their version of this story to get greenlit in order to learn anything about them. Fortunately for me, I am a Dr. Dre fan primarily and Straight Outta Compton paid lots of respect to his genius.
It helped that O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks so much like his father, but a great casting job was done with the other roles as well. Even cameos like Snoop Dogg and Tupac work, especially because the voices are eerily similar. I felt like maybe there was some auto-tune trickery at play but whatever was done, it works to immerse you in this world if you are at all familiar with it. And Suge Knight is well portrayed too, he’s a dead ringer for the real thing and comes off as bad as he should. As Jay said while we were watching it, whoever thought it was a good idea to trust that guy deserved what they got.
If you like hip-hop at all, this is a must see. And even if you don’t, this story is one that may grab you regardless. It’s an enjoyable movie that captures a lot of N.W.A.’s ups and downs, and is more or less accurate as far as I can remember! For that, Straight Outta Compton gets eight police brutality charges out of ten.