Crown Heights – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Through flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and two men’s interconnecting stories over a period of 21 years, this fact-based crime drama is elevated by exceptional performances. Adapted from an episode of the weekly public radio show This American Life on NPR, the story itself is all too common: a poor young black man is falsely accused of a crime, but lacks the money, knowledge, and connections to adequately fight the charges against him.

Lakeith Stanfield stars in Crown Heights. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios/IFC Films.

The story begins in the spring of 1980 when a black teenager is shot dead on the street in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although most of the people in the community (comprised of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants) know the details of the crime, none are forthcoming to the police. In an effort to solve the case quickly, the cops round up a teenaged criminal from the area and offer him a lighter sentence if he swears to be an eye witness to the murder. Under pressure, the kid picks the mugshot of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old car thief from nearby Crown Heights.

Wrongly Convicted of Murder

Although Colin has no involvement with the crime, he’s arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of driving the getaway car in the drive-by shooting (which wasn’t actually a drive-by shooting at all). The true murderer also is convicted as a co-defendant, but receives a light sentence because he’s a minor. At 18, Colin is sentenced as an adult and gets a 15-year sentence. Angry, shocked, and defiant, he refuses to confess or express remorse for a crime he did not commit. Though his resentful attitude is understandable throughout his 21 years in prison (extra time added for bad behavior), it doesn’t serve him well, as officials continue to pressure him for admission of guilt and punish him for refusing to comply.

Outside of prison, Colin’s best friend, Carl (Nnamdi Asomugha), struggles over the years to help exonerate his friend. Unfortunately he’s in the same situation as Colin was before the conviction. He’s an immigrant, low on funds, uneducated, and (unlike Colin) has a wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who resents the time and money spent on a family friend, rather than on their growing family. Colin’s own long-time love interest (Natalie Paul) promises to wait for him no matter how long he’s away from her.

21 Years in Prison

There’s a lot going on here with the two men, and the 21-year stretch of time is difficult to cover. Captions on the screen identify how many years pass as Colin waits in prison. To help speed the story along, writer-director Matt Ruskin uses flashbacks to show viewers what Colin is thinking, dreaming, and feeling. Fantasy sequences also depict his desire to be free to love and live outside the confines of prison. These artful touches (including quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and shaky altered images) get the point across quickly without the need for non-essential dialogue and scenes depicting the passage of time.

The entire cast seems committed to the task. Stanfield presents a believable three-dimensional character worthy of our concern and compassion, despite his earlier life of crime and violence born of frustration and injustice. Asomugha carries his side of the story well, also. The actor beautifully portrays his character’s strong persistence in his quest of justice for his friend, even at great personal expense and risk. Although some unpleasant stereotypes appear in the film (lazy and dishonest policemen; sleazy white attorneys and parole board members), the main characters appear well-rounded, reflecting strengths and weaknesses evident in all humanity.

Crown Heights

  • Based on a true story from 1980, an innocent young man from Crown Heights is wrongfully convicted of murder.
  • Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Luke Forbes
  • Writer-Director: Mark Ruskin
  • Genre: Biography/Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity, and violence)

Patti Cake$ – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Patty cakes are sweet cake miniatures, but there’s nothing sweet or miniature in the gritty drama Patti Cake$, director Geremy Jasper’s look at a corpulent foul-mouthed young rapper wannabe.

Patti Cake$. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight.

The movie begins with a dream sequence as 23-year old Patti Dombrowksi aka Dumbo (Danielle Macdonald) fantasizes about being introduced onstage as a rap star. She awakens to find herself in the harsh reality of her existence. She lives in a rundown New Jersey home with her sleazy alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) who gave up her music career because she was pregnant with Patti. They share the home with Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Patti’s sick old grandmother who sits in her recliner coughing as she watches television all day.

Patti’s work life is not much better. She works in a crummy little bar doing everything from serving drinks to unclogging toilets, in addition to a second job – all to help her mother pay the bills. Her only relief is rapping with her good friend (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works as a pharmacy technician, and offers her emotional support. One night they encounter a strangely violent rapper with a scary new style that intrigues Patti. Known as Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), the man’s mysteriousness is so alluring to Patti that future interactions are inevitable.

An Overweight Underdog

In fact, so much of the film works on stereotypes and cliches that its tiresomeness is rivaled only by its dreariness. Obviously the overweight underdog will succeed in her dreams at some point, but watching her suffer through life until then makes for an uncomfortable movie-going experience.

The actors throw themselves fully into their roles for this little indie film that recently made the festival circuit (including Florida Film Festival), before being picked up by Fox Searchlight. However, full immersion into this profane, misogynistic, drug-infested existence isn’t somewhere that every viewer will want to go. Rappers, singers, poets, and other outcasts and underdogs might find the film most relatable.

Patti Cake$

  • An obese 23-year-old white woman dreams of becoming a rap star and leaving her depressing life in New Jersey.
  • Stars: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Patrick Brana, McCaul Lombardi, Mamoudou Athie, Sahr Ngaujah, MC Lyte
  • Director: Geremy Jasper
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 108 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image)

 

 

 

The Hero – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Once a famous Western movie star now reduced to doing occasional voiceover work for barbeque sauce commercials, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is lonely, aging, and seriously ill. He’s lost his wife and daughter through divorce, lost his integrity by accepting mediocre acting jobs he doesn’t believe in, and lost his will to live. At age 71 with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he’s ready to give up on life.

Sam Elliott stars in The Hero. Photo copyright 2017 The Orchard.

In a familiar movie cliche, he’s offered a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by an obscure group of Western movie lovers. Naturally, he perceives this as another step toward the grave. One day while smoking pot at his neighborhood dealer’s home, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a much-younger woman who seems attracted to him.

A New Romance Late in Life

Lee and Charlotte meet again by chance, and this time her interest is undeniable. After inviting her to the award ceremony, their romance has officially begun. But she’s a standup comedian who uses his age and infirmity as part of her routine, so her motives for dating him are not entirely clear. Hurt by yet another reminder of his age, Lee angrily walks out of the performance.

Known for his deep voice and thick mustache (like the actor himself), Lee has no trouble communicating with people as the iconic role he played in “The Hero.” As himself, however, he’s far less successful. He tries to tell his ex-wife (Katharine Ross), his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), and his neighbor (Nick Offerman) about his illness, and finds himself unable to be vulnerable.

Dreams Relive Glory Days

He’s more open with Charlotte, but their age differences and her mean streak (balanced with her sensitive love of poetry) make him uncertain of whether or not the relationship is worth the effort of staying alive. His nightly dreams relive his glory days, but offer no hope for the future.

Although the plot sounds grim and is sometimes overly familiar, Sam Elliott embodies Lee so perfectly that each small expression or rumble of his voice seems to hold deep meaning. Sam Elliott fans won’t be disappointed in this stellar performance, and for those just discovering him, why did you wait so long?

The Hero

  • An aging Western iconic actor looks back at some of the choices he’s made in life.
  • Stars: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katherine Ross
  • Director: Brett Haley
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 96 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language, and some sexual content)
  • Additional Information: The Hero was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival held throughout Central Florida.

The Birth of a Nation – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In this biographical drama, writer-director-producer-actor Nate Parker portrays Nat Turner, a literate slave who transformed from peace-loving preacher to brutal slave revolt leader. Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, (which substituted for 1831 Southampton County, Virginia), The Birth of a Nation follows events preceding the Turner-led slave rebellion that lasted 48 hours and resulted in the death of hundreds – about 60 white slave owners and more than 100 blacks.

Nate Parker wrote, directed, produced, and stars in The Birth of a Nation. Photo copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation, a film he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced. Photo copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Growing up as a slave with his parents and grandmother on the Turner plantation, Nat was treated with relative kindness by the family when they realized his intelligence and spirituality. Allowed to play with the family’s son, Samuel (Armie Hammer), get tutored in reading the bible, and briefly live inside the mansion with the family, Nat enjoyed privileges given to very few slaves at that time. After Mr. Turner’s death, however, things changed for the worse.

A Preacher to Other Slaves

The Turner family became strapped for money, which led Samuel (now a young man running the plantation) to sell Nat’s services as a preacher to other slave owners. Nat was forced to preach tolerance and servitude to other slaves living under horrendous conditions under cruel plantation owners. Eventually his preaching changed from being a passion to unite people in love to a passion to unite people in revolt.

After witnessing the deplorable conditions at other plantations, dealing with the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault on his wife, Cherry, (Aja Naomi King), and enduring a merciless whipping for baptizing a white man on Turner’s property (thus making Samuel a laughingstock among other slave owners), Nat experiences a drastic change of heart. This decision is fueled in part by his life-long visions and dreams of his African tribal ancestry, which marked him as the chosen one because of three vertical moles on his chest. These strange visions help inspire his secret plans to violently revolt against the slave owners – a rebellion doomed before it ever began.

Built-In Controversy

Though the acting is excellent all around, the visions are just one of a few clunky directorial elements, which include recurrent Christ symbolism regarding the Nat Turner character. Was he a hero when he promoted peace? Was he a hero when he promoted violence? Was he ever a hero at all or merely an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances?

The movie comes with built-in controversy. Between the brutally violent content, spiritual overtones that promote vengeance, inevitable comparisons to the superior 12 Years a Slave, Parker’s 1999 rape accusation, and the racial injustice and ethnic stereotypes depicted in the film, everyone has something to talk about. As a historical account of one man’s fight to end slavery – by whatever means necessary – it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that shares a story not everyone has heard. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s an excellent launching point for discussion about ideology, morality, and spirituality.

The Birth of a Nation

  • Based on a true story, slave preacher Nat Turner orchestrates a brutal uprising among slaves in Southampton, Virginia in 1831.
  • Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo
  • Director: Nate Parker
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)

 

Life, Animated – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Documentary film lovers are in for a treat with Life, Animated, an inspiring look at how a silent autistic boy found his voice through animated Disney movies.

As a baby, Owen Suskind was especially sensitive to sound and stimulation, but his parents didn’t pay much attention to this somewhat common occurrence. When he stopped talking and responding at age 3, they and the medical community gave the matter significant attention. Doctors repeatedly told the young family that autism is still a mystery and that Owen may never speak again. Desperate for anything to bring their son back to them, Owen’s father, Ron (a journalist and author), and mother, Cornelia, noticed that he seemed to understand the character interactions in Disney movies and once (after years of silence) muttered the movie line: “Just use your words.”

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Understanding the Movies

Was it merely a coincidence that this line from a movie also applied to the situation at hand? Doctors thought so, but the Suskinds thought differently. They believed their son understood the movies and life around him, but was merely having difficulty processing the information and expressing it. Their first real glimpse into Owen’s animated world was the second time he spoke after so many years of keeping his thoughts to himself.

Upon seeing his brother’s sadness on his birthday, Owen spoke again, this time telling his parents that his brother didn’t want to grow up, “just like Mogli or Peter Pan.” This time it was clearly not just memorization. Owen’s observation showed a level of complexity and awareness that was nothing short of a miracle in his parents’ eyes. After so many years of waiting, they finally had a way to communicate with their son again. Ron would imitate animated characters, and they interacted with each other through the voices, characterizations, scenes, and emotions of the Disney movies.

Connecting With the World

To tell its story, Life, Animated uses live action footage, old home movies, Disney movie clips, and animation created specifically for the documentary that depicts Owen’s struggles through a fairy tale story he wrote. In his own words, Owen describes how a villain had injected fog into a little boy’s brain that for a long time made it hard to discern what was really happening, and kept him silent for many years. The animation scenes are excellent; their dreamy quality captures an altered state of consciousness while maintaining a childlike point of view.

In addition to the story of Owen’s childhood and his family’s efforts to help him connect with the world, protect him from bullies, and guide him through his first love, the film’s framework is his slightly delayed coming-of-age at 23. Graduating from his specialized classes, Owen is about to embark on independent living (away from his family for the first time) in a group home with a supervisor. Through brilliant editing that blends the past, the present, and animated imaginings, this transitional time becomes the perfect opportunity for looking back and seeing how the Suskind family arrived at this point.

Filled with love, this film informs, inspires, surprises, and entertains. Don’t miss it!

Life, Animated

  • Based on the book by Ron Suskind, this documentary explores how his autistic son learned to express himself through Disney’s animated movies.
  • Stars: Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman
  • Director: Roger Ross Williams
  • Genre: Documentary, Animation
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)