THE COURIER**** Tense Cold War Drama


THE IMMEDIATE COMPARISON with this superb movie is with Bridge of Spies, the Spielberg movie about an insurance agent who’s dragooned into ‘the service’ to broker a spy swap. In both films, the stories, set during the period of the cold war, centre around the idea that individuals who muster up the courage can move worlds. And here’s where Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the smooth salesman, Greville Wynne shines: with his slicked back hair and a silly moustache, Cumberbatch’s face dissolves into the role and he convinces in a way the all too iconic face of Tom Hanks, for all his superb acting skills, simply can’t.

Based on a true story, it is a time when a mercurial, all powerful and dangerous Nikita Khrushchev is on the rise. The story begins when a whistleblower, a highly decorated colonel, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), aware of Khrushchev’s mania to destroy the US, slips a note to the US embassy. The note speaks of the immanence of a Soviet nuclear threat. But the Americans, reeling from recent security compromises are forced -reluctantly – to lean on MI6 as the go-between with the whistleblower.

MI6 and the CIA, wary of internal leaks, agree that the go-between must be someone with absolutely no connection with any of their governments, especially with their espionage departments. Someone ‘invisible’ and impossibly unlikely; someone who the Soviets will never suspect, and who will remain innocent of the precise nature of the mission. And this is where an overweight, slightly sleazy, smooth talking, heavy drinking European focused businessman – Cumberbatch’s Wynne- comes into play.

Apart from Cumberbatch’s superb performance (during which – as seems the norm – he loses about 5 stone, morphing from a chunky self-assured, if out of his depth smooth talker, to a skinny, angular, withdrawn and introspective man), theatre director Dominic Cooke’s directing is economical and focused. He converts a tale of silence – wary watchers, secret compartments and covert photography – into two hours of tense, riveting drama.

He manages to slowly tighten the screws of tension at just the right moments to just the right levels without slipping into melodrama. Abel Korzeniowski’s note-perfect score that segues from Tchaikovsky (never has a performance of Swan Lake fueled such nerve wracking sweats) to atonal thrumming, frames and shapes the dramatic arc of every scene. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography along with Suzie Davies’ production design give the whole enterprise the feel of a 60’s news reel. As if this is no mere period drama but the real thing happening in the now.

And the real thing is that of the unfolding of the Cuban missile incident. The idea is that just these two men, Wynne and Penkovsly, bonded by the need to do what’s right for humanity, find the courage, the mutual trust and the selflessness to outwit Khrushchev’s madcap ambitions. Wynne shape-shifts from the nervous, very reluctant naïf to a person of real courage and deep moral principle. In this, increasingly dangerous, enterprise, his fecklessness and sly dissimulations slip away to reveal a person of steely determination and genuine heroic character. For, in the end, the story suggests, the shape of history all comes down, not to the decisions of cold government dictats, but to the courage and humanity of ordinary people who rise in a moment of crisis.

Wynne is managed by two handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of MI6 and his CIA counterpart, Emily Donovan (Rachel Broshnahan who seems more Mrs. Maisel than CIA). Wright is outstanding in the minor role of the MI6 handler: all solid, stiff upper lip British civil service…without the faintest shard of trustworthiness. Jessie Buckley, Wynne’s wife, who is aware that something is amiss, and assumes he’s having an affair (another one) shines in her modest role (and deserved bigger roles in the future).

This fabulous movie’s multiple threads, rich characterization and dense historical storytelling are deftly brought together by a tight, no nonsense, and often funny script by Tom O’Connor.

The idea – call it, of the army of one driven by unwavering moral conviction – is brilliantly dramatized. Cooke (the director) creates that all too real cold war world when the ever-present fear of ‘the bomb’ loomed so large; when the narrative of having four minutes to run to safety was drilled into every citizen. I wasn’t as convinced by the cartoonish geo-politics at play: the buffoonish Khrushchev, the fearless CIA operative, the narrative of the noble West v the evil Russia.

And – mark of a thoughtful movie – one can’t help but wonder beyond the walls of the story, where were these noble voices of honour and truth in the West’s hubristic occupation and then retreat, from Afghanistan?

At this moment when Netflix dominates storytelling, The Courier is a reminder that what makes the cinema worth going to isn’t its larger than life action but its larger than TV artistry.

 THE COURIER: Dir: Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach). With:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, (Homeland), Rachel Broshnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Angus Wright (The Crown), Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Script: Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Cinematography: Sean Bobbit. Music: Abel Korzeniowski. Production Design: Suzie Davies (Peterloo, Mr.Turner)

THE NEST**** (of thorns)


RORY O’HARA (Stunningly realised by Jude Law in one of his finest performances) is the consummate bullshit artist. He lies to himself, his wife (an equally impressive Carrie Coon), his family… to everyone he meets. He bullshits them with an image of success: that of the wealthy, go-getter businessman, the big thinking, big hitter dynamo….the man you want to put your trust in and invest your money with. He’s attractive, seductive, talkative and surrounds himself with all the trappings of this image of success: a trophy wife with her trophy stable and horses and trophy children living in a trophy home and going to trophy schools.

We see behind the mask early on. Writer/director Sean Durkin (of the wonderful Martha Marcy May Marlene) doesn’t hide from us the reality that his attractive, charming protagonist is all show and no substance; a hollow man living in a fancy house of cards.

So we know from the get go that when Rory suddenly decides to uproot his family from their seemingly comfortable life in the US to return to London, to a company he left some time ago, there’s something afoot.

The return is based on the lie – to his wife- that he was called by his old boss of an investment firm to head up a new division. It’s that era of Reagan and Thatcher and the bigger lie of trickle-down economics. Rory’s returning (running away) to infuse his new found American energy into the fusty old-world conservatism of a London banking world that hasn’t as yet ‘got’ with the new world dynamism of the trickle down billions waiting to be made.

It’s really no surprise when their marriage founders, when the phone in their vast, dark, creepy haunted house of a crumbling mansion is cut because the bill hasn’t been paid; when, as the one person with an actual bread and butter income, modest though it is, Allison (the wife) becomes the truth teller to his lies. In one cringe-worthy scene, his veneer of charm and image is mercilessly and publicly peeled away by a disgusted wife.

Even then he still doesn’t seem to get it, or at least to acknowledge what has become obvious to all. He still feels the need to double-down on the pretence; as if he can shape the reality he wants purely by will-power.

Jude Law’s and Carrie Coon’s (from Widows) tremendously engaging performances infuses what is often a facsimile of real people with an authenticity the written characters don’t earn. But then, the characters are both so adept at lying to themselves and each other (She was probably ready to go along with whatever lies he told so long as the money kept flowing and she could lead her gilded life undisturbed) that what seems like narrative flaws in their relationship may just be a director shaping his theme of insincerity.

But at the heart of the tale there’s an idea more intriguing than yet another morality tale of ambition gone amuck.

The Nest is really a story of a man out of synch. His time dimension is fractured. He has neutralized his past (of family poverty; of working as a ‘simple’ trader) to live in a present which has, somehow become a threat. He prefers to live in a sort of future conditional tense: one where things are going to be great; where the markets are about to explode, where he’s forever on the cusp; where living in a make believe past – his own romantic dream of becoming the gentry he never was in a faux castle – can reflect his image of an imagined future, if only people had the vision to follow his lead and see the future with him. To him, there really is no “was” (his alienated mother) or “is” (the reality of failure and bankruptcy) only the “could have been”.

The Nest is the ultimate delusion.

THE NEST. Written/directed: Sean Durkin. With Jude Law, Carrie Coon. Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély (Miss Bala), Production Designer: James Price

IN THE HEIGHTS**** Hits All The Right Notes


A FEW MONTHS after the trauma of 9/11, Meryl Streep sought out the balm of the theatre. She went to see Mama Mia. She was so rejuvenated by the buoyancy of the play that she bought the film rights. The result: a dancing, singing James Bond (aka Pierce Brosnan) in a delightful fun filled, infectiously charming movie.

Lin-Manuel Mirands’s joyous, foot-tapping In the Heights is as equally soul-healing and life-affirming and, its release having been pushed back from 2020,  just what’s needed in these Covid dark, Trump/Boris venomous days. Two hours of sheer pleasure!

The story, centred in the Latina microcosm of Washington Heights, (literally) dances around themes of identity, belonging and the need to follow your dreams. Fortunately, this last idea is rescued from gagging cliché by the story’s sly political weave with the politicised community of aspirational ‘Dreamers’, that ‘dangerous’ group so demonised by the Right.

It’s a clever movie: the frothy fairy tale story of boy meets girl, boy/girl get each other, of ambitions realised, of friends lost and found, contain far deeper layers of thoughtfulness and insight. For one thing, the idea of a community united and looking out for each other through a sense of shared cultural rather than racial or economic identity is energising. So too the story’s understanding of belonging and its role in shaping identity…all told through Miranda’s inventive lyrics.

The key actors, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera all manage to combine musical theatre’s magic threesome: peerless singing, dancing and acting.

But mainly, In the Heights is its music. The movie begins, with a recurring coda, that the sound of the streets is the background pulse of its dizzyingly infectious rhythms. They’re a hybrid of Dominican bachata and merengue, Puerto Rican reggaeton, Argentinian tango, Colombian cumba,  American hip hop and more. 

What a molé!

And oh the dancing: Busby Berkeley meets hot salsa! But great movie choreography is hugely dependent on the director. Jon Chu, who directed Crazy Rich Asians, has done a marvellous job of conveying both the footwork and the fun. People seem to be having a great time

So, if you want to escape for a few hours (OK, it did drag a bit in the middle of the tale); if you want to tap your feet and groove along in this least of foot-tapping times, leave your problems on the doorstep and dance into the Heights.

They rhythm is gonna get you.

IN THE HEIGHTS. Dir: Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). Writers: Lin-Manuel Miranda (from his play); screenplay: Quiara Algería Hudes. With Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKlansman), Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera. Composer: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire (The Incredibles 2), , Bill Sherman (Sesame Street). Cinematographer: Alice Brooks (Hoe Before Dark…TV). Choreographer: Christopher Scott

A NOT SO BLOCKBUSTER BEGINNING


Yay. The movies are back. Back to the big screen with about three people sitting masked and socially distant. During the first lock-down we were tantalized with the buzz that theatres would be re-opening with the incredible awesomeness of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s long awaited spectacularly filmed mystery dud about time. And to herald the ending of this newest lock down, the grand re-opening of cinemas once again has been built up with the launches of not one, but two pre-summer blockbusters, A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella.

So far this re-opening is going down with the same damp squidiness as the first one.

A Quiet Place Part II. *** Shhh**

The story of AQP2 begins excitingly enough with Day 1, a brief prequel to the first Quiet Place and an introduction of when (not so much how) it all began. This is as compelling an opening as the opening of World War Z, when the easy-going quotidian of daily life turns into mayhem and horror. That first ten minutes were definitely worth a star.

So far so good.

And then we return to the present; we’re back in the world where to make a sound is to court pretty much instant death (from creatures who clearly are nearby but make no sound at all since no one can ever hear them). Problem is, having had that horror twist unfold tensely in AQP1, AQP2 feels very much like same old, same old: more moments when quietness isn’t possible (the issue of a crying baby was sorted out in Part 1) and more vague journeying in search of a place alluded to in a ghost recording of Bobby Darren crooning about  “Somewhere beyond the sea”.

The conundrum AQP2 faced is the perennial one of how to continue the excitement and the unexpected in a part 2 story so that it’s more than just repetition (Brilliantly solved in Sicario 2).

It’s not been solved here. The writers have shifted the focus to the two kids (Millificent Simmonds and Noah Jupe), so it’s more of a coming of age story (or, “How I lost my innocence and learned to kill my first monster”…instead of the more status quo coming of age of “How I first got laid”).

But really, if you’ve seen the first, don’t bother with the second (or it appears, the soon to be written third)

A QUIET PLACE PART2 Dir/Writer: John Krasinski. With: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. Cinematographer: Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky)


Cruella** the Deville wears Prada`


Here are two of my favourite Emmas – Stone and Thompson – seeking the same unexpected thrills and box office gold of that other parallel story, Maleficent. All good so far.

And then, back to that reference to “damp squidiness”. Emma Thompson as ‘the Baroness’ and costume designer Jenny Beaven (Dolittle, Mad Max: Fury Road) are given full license to simply go for it. And that they do. The Baroness is a deliciously nasty, imperious, evil, murderous, baddie. A fabulously, flamboyantly dressed…clothes designer.

Bathos meets blockbuster to produce mere boredom.

Estella (Emma Stone) is a poor orphan child dragged up in the underworld by a trio of (kindly) fellow orphans who teach her how to pickpocket. (What the Dickens is going on here you might well ask). But it’s her passion and flair for dress-design (She’d rather patch pockets than pick them) that connects her with the Baroness and is the catalyst to her evolution into Cruella.

Clearly someone, armed with focus group insights and in charge of the purse, felt that the pattern for profit meant that we had to empathize with Cruella. The result is that the movie (astonishingly shoddily written by six persons. Six persons!!!) consistently pulls its punches. Cruella is neither particularly likeable nor particularly evil; just haughty. Call it haughty couture. As for the Dalmatians, you’d never notice their presence. The 101 have been reduced to about three. It’s more cat-walk than dog show. One not worth dressing up for.

CRUELLA. Dir: Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) Writers: Dana Fox + 5 others. Cinematographer: Nicholas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya).  Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (The Favourite). Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan

WITHOUT REMORSE** Time you’ll never recover


WHAT A HUGELY missed opportunity. This fast-paced, often nonsensical action movie is based on a fascinating premise: that a group of nativists seek to wean America away from its divisive ideological civil war and bring the country back together by a focus on a bigger war: against Russia. So they create the conditions for such war.

The director is Stefano Sollimar who did the outstanding Sicario 2. The movie has some first-rate actors: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. The brooding score is from Jon Birgisson (Pieces of a Woman); Philippe Rousselot (Fantastic Beasts) is the cinematographer and the set design is Kevin Kavanaugh (The Dark Knight Rises). Even the clunky script is from Taylor Sheridan (who wrote both Sicario movies)

So what went wrong? The actual story, the plot, is so laughably silly and hunky hero John Kelly (Jordan) is so woodenly one-dimensional that even the OK-ish action sequences feel flat. There’s a shadow of the inconsequential, the ephemeral that lingers over the whole enterprise like its (imagined) ill-conceived mission statement: “We need content! So, let’s make a super hero movie without an actual super hero and with revenge at its heart”

Tom Clancy you should be blushing even now

TOM CLANCY’s WITHOUT REMORSE. Dir: Stefano Sollimar. With: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. Scriptwriter: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematorgrapher: Phillippe Rousselot

NOMADLAND***** “Where never is heard a discouraging word…”


FERN (FRANCES McDORMAND) is a recent widow. The industry that sustained her community has collapsed. The money that sustained the life she once lived has evaporated. It is cold and damp and lonely (what Melville’s Ishmael describes as “the damp, drizzly November in my soul”.) And so, in a deliberate parallel to the idea of America, Fern, like Huck Finn, lights out, heading West in her modern covered wagon and learning the ways of the road (like how to mend a flat tyre) on an odyssey of discovery…the discovery of ‘what’s out there’

At first glance, there seems to be a major contradiction at the heart of Nomadland: having had her life torn asunder, first by the death of her husband and then by the death of the industry that sustained them, Fern’s seemingly enjoyable time working as a packer in Amazon is jarring. This is Amazon we’re taking about; the arch villain of humane people-centered industrial practices. The darkest face of modern capitalism. Even the life on the road that she’s chosen to live (in a tiny cramped van), seems more tolerable than you’d expect. Yes, it’s credibly spare and basic (Director Chloe Zhao makes a point of showing us the rudimentary conditions of her toilet processes), but it seems free from the imagined squalor and poverty you’d expect.   

But to fret over these details is to miss the intent, the magic even, of the story.

Don’t be fooled by its quasi-documentary feel. Much as the original story (from Jessica Bruder) may have been based on the gritty reality of these new road warriors: this army of people fleeing loss, destitution, homelessness, the collapse of their societies etc, this is a parable of renewal and hope. It’s about the indomitable strength of the human character; about the restorative power of finding and becoming a part of a bigger community of like-minded, non-judgmental souls, as she does; about the possibility of joy, of love and of enriched happiness in the face of a society where money is the (only) accepted route to such.

And it’s all told from her increasingly open-hearted point of view. It’s not so much ‘reality’ as her reality

And it is all this without mawkishness and Hallmark sentimentality. It’s a movie that inspires optimism in a world where cynicism and despair seem to only available roads. It’s as though the director is urging her audience to rediscover with Fern, the America of the imagination, Whitman’s expansive panoramic America, his America containing multitudes (where Amazon is just one of those that can effortlessly be absorbed by the contradictions of such vastness). The wonderful cinematography of Joshua Richards (God’s Own Country) lays it all before us: the America of the endless plain, the infinity of folding mountains, the fast flowing isolated streams where it is possible to lie naked, floating without a care or fear.

Nomadland is a quasi-mythic place that is accessed only by stripping away the dross of the politics, the commercialism, the divisiveness of what I guess may be Normal-land. And once you’re there, despite her sister’s cajoling and the seductive charms of a simpatico fellow nomad (David Strathairn) and his lovely family, really, you can never go back; you can never re-settle into the non-nomadic, anchored, way of life. The -finite- past is not the place where you want to return to (as she does toward the end when she revisits her past, now an abandoned town). The present, envisaged as a moment of timelessness, is where you need to live…where we all need to get back to.

Frances McDormand (accompanied by a group of non-actors and ‘real’ nomads that texture the movie) is as compellingly believable as usual. She manages to balance all the pain and sorrow and loneliness of the very vulnerable with the weathered maturity and self-contentment of someone who, like a solo mariner, is as comfortable alone as she is with company. Her ageless, variegated face is the face of the land she travels on.

Ms Zhao is well deserving of the Oscar in this piece of almost invisible directing; it suggests a story that tells itself, as if without ideological shaping. And she invests her tale with an easy rhythm; a flow as organic as the seasons that unfold before us.

I’m leaving on a jet ‘plane… soon

NOMADLAND. Dir (and screenplay) Chloé Zhao. With: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Cinematographer: Joshua James Richards. Art Director: Elizabeth Godar (Us)

MONSOON**** Beautifully layered


MONSOON IS A thoughtful, beautifully well written, somewhat melancholic movie about rootlessness and the need to find, call them anchor points, in life.

Having fled with his family thirty years earlier when he was six, Kit has returned to Vietnam ostensibly to find a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. He’s left some sort of tech job and is on an extended odyssey back to the country of his childhood, which he hopes may be the anchor point he’s looking for. His life seems aimless; one without commitments other than the strong bonds with his brother and his brother’s family. His relationships (he’s gay) are fleeting Grinder hook-ups. He’s ostensibly English, but without any depth of national identity. He’s Vietnamese by birth but not by heritage, and any links to this past have been long expunged by his parents who burnt whatever photos they had (images that became ashes, like their remains) and who had banned the brothers from ever returning. He doesn’t even seem to own a suitcase, just the wanderer’s backpack. And the one point of contact he has in Saigon, an old friend (David Tam), lives a life so radically different to his, that the moments of contact are stilted and awkward. Even those physical places of his childhood past have been built over and destroyed.

This Vietnam of his past is to him, a foreign land. Here he’s just another tourist in a fancy hotel.

So this is a man with no past to help anchor him, no future to aim toward and really no present to offer stability. And into his life stumbles two persons: the first is a young black American businessman, Lewis (Parker Sawyers) with whom he has an affair; and who, as an American in Vietnam is haunted by his own past, one compromised by the ‘kills’ of his father. The second is a young Vietnamese art tour guide, Linh (Molly Harris). She too is in search of something more, of a life with greater meaning. But, the opposite of him, she’s trapped by the past. Her parents, having invested in her education expect her to take over from their stultifyingly traditional lotus blossom tea manufacture business.

The arc of the story suggests that the point of any odyssey is the potential of discovery of that which you weren’t even looking for. And this may have happened. Though Vietnam cannot offer him an identity built on a past, it may have the potential to offer him an anchor point for a future with the stability of his brother’s happy family life.

Maybe

Kit is Henry Golding, the hairdresser who fell into acting and immediate stardom in the surprise hit, Crazy Rich Asians. After his follow up rom com mistake, Last Christmas with Emilia Clarke, and a small role in the outstanding The Gentlemen, this is clearly his real break-out role. He’s become a self assured, compelling and emotionally nuanced actor. A joy to spend some time with

The (Cambodian) writer and director Hong Khaou seems to specialize in gay movies that probe the role and meaning of –gay- sexual identity in a hetero world. In Monsoon, Kit’s homosexuality is contrasted with his brother’s hetero family life; but really, it’s a minor theme in a much broader and more engaging vision.

 

MONSOON. Writer/director: Hong Khaou. With: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, David Tam. Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun.

TENET***. non


WOULD THAT I had the intellect and time to better understand the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics. It’d be, without doubt, worth the time. Without doubt the reward for such understanding would be an unique insight into the nature of how our reality actually functions. TENET (or spelt backward, TENET. Gosh ain’t that clever) is a movie that dramatizes the idea of ‘time inversion’, where the linear world of time that as we experience it, is only one reality. As the theory goes, when entropy collapses, time can move backward or something.

If it’s worth the time and effort to try to understand quantum theory; the big questions with TENET, is, is it worth your time trying to understand this film? Would your appreciation and wonder of the world, or even of, say basic tenets of human behaviour, be appreciably increased? A more interesting conundrum: since time inversion reverses time, can I get my money back? I know I can’t get my time back.

Only a quantum review of TENET can do it full justification without spoiling it for everyone…a Nolan-esque multiverse review: where I‘ve both seen it, understood it and so loved it. And one where I chicken out of going to the cinema, didn’t see it and feel that had I done so I would have loved it (It’s Christopher Nolan after all; the poor man’s Terrence Malick); or one where I did see it, couldn’t be arsed to understand it and felt disappointedly underwhelmed by the whole experience

Call it the Schroeder review

The plot is a sort of Dan Brown metaphysics story with the meta left out: A really bad man with a pretend Russian accent (Kenneth Branagh) is planning on destroying the world unless our protagonist, the charismatic John David Washington, called The Protagonist, (because…see below) and his buddy Robert Pattinson (surprisingly good), both wearing great suits, stop him. The only way they can do this (natch) is to go forward or sometime backward in time. The present can only defeated by roping in the future. Or Branagh’s ‘wife’, Elizabeth Debicki (wasted)

And the forward backward time inversion executions are often stunning: buildings that explode and de-explode while people are running forward and backward to and from them; an imaginative car chase that’s happening on the two temporal places simultaneously; and some clever twists that semi explain what’s going on, or went on or will go on.

But it’s difficult to get engaged with a group of characters when you have no idea who they are beyond their role as bodies to drive a plot forward (hence the Protagonist lacking a name/identity/human characteristics?); and it’s impossible to get excited by the drama and tension of a plot when cause and effect are so tangentially related and when the story is so confusing you can’t really grasp who’s doing what to whom and why.

The reviews keep referring to this as a James Bond -like movie. If I were Barbara Broccoli I’d sue them for libel.

TENET writer/director: Christophe Nolan (version, Batman) with John David Washington (BlackKKlansman) Robert Pattinson (The Twilight Saga), Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki (Widows). Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (Ad Astra, Dubkirk). Composer: Ludwig Goransson (The Mandalorian). Production Design: Nathan Crowley (First Man, Dunkirk)

 

 

CLEMENCY**** Nation behind bars


What’s the Story?
A portrait of a prison warden (Alfre Woodward from Twelve Years a Slave) who, after witnessing twelve executions, is struggling to keep in touch with her humanity. She’s become an emotionally empty functionary, drifting away from her husband and, increasingly lonely, with anyone else for that matter. She’s become the embodiment of the heartless, inhumane system that she works for. The story parallels her living death with that of a dead man walking: a (wrongly) convicted felon struggling to fend off despair and fight for clemency even as he readies himself for execution.

What’s it All About?
The story seems to take its inspiration from John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Bernadine, the warden, is a diminished person, going through the motions of living in what clearly is a diminished nation. The idea is signaled from the beginning when a strapped-in convict’s last words are his recital of the Lord’s Prayer  (“…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us”) No clemency here, as the un-forgiven, trespassed-upon convict is brutally, clumsily executed by the authorities. The law and order of the jungle, of an eye for an eye. Bernadine, who seems to exhibit human emotion only when she’s ether drunk or dreaming, seems to share a symbiotic link with the state’s next victim (Aldis Hodge) – a petty criminal wrongly accused of murder –. They’re both alienated from the comfort of family, immeasurably lonely, and incommunicatively walled off from the world in their own separate yet similar ways. Both jailer and jailed are victims of a system that degrades and dehumanizes its citizens. The difference is that he has a troop of believers and supporters who love and fight for him. She has only her alienated and despairing husband. But the supporters’ love and – Wendell Pierce- her husband’s sense of fealty are all in vain. Such decency, such belief, such desire for forgiveness and clemency can never make headway in a world thus diminished.

Why Should I see it?
Alfre Woodward’s stunning performance offers us the bi-focal vision of a woman whose main expression is one of blank nothingness, even while we see the emotional hysteria beneath the blankness. It’s an extraordinary feat. She’s a riveting screen presence. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s script is a masterpiece of underwriting. She avoids the kind of grandstanding big moment speechifying that a less confident writer would have thrown in. And her understated directing is comfortable to let the story unfold in its own time…carry it own inherent drams, without the need for tricks. It’s a story of compelling real people who at the same time stand in for bigger themes of the idea of the nation
Thoroughly captivating

CLEMENCY. Writer/Director: Chinonye Chukwu. With Alfre Woodward, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce. Cinematographer: Eric Branco

 

DA 5 BLOODS***Seriously Flawed


DA 5 BLOODS, Spike Lee’s newest (out on Netflix) is both intellectually exciting and maddeningly bad. It’s a thoughtful, passionate look at how America tries to come to terms with the staggering failure of Vietnam (or the American War as it’s known there) when “some poor hungry people in the mud” (Mohammed Ali) ran the mighty US Army outta town. In Mr Lee’s eyes, perhaps that war was the genesis of the deep seated need to “Make America Great Again”
It’s also the absolutely nonsensical story of four black Vietnam vets, plus a son (Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors,Clarke peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) who revisit the country intent on finding the bones of their beloved leader (Chadwick Boseman) and a chest of gold they’d found and buried there…somewhere in the jungles of ‘Nam (because, you know, armed only with a map and a metal detector, it’s a piece of cake to journey into the forests you saw once fifty years before under heavy gunfire and with pin-point accuracy unearth what you buried there. Robert Luis Stephenson made more sense)

It’s nonsensical not because the story of vets revisiting the country in search of answers and redemption is far fetched; ridiculous because on a human level, on the level of fiction, nothing is credible. Spike Lee’s authorial hand tilts the scales of character and story so firmly in service to his philosophical thrust that the simple artistic mandate of creating a willing suspension of disbelief is violated pretty much from the get-go.

There is a grand bloody finale, dramatizing the mental war that for so many of its ancient warriors (on both sides) simply cannot end. And an extended soliloquy on the part of MAGA loving, PTSD crippled Paul (Delroy Lindo in an acting tour de force) in which he morphs into another crazed version of Kurtz, is magnificent.

And thank goodness I’d soldiered on through the preceding two hours of senseless rubbish. Like the four vets, at least there was some redemption.

At least it’s rubbish from a thinking imagination. Lee wisely eschews the fakery of Scorsese’s de-ageing process of The Irishman and keeps his protagonists the same age when we see flashbacks of them in the theatre of war.

It’s his signifier of the symbolic grammar of his approach. As though they are now what they were then. Or, as the story would have it: as a nation, we’ve (America) not changed. And the – haunted- search for redemption is really a search for the forgiveness of a shared guilt. The cache of buried gold also suggests the treasure of principles (the plan was to use the gold for the betterment of humanity) they left behind. As though they could somehow disinter those values they once shared and regain their pre-lapsarian sense of honour (There’s even a nasty snake sinking its fangs into our demented Adamic hero).

The idea that America’s present Trumpian purgatory was catalyzed by a national fall from grace in the Gulf of Tonkin is intriguing. Pity Mr Lee’s writing team couldn’t shape a story that could make humanly credible his Promethean thesis

 

Da 5 BLOODS. Dir: Spike Lee. Writers: Danny Bilson (Company of Heroes), Kevin Wilmott (BlacKkKlansman) and

Spike Lee. With: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Melanie Thierry. Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel (Extraction). Production designer: Wynn Thomas (Shaft)