Reviews by Ken Burke
Once again the Internet's provided me with useful material for reviews of some worthy cinematic options (even paid for one!), so during these times of global trial (with optimistic-yet-patient-looks toward light at the distant end of the tunnel for those who survive this pandemic) Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark is pleased to offer you needed diversion of various lengths about content you can watch on a screen in your own home (but, please, not on a smartphone if possible; show a little respect for the filmmakers who've produced something more-visually-substantial for you to look at).
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019) rated R
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: In some unidentified prison, Bernadine Williams (Alfrie Woodard) labors as the warden, struggling in her job because she’s not only troubled by the trauma of participating in executions of her death-row-prisoners but she’s also not convinced each man condemned to lethal-injection is actually guilty of the crimes he’s been charged with/convicted of, especially when she’s dealing with the shouts of protesters outside her walls condemning these executions in general, no matter the crimes of the convicted. This all gets especially difficult for Williams during the termination of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo)—with a useful tactic of cutting between a clock showing the late 6 o’clock hour to one showing the late 10 o’clock hour, not just moving the events along for our benefit but indicating visually how time races by for everyone involved because soon there will be no more time for the executed so it all seems to evaporate as the final hour draws near—because the death-squad can’t find a proper vein to stick the needle in, then when Bernadine suggests they use his foot he has a violent reaction but doesn’t die so they scramble to finish him off (closing the curtain over the window into the visitors’ gallery in the process), trying to get more of the deadly chemicals into him until suddenly he expires. Warden Williams tries desperately to keep the press out of her domain so as to not allow this situation to gain more notoriety than it already has, but clearly she’s getting frazzled from the grim realities of her job, leading to further tensions at home with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) who wants to somehow leave all this misery behind, but she’s determined to stick with the job she’s dedicated to even as it leads to sleepless nights where she wanders off to the living room couch in a desperate attempt to doze off, even as Jonathan’s becoming increasingly annoyed by the growing distance between him and his wife. Back at work, Bernadine’s constantly harassed by Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), soon-to-retire-but-still-pressing-for-appeals-lawyer for convicted felon Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who maintains his innocence but says little else no matter what the circumstances, frustrating Marty as well as increasing Bernadine’s psychological distress. Soon enough she’s trying to forget her troubles in a local bar, downing enough emotionally-distancing-liquid that her assistant, Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn), has to drive her home, where she just keeps drinking throughout that night.
So What? Here’s another 2019 release I didn't get around to when it had a relatively short life in my local theaters (released at the very end of 2019, last shows up in the Box Office Mojo weekend tally for Feb. 21-23, 2020, but it seems like it was long gone from my San Francisco area before that) even though I had serious interest in it, but my time was mostly spent catching up on Oscar nominees, which didn’t include Clemency; in retrospect, though, I see why this film won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize early in 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival, along with Woodard being nominated as Best Actress by several awards groups. Further, now if I were revising my choices for various successes in 2019 films I’d include Woodard in my Top 5 Best Actresses, dropping Saoirse Ronan in Little Women (Greta Gerwig; review found in our January 2, 2020 posting), which I wish the Academy had done as well (although Renee Zellweger still remains my first choice in this category, appropriately winning the Oscar for her portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy [Rupert Goold; review in our October 2, 2019 posting]). Woodard is simply mesmerizing in her role, effectively conveying the anguish this woman feels when caught between her job’s obligations to see court-determined-executions are carried out in their legally-specified-manner and her personal horror at feeling insecure the actual criminal perpetrators are the ones eventually put to death, along with the gruesome result of sometimes seeing an execution proceed improperly, bringing Constitutionally-forbidden “cruel and unusual punishments” to a procedure awful enough already for all involved. In the interview within the second citation for this film below in this posting's Related Links section, director/screenwriter Chukwu (also a college professor of those skills) shares her deep interest in this subject matter, personally researching the stories of death-row-inmates, just as Woodard visited prisons in Ohio to spend time with wardens and lead male actor Hodge went to San Quentin (very near me, with its heart-breaking [for the prisoners] views of San Francisco Bay, representing just-out-of-reach-freedom) to speak with lifers and those on death-row. While it’s clear this film has no support as such for the death penalty, largely because of increasing evidence of the wrong people being executed, neither does it call for its abolition, in that the truly guilty must somehow pay for their crimes, with the complex situations of rehabilitation, remorse, restitution not attempted to be resolved here either. This is simply the story of the toll our prison system takes on some of those most invested in managing it, not just those who’ve been convicted of crimes. (Conveniently, soon after streaming this film my wife, Nina, and I re-watched via Netflix disc In the Name of the Father [Jim Sheridan, 1993], about Irishmen [and women] falsely accused of being IRA terrorists in the mid-1970s with excellent performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, and Emma Thompson, well worth your time to locate, maybe as a homemade-double-feature with Clemency.)
|(Please don't get the wrong inference from this photo; there's nothing in this film implying |
any connection between warden and inmate except compassion and appreciation.)
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
Uncorked (Prentice Penny) rated TV-MA
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
|(Sorry about the poor quality of this photo, but it does help illustrate key aspects of the movie.)|
*Nina once visited her aunt Melba in Chattanooga—clear across Tennessee from Uncorked's locale—when Melba said “Tonight we’re gonna have barbeque.” Nina asked “Barbequed what?”; Melba replied, “Well, Honey, just barbeque,” which turned out to be a delicious mixed grill, implying to me if you really care for meat prepared in such tasty fashion the individual choices don't actually matter.
⇒Called upon after Sylvia’s demise to put in more of his time with the family business (Louis even opened up a second location as an enticement—not appreciated—to pull his son into the flow of cookers, grilling, and tangy sauces [yes, this is one thing I do miss about Texas: great barbecue!]), Elijah starts skipping his Sommelier program classes, has to withdraw. Louis eventually relents, comes to appreciate his son’s devotion to a career/artform (extremely demanding, especially—in my opinion—with requirements including having to taste a wine, then correctly identify its type, geographic location, year of release, whereas I can settle for most ordinary meals “enhanced” with a bottle of Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck [Charles Shaw that is, although the organic version costs a dollar more]) Dad has little understanding of, so, with the help of his father and Tanya, Elijah dives back into studying for the Master Sommelier exam. Surprisingly,* for what we assume is an upbeat, single-episode-story (unlike the lengthy Rocky series [1976-2006] where the hero has the luxury of extended-narrative-time to endure various defeats, triumphs, losses, redemptions), Elijah doesn’t pass his test; however, he continues working various jobs, gets back into Sommelier classes, keeps hope alive for a better future we likely won’t see, although we remain confident in his determination, relieved he has family and romantic support to bolster his ongoing ambitions.⇐ The somewhat-surprise-ending takes this movie out of the realm of ordinary-anticipated-achievement-tropes, but it’s still a satisfying story of making every effort to turn hopes into reality, presented in a concise 104-min.-manner, easy to follow and appreciate. It would have premiered at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music festival, March 2020, in Austin, TX, but that event was cancelled (along with so much else) due to the coronavirus pandemic so it’s now available on Netflix streaming instead. Uncorked isn’t great, but it’s admirable (nice nose, you might say, with hints of Sideways [Alexander Payne, 2004; still one of my favorite stories of struggling to find personal worth when society—and individuals—don’t support your attempts at achievement, as well as being the film that joyously introduced me to Pinot Noir, although when Nina and I traveled down to the Santa Ynez Valley wineries to taste some of that fine wine we discovered they were completely sold out!]).
*This article explores the director’s decision on how this story should conclude (spoilers of course populate these clarifying comments; further, prepare to be overwhelmed with all the ads at this site).
The CCAL’s a bit mixed on Uncorked, though, with those surveyed by RT offering 88% positive reviews (based on just 24, so that might change with a larger sample) while MC folks are back to being their often-restrained-selves with only a 63% average score (based on a mere 12 reviews, opening possibilities for a different result here as well from more voices). I’m thankful one of our local San Francisco-area-film critics called this movie to my attention, with hopes some of you might find value in it also. In closing this cluster of comments, I can’t say I’m all that inventive in choosing a Musical Metaphor (maybe I’ve sampled too much wine—or bourbon—lately to be all that clear-headed; oh, well, as the French say “Que sera, sera“). Therefore, I’ll just go with “Red Red Wine,” originally written/recorded by Neil Diamond (on his 1967 album Just for You), although the best-known-version (as well as being tonally-in-sync with this movie) seems to be by UB40 (I could have used their official video, but it’s just the short version of their original single joined to some intentionally-crappy, seemingly-random black & white footage), so I'll pick their extended version (from the 1983 Labour of Love album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T2MIGuA8p4, a live performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute held on June 11, 1988 at London’s Wembley Stadium. Admittedly, the original intention of this song is a singer lamenting his lost love, drowning his sorrows in rich, red wine; however, with a little imagination (this is a metaphor, you know) I could see Elijah directing these lyrics to the loss of his mother, the setbacks in his intended career, the uncertainty of where his young life could maneuver him next: “I just thought that with time Thoughts of you would leave my mind I was wrong, now I find Just one thing makes me forget Red, red wine Stay close to me Don’t let me be in love It’s tearing apart My blue, blue heart Red, red wine, you make me feel so fine You keep me rockin’ all of the time Red, red wine, you make me feel so grand I feel a million dollars when you’re just in my hand.” Like good wine improves with age (but not the cheap stuff; you might as well drink it as soon as you get home as more time’s not going to change anything, although—speaking from experience—you’re still much better off with Two Buck Chuck than such swill as Ripple or Carlo Rossi), so, hopefully, Elijah’s life finds solace as he grows, makes further decisions, finds success at whatever he’s capable of, even though I doubt we’ll see any sequels (or Boyhood [Richard Linklater, 2014; review in our July 31, 2014 posting]-type-chronological-elongations to explore whatever happens next with Elijah); while you wait to be sure, though, uncork some Cabernet—red Sauvignon or white Sauvignon Blanc—for yourself to toast the demise of COVID-19, in hopes its deadly-ravages will leave us in peace sooner than later.
As noted in my previous posting, I’ll likely be closing out each of these present-to-near-future-Two Guys-ramblings (doing this from home every Wednesday day and night long before I was asked by various levels of government to Shelter in Place) with various movie-business-related-tidbits to help you pass the time while most domestic theaters are closed (along with many in Asia), especially (not like this week, though) if I need to pad what's here with other material because I don’t have much to review. Fortunately, this cluster will be brief with: (1) A follow-up to last week that despite a largely-unsuccessful (where ticket sales were concerned) attempt by China to reopen a small percentage of their extensive theaters they’re now shut down again; (2) Some questions about whether theater chains can survive this coronavirus-mandated-shutdown (last weekend there was almost nothing for Box Office Mojo to track), given landlords expect rent on these expensive properties yet there’s no money coming in; (3) a counter-perspective on how the $2 trillion U.S.-government-stiumulus-action will help allow theaters to survive (but with the grim reminder of the present situation in a large chart showing the nationwide closure of so many movie-theater-chains); and (4) Two Guys great thanks to our global audience (especially those in Google’s Unknown Region, wherever you may be) as our readership continues to increase again (stats are always presented at the very end of each posting). As will also be usual with this section of each posting (but don’t forget all the fascinating boilerplate stuff just below), I’ll give you an ongoing Musical Metaphor for this quasi-quarantine-situation, Joni Mitchell’s "Big Yellow Taxi" (from her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album) because “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.” (But you might find interesting things you could consider for streaming if you consult the JustWatch site as we collectively wait out the easing of this horrid pandemic, which brings me back to that Byrds song from the beginning of my current rambling with another reference to it, this time speaking to the COVID-19 virus itself as survivors will “feel a whole lot better when you’re gone Oh, when you're gone.” However, all these connections to music summon me into my final topic for this posting …)
This week I’ve got something else entirely to help pass the time while we’re isolating at home (especially if you listen to it 3 times in a row like I did when I first discovered it); this final offering to you isn’t truly cinematic, except in the larger metaphorical sense of a musical experience of such significant length (16:55) and lyrical impact (from a Nobel Literature Laureate) that it conjures up mental images of a time long ago (November 22, 1963) yet still resonating so powerfully throughout our history and culture, Bob Dylan’s latest song, "Murder Most Foul," which just appeared suddenly last week on the Internet. There are different versions you can find on YouTube, but I’ve chosen one showing the lyrics to help digest all this tsunami of allusions (although, unlike much of Dylan’s recent albums and concerts I’ve experienced, you can easily understand what Bob’s saying here in the longest song he’s ever recorded). Sure, after you hear it you may be tempted to say it’s somewhat-reminiscent of Don McLean’s "American Pie" (from his 1971 debut album of the same name), but in my opinion that’s like comparing Agatha Christie’s best-selling-novel And Then There Were None (1939, in England, but I won’t repeat the original racist title; this is the one it’s known by now, from the 1940 American edition) adapted to the stage in 1943 (plus several cinematic versions) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (roughly 1601, staged constantly ever since, with many film/TV adaptations as well)—from whence comes the title of this Dylan song—just because they both involve murder, with the former book/play (like McLean’s musical masterwork) being catchy, entertaining, intriguing as it unfolds but easy enough to move on from once you’ve absorbed it while the latter play (like Dylan’s latest original creation [at least that we’re aware of]) is mesmerizing, probing deep into its sources, conjuring up responses that are felt more than articulated. Dylan’s epic song is a successful inclusion in these times of patient introspection, remembering what’s been lost, anticipating the future, reminding us—as in the Joni Mitchell tune above—of how we become so wrapped up in our surroundings we don’t realize the larger context we’re all a part of until it becomes a new sensibility, forcing us to re-evaluate what’s been taken for granted for so long. To finally truly close our Two Guys experience for this week, then, I’ll simply join Bob in the message to his fans released with the song, “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”
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Here’s more information about Clemency:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTsbJ2St8BU (25:29 interview hosted by Kevin Smith
with director Chinonye Chukwu and actors Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff,
Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks)
Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks)
Here’s more information about Uncorked:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgx8wzPf5AQ (1:23 featurette on Fred Dame, the “American Jedi Master of blind wine tasting” [actually a promo for an Esquire network series called Uncorked]) plus a couple of other vignettes from that series—which shed some light on the content of the Uncorked movie—at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=255aMj83EHA (3:09 on mastering
the art of service [harder to do than you might think]) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQJjqnC_xj8 (6:59 about cheating on the Master Sommelier test)
the art of service [harder to do than you might think]) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQJjqnC_xj8 (6:59 about cheating on the Master Sommelier test)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,
https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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