Tag Archives: B

CLEMENCY

Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong and Timur Bekbosunov   Director:  Chinonye Chukwu   Screenplay: Chinonye Chukwu   Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Vernee Watson, Dennis Haskins, LaMonica Garrett and Michelle C. Bonilla  Distributor:  NEON

Grade:  B+

The more avid proponents of capital punishment will sometimes emphasize their point of view by saying that they’d be happy to pull the switch (or, given today’s preferred method of execution, inject the needle) themselves, but even they might give pause after watching Chinonye Chukwu’s sober yet scathing portrait of the toll the process of implementing a death sentence takes on those who are part of the system as they deal with convicts on death row, their supporters, and the victims’ survivors (along with the protestors constantly shouting their objections outside).  “Clemency” is an exercise in misery on all sides, and though it’s occasionally heavy-handed in making its points (a hint of Stanley Kramer periodically intrudes), overall it’s a powerful piece of work.

The chief protagonist is Bernadine Williams (a superb Alfre Woodard), the warden of a prison where executions are performed.  She has already presided over a dozen of them, and though she tries, aided by her stoic deputy Morgan (Richard Gunn), to remain businesslike, the traumatic effect on her is palpable, especially when the most recent of them goes terribly wrong, with the inmate (Alex Castillo) going into paroxysms of pain as the sedatives fail to function properly. 

It’s no wonder that Bernadine’s marriage to schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is under severe strain, or that she feels the need to unwind with Morgan at a bar on the way home, on occasion indulging too much.

To add to her personal turmoil, she is faced with preparing yet another execution, that of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodges), a black man convicted fifteen years earlier of killing a policeman in a convenience-store holdup.  On the one hand, his lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), himself a veteran death penalty attorney whose frustration about working on such virtually hopeless cases is prompting him to consider retirement, is asking for Bernadine’s help in mounting his appeal to the governor.  On the other, the dead cop’s parents (Dennis Haskins and Vernee Watson-Johnson) are pressuring her to break protocol by awarding them an additional witness chair at the execution.  The sense of her being pulled in opposite directions while maintaining bureaucratic neutrality is etched on Woodard’s face.

Nor does “Clemency” ignore the anguish Woods is going through.  In Hodge’s finely-judged performance, he rouses himself from his mute resignation only when in conference with Marty, though when informed that his appeal has been denied he tries to kill himself, insisting that he wants to decide when he dies.  It’s not until late in the film that he reveals himself more fully when Evette (the excellent Danielle Brooks), an old girlfriend, visits not so much to apologize for her earlier reluctance to stand beside him, but to explain her reasons for not doing so.

That episode is only one of the potent moments the film offers; others include Bernadine’s interactions with Jonathan and Thomas; with a guard (LaMonica Garrett) who, in the end, is unable to go through with his role in Woods’s execution; and with the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill), who offers words of comfort but is also at point of retirement, unable to continue in this particular clerical role.  The ending of the film will offer no relief to audiences who might be longing for some, lingering on Bernadine’s sad face as she does her sworn duty once more.  The overall mournful tone is accentuated by the work of the craftspeople behind the camera—production designer Margaux Rust, cinematographer Eric Branco, editor Phyllis Hausen and composer Kathryn Bostic.

“Clemency” makes a bracing counterpoint to another recent film, “Just Mercy,” about an idealistic young lawyer saving a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate in segregationist Alabama.  Based on an actual case, that film rejoices in the ultimate vindication of the justice system even in the most difficult of circumstances.  Chukwu, on the other hand, portrays the system as it usually operates, not cynically but realistically.  In “Just Mercy,” it’s clear that the convict played by Jamie Foxx has been railroaded; here it’s not revealed whether Anthony Woods is guilty or not, and what’s at stake is whether—whatever the fact on that score—it’s truly just for the state to take his life as retribution.

It’s a question “Clemency” raises in a very compelling way.       

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh Waller, Lisa Whalen and Elijah Wood   Director: Richard Stanley   Screenplay: Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris   Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Q’orianka Kilcher, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight and Tommy Chong   Distributor: RLJE Films  

Grade:  B-

Bringing together two cult favorites—writer H.P. Lovecraft and writer-director Richard Stanley (and three if you count star Nicolas Cage)—this modestly-budgeted adaptation of the popular 1927 short story is sufficiently creepy and campy to amuse horror aficionados, if not really scare them. 

In updating what’s actually a pretty simple (and rather silly) tale, Stanley has kept the location—a remote forest area outside the small Massachusetts town of Arkham—but moved Lovecraft’s tale of an encounter with a destructive meteorite from the nineteenth century to the present.  He has kept the story’s narrator, but made him a person directly involved in the action rather than someone trying to uncover evidence of what happened years later. It’s Ward Philips (Elliot Knight), a young surveyor sent into the area to assess conditions—including the quality of the water—pursuant to a major project proposed by Mayor Tooma (Q’orianka Kitcher). 

Philips meets Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) in the forest.  She’s the daughter of Nathan (Cage), who’s brought his family to an isolated homestead where he’s raising vegetables and a small herd of alpacas.  Lavinia is performing a ritual designed to seek supernatural help in curing her mother Theresa (Joely Richardson) of cancer.  And she will develop a romantic interest in Ward, who reciprocates her interest.

The Gardner family—which also includes Lavinia’s younger brothers Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard)—is soon confronted by an interstellar visitor, a meteorite that lands in their yard and emits a terrible stench and a weird, psychedelic glow.  Nathan will call in the authorities and be inundated with media inquiries, but essentially the Gardners will be left to deal with the ramifications themselves.

And they are severe.  The meteorite will bring a bountiful crop of huge vegetables, but they will be tasteless.  And its unearthly glow will affect the insect life in the area, and the water in the well, and the animals, which morph into grotesque and dangerous shapes.

It will also have a terrible impact on the Gardners themselves.

Meanwhile Philips continues his investigation, questioning a strange local recluse, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who claims to be hearing sounds from underground that portend that something horrifying—indeed, apocalyptic—is happening.

Stanley’s approach to this material is less radical than one might expect from his reputation; the film is stylishly made on what might have been a small budget (Katie Byron’s production design and Steve Annis’ cinematography emphasize elegance, Brett W. Bachman’s editing is lapidary rather than agitated, and the visual effects are relatively modest, using gauzy visuals to obscure the fact).  Nor is Colin Stetson’s droning score particularly distinctive, but it does the job.

But what makes “Color Out of Space” enjoyable is the cast, and especially Cage, who starts out making Nathan peculiar and ratchets up the temperature from there.  By the close he’s in full-bore manic mode, enjoying a few scenes where he goes completely berserk before succumbing, as most of the rest of his family already has, to the meteorite’s malignant power. The rest of the actors offer able support, but it’s Cage who really carries the film with one of his patented oddball turns. 

The result is a film that’s hardly a horror masterpiece but one that, like Stuart Gordon’s eighties Lovecraft adaptations “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” is—perhaps implausibly—a good deal of fun.