Tag Archives: B

JUST MERCY

Producers: Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein and Michael B. Jordan  
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton  
Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham  
Cast: Michael B. Jordan. Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Karen Kendrick  
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade:  B

This is the sort of true-life story that we have seen before, on both the big screen and the small.  An idealistic young lawyer takes on the case of a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate and faces off against a segregationist state establishment.  It’s a formula that has succeeded before; it does so again here, even if one occasionally regrets a lack of subtlety in the telling.

“Just Mercy” is based on the story of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama, who was found guilty of killing an eighteen-year old white girl in 1986, despite the fact that numerous witnesses could testify that he was elsewhere at the time of the murder.  Sentenced to death, he was awaiting execution in 1988 when Bryan Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law graduate, was, with the unstinting support of a dedicated activist named Eva Ansley, establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, designed to provide representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Alabama.  Stevenson persuaded the initially reluctant McMillian to allow him to mount an appeal, and after five years of investigation and legal maneuvering, won his exoneration.   

McMillian’s story is a chronicle of official injustice of the sort that inevitably makes one’s blood boil, and was a natural for coverage on “60 Minutes” in 1992, a segment that brought Stevenson’s fight to national attention and undoubtedly infused it with new energy—as well as striking a degree of fear into the Alabama authorities who were still intent on upholding the tainted conviction and executing the innocent man.

Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle”) based the script he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham on Stevenson’s memoir, and follows the intricacies of the case fairly closely, though necessarily with some concision and simplification.  Via flashbacks we see McMillian arrested and railroaded by the local sheriff (Michael Harding), who throughout the entire process will push for the verdict to be upheld.  In the present, attention is given to Walter’s devoted wife Minnie (Karen Kendrick) and his intense, hot-tempered son John (C.J. LeBlanc), as well as their supportive family and friends.

An especially important plot thread focuses on Ralph Myers, the man pressured by the sheriff to identify McMillian as the killer in return for a lighter sentence.  Stevenson has a succession of interviews with the troubled man that will eventually lead to the recantation of his testimony, although even that will not prove decisive in budging segregationist judges from proceeding with McMillian’s walk to the death chamber.     

The film also offers sharply etched portraits of the other death-row inmates surrounding McMillian.  The most poignant of them is that of Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a troubled Vietnam War veteran who admits his crime—killing a woman with a bomb he set on her porch.  Guilt-ridden, he was nonetheless poorly represented, and his slow, sad procession to the electric chair as his fellow prisoners (played by, among others, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) salute him from their cells carries a real punch, especially since Morgan’s performance is so rich with nuance.

The major portion of the film, however, is the relationship that develops between Stevenson and McMillian, and Cretton is fortunate in his leads.  As the lawyer Michael B. Jordan gives a controlled, unfussy performance that shows Stevenson’s composure when when he is threatened by local police; yet one senses the anger beneath the placid surface.  It contrasts well with the more histrionic turn by Jamie Foxx as Walter.  Jordan’s is, in fact, a very generous turn, allowing Foxx to have the spotlight and supporting him in it unstintingly.  As Ansley, Brie Larson—who’s been something of a muse to Cretton, having appeared in both “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” skillfully portrays a woman who, in her own way, is as heroic as her Captain Marvel character in a very different picture. 

The rest of the cast offer uniformly solid turns, with Rafe Spall standing out as conflicted District Attorney Tom Chapman, himself an erstwhile public defender, who initially supports the state’s case against McMillian but finally breaks with the hard-liners surrounding him to support Stevenson’s motion to dismisses the charges.  Even more effective is Tim Blake Nelson’s depiction of Myers; it’s a performance of grins and twitches that undoubtedly plays to the rafters but is nevertheless a show-stopper; it also has the virtue of making Foxx’s turn, which might otherwise seem excessive, appear relatively restrained.

As paced by Cretton and edited by Nat Sanders, “Just Mercy” can feel rather slow, and at well over two hours it’s quite long for this sort of true-life legal piece.  But it’s technically solid across the board, with Sharon Seymour’s production design and Brett Pawlak’s cinematography are fine.  Joel P. West contributes a nicely unobtrusive score. One of the points made on more than one occasion in “Just Mercy” is that the locals in Monroeville are quick to recommend the museum dedicated to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by the town’s most famous resident, to outsiders like Stevenson.  It’s a bitingly ironic if, once again, unsubtle dig, reminding us that in the American south, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.   

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Michelle Rejwan   Director: J.J. Abrams   Screenplay: Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams   Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Dominic Monaghan, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Ian McDiarmid   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Grade:  B-

This, the third episode of the third “Star Wars” trilogy, brings the saga that began more than four decades ago to a close, resolving the plotlines of its two immediate predecessors—and the nine-movie series as a whole—while creating a springboard for inevitable continuations and spinoffs.  What else would you expect from a picture that Disney is banking on to ensure a long future for one of its most important franchises?

As you might remember, “The Last Jedi,” which split Star Wars fandom rather badly, ended with the surviving members of the Resistance, led by heroic Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Princess (or General) Leia (Carrie Fisher), on the run from the evil First Order, the leadership of which had been seized by Han Solo and Princess Leia’s wayward son Ben, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who patterned himself after Darth Vader.

But there’s a wild card in the deck: as the usual opening crawl informs us, mysterious broadcasts have announced the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who was supposedly killed by Darth Vader in “The Return of the Jedi” back when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was just a youngster; he’s rebuilding Sith power and plans to restore his dark rule. The reports turn out to be true, and Palpatine, with his lightning-launching fingers and maniacal cackling, turns out to be a major figure here—so much so that a more appropriate subtitle for the movie might be “The Emperor Strikes Back.”

Palpatine’s pretensions to dominance irk Kylo Ren, who determines to seek him out and destroy him.  Simultaneously the Resistance, as decimated as it is, launches a mission to find Palpatine too, with Rey and its head but also including ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), Wookie Chewbacca (Jonas Suotamo) and chatty android C3-PO (Anthony Daniels).  Their goal—to find the elusive planet Exogol where Palpatine lords it over his Sith disciples—is complicated by their pursuit by Kylo Ren and his forces, among whom Dohmnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant are the most notable officers, Generals Hux and Pryde.  It’s also derailed by the fact that their only solid clue is written in the Sith language that C3-PO can read but is programmed not to translate, which requires a detour to a dangerous planet where the mechanical man’s system can be rewired, with major side effects, to reveal the message. 

In working out these various juxtaposed plot threads, the movie becomes a succession of elaborate action sequences, including some light-saber face-offs between Rey and Kylo Ren that are pretty spectacular, if not unfamiliar.  The effects throughout the breathless series of chases, explosions and air battles are fine, though perhaps not quite as impressively grandiose overall as the ones that filled “The Last Jedi.”  An added benefit is a series of appearances by old friends—some in the form of ghostly apparitions (always impeccably timed to save things at a critical juncture, of course)—but in the case of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Carlrissian and Fisher’s Leia Organa, still very much alive although the actress had actually passed away before shooting commenced (dialogue filmed for previous installments but unused has been skillfully employed to create a performance, though in a few instances stand-ins were obviously employed). These—and one uncredited cameo—are undoubtedly designed to fulfill the nostalgia-fueled expectations of faithful fans. 

There’s also a genealogical revelation intended to be as much of a shock as the famous one at the close of “The Empire Strikes Back,” as well as more than the usual quota of reversals, double-crosses, hair’s-breadth escapes and dramatic self-sacrifices.  Expect also the obligatory moment when Rey decides to abandon her destiny; the character who recalls her to her sense of duty trumpets a line that seems to be something of a rebuke by Abrams to narrative choices made by Rain Johnson in “Jedi”—decisions to which many fans vociferously objected.

The culmination of all the hullabaloo, of course, is twofold.  One part is a confrontation with Palpatine in his gloomy, cavernous throne room, an amphitheatre where he’s apparently surrounded perpetually by an army of cheering acolytes (the crowd looks enormous in distant CGI shots, less so in the rather puny close-ups).  Whom he’s facing will not be revealed here, but McDiarmid certainly takes the opportunity to have the once (and perhaps future) emperor chew the scenery with unmitigated glee—though perhaps the phrase is misplaced, since the poor old fellow doesn’t seem to have any teeth, just that oily black fluid sloshing around in his mouth.

Then there’s the complementary battle in the sky between Palpatine’s vast armada and the ragtag group of fighters on the Resistance side.  Will our heroes be able to overcome the might of the planet-destroying starships?  Will reinforcements arrive in time, or at all?  What do you think?

You can’t say that Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio haven’t aimed to hit all the bases in their summing-up project.  In the process they’ve scrimped somewhat on the humor: the bickering among the principals, especially Poe and Finn, has a rather pro forma feel, and even C3-PO’s complaints are sometimes forced.  There’s also a tendency to lay on the sentiment rather thick.  Worse, they tend to ignore the responsibility to explain basic questions—how did this character escape, why didn’t that one do this, how is this guy still alive?—while allowing other elements (like Palpatine’s protracted revelations about his plans) to drag on needlessly.  By the close you will probably be adding up plot holes in your mind even as the credits roll.

To compensate, Abrams, abetted by his editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube, adopt an almost relentlessly hectic pace, complete with some of those old-fashioned swipes, hoping that the kinetic energy will distract you from any such trivial concerns, and it mostly works.  He also benefits from sterling efforts by the crafts team—production designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins, costumer Michael Kaplan and cinematographer Dan Mindel, as well as the huge team of special-effects artisans.  And washing over the sumptuous visuals is the equally luxurious score by John Williams, which calls on his iconic themes to enhance every scene.  

Abrams also gets committed performances from his cast, especially Ridley, who has to do most of the heavy dramatic lifting, and Driver, who tries to bring some real anguish to the conflicted Kylo Ren.  Except for McDiarmid, whose outlandish villainy would make Ming the Merciless envious, the others give mostly utilitarian performances, though it’s amusing to see Grant doing what amounts to a snooty homage to Peter Cushing, who isn’t digitally resurrected this time around.

Despite all the efforts of cast and crew, “The Rise of Skywalker” doesn’t recapture the almost magical vibe that “A New Hope” (as it was retitled) and “The Empire Strikes Back” did in their time.  But it’s really unrealistic to expect it to.  With those films George Lucas initiated a retro type of Hollywood storytelling, refreshed with up-to-date technical wizardry, that’s now become the norm: every tentpole movie the studios turn out unrelentingly today is a descendent of “Star Wars.”   One can’t blame Abrams for not being able to duplicate the spirit of juvenile rediscovery that seemed fresh in 1977.

What he’s delivered is a thoroughly proficient if rather mechanical capstone to a series that, despite its ups and downs, captured the imagination of generations of movie-goers.