JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH: 4 STARS
The most surprising thing about “Judas and the Black Messiah”, which is now playing in select theaters, is that it took 51 years to bring the story of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton to the screen.
In 1969, the charismatic Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was shot dead in his bed in a state-sanctioned pre-dawn raid carried out by the Cook County District Attorney’s Office, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Director Shaka King vividly details how and why he came to an untimely end.
The story begins when the plan of career criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to impersonate an FBI agent in order to brazenly steal a car goes awry. He finds himself beaten, in the hands of Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), a real agent who offers him a deal. Either you spend a year and a half for stealing the car and five more for impersonating an officer, or you infiltrate the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers. He chooses freedom in exchange for details of the whereabouts of Vice President Hampton and his girlfriend, revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). O’Neal’s rise to the trusted post of Security Captain is torn between loyalty to Hampton’s revolutionary ideas and self-interest, meaning the deal he made to stay outside the prison. “Imagine what they would do if they found out their security captain was a rat,” Mitchell says.
As the title suggests, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is an epic story of betrayal. King carefully puts the pieces of the puzzle together to create an intricate picture of his characters.
Stanfield, who has had solid performances in films like “Selma,” “Get Out,” and “Sorry to Bother You” peaked in his career here. His take on O’Neal depicts the conflict of a man who took a dangerous and deadly path to salvation, only to find he was way above his head. There is a complexity in Stanfield’s work as he breathes life into his conflicted character. In real life, years after the events depicted in the film, O’Neal said of his legacy: “I think I’ll let the story speak for me.” History can judge him, call him Judas, but not Stanfield. Instead, he helps us understand O’Neal’s bad decisions.
Kaluuya unveils Hampton more than a title. History records him as the assassinated President of the Black Panthers, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” remembers him as a captivating speaker who rallied people to his cause as he set up children’s programs. -free lunch and negotiated a relaxation between rival gangs. Kaluuya’s work leaps off the screen, with mind-boggling speeches and emotional scenes, it pulls Hampton out of the pages of the history books with a well-rounded and fiery performance.
Vivid performances, including Fishback bringing depth to a supporting character, blow you away. King takes the time to introduce us to Hampton and O’Neal, which makes the deadly dance they engage in, leading to the violent climax, all the more emotionally shocking.
Set over fifty years ago, “Judas and the Black Messiah” seems timely. Many of the issues at play in history are still hot topics today. The work Hampton started continues because, as he once said, “you can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution.”
GROUND: 4 STARS
“Land,” directed by Robin Wright in her directorial debut and now in theaters, is a quiet film about something that preoccupied us all last year, isolation.
“I’m not running away from anything,” Edee (Wright) says of his new home in the Wyoming wilderness. “I am not a criminal. I am here because I choose to be. Leaving her old life behind after an unspeakable tragedy, she is determined to cut herself off from the world. Ill-prepared for the Jeremiah Johnson-style life, she is saved from a near-death experience by Miguel (Demian Bichir), a gentle local hunter and groomed by Alawa Crow (Sarah Dawn Pledge). With Miguel’s guidance, Edee learns to navigate the difficult new world she has chosen for herself, and possibly relearn to embrace humanity. “If you don’t think about the past,” says Miguel, “have you thought about what you want to move forward in your life? “
Shot on location in Alberta, “Land” is a breathtaking film that doesn’t stumble upon itself to offer easy answers to the great existential questions it poses. Deliberately paced with little dialogue, he uses the stunning yet brutal scenery and subdued performances to paint his image of resilience and friendship. It’s a story of the circle of life, how those circles intersect, and the impact an act of kindness can have in that overlap.
Wright is not exaggerating a single image of “Land”. Instead, she allows the heartfelt connection at the center of the story to subtly tell how a friendship can change a life.
SAINT MAUD: 3 ½ STARS
Maud (Morfydd Clark), the nurse at the center of the truly frightening “Saint Maud”, is she a true believer, a woman touched by the hand of God or a troubled person who seeks answers in the wrong places?
Opening with scenes from an unexplained medical accident, “Saint Maud” wastes no time hinting at the visual grim to come. Cut to Maud in her drab bed. Gathering her things, she walks to the door, wondering in God what her place in the world is. “Surely I was destined for more than that,” she says as she arrives at the home of her charge, a former glamorous dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a patient with advanced cancer.
They are a strange couple. Amanda is used to a life of indulgence while Maud is an intensely dedicated hospice nurse who believes that salvation comes through suffering. “Never lose your pain,” she said. Maud doesn’t approve of Amanda’s lifestyle, but the two women seem to bond in a moment of shared religious ecstasy. Later, when it becomes clear that Amanda is not seeking salvation, Maud is fired, pushed into even more extreme behavior to accomplish what she sees as God’s plan for her life.
“Saint Maud” carefully distributes its shocks, leaving a veil of discomfort enveloping the debates. British writer and director Rose Glass has made an up-close and personal horror film that details the protagonist’s torments in very vivid terms. Much of what happens is internal, portrayed through Clark’s finely crafted performance. She is both vulnerable and relentless, zealous and uncertain before the events of the climax reveal her relationship with God. Whether this is a real test of one’s faith or imagined is open to interpretation. The last twenty minutes of this short film – with an eighty-five minute credits – are a surreal climax of Maud’s internal struggle, full of religious imagery, Gothic sensibility and martyrdom.
“Saint Maud” is a scorching mix of psychological drama and devotion that could have used a dose of backstory to help us understand why Maud became pious to the extreme. As it is, we get some clues along the way, and while the story is still very effective, it could have been deepened with a better look at Maud’s past.
SKYFIRE: 3 STARS
If action with a cheesy side is your thing, then “Skyfire”, now on VOD, could be a Gouda movie to put in your movie queue. Otherwise, it’s a nacho thing.
Set on an island in the Pacific, right in the middle of the Ring of Fire, an area known for its volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the story begins with vulcanologist Meng Li (Hannah Quinlivan) building an early warning system. His boss, entrepreneur Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs), is a mirror image of Hammond from “Jurassic Park”. Hammond built a theme park where the cloned dinosaurs went on a rampage. Harris’ vision is of an opulent resort at the foot of an active volcano.
What could go wrong?
When Harris and his wife JiaHui-Dong (An Bai) invite influencers and investors to take advantage of the amenities offered in this tropical paradise, Mother Nature makes a big splash, spewing glowing lava at Harris’ best shots. On top of that, Meng Li’s distant father shows up just in time to dodge the fireballs falling from the sky.
“Skyfire” is shamelessly cheesy. In the best case scenario (OK, I know these puns aren’t that rewarding, so I’ll stop now) it should be watched with no expectations except the promise of some crazy good fun. It’s Loud and Proud, a film that fills the screen with the actions and reactions of incredible characters. By the time he gets to the Underwater Marriage Proposal, he’s a candidate for the 2021 Special Achievement in Silliness award.
And that’s OK. Veteran action director Simon West of “Con Air”, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “The Expendables 2”, among others, keeps the animation alive as giant styrofoam boulders fly through the air and lava lines the earth.
Imagine the rumble of ’70s disaster movies like “Earthquake” with the wild plot of “Jurassic Park” and you will get the idea.
“Skyfire,” China’s first big-budget disaster film, is by no means a disaster. It’s a shameless popcorn flick that revel in its melting pot of clichés, a fondue of clichés if you will, as much as its absurd storytelling.
LATEST NEWS IN YUBA COUNTY: 2 ½ STARS
Like Rodney Dangerfield, Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) gets no respect. In the new black comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County”, now available on VOD, she discovers that respect and unwanted attention go hand in hand.
An operator in the help desk, Sue is verbally assaulted by random callers, her half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) does not remember her birthday and even the shopkeepers talk down on her. “You are important. You are strong. You matter, ”she says in the mirror, despite all the evidence to the contrary. When her husband Karl (Matthew Modine), who laundered money for crime boss Mina (Awkwafina), goes missing after a date with his mistress (on Sue’s birthday, no less) , people are starting to notice Sue. Raised to local celebrity status, Sue weaves a web of lies to prevent the policewoman (Regina Hall), evil brother-in-law (Jimmi Simpson) and journalist Nancy from finding out what really happened to Karl.
“Breaking News in Yuba County” is part suburban satire, part character study. As a satire, it aims to peel the soft underbelly of big box stores, the attitudes of small towns and the angst of the Middle Ages.
As a character study, it follows Sue as she blossoms from wallflower to the anxious center of attention.
In a well-oiled machine, these two elements would sit comfortably side by side but here the satire does not cut and the characters do not impose themselves.
The performances, especially by Janney, exploit every ounce of interest in the script, but Amanda Idoko’s underwritten story doesn’t dig deep enough to satire. Naughty instead of insightful, he attempts the kind of juggling act that Joel and Ethan Coen play in films like “Fargo,” where crime, character, and satire blend together to unveil a more universal truth. Here, Sue’s quest for recognition and fame is as uninspired as her oft-repeated mantra: “You matter. You are strong. You count.”