by Philip Price
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill & Gal Gadot
Runtime: 4 hours & 2 minutes
Here's the thing, this version of this movie was never meant for public consumption. This may have eventually landed on Blu-ray as the "Ultimate Edition" of “Zack Snyder's Justice League” had some version of Snyder's vision actually been released in theaters, but even that form wouldn't have been this form exactly. I may never understand why Warner Bros. didn't simply break this up into two parts and release them separately, give us a few standalone movies a la “Aquaman,” “Flashpoint,” as well as something like “Shazam!,” after which releasing the conclusion to Snyder's Darkseid saga with the Justice League, but if the 2021 release of ‘The Snyder Cut’ proves anything it's that "what ifs" actually have the chance of becoming reality. Additionally, when considering “Zack Snyder's Justice League” one also has to consider the context with which it has now been received and how it is completely different from how it would have been received in 2017. Is it better than ‘Josstice League’? Of course, but is it good on its own terms? Is it even a movie that can exist on its own terms? The answers to those questions are a little more complicated.
Given Snyder's penchant for renaissance-like visuals and his mentality that approaches these comic book heroes with the seriousness of Greek mythology I was completely in the bag from the moment Chris Nolan and WB named him the man to take up the DC mantle at the studio. “Dawn of Justice” and “Man of Steel” are at the top of my DCEU rankings and I wrote several thousand words on the theatrical cut of “Justice League” in 2017 regarding its overcorrection to the complaints lodged against Snyder's vision, but now that you know the context from which I come from you should also know that I really loved a lot of what “Zack Snyder's Justice League” offered...even if we'll never see any of it paid off.
Most surprising in this new cut is the different tone Snyder's film carries from that of its DCEU companions. Yes, things are still dark are dour for portions of the runtime, but overall, there is certainly a more hopeful vibe to the proceedings especially given the addition of Ezra Miller's Barry Allen and the fleshed out arc offered Ray Fisher's Victor Stone. These two characters saw the most drastic changes from what was released in theaters to Snyder's version and the restoration of their stories gives way to a story as much about loss, the trauma of such loss, and re-discovering oneself in the wake of tragedy as it is about the intergalactic CGI monsters trying to take over the universe. Of course, the CGI baddies are still something of a mess as it's difficult to conjure any kind of tangible feelings toward Steppenwolf as he's very much still a lackey to Darkseid and garners little sympathy despite Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio attempting to graph a redemptive arc onto his journey. On the upside, Snyder's film isn't really about the villain as Steppenwolf is present solely to serve as a function of the plot while the story Snyder is telling, the essence of what he wants to do with these characters, is to focus on that throughline of exploring what it means when Gods come to earth that began in “Man of Steel”; continuing to explore the system of checks and balances these heroes bring with them. The building of this team allows for Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne to share in a power and responsibility he's carried for too long on his own, a passing of the torch in some respects to the trinity of Jason Momoa's Aquaman (the most slighted of the leads in this version), Cyborg, and Flash who each are finding their literal and figurative footing. Whereas Wayne is the head of construction, Gal Gadot's Diana Prince is the architect who uses her experiences and ever-evolving understanding of growth to meld these disparate parts into a cohesive team. “Zack Snyder's Justice League” has and takes the time necessary to establish these dynamics making the eventual culmination of the league's resistance to Steppenwolf that much more magnificent.
So yes, taken as a continuation of Snyder's DC films and a study on the full circle of uncertainty, doubt, and fear alien beings and caped crusaders would initially bring upon society as opposed to the assumed relief and inherent trust, this version of ‘Justice League’ is absolutely a good film on its own terms that stands on the shoulders of the two Snyder DCEU films. There is real heart and thought in these proceedings, genuine investment in what these super-powered people mean to and for the universe they exist in, and even when Snyder's work inevitably devolves into a finale filled with an onslaught of CGI there is still an eloquence to his visual storytelling that lends each frame a panel-like quality that speaks volumes without any character having to utter a line of dialogue. One glance at any shot in this, his cut of Justice League, exemplifies Snyder's adoration of this material and like any of those individual frames – “Zack Snyder's Justice League” is something beautiful to behold.
by Philip Price
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley & Demian Bichir
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
A fascinating miscalculation if nothing else, “Chaos Walking” is a string of ideas in search of meaning. Having never heard of The Knife of Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the first in a trilogy of books that is known overall as Chaos Walking the most notable first reaction to this adaptation was that despite having a reliable captain in Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”) the film itself largely lacks a sense of direction. Of course, this might have something to do with the troubled production given the film was originally shot in 2017, but after what were reported to be poor test screenings of the initial cut, Lionsgate brought in a different director, Fede Alvarez (“Don’t Breathe”), for extensive and costly reshoots in 2019 before the pandemic delayed the release further. Though the film doesn't inspire enough curiosity for me to rally film twitter to initiate the #ReleaseTheLimanCut movement it does stand as a curious case of what might have been given Ness' material (he authored the series as well as co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford) offers a number of possible interpretations, opportunities, and ideas that no one can blame neither Lionsgate (who acquired the rights to the book in 2011) nor Liman for wanting to pursue. That said, for a visual medium such as film to realize a concept that includes what is referred to as "the Noise" where every character on screen can hear every male character's thoughts there needs to be a certain level of credibility and innovation to its execution, but unfortunately this balance is never struck...or maybe it was never found in the first place. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to work in the sound department on a project such as this where there seems no good option in matching what is essentially Tom Holland doing Dustin Hoffman a la “Rain Man” in an attempt to verbalize streams of consciousness to different colored clouds of smoke that pulse like heartbeats around the men's heads. Manifesting this concept was undoubtedly a challenge, but it doesn't help that this concept is largely the key to making the film work as a whole and when it doesn't land - when we're not convinced of said manifestation in the first five minutes - then it's a problem. It also doesn't help that this key element was to be largely finalized in post-production allowing for little wiggle room in the experimentation of bringing the concept to life. Stream of consciousness thinking is confusing, often contradictory, and always messy, so how was anyone expected to organize this into something coherent much less consistently compelling in such a fashion that it could support an entire narrative based around a dystopian world where the women are gone and the men are literally left with only their thoughts? I have no idea either, but if anyone does, they should contact “Chaos Walking.”
It was in the opening seconds of the film though, if I'm being honest, that the first chuckles were induced as text appeared on the screen stating, "The noise is a man's thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just (text pauses for dramatic effect) ...’Chaos Walking.’" Of course, the top text then fades revealing only the title which, as I read it in the tone of a cheesy, eighties action voiceover guy, made me secretly hope that might end up being what Liman was going for. They even go so far as to attribute this quote to what is referred to as an "unknown new world settler" which made me laugh even harder and put real stock in the idea we might be getting a fair amount of camp in what otherwise seemed to be a serious little sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, those dreams were quickly dashed and the previous expectations confirmed as the aesthetic is immediately reminiscent of Lionsgate's ‘Divergent’ movies which is also fitting seeing as this was, at one point in time, likely positioned to be the studios next bid at a ‘Hunger Games’-like franchise given those ‘Divergent’ films never took off as anticipated. Set on what is simply referred to as a "New World" in 2257 A.D. humans have presumably fled Earth, though we're not sure what happened there, with the few survivors that made it to this new planet having built a small colony in which only the men have survived. All of the women have either died or disappeared and as soon as they enter the planet's atmosphere all men are afflicted with that aforementioned “Noise”.
Several characters and plot threads are introduced quickly thereafter including David Oyelowo as a preacher (who we come to find out is rather radical) which even Holland's Todd comments on as feeling unnecessary in this new world. In what is a display of zero restraint and a gigantic lack of subtlety Oyelowo's preacher comments on Todd's "truth" of being an orphan reducing him to words like "unwanted" and "weak" which he then likens to the qualities of a woman. It's a strange take from someone we initially assume is meant to uphold the likes of righteousness and modesty, but as can be derived from his attire this new colony on this new planet is very much intent on repeating the past, creating a full circle from one civilization to the next where nothing has been learned from history's mistakes and power is still the ultimate prize. Next, there are speedy introductions to the likes of Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) and his son, Davy (Nick Jonas), who...get this...live in what they have decided to name "Prentisstown". There is also no hint of irony or self-awareness in this decision. Then there are Todd's caretakers in Ben (Demián Bichir) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter) who play the roles of the reserved, but well-meaning men (confirming there are some left) who remain on their farm and work hard day in and day out. Their mission of late becoming that of keeping Todd in line with their compassionate and humble state by way of distancing him from the Mayor who it becomes evident has his claws in Todd and is attempting to bring the youngest of the colony into the fold of his own philosophy.
It is this idea of Holland’s character being the youngest person in the colony, that there are no more women to bear any further children, and that he is in fact the end of the line as far as we can tell that offers the first bit of real intrigue to the narrative. The questions begin to arise, "what is the Mayor's end-goal here?" The suspicions begin to mount, "why does the Mayor feel lessons of taming and controlling things are of the upmost importance?" It's not difficult to see where this is going and motivations are only made more obvious when Todd encounters Daisy Ridley’s Viola who has crash landed on the planet, becoming not only the first woman Todd has ever seen but the first human on the planet in a long time not affected by “the Noise.” Viola then obviously becomes the next piece of intrigue as questions quickly abound not necessarily as to why women don't have "the Noise" and men do, but more around how many generations have the current settlers on this new world been there, how long have they been expecting this second wave of people from Earth, and of course - how have things devolved so quickly? Prentisstown's entire existence is predicated on isolating themselves from what is a native species to the planet that the Mayor accuses of having killed all the women, but who has also seemed to implement the line of thought on his son, Todd, and all the other younger, impressionable men of his town that women cannot be trusted. This all naturally coming to light after the arrival of Ridley's character therefore setting, she and Todd on a journey to outrun the Mayor and find a different colony known as Farmbranch where Viola hopes she can contact her ship. The second act of the film drains much of the energy established in the first as this is where the bulk of the building of the relationship between Todd and Viola is naturally designated. Regarding this, if one wants to defy convention and not make the relationship between their leads romantic that's fine, but don't keep reminding us of how that's not going to happen or at the very least, show us with looks - Ridley and Holland are certainly capable of as much - rather than writing dialogue to flat-out say so. This also lends to the film somewhat making Todd's dog, Manchee, the emotional core which, again, is fine if that's what you're going to do, but at least do something substantial with it rather than resorting to such tactics only to elicit some type of emotional reaction to the material.
We now take a break from our regularly scheduled review for another chuckle-inducing moment courtesy of “Chaos Walking.” When initially on the run from the Mayor and his goons Viola is on a dirt bike of sorts while Todd rides a horse. Both Todd and Viola ultimately go over the edge of a cliff as they are unable to see too far in front of them in the heavily-wooded area and can't stop in time, but I honestly can't tell you which is funnier - Ridley flying off a bike or Holland trying not to get crushed by the horse as they fall, but - OK, yes, it's the horse. Neither of these fragile humans would stand a chance of surviving this fall yet not only do they survive, but neither of them seemingly sustains any injuries. On top of that, this is only the beginning of their journey after which they trek across God knows how many miles on foot unaffected and largely unbruised outside of a few grunts and groans. The horse, unfortunately, is not so lucky.
On the opposite side of the “Chaos Walking” coin though, meaning when we're offered more ideological intrigue and less reckless action, there is plenty to be enchanted with if not only making audiences wish the final product had in fact been carried out better. The moments when Ridley and Holland's charisma are put to good use are in the quieter moments of considering their presence on this planet, how rain is colder than Viola - someone who had spent her entire life on a spaceship up until this point, whose grandparents had taken their children on this journey in search of something better - anticipated it to be. A moment in which Viola reads to Todd from his deceased mother's journal knowing both of them share a similar pain is understandably touching and more enlightening than any other sequence in the entire film, but the pros inevitably outweigh the cons in regard to execution. There is a moment featuring the native species on the planet that hints at them not being as wicked as Mayor Prentiss indicated, but we never hear more about them and in addition, the character design is strikingly bland. There is also the whole case of Farmbranch where Cynthia Erivo leads what is a more well-rounded colony, but where we find little in the way of answers to the bigger questions the film has posed - the actions of these opposed settlements hardly allowing the audience to discern much outside of what is fed them directly. Much like Prentisstown and unlike the native species though, Farmbranch is well realized with what appear to be carefully considered layouts and designs for each, this extending to the weapons and gadgets Viola brings with her to the planet as well. And while the aesthetic does mirror that of Lionsgate's other attempted young adult franchises it was shot by blockbuster veteran Ben Seresin (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) who captures the actual locations of Scotland and Iceland in all of their sweeping glory.
Much of the shortcomings of the film come down to that aimless execution. Though strapped with all the tools he is accustomed to having at his disposal (he has Mads Mikkelsen looking at devious as ever for Christ's sake!) it still seems Liman is, for one reason or another, unable to inject any real momentum, enthusiasm, or stakes that the viewer will care about into this adaptation from word to motion. A prime example of this comes when Todd uses "the Noise" to display what are almost Green Lantern-like powers where he thinks of a snake and then projects that thought toward Davy in order to intimidate him. The Mayor repeats this technique some scenes later in order to trap Viola by placing a fence around her. Therefore, "the Noise" is not just a fallible side effect of this planet, but in these instances, we realize it can be utilized as a type of defense, as a weapon, as a way of literally visualizing your wants or needs. It is this new development, this different facet that adds to the execution of "the Noise" that could have helped enhance the credibility of the gimmick, but instead is used so sparingly that it may only come off as confusing to audiences only half-invested in the story...which is an easy thing to be.
One last chuckle-inducing moment before heading out though: Nick Jonas delivers the line, "Better watch your noise!" as if to say, "Better watch your mouth!" in what is intended to be a threatening manner toward Todd and all I'm saying is try not to have a drink in your mouth when that moment arrives.
by Philip Price
Director: Florian Zeller
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman & Mark Gatiss
Runtime: 1 hour & 37 minutes
What do you do with the people you love when they no longer know who they are? Writer/director Florian Zeller's film adaptation of his 2012 stage production, “The Father,” attempts to find solace in the answers to this question. What's so striking about this feature directorial debut though is not how assured it seems (which it absolutely does), but more how well-balanced and complete it is despite the narrative and its origins suggesting a rather small, narrow window through which the material might view the world. The confined setting certainly gives way to the roots of the piece, but there is also something distinctly cinematic to the film as if Zeller were intent to not simply exercise his skills as a first time filmmaker but justify why this piece of writing was worth being adapted to the screen (one possible reason for this being this is actually the second time Zeller's work has been adapted after the 2015 French film, “Florida”). This is almost laughable though, as the structure and quality of writing alone make Zeller's work more than worthy of being told time and time again. That said, it's not simply the insight garnered through the elegant prose, but more it's how Zeller is able to both take the viewer inside the mind of an individual experiencing the aggressive progressions of dementia as well as simultaneously lend awareness and understanding to the roles strongly associated with this disease and how those who must go through this experience with a loved one are equally impacted by it.
Needless to say, Zeller is a master storyteller and in his directorial debut (I keep repeating it because I can't believe it) he carefully - and probably meticulously, as re-watches will undoubtedly assure - creates this ever-shifting and insular world in which Anthony Hopkins' Anthony is trapped. The awareness of every facet of his film is what creates this environment for which we, the audience, immediately buy into completely. Zeller has purposefully paired his protagonist with this somewhat stuffy yet still pristine London flat where the green of trees can be seen through the window, children can be heard running along the sidewalks outside, and classical compositions largely dominate the sound waves within the apartment. It's a context that feels familiar and thus the reality of it is without question, but as the severity of Anthony's diagnosis becomes more apparent it's clear Zeller is not simply conducting this film as a shared experience for the characters and the audience, but as a piece of art in which the audience willingly plays an active part; we're participating. As eye-rolling as that may sound, it becomes true the further one follows “The Father” down its path as the fundamental choices of the film not only invest the viewer in these people but put us inside their heads and help us understand the fear and the confusion - among other things - constantly enveloping them.
It's not so much that Zeller uses expectation as a tool to then upend them for the sake of surprise, but more that the family drama that “The Father” begins as is staged as such for the sake of familiarity before delving into the more psychological horrors of dementia; further immersing the audience in the deceptive mind of our main character. Analyzing this as some type of metaphor Zeller has constructed on the formality and constant rigor of the mannerly European drama is one way to read the director's intent, but while the option of adapting his own work for the screen would certainly open up further room to explore larger themes and ideas it would seem Zeller simply wanted to make his film as authentic and real as possible. This authenticity is evident in all aspects of the work, but what's more interesting is how Zeller uses the audience's acceptance of his reality because of its seeming authenticity only to then contradict that a moment later. And then do it again and again. It is a technique that is certainly startling the first few times it is executed and made even more shocking time and again by the way in which these contradictions come to light or reveal themselves to be a new version of Anthony's perceived truth. Naturally, this is how Zeller enlists the viewer in the experience and makes it a shared one, but it is the effectiveness of the bit that is disarming and intuitive. The key to a meaningful life seems to lie in the ability to keep as much balanced as possible - be it literally and psychologically - so it comes as no surprise that everything in Zeller's film feels as if it can trace its roots back to that trait as well. Whether it be from a character perspective as Hopkins' Anthony struggles to keep his own disposition in check, Olivia Colman's Anne who is doing her best to both uphold the responsibility she feels to her father as well as continuing to live her own life, and of course the film itself where Zeller has to keep the profundity of the subject matter as meaningful as the aforementioned technique. The greatest of Zeller's strengths as a storyteller coming via the maze of possible realities, he introduces that never become trite or derivative of one another, but instead consistently ups the ante while adding new if not several layers to the narrative not all of which make sense or will add up completely, but that deepen the impact, nonetheless.
Of course, one cannot talk about authenticity without discussing the performances from Hopkins as well as Colman who plays Anthony's daughter and primary caretaker, Anne. Hopkins is of course at the center of the film as the titular father and the legendary actor, whose credits over the last five years include a ‘Thor’ film, a ‘Transformers’ movie, and “The Two Popes” along with “Westworld,” commits fully to this most complex of roles. At 83, the actor still effortlessly weaves between his smooth charm and cunning nastiness as the character of Anthony can run as hostile as he can relaxed. Upon our first meeting with him, Anne has just arrived at Anthony's flat where she is responding to accusations from his previous in-home caregiver that her father not only accosted her verbally but attempted to abuse her physically. Anthony laughs such allegations off as if he couldn't even be capable of as much but given the temperature of his temperament in this opening scene alone Hopkins makes it evident Anthony isn't completely sure of what he's capable of these days much less what the reality of his situation is. The layers of Anthony's life as it was come to present themselves in varied iterations throughout the film whether it be in a new interviewee for the caretaker position as played by Imogen Poots whom Anthony can't stop going on about how much she looks like his younger daughter or Anne's husband or maybe...ex-husband? It's not clear what the truth is, but that's not the important part. In one scene Rufus Sewell will present himself as Paul, Anne's boorish husband who we can understand why she would have ultimately come to divorce should that be the truth of the situation while other times Paul is embodied by Mark Gatiss who possesses a slightly more generous veneer. Which of these men and when Anne's husband was actually a part of Anthony's life is uncertain as, beyond her responding to the latest dispute between her father and his caretaker in that opening scene, Anne also breaks the news that she will be leaving for Paris as she has met a man and fallen in love with him. Colman is immediately empathetic as Anne given her dedication to her father despite her frequently being the target of his mood swings. Having to play such a range of emotions from vulnerability to sadness to frustration, Colman captures the poignancy and the humanity of each interaction no matter the state of mind her father challenges her with. It's a perfectly pitched pair of performances so in tune with the brilliantly written screenplay that it bears the hallmark of any exceptional piece of acting in that after having experienced the film it's impossible to imagine anyone else in these roles.
“The Father,” beyond being emotionally urgent and again - painstakingly insightful - also simply feels rather ingenious not only for the way in which it is told, but for how Zeller seemed to know this method would affect the audience. It intensifies our compassion for the character, but at a base-level it makes us more understanding human beings. While having never personally seen the original stage production, it seemed safe to assume the narrative was the same yet it was clear Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton, who has adapted such works as “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Quiet American” and “Atonement,” had somehow managed to make the story feel more cinematic in this film. Not an easy thing to do, mind you, as this is still very much two characters dealing with one another in a confined space. Zeller uses his single location to reinforce Anthony's disorientation while heavily relying on the editing of Yorgos Lamprinos to underscore that disorientation while more overtly accentuating the tone of our main character's personality and his response to these consistent feelings of confusion. Moreover, Lamprinos' editing accompanies Zeller's contradiction technique in such a way that it creates a rhythm to the film. There is a tempo to the proceedings that has been carefully quantified so that the pacing of this awfully specific technique does in fact work and doesn't become tired after the viewer picks up on the ruse and so it doesn't feel repetitive. The writing naturally helps in making the job of the editor not necessarily easier, but more gratifying to be sure yet it is the marriage of the two - how they rely on one another to enhance both elements - that gives way to this fully immersive experience that mirrors that of Anthony's. It is a thing of both beauty and tragedy, “The Father” for it is a beautifully constructed tale of what a tragedy life can become when there is no space in which to find comfort or peace. Moments undoubtedly often come for each of us when we realize there is no way of understanding everything there is to understand in this world while there is a certain amount of understanding and eventual solace in knowing one has to let those things go. Though it may not seem the character of Anthony has much of a choice in the matter as he doesn't necessarily understand how he's become what he's become or even recognize who he is there are small glimpses of alleviation where he is free of the illness because of his illness. For the audience witnessing this and for the countless viewers who have no doubt dealt with dementia in the lives of loved ones, it would seem Zeller - at the very least - has created a work that lends a hand by recognizing the isolation of such a journey and assuring everyone that no one is alone in these emotions.
by Philip Price
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo & Jack Reynor
Runtime: 2 hours & 21 minutes
In April of 2019, Joe and Anthony Russo had just come off of making the biggest movie of all time, but instead of taking the summer off to relax and enjoy the receipts (as well as the relief of somehow managing to meet and/or exceed all expectations with that MCU season finale) they decided to roll right into making another film. A completely different kind of film. Whether this had to do with needing a change of pace, tone, or a release from that much surveyed environment where every facet was picked apart by fans the one thing that seems abundantly evident is the fact the Russo's felt an urgency to bring the story of Nico Walker to the screen and address the opioid epidemic. While said tone and subject matter are vastly different when it comes to ‘Avengers’ movies and something like “Cherry” it seems safe to assume no matter the material that the Russo's have now reached a level at which they operate that will be hard to come back from. That is to say that despite its humbler ambitions and price tag, “Cherry” still feels like an epic. This is one hundred percent an event film of sorts where, despite there being no Gods or heroes challenging mad titans for the survival of humanity, the characters are still addressed and treated with the same reverence of a Tony Stark; the shots just as elaborate, the scope larger than anticipated, and the score just as sweeping. It's almost as if the directing duo are keen to point out how these people and their problems are part of that humanity that is worth saving as well - or at least remind those that can empathize with Tom Holland's character that they are. In that, the Russo's have concocted a searing, but scattered takedown of the Iraq war through one man’s experience that essentially delivers him from one hell to another as set to Van the Man’s soulful yet oftentimes heartbreaking voice that moves beyond the words of Walker’s book of the same name on which this is based and into the raw emotions of his journey.
At two hours and 20 minutes the Russo's, working from a screenplay by Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot, throw a lot at the wall much of which tends to work given the drastic tonal shifts of each act, but as a whole leaves the viewer in a state of both surprise and confusion. Surprise largely at how entertaining this mess remains despite those major changes in tone but confused simply by everything Walker’s story encompasses and what the focus of this story is by way of meaning. Not every movie necessarily needs a main idea or central theme and “Cherry” certainly has a thesis statement in that the memories of war are battles those in the armed forces have to fight long after they’ve left the actual battlefield, but what it says or means to say about these experiences feels as if it gets lost in the shuffle. That said, how it says what it wants to say is a different conversation entirely as the Russo's execution is never not grandiose or energetic. There is an indisputable number of bold choices if not necessarily innovative ones that lend the project both an impressive sense of style and Holland’s protagonist a sense of self on top of all the work Holland is doing (and trust me, he's putting in some work). Every choice the directors make is seemingly in support of building the character that embodies Walker’s perspective here and not only his point of view but getting inside his head and taking us through his experiences in the most visceral ways possible. As is true of the novel, the sections covering Iraq feel the most honest and brash and are where the Russo's big swings work best. Choices that involve text flashing across the screen in unison with drill sergeants yelling them, brutally honest policy descriptions serving as bank names, or shot selections that literally put us inside Holland’s character show the fire in the Russo's bellies and an admirable determination to make this as raw and powerful a portrait as they can even if the movie itself ends up feeling like it's trying a bit too hard.
Based on Walker's 2018 semi-autobiographical novel, the film follows the main character from 2002 through to the present day. The screenplay breaks the film into five separate parts as well as a prologue and epilogue the first part of which begins in 2002 when life was beginning as it's titled, meaning when Holland's character who is never directly named here (though said name is referenced at least twice in the opening six minutes), first meets Ciara Bravo's Emily. The two are attending a local community college near where Walker was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. What is key to glean from part one is that Walker is largely a good, kind-hearted guy who can't help but stumble into less than ideal situations and circumstances that warp his sense of self, of self-worth, and his purpose into large amounts of doubt. There are indications of the direction Walker will go given his no resistance reaction to trying ecstasy and the fact his friends - James Lightfoot (Forrest Goodluck), Roy (Kyle Harvey) and Cousin Joe (Michael Gandolfini) - along with himself definitely sold drugs at one point or another. And yet, the character is extremely endearing and by all accounts insanely well-meaning. Emily comes from a broken home though and has sworn off love and marriage therefore purposefully sabotaging her relationship with Walker to the point she pushes him to sign up for the Army after telling him she's leaving for Canada at semester's end. Before shipping off to basic, the couple resolve their issues and marry in an impromptu ceremony at the courthouse. This segues into part two and the titular part three which chronicles both basic training and the eleven months spent in Iraq where Walker served as a medic. Parts four and five are reserved for Walker's return home and dealing with what, in Walker's real life, a forensic psychiatrist would describe as one of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress disorder he’d ever seen. As a result of the PTSD, Walker developed a heroin addiction and in 2011 began robbing banks, of which he would carry out ten heists in four months before being arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison. The movie follows this trajectory beat by beat in the third act. “Cherry” is a lot of things in that it begins as this coming-of-age story, grows into a war movie, and then bleeds into both an addiction drama and a crime film. To their credit, the Russo's find compelling avenues and facets of Walker's personality to explore in each part of the film given the ever-changing circumstances, but there's simply too much going on in the film for the stories any one of these sections is telling to really make any kind of lasting impact.
The casting of the film is quite emblematic of the overstuffed nature of the narrative though Holland, as previously stated and as is the case with his directors, is giving the film everything he's got. Sure, the 24-year-old goes on what is essentially a 20-year journey here and doesn't look a day older from the first moment he spots Emily then he does when he is released from prison, but he holds things down nonetheless and is actually tasked with having to play multiple layers of the same character within a single scene. This speaks to the Russo's bold moves as they choose to have Holland break the fourth wall fairly frequently in the first act or two before these asides dwindle in the latter half which comes across in a way that feels more like they forgot they were doing it than it does an intentional choice meant to mimic the fact the character was too high at that point in his life to comment on it. That isn't to say Holland isn't able to successfully convey this sense of a future Walker speaking to the camera while taking part in an event from his past critical to our understanding of his story, but more it isn't a consistent or striking enough choice that really enhances the storytelling. This technique is probably used most frequently in the basic training section of which much of the action is conveyed via montage. Introduced through another Van Morrison track in "Into the Mystic" the typical beats of haircuts, physicals, berating drill sergeants, and newfound camaraderie are all hit upon, but it is also in this section that it becomes apparent just how sprawling the cast is and therefore further emphasizes there's simply too many moving parts for any of it to mean much of anything. At this point, the audience has already been introduced to and momentarily invested in Walker's hometown crew only for that cast of characters to largely disappear never to be heard from again and instead replaced by the likes of a host of different ranking dickhead officers from Sgt. North (Theo Barklem-Briggs) to Staff Sgt. Greene (Adam Long) each of which get their own quick insert shot of a backstory over which Walker narrates. Walker also finds a new friend in Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg) who enlisted because he knocked up his girlfriend which of course is also communicated through a quick flashback of a backstory. Jose Pablo Cantillo is an especially unhinged Drill Sgt. and even Damon Wayans Jr. shows up in a single scene for a bit of ironic casting as Drill Sgt. Masters. Needless to say, the indulgence is apparent. Worst yet is that the majority of these characters and interactions only add morsels of information to the experience rather than providing any real sense of momentum or contributions to the main ideas around which the film actually wants to discuss.
The fact that the reason the Russo's were attracted to this story and felt so passionately about telling it in the first place is ultimately lost among everything else they decide to throw at this story is maybe the most depressing aspect of the whole ordeal. It's evident in so much of the first act that what the directors really want to zero in on is the ignorance and even innocence in some sense of the word that these children are more or less plucked from before being shipped off to a warzone under the pretense of there being this existential threat, they're supposed to help prevent which by and large turns out not to be the case. In the words of the real Walker, "Going there (Iraq), you find out you’re the problem. It seemed like we were trying to provoke as much fighting as we could." This is touched upon slightly in the basic training sequence when Holland's character states that he's, "starting to get this feeling like it was all just make-believe." But more than be a political film about the role the U.S. plays in foreign disputes, “Cherry” is more a dissertation on the ramifications of the involvement in such actions and the struggle to integrate back into family and civilian life...or at least it wants to be. Furthermore, the film suggests a great many of the doctors and psychiatrists tasked with caring for and overseeing the rehabilitation of these soldiers default to prescriptions that lead to addictions that contribute to an epidemic because it's the quickest, most efficient way to numb the pain. The issue with not conveying these ideas more successfully being that the Russo's and their screenplay are trying to adapt one art form to another without actually adapting the art to the form. A novel can encompass different decades, genres, and tones without as much streamlining as a film requires. A book can be many things, but when making a movie one has to choose the aspect from which it will be told. One has to pull back the leaves and the branches offered in a book in order to see the trunk or what the movie is actually going to be about, but “Cherry” gets so caught up in its genre elements it forgets the ideas it’s supporting entirely. As a result, the Russo's are unable to get out of their own way long enough to allow those concepts and ideas that initially brought them to the project to come to fruition or serve as the foundation of the movie as they should. But hey, it has a really great soundtrack.
“Cherry” will be streaming on AppleTV+ on March 12.
by Philip Price
Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs & John Ripa
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina & Gemma Chan
Runtime: 1 hour & 47 minutes
The latest Disney princess to enter the chat is a Southeast Asian princess named Raya and she absolutely rules. It's always impressive when storytellers can manipulate your standard archetypes to somehow create what are still compelling characters experiencing fanciful if not familiar situations that they somehow manage to derive a particular meaning or elicit a specific theme from. That all to say, “Raya and the Last Dragon” isn't necessarily anything audiences haven't seen before, but it's so well thought out and so well executed that it makes the tropes it takes advantage of feel exceedingly fresh as if one were experiencing them for the first time. It also doesn't hurt the film was inspired by cultures from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos among others which inherently adds a certain vigor and resonance to the piece. It's abundantly clear how much the representation in the film mattered to its makers given ‘Raya’ is Disney's first feature film inspired by Southeast Asia as the creative team that was put in place - namely screenwriters Adam Lin (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Qui Nguyen - brought as much experience as they did research to the table. Having writer's representative of the culture at the heart of the story lends the film certain subtleties, nuances, and truths it would undoubtedly have gone without otherwise. The film’s strongest trait isn't how focused it is on diversifying the Mouse House's princess portfolio, but rather how seamlessly it integrates these cultures into Disney's age old formula while remaining true to the ancestry and traditions that have inspired this variation on the hero's journey. There is a difference in representation and concentration though, and while the representation in ‘Raya’ certainly matters what makes it even more exceptional is how the film doesn't concentrate solely on the culture by placing it at the center of the narrative, but more by building the context of the story in a land many will consider fictional, but who just as many will recognize as home. ‘Raya’ treats all princesses equal by giving the titular Asian princess as rousing an adventure as Mulan and as moving a quest as Elsa with nary a prince or romantic subplot in sight. In short, the representation occurs by using the tropes of the action/adventure genre to enlighten non-Asian audiences to a culture that isn't their own. By showcasing the importance of trust as its primary theme, delivering beautiful visuals that are meaningful even if all may not fully realize or comprehend why, as well as simply being a positive portrayal of what said trust, optimism, and understanding can do for the world “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a near-perfect film that takes the best of what movies have to offer and delivers them in spades if not necessarily breaking the mold.
Set in the fictional fantasy land of Kumandra where humans and dragons once lived together in harmony, “Raya and the Last Dragon” opens with one of those quick history lessons that explains how some five hundred years ago the five tribes of Kumandra lived harmoniously alongside both one another as well as dragons - magical creatures who brought them peace - until a sinister plague known as the Druun showed up and threatened the land by consuming life and turning everyone they touched to stone. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity, with one among them known as "The Mighty Sisu" concentrating all her magic into a gem that destroyed the Druun and returned everyone who had turned to stone back to life, that is, all except for the dragons. Now, those five hundred years later, the tribes continue to fight over Sisu's gem so as to possess the last remnants of dragon magic. It is at this point Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim) is introduced as the Chief of Heart, the key guardian of Sisu's dragon gem, Raya's father, and a leader who is hopeful he might reunite Kumandra by showing the other lands they are all fighting for the same thing, but the other lands view Heart as prosperous due only to their possession of the dragon gem and therefore see themselves on the defensive for while they may ultimately be fighting for the same thing they're also all trying to protect one another from the same thing as well: their people. It is shortly after Benja has initiated Raya into the family tradition of being a guardian of the dragon gem that Benja informs his daughter he has invited the other lands to Heart in hopes of coming to a truce with one another and moving forward. The five lands consist of Tail which is apparently a sweltering desert with sneaky mercenaries that fight dirty, Talon is a floating market famous for thieves and expert swordsman, Spine is a frigid bamboo forest guarded by exceptionally large warriors and their giant axes, and then there is Fang - Heart's fiercest enemy - who protects their land with angry assassins and their even angrier felines. While Benja's optimism is admiral his trust is ultimately taken advantage of by Virana (voice of Sandra Oh) and her daughter Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan), the Chief and princess of Fang, whose betrayal summons the Druun leaving it up to Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) to track down Sisu - the last dragon - and stop the Druun for good.
While that all may sound a little exposition heavy the directing duo of Don Hall - a director on “Big Hero 6” and “Winnie the Pooh,” who also served as a co-director on “Moana” - and Disney new-hire Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) ensure the style elevates the technique and more than feeling overwhelmed with information the viewer simply feels welcomed into this re-imagined earth where ancient civilizations have been simplified and the mythology made anew. At just over an hour and 45 minutes (including credits) Hall and Estrada have little time to quarrel over extraneous gags, details, and character work which by and large makes every joke, piece of world-building, and character introduction not only something vital, but something special. By the fifteen-minute mark the stage that is Raya's quest has been set and by the twenty-five-minute mark Sisu (voice of Awkwafina) has arrived shifting the entirety of that quest into overdrive. In Fang's betrayal of Heart Sisu's gem was broken - each of the lands taking a piece - and Raya has been searching for Sisu at the end of all the rivers of Kumandra where she'd rumored to have fled in order to create another gem and bring back everyone who had turned to stone. The issue is, Sisu doesn't turn out to be as "mighty" as the legends and myths made her out to be leaving Raya, her sidekick Tuk Tuk (Disney go-to guy Alan Tudyk), and Sisu with no other option than to travel across all five lands of Kumandra to reunite the individual pieces of the broken gem. As alluded to before, it is in how the film takes advantage of the tropes it enlists and makes them work for the story rather than against it that allows ‘Raya’ to not only feel like something of a throwback akin to the likes of ‘Indiana Jones,’ but given the multitude of cultures and other influences alive in the film it also tends to resonate that much more. For instance, it's something of a predictable story arc that as Raya and Sisu travel from one land to the next they are going to encounter new friends, representatives of sorts, from each place that will join them on their trek yet instead of feeling tired and laborious Hall and Estrada along with Lin and Nguyen's screenplay give each of these new birds of a feather a real reason to flock together.
Beginning in Tail, Raya and Sisu are rescued by Boun (voice of Izaac Wang) a precocious (in all the best, most positive ways) young man who has taken the initiative to not only take over the role of Captain on what we can presume was his family's ship before the rest of them were turned to stone, but to turn it into a fledgling restaurant due to his passion for cooking. Boun rescues his new friends from the clutches of Namaari, providing them refuge and food without a second thought. When entering Talon it's unclear how Little Noi (voice of Thalia Tran), a baby thief with a herd of monkey henchmen, will fit into this quick-forming fellowship, but naturally the thread that each of their losses is not only similar, but that their pain is as well begins to allow the walls between each of them to dissipate. It's something of a bold creative choice as well - going with a baby capable of scaling rooftops and hopping fences in what are essentially pick pocket attempts - but if you're going to make this a fantasy realm, then why not go for it, right? Fortunately, and once again, this never feels hackneyed or corny in the ways it so easily could have, but rather Noi and her animal sidekicks feel as genuine to the world of Kumandra and the plight of Raya as everything else in the film that lends a foundation to the repairing of this broken world through the power of trust. Spine is the last stop on our hero's journey back to Heart and it is in Spine that audiences are introduced to Tong (voice of Benedict Wong); a character wholly meant to teach the age old lesson of never judging a book by its cover. Though Tong is certainly an exceptionally large warrior who no doubt has a giant axe hanging in his house, he has no use for it anymore as he essentially has no village left to defend. Tong is the last of the people of Spine and it is when he joins our protagonist and her crew that something Raya's father said to her early in the film becomes all the more meaningful. "Don't mistake spirit for skill," Benja told his daughter while training her to become a guardian of the dragon gem, but in the union of these four lands we see how the scales of spirit and skill have balanced creating in them a force more powerful than fear, ultimately fulfilling the hope Benja had for all the people of Kumandra.
It is this kind of symmetry, this type of top-tier storytelling that takes “Raya and the Last Dragon” from what could have easily been a somewhat by-the-numbers good vs. evil scenario to something genuinely fantastic and meaningful. We all know it's about the journey, not the destination and it is through Raya's journey and all the elements invested in making it more significant than the next Disney princess tale on the conveyor belt that continue to make Disney itself the exception to whatever rule there once was. Hall, Estrada, and everyone on their crew pack this jaw-droppingly gorgeous journey with humor in all the right and unexpected places. Awkwafina is of particular note in this regard as the titular last dragon who embodies the flipside of Tong's "don't judge a book by its cover" coin. Further, both the action pieces and martial art exchanges are executed cleanly and with clear care that they in turn create some of the more memorable sequences in recent animated memory as, much the same case with its tone, they tend to elicit these kinds of giddy reactions from children where they can't believe the fun, exciting nature of what's unfolding before their eyes whereas adults will be made nostalgic for those simpler, more boundless times. James Newton Howard's score is also of note for the different themes and moods it brings to each of the lands of Kumandra that only further integrate the audience into this world. It's almost more impressive “Raya and the Last Dragon” appears as seamless as it does given the tumultuous production the film faced, but one would never know of any behind-the-scenes drama as it has impacted the final product in no apparent way given the film's ability to not only deliver entertainment but speak to a trust that comes from the idea of an authentic community, of a commitment to taking care of one another - a lesson that couldn't have come at a better time. There’s a moment in the final act, the moment of triumph if you will, that is so cool - aesthetically, musically, and narratively - that it reinforces how well everything about “Raya and the Last Dragon” has been constructed due to how beautifully everything comes together and beautiful it indeed is.
by Philip Price
Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall & Shari Headley
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
Eddie Murphy, at 59, is two years older than James Earl Jones was in 1988 when “Coming to America” was originally released. This may appear to be little more than a heartbreaking factoid to most and have little bearing on where we land regarding “Coming 2 America,” but in many respects it absolutely sets the stage for where the narrative takes us in director Craig Brewer's (“Dolemite Is My Name”) 30-year-later sequel. The script, which went through several iterations, takes audiences through what is a nice balance of both the nostalgia likely related to countless experiences those who were raised on the film associate with it while changing things up enough, both story-wise as well as in terms of modernization, that it's difficult to imagine this movie making anyone angry it was made at all. It was a risky bet to in fact make the film of course, and it will never fulfill certain ideas of what it could or should have been for some and it probably won't come to mean as much to younger generations as the original does to their parents, but it's here. It exists. When someone undoubtedly goes to watch the original film for the 567th time and then needs a chaser to remedy the desire to re-capture that same feeling without going through the exact same experience they now have “Coming 2 America” to show them what happened to these characters decades down the road, to show them how they grew-up, changed, adapted, and discovered who they truly were. The sequel is, if nothing else, a nice, comforting reminder of the simple values the original held near its heart underneath all the broad humor and heavy make-up. As much as it is a passing of the torch sequel (though I feel assured in saying to not expect any more sequels) it is also a sequel that sees how the progress made in the first film - when James Earl Jones' King Joffe Joffer allowed Prince Akeem (Murphy) to venture outside his arranged marriage and marry for love - now raises the bar for Akeem to progress Zamunda that much further under his own rule. It's a film that doesn't feel the need to get into any heavy themes or social or political commentaries, though there are topical jokes here and there, but rather it is a comedy that embraces the progress of not only the culture at large, but of these characters - even addressing in some respects - the stifled progress of those who were once invigorated by as much, but who have since become settled in their role and routine. It would have been easy for “Coming 2 America” to very much stay comfortable in its routine and simply repeated the beats of the original via a younger generation, but the world has changed too much for this to only be about a prince seeking his princess. “Coming 2 America,” if it's about anything, is about that very need for growth and how critical it is to never stop doing so in order to maintain the balance of discovering who one is and who they want to be...even if that journey is as small as deciding whether they should sing Whitney Houston again or move on to some Sister Sledge.
As one may have seen in the trailers, “Coming 2 America” in its most basic form reverses the conceit of the original by having the son Akeem didn't know he had come to Zamunda to the be the fish-out-of-water rather than Akeem himself again venturing to Queens. It's a nice change of pace given the bulk of the original took place in New York with the sequel now allowing for Murphy and the rest of the cast to explore the African nation further. Zamunda, it should be said, also looks fantastic thanks in large part to Ruth E. Carter's costume design and Douglas A. Mowat's set decoration. Upon first being reunited with Prince Akeem he along with his queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), are raising their three daughters in Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy), and Tinashe (Akiley Love). While dealing with the declining health of his father and his impending transition to King, Akeem is also weary of a potential conflict with the neighboring nation of "Nextdooria" (get it? Okay, I promise that's as lame as the jokes get here though) as run by General Izzi (an uproarious Wesley Snipes). Izzi is a warlord of sorts whose authoritarian presence is pressuring Akeem to have either Izzi's son (Rotimi Akinosho) marry Meeka or his daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) marry a son of Akeem's; the only problem being Akeem has no son to succeed him on the throne. Izzi may also still feel burned by the fact Akeem was supposed to marry his sister (Vanessa Bell Calloway) which would have united their nations and allowed both to prosper, but marrying Lisa caused Izzi's nation to continue to struggle. Meanwhile, Meeka has trained her entire life to be queen, but historically Zamunda has not allowed women to rule. This is where things start to get a little messy in terms of narrative, but the lengths gone to in order to explain how Akeem does in fact have a son back in Queens is all done out of love for the original and respect for the fans of that film even if it does stretch the believability factor quite a bit. That said, this is essentially a fairy tale set in a fictional African kingdom where Cleo McDowell's (John Amos) McDonald's rip-off is thriving, so...best to remember the world we're operating in. As is expected, Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) make their way back to America to locate Akeem's long-lost son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), in order to bring him back to Zamunda, train him as a Prince to marry Bopoto, therefore freeing Meeka of the obligation to an arranged marriage while conversely taking away her birthright and saving Zamunda from war. Obviously, this doesn't quite pan out the way Akeem initially hopes, but it ensures enough entertaining hijinks happen along the way that we're reminded not to get too bogged-down in the exposition of it all and simply enjoy all the elements we recognize.
Those elements we recognize certainly play something of a larger role than expected in the film given Brewer and his screenplay (credited to three screenwriters) take every opportunity available to make a call back to the original. Some are rather subtle and genuinely funny as in the blink and you'll miss it moment where Murphy breaks the fourth wall similarly to how he did in the first while others feel so strained to the point, they might have been better off left alone. I won't make mention of any particulars given each and every cameo and/or reference is sure to have its own fans, but rest assured there has been no expense spared in bringing back as many faces from the original as possible (except for Samuel L. Jackson, which is one I thought could have really worked in favor of such gimmicks). Naturally, one of the more gratifying things about this experience is having the opportunity to see both Murphy and Hall play this cavalcade of characters some of which we know and love and others that are new to the world. Garcelle Beauvais returns as a rose bearer, Paul Bates is back as Oha and once again has one of the best and funniest moments in the movie, as is Louie Anderson who - while only in maybe three minutes total - allows for one of the nicer, more genuinely touching callbacks in the film.
As for the new cast members, Leslie Jones portrays Lavelle's mom and the woman Akeem slept with back in '88 prior to meeting Lisa. Jones is pitch-perfect in the role of this loud, larger than life caricature who means no real harm, but is going to make sure she gets hers before anyone else. She is adamant about going to Zamunda with her son when Akeem comes to recruit him and once, she arrives she deflates the anticipated tension with Lisa by immediately embracing both her and some of Zamunda's legendary customs. The introduction of a wrecking ball like Mary into the refined space of Akeem's palace leads to what is low-key one of the nicest subplots in the film as Jones' Mary comes to serve as this reminder to Lisa of where she came from, how much her life and she herself have changed, eventually allowing for Lisa to find herself again through the friendship she and Mary form. Tracy Morgan arrives in top form as well as Mary's brother and Lavelle's Uncle Reem who was there to help raise Lavelle in Akeem's absence. The pairing of Morgan and Murphy, especially in this dynamic where Murphy is playing an actual character rather than only heightening the persona of Eddie Murphy, is pretty inspired and leads to some of the best laughs this sequel garners not based on the anything from the previous film. The script is also smart to pit Reem and Semmi against one another as the chief complaint I would have about this sequel is that there isn't enough for Hall to do, but between the competition that develops between he and Morgan's character in the latter half of the film and all the other characters he and Murphy play said complaint is largely a moot point by the time the credits roll.
Depending on expectations going in then, it would seem “Coming 2 America” was going to either disappoint no matter what or can be seen for what it is which is a harmless sequel to a beloved comedy classic that, while never reaching that status, delivers what it needs to if this world and these characters are something you enjoy. Fowler's Lavelle is extremely endearing and if we lived in a time period like 1988 where movie stars could go on to become megastars in the way Murphy did it would seem the guy would have a real shot at doing so. His character also develops one of the other, more lovely aspects of this film in the relationship that comes to be between Lavelle and his royal hairdresser, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), whose arc together ultimately serve the same purpose for Akeem as Mary does for Lisa in reminding the King who he once was before taking on the responsibilities of being a king, a husband, and a father. Speaking to where the film comes from though, it is important to remember when considering “Coming 2 America” that its predecessor came at a time that now feels so early in Murphy's career but was in fact something of the end to his run in the eighties that started with his dominance on “Saturday Night Live,” carried over to his stand-up specials, and into his movies. In 1988, Murphy was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet never mind one of biggest black stars and he used that power in the industry to make a film with an all-black cast and not only make it about affluent black people which I suspect wasn't something people were accustomed to seeing on the silver screen given it remains difficult to get movies made today with all black casts unless they're about slavery, racism, or made by Tyler Perry, but he made a movie that directly addressed class structure through the guise of this humble rom-com. Sure, “Coming to America” doesn't have to be or mean any of that, but when reading more about the context from which the movie was born it's hard to ignore the cultural relevance of it as it also helps in seeing why it's so important that this sequel is about what it's about even if there's no need for it to be anything other than an enjoyable comedy. This summer will mark 33 years since that original movie's debut and while there might have been no better way to enjoy the celebration that is “Coming 2 America” than to see it with a packed crowd of generations that both grew up with the original as well as newcomers to the kingdom of Zamunda it is to the films credit that this new film is just as delightful when viewed from the comfort of your own couch.
by Philip Price
Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes & Garrett Hedlund
Runtime: 2 hours & 10 minutes
The first hour of Lee Daniels’ oddly structured “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is so plagued by the fits and starts of its three different narrative strands and the resulting meandering nature of as much that, despite the eponymous character being of indisputable interest, it's almost immediately evident this particular piece about her life lacks the focus to make any real sense to the casual viewer and won't be able to generate any lasting impact on even the most ardent of Holiday admirers. It’s not until nearly an hour and 15 minutes in (or with some 45 minutes remaining) that the film based on Suzan Lori-Parks’ screenplay from the novel by Johann Hari somewhat finds its footing by taking the character of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who, up until this point has been something of an extraneous detail in Holiday's life, and inserts him into the main arc of Andra Day's version of Holiday; placing their two very different trajectories in life on the same track and forcing those paths to merge into one. The funny thing is, this breakthrough doesn't occur because Fletcher and Holiday have this undeniable chemistry or even because their mostly deranged romance is so captivating, but more it has to do with the fact this feels like the first time the film is actually onto something regarding who Holiday might have actually been as a human being. Sure, this is due in part to the fact that in the sprouting of this romantic relationship the viewer is also given further context surrounding Holiday's childhood and formative experiences (again, not until over an hour into the film), but if anything has been established in Daniels' film thus far it's that Holiday was a woman who liked to live in extremes no matter what she was doing. There's that famous quote of her responding to the question of why so many jazz greats seem to die so early to which she replied, "...we try to live one hundred days in one day." This is all to say that in her relationship with Fletcher - at least in the film - Holiday finds something she doesn't understand and therefore doesn't feel in control of her emotions due to the fact there's only a certain type of love she's become accustomed to. Both ironically and tragically is the fact the kind of love that made Holiday feel safe was also the kind that kept her perpetually unhappy and paranoid. What might have been a study in a life that only felt purposeful when what caused her pleasure caused her just as much pain, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is ultimately a mess of a missed opportunity whose execution can't match its subject's ambition.
The main objective of Daniels' film is to deal with a bill to ban lynching that did not pass in 1937 and how it relates to Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" and its horrifying description of a lynching in lyrical form. Framed by an interview with a farcical Reginald Lord Devine as played by Leslie Jordan in New York City on May 3, of 1957 - just over two years before Holiday's death in July of 1959 - Devine's first question, "What is it like to be a colored woman?" sets the stage for both the time period's obliviousness to their own racism and thus making it evident how steep the hill Holiday was climbing in fact remained. Day summons a spot-on smoky voice to mimic that of Holiday's as she responds to Devine's question with another, asking if he would ask Doris Day that question. Of course, Devine simply dismisses the retort with a simple, "Well Doris Day isn't black, silly!" It's not that Holiday desired to get into trouble you see, but more that her mentality wouldn't allow her to live in peace due simply to the norm of how black people were treated during the time period in which she was born and forced to exist. Daniels largely exhibits Holiday's tendencies to "be difficult" through much of the first hour of his film for, as alluded to, many a people who knew "Lady Day" - as she was frequently referred - would describe the singer as only being happy when she was unhappy. And in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” the titular singer certainly comes off as something of a masochist by nature, but at the same time it's not hard to see that much of the strife she experienced and the depression she was clearly dealing with came from not only being a victim of the circumstances she brought upon herself, but by those circumstances out of her control that she was not prepared to accept. Either way, Holiday's life was as much a tragedy as it was a success given it was what was in her control that gives her main opposition in Daniels' film - Garrett Hedlund's Harry Anslinger AKA the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics - the leeway to make an example out of her. Holiday was a drug addict and would take whatever was around in order to obtain a high, one band member recalling, "She really dug being high. She was using heroin and cocaine at the same time. She could consume more stimulus than any ten men and still perform." Due to this frequent substance abuse, Anslinger was bound and determined to stop what he called a "contamination to our great American civilization," by not only making an example out of Holiday, but by stopping her from singing "Strange Fruit" so as to not allow her "devil's music" to serve as this starting guide for what would become the civil rights movement.
Lady Day's back and forth with the feds is largely where the film derives its hook and is key to understanding her personality and what she embodied not only as a singer, but as an activist. By all accounts, Holiday was fighting for equality before Martin Luther King Jr. through the songs she chose to sing, exposing discrimination and putting it on stage. "Strange Fruit" as described by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl was Holiday's "primal howl against the bloody history of white America. Her refusal to stop singing it would give vindication to powerful men already circling the decadent world of jazz in search of a high-profile target to burnish their reputation." This very clearly gives us the plot of Daniels' film which more or less unfolds as one would expect even if the director's visual cues and influences are all over the place. Daniels throws all of these different styles at the wall as he captures Holiday performing always with a certain regality to her getting high and dealing with the countless men (and women) that move in and out of her life in what are not less flashy, but yet somehow still flat pieces of filmmaking. This all accentuating the point that the plot dealing in Anslinger setting Fletcher, who was an undercover federal agent, on Holiday's trail doesn't so much end up conveying what the story's really about and that's this idea Holiday was being silenced not for her lifestyle, but for quietly bringing about a cultural revolution that terrified people like Anslinger. It would be through this defiance and need to sing "Strange Fruit" that Daniels might have further tapped into how the time in which she was born and her abusive childhood not to mention how she came from nothing and made herself into a nationally-revered legend gave way to a woman uncomfortable with accepting her fate or a woman able to enjoy the pleasures of life in a sober state, but the film instead muddies the water with too many competing elements for the film's thesis to ever be clear.
The story jumps back a decade prior from the framing device of that opening interview to 1947 at a night club where much of the narrative strands that will come to define Lori-Parks' screenplay first come into motion including Jimmy Fletcher, Holiday's manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic), as well as her husband at the time James Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey). While periodically returning to Devine's interview for seemingly no other reason than to introduce different facets of Holiday's life including the likes of Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) the film seems to largely forget this device about halfway through. Not to fear though, as Daniels still can't get out of the way of his story as explaining the particulars of Holiday's life come to occupy more of the running time that unpacking why Holiday became who she did. The marriage to Monroe and relationship with Glaser as her manager who it’s said wanted her busted in order to "save her", but that Holiday always perceived to be a set-up would end in 1947 shortly after Holiday sung "Strange Fruit' at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia and was busted with heroin leading to the court case referenced in the title that would see Holiday be sentenced to prison for a year and a day. Hence, "Lady Day". Holiday would be married to Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg) from 1951 through to 1957 who is largely depicted here as nothing more than her supplier and a friend she would get high with on a regular basis. It is during this time according to the film that Holiday would have varying flings with individuals like John Levy (Tone Bell) who becomes a lover after letting Holiday sing in his club despite her not having her cabaret card after being released from prison. The two had a love/hate relationship that was plagued by violence, but it's also been reported that Levy served as an informant from as early as 1934 and when it came to Holiday, wanted her caught because he ultimately couldn't control her. Louis McKay (the great Rob Morgan) would be Holiday's last husband in the final two years of her life, but the man was a pathological liar who would hypnotize Holiday into solely depending on him as he fed into her masochistic nature by beating her, which seems to have gratified them both, and then immediately engaging in sex. The way in which each of these men became enamored with Holiday is chronicled with almost as much fervor as the FBI's which of course introduces Fletcher into her life, but whose love story has been lost due to the different nature of it altogether.
Jimmy Fletcher's status as one of the first black federal agents cues up another difficult question for Daniels and Lori-Parks to wrestle with but is buried by everything else going on in the film and thus becomes nothing more than a throwaway conversation between Rhodes' Fletcher and a fellow black federal agent as played by Evan Ross which is, admittedly, in a nice little nod to “Lady Sings the Blues.” The film is forced to confront this conflict of interests though as it needs to garner just as much sympathy for Fletcher as it does Holiday. Fletcher's plight is traced back to his father who told him drugs would be the death of their people which he took to heart given he can see the reality of this coming to fruition under Anslinger's hysterical war on drugs. It also doesn't hurt that the film doesn't hold onto the tension of Holiday not knowing Fletcher's ulterior motives longer than a half hour as it is the unadulterated relationship the two come to share in the second half of the film that gives way to that aforementioned moment of clarity among what is a whirlwind of sex, style, and song that Daniels never is able to maintain authorship over. Ironically enough, it is also at this point in the film that Daniels puts on his flashiest of director's hats as he takes the viewer through Holiday’s traumatic childhood and adolescence explaining what instigated her ugly opioid habit as well as inspiring the song that would define her legacy. Unfortunately, this brief honeymoon in Holiday’s life - away from the abusive relationships and drug-fueled performances - lasts as briefly in the context of the film as it likely felt for Holiday in real life. It should also be noted that Day's performance as Holiday is excellent and perfectly calibrated in a way that it is somehow able to shine through past everything the movie is miscalculating around her. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” jumps around so frantically and without any real intent that it’s difficult to get a grasp on what and when in Holiday's life the biggest impacts were both felt and made. More than anything though, Daniels' film feels like a series of vignettes made around critical points in the final decade of our subject's life, each of which with a different artistic flair, that never coalesces into an indelible portrait, but by mimicking the extremes of its namesake is at least able to make a strong case for just how deep the roots of systemic racism go.