Friday, February 12, 2021

'Black Messiah' and 'Minari' are two to see in flurry of debut activity

Four brief reviews for a potentially crowded Valentine's weekend of viewing:

Stanfield (right) shadows Kaluuya.

One of two definite must-sees (both starting today) is Shaka King's intense "Judas and the Black Messiah," a riveting look into the FBI's constant surveillance and ultimate shooting of young Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton.

Co-writer/director King puts his extraordinary actors, chiefly LaKeith Stanfield ("Sorry to Bother You") and Daniel Kaluuya ("Get Out"), and us through the emotional ringer of the fact-based, '60s plot to silence a revolutionary. Stanfield plays the somewhat innovative thief, suddenly and threateningly recruited by a Chicago-based G-man (Jesse Plemons) to keep tabs on charismatic homeboy Hampton (Kaluuya), whose popularity was growing by the minute.

Northeast Ohioans might know by now that pre-Covid19 Cleveland stood in for the Windy City and, may I say, quite seriously in the hands of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave"), who keeps lenses working smartly whether scenes turn introspective or sweeping. 

By the way, if anyone is counting, key moments show up from our town's Lane Metropolitan Church, Croatian Tavern, Azman & Sons Market, various locales in and around Slavic Village, and North Royalton's since-closed Carrie Cerino's Ristorante, itself a political gathering place for almost 60 years.

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence and pervasive language; 2:05; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Dad Yeun shows Kim the ropes.
This week's other big awards possibility, Minari," arrives fresh off Monday's 10 CCA nominations and ready for embracing by audiences during a wide release. 

Certainly many will fall hard for this warm, truth-based tale from Lee Isaac Chung, whose own South Korean family apparently moved from California to an Arkansas farm when he was a lad about the same age as the film's scene-stealing Alan S. Kim.

Little Kim's partner in movie crime quickly becomes veteran actress Yuh-jung Youn, brought South as live-in grandmother "Soonja." She's a tough-talking cookie who plays cards to win, swears like a longshoreman and forges a kind of bond with her supposedly sickly, American-born grandson that might brighten anyone's day. 

Such an easy-to-take duo offers nice contrast to the ever-squabbling new landowners: Father Jacob (Steven Yeun) earnestly bought the farm believing "this is the best dirt in America," while equally hard-working mother Monica  (Yeri Han) maintains "this isn't what you promised." A few overtly melodramatic minutes at the end eventually get in the way of their ongoing standoff, not to mention an otherwise almost perfect picture.   

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some thematic elements and a rude gesture; 1:55: $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Rahim in prison solitude.
Unless you enjoy long faces on legal eagles dealing with endless procedural delays, French actor Tahar Rahim ("The Prophet") is probably the best reason to see "The Mauritanian," a post-9/11 drama about a nice guy who knew a bad guy and so got tossed into a Guantanamo hell for almost 15 years.

Golden Globe-nominated Rahim plays the good guy, at least he seems like one during interrogation scenes and lengthy conversations with his lawyer (Jodie Foster, a GG supporting nominee) and flashbacks dealing with his mother and family life.

Of course, our government didn't share those thoughts and sentiments in this real story about North African muslim Mohamedou Ould Slahi. That's why it leaned on his government to arrest him at a relative's wedding and take him away -- nearly forever. That's also why a military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost a best friend on one of the tragically hijacked 9/11 commercial jets, was hellbent on seeing Slahi die for his sins by association. Two U.S. presidents, Bush and Obama, apparently felt the same way as well.

In the hands of director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and three credited screenwriters, "The Mauritanian" very slowly attempts to show why Slahi remains alive today. It's all based on the ex-prisoner's own hand-scribbled "Guantanamo Bay" diary, which might be why the movie rarely -- or easily -- soars.

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence and profanity; 2:09; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Land dwarfs Bichir and Wright.
Finally, an extremely sad woman named Edee needs to disconnect from everything and everyone and does just that in "Land." In fact, Edee, as portrayed by Robin Wright, successfully re-discovers life itself among the pretty Northwest vistas and even finds herself a new best pal in the handy form of mountain-man superhero (Demian Bichir).

Trouble is, first-time director Wright's efforts behind a feature film camera suffer from lots of silence and -- except for those undeniably showy gifts of nature -- little energy in a story we likely have seen played before with more vibrancy and, perhaps, less predictability.

Heck, a very similar one named "Nomadland" finally goes wide next week with a more epic feel to match both the enormous kindness of strangers and environmental wonders that Wright attempts to tackle here.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: thematic content, brief strong language, and partial nudity; 1:29; $ $ out of $5

Also opening today: The comedy, "Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar" (on VOD); a fantasy rom-com "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things" (Amazon Prime); and an offbeat, period love story "The World to Come" (in theaters, just like the four films reviewed above).

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