Tag: jesse plemons

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.

In most movies that revolve around an informant, viewers end up empathizing with him or her one way or another. This isn’t the case in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The story opens with William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) choosing to be a rat for the FBI—under the superintendence of Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)—after he is caught stealing a car and pretending to be an FBI agent. And by the end of the story, Bill is not only a rat but a traitor who served a critical role in the killing of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago.

Hampton is so slick with words that he is capable of uniting not only black Chicago gangs but also multiethnic militia groups who are tired of being treated as second-class Americans. As a collective, The Rainbow Coalition demands progressivism from a government that excels in maintaining not only status quo but oppression of the poor, the marginalized, and people of color. It is no wonder Hampton is regarded as a national threat.

Right from the opening minutes the work proves propulsive. Themes regarding appearances tending to deceive, that real power is held by folks hiding in the shadows, and that one of the government’s greatest weapons is persuading people who belong within a community to turn against their own. This is done in subtle and often entertaining ways. Particularly efficient is when Bill sits in an interrogation room, face dripping with blood, as Special Agent Mitchell reminds the powerless black criminal in front of him that he has no sensical choice but to become a slave for the US government; it is a scene in which a black man sells his soul to a white devil.

I choose powerful words—pointed words that carry heavy judgment—but make no mistake that picture never paints circumstances in black and white. Even Mitchell is shown to be human, that although he is an FBI agent and that the organization he works for is filled with racists, he is also a man with his own beliefs about race and racial tension in 1960s America.

He is also a father. There is a revealing and terrifying scene between Mitchell and Special Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet), the latter asking what the former will do if his daughter ever brought a black man home. King languishes in tight, uncomfortable headshots. We can hear a pin drop as the cornered Mitchell is forced to provide a response. There is the answer in Mitchell’s head, somewhere along the lines of, “Why would it matter if she did?”, and then there is the “correct” answer, the one that his colleague needs to hear.

The Hampton character is given even greater complexity. He is a wonderful orator; he can survey a room full of people, find its pulse, and adapt his words into messages that will resonate. I found it so fascinating that the key issues that the man fought for are issues that progressives are fighting for today: closing the gap in regard to food insecurity—particularly in children, free healthcare for all, free education. You see, those in power remain in power when people are hungry, sick, and uneducated. This role is a strong addition to Kaluuya’s increasingly impressive resume. He creates personas: a public figure, a leader, and a man. Each persona is worth close inspection. And there are times when the identities bleed into one another.

It is most disappointing that the pacing slows to a crawl during the latter third. It is the point where Bill must make a decision on whether or not to betray the man with whom he had grown to have great respect for. Since the material spends the majority of its time with Hampton as well as the Black Panthers as a group but only fleeting moments between Bill and Mitchell, we do not have a deep and thorough understanding of the informant. The title reveals which course of action he will take and so tension must come from somewhere else. But because he is not layered enough—and I think he is meant to be—the battle within himself is not compelling; it simply feels drawn out and repetitive. At one point I thought, “Just get on with it already.”

Regardless of this shortcoming, “Judas and the Black Messiah” delivers a story worth our time, attention, and consideration. It is without question that the film is about race. But it is also about the working class attempting to rise up and the establishment feeling threatened so it feels the need to squash the bugs. Surely it is so annoying when commoners want equality. Why can’t they just be thankful for the crumbs they are given? The story told here happened in the 1960s. But make no mistake that the story continues to this day. That’s the power of the establishment.

Other People

Other People (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Other people uproot their lives from the city to move back home in the suburbs. Other people lose out on dream jobs. Other people’s relationships crumble and find themselves starting over. Other people must put their lives on hold in order to take care of their loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer. That is, until it happens to you. This is the situation that David (Jesse Plemons) finds himself in, a gay man living in New York City as a comedy writer. Writer-director Chris Kelly is able to tap into the natural ebb and flow of comedy and drama in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and freeing. He is concerned with details, like his characters being Sacramento-based, and so when the expected comes around, there is substance behind the punches.

The story opens with a family bawling their eyes out while in bed after having discovered that their mother and wife (Molly Shannon) has passed away. “Oh, it’s another one of those movies,” I thought. But then the telephone rings. A voice of an energetic woman has just heard that her friend is sick—the word “cancer” is never used—so the voice wishes to know how Joanne is doing. The caller just happens to be at a drive-thru and attempting to get her order right. We sense her priority. To this woman, this friend, Joanne is “other people,” you see. “Oh, so it’s not one of those movies,” I thought. And it turns out to be much more.

I enjoy movies that throw us into the middle of the action and it is up to us whether to sink or swim. In this film, notice that if you walk away for a minute to grab some snacks from the refrigerator, it is entirely possible to miss a line or two that touches upon a character’s history. This is not a comedy that is funny because of the jokes. Rather, it is a comedy that is funny despite the jokes due to its observant nature. I felt as though the writer-director came from the suburbs and so he knows how people from small towns speak, behave, and express themselves. And yet the screenplay does not belittle them. It just shows.

Plemons is quite captivating in this film. He plays David as a painfully ordinary gay man who loves his mother deeply. Plemons walks on a tricky rope in that he must convince us that David wishes to be there—really be there—for his mother but at the same time being back home costs so much in terms of his personal and professional lives. That push and pull between what must be shown versus what must be hidden creates wonderful drama in the character. Plemons makes it look effortless; we sympathize and empathize with David all the way through even though at times we know (and he knows) he could have made better decisions in retrospect.

Shannon is also terrific. I saw my mother in her portrayal of Joanne as this loud, vivacious woman whom you cannot help but look at when she enters the room. The opening scene, which shows this woman’s death, is correctly placed so that we appreciate her more when watching her just living her remaining days. There is drama in the juxtaposition of a high-spirited woman and a wilting thing whose voice can barely be heard even from just six feet away.

Shannon may not be on screen as much as Plemons, but her role is key to David’s sense of self. In a way, Joanne is his compass even though their relationship when he came out of the closet a decade ago was far from perfect. (The Mulcaheys are religious and conservative.) David’s father, Norman (Bradley Whitford) still has not come to terms with his only son’s homosexuality. There is a lot of pain to be mined there, but I appreciated that the filmmaker has found humor in that situation, too.

“Other People” is more dynamic than the average comedy-drama—and far more observant. We meet some characters here who appear in one or two scenes and I wanted to follow them, to learn what they’re about. For example, David’s grandparents live in a mobile home. That visit is so awkward for David, but at the same time I wanted to stay for cookies and listen to gossip. The grandparents have a sense of humor about them that is unlike the rest of the characters we meet. Clearly, the movie is helmed by a filmmaker who loves the idea of family and how our histories shaped us as the persons we’ve become.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be remembered as a minor work of writer-director Charlie Kaufman. It is composed of elements that could make a great film—a statement—about life, death, aging, and the sweet moments in between, but these components are not put together in a way that inspires immediate recognition of precise thought, feeling, or past experience without wringing out the brain for possible meanings. To say that the picture is weird is inaccurate; it isn’t—at least not really. I’ve seen far stranger movies—Guy Maddin’s works like “The Saddest Music in the World” and “Brand Upon the Brain!” quickly come to mind. As the movie goes on, it unravels into a tangent rather than providing a strong closure for its thesis.

The most fun I’ve had while sitting through the film is coming up with ideas in regards to what’s really going on just underneath its typical setup: a woman (we are introduced to her as “Lucy” but she is later called “Louisa” and a few other names), played by Jessie Buckley, travels with Jake (Jesse Plemons) to the country so she can meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). They’ve been dating for six weeks. Or is it seven? Lucy is unsure.

Via narration, we learn that Lucy feels as though the relationship is not going anywhere and is considering breaking it off. Right from the get-go, there is something strange. It appears—rather it feels—as though Jake can read Lucy’s mind. Is this actually the case or is he simply intuitive? We spend twenty minutes in the car as the couple discuss science, novels, poetry, and movies. Is it possible viewers are meant to feel trapped with these characters? In a Kaufman picture, anything is possible.

The farmhouse sequences are thoroughly engaging, from the tour of the barn with the symbolic sheep and the story about pigs being eaten alive to really bizarre and erratic behavior by Jake’s parents. It brings to mind haunted house movies and supernatural novels in how the writer-director plays with time and makes observations about memories, impressions, and forgotten details—ghosts that linger—not just Lucy’s, or possibly Jake’s, but our own. At some point, I wondered if the story is an echo: Lucy and Jake repeating the same day over and over again until either a wrong is set right or light is shed upon ignorance. It also made me consider how I process time, where I am in my life, what I’ve experienced and have yet to experience. Clearly, there is poetry to these scenes.

I also found the events inside the house to be riotously funny at times, from the image of a dog drying itself as if stuck in a time loop and Collette’s scene-stealing laughter turning into desperate wailing within a span of five seconds to morbid possibilities of what the basement contains to Thewlis’ interpretation of dementia. This is peculiarity done right. We are challenged with what to do with the images we are provided. I found humor. Some, I imagine, may find horror. Or sadness. It shows the helplessness and frailty that comes with old age.

Far less effective is when Lucy and Jake are back in the car. This is when the film starts to get repetitive. On the surface, it is different from the previous car sequence. They are traveling in near total darkness. There is a snowstorm outside. Lucy’s patience is wearing thin because Jake seems unable to take a hint that she just wants to get home. He suggests they stop by for ice cream. Is this supposed to be a portrait of mid- to late-stage marriage? The pacing slows as more ideas are thrown around… only this time there is minimal tension due to familiarity.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the novel by Iain Reid, offers plenty of foreplay but no powerful punchline. The latter half is so desultory (“experimental” or “unconventional,” if one were to be kind) that at some point, we sit through an interpretive dance and a musical number—right after another. Although I recognize what it is trying say with these overt performances, they remain just that—performances—instead of Kaufman putting what he has to impart into context (loneliness, regret, longings, imaginings). It’s unfortunate because the picture ends with humanity but decorations around it distract from the wrinkles that actually matter.

Game Night

Game Night (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As the superficially amusing pseudo dark comedy “Game Night” unfolds, one learns quickly of its tricks and wacky rhythms. Soon enough the material begins to suffer from a case of diminishing returns. A cheeky line here and a cameo there simply aren’t enough to keep the plot consistently interesting which becomes rather convoluted especially for a mainstream comedy. Particularly disappointing is its handful of detours toward the action-comedy route. And, indeed, as expected from generic comedies that run out of ideas toward the end, the final act involves hero and villain scrambling for the gun. Actual game nights with friends prove to be more fun (and more unpredictable).

It is most unfortunate that the picture does not live up to its full potential because the cast share solid chemistry. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a convincing married couple, Annie and Max, whose lives revolve around competition and, more importantly, winning. But the game of life tends to throw curveballs and we learn that they are having trouble conceiving a child. While this is a good template from which to take off from, I grew annoyed by the screenplay’s lack of intelligence, grace, and imagination whenever real emotions inch toward the forefront. Having trouble getting pregnant is utilized as the one and only tool to procure pity from the audience and we see right through it. Despite Adams’ and Bateman’s comic chops, their talent fails to elevate thin dramatic material.

The supporting cast are strong, from Kyle Chandler as the successful elder brother whom Max envies to Jesse Plemons as the incredibly creepy, single expression neighbor who no longer gets invited to game night—even though he makes it clear that he is desperate to become a part of the group again. But it is Billy Magnussen who steals the show as the dumb blonde. It is so difficult to make play an imbecile in a smart way. As Magnussen shows here, it can be done via excellent comic timing with precise facial expressions coupled with manic energy. To top it off, the performer has found a way for us to like him, kind of like a pet, even though the character does not get a glimmer of a backstory.

But the overarching game itself is not intriguing, specifically the kidnapping/“kidnapping” plot point. We are pushed through the familiar offering of supposedly being unable to tell between reality and role play, but those who have seen more than several handfuls of the most generic suspense-thrillers are likely capable of seeing through the charade. Considering that this device is utilized as the picture’s main weapon to entertain, I found large portions of the film to be a drag, uninspired, at times all over the place tonally. The very best dark comedies do not take prisoners. In this film, we get an impression that not one character is in any real danger.

At its best, however, the film evinces joyous creativity. For example, it is able to take a retro game like Pac-Man and somehow make it relevant as a chase scene that is key to the main story. Notice how this sequence is shot in a claustrophobic way—exactly like the game it is inspired by. Had screenwriter Mark Perez been able to tap into more video games, board games, and tabletop games and then written them into the plot in such a manner that makes perfect sense, “Game Night,” directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, could have been a different beast entirely.