Just Mercy

Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx


Just Mercy continues writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s zig-zag up the movie food chain. His breakthrough came in 2013’s Short Term 12, which not only made his own name but also that of Brie Larson, who is now playing Captain Marvel at god knows what hourly rate of pay. Trouper that she is, she turns out for Cretton again here, as she did in his last film, 2017’s The Glass Castle, though here she’s in a minor, supporting role to star Michael B Jordan.

Just Mercy tells a true story, of a smalltime lumber guy, Walter McMillian, known locally as Johnny D, who was picked up by the cops for the murder of a blond white woman in 1987. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence against him, that he had a cast-iron alibi with any number of witnesses that he wasn’t even in the town where it happened, Johnny found himself on death row in Alabama, from where not a single person had ever been released, except through the tender mercies of the electric chair.

Johnny’s actual crime, it’s suggested, was having fooled around with a white woman at some point, and what with Johnny being a black man in Alabama and all…

Enter Michael B Jordan as real-life superhero Bryan Stevenson (the film is based on his book), a young, idealistic Harvard graduate lawyer who has decided not to follow the money and is instead representing cases on Alabama’s death row. Having first worked out that none of the men he’s represented has had decent legal representation – defence lawyers who didn’t defend, didn’t mention vital facts in the case and so on – he takes on Johnny’s case, after some stiff-legged getting-to-know-yous.

Rafe Spall as the local DA



Off they go, this doughty pair, through all the hoops that the definitely-not-racist townspeople – how can they be, when they have a Mockingbird Museum in this town where Harper Lee grew up? – can put in their way, past the resistant local sheriff, the flinty local DA and into court and then up through the legal system to the State Supreme Court.

It’s an angry film but a familiar one, so full of stock characters you half expect Rod Steiger to appear any minute. And that’s the film’s big problem.

There are some scenes of genuine shock, like when Stevenson visits Johnny for the first time and is strip-searched on entry by the white prison guards, just so he understands who has the whip hand here. But too often it treads a familiar path.

In real life, of course, it’s this routine different treatment that is outrageous. Out and out racism, the gaming of the system, the loading of the dice, at every stage, in every way, against one colour of person by another, in ways legal and illegal, indict a system professing to offer equality of justice to all. But at the level of drama, we have just seen all this too often before.

In spite of the presence of Foxx, who is always good, it’s Jordan’s film, though Cretton hovers uncertainly over the character of Johnny D, unsure how much story time to give him. Johnny’s will he/won’t he with the electric chair never really carries any… er… spark.

On the way to the final dénouement we do see one man go to the chair, Rob Morgan as the benighted PTSD-suffering Herb being just one of many examples of a great cast (Larson, Rafe Spall, Michael Harding, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, CJ LeBlanc) just not having enough to do.

It ends on a shocking final statistic. That for every nine people who die on death row, one has been found innocent. We hear it. We just don’t feel it like we should.



Just Mercy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Soul

Joe playing jazz

 

We’re so used to the phrase Pixar Movie that it’s often easy to forget that they are in fact directed by actual human beings, not rendering algorithms. Soul is co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, says the imdb, but the end credits of the film itself tell us that it’s “Directed by Pete Docter” and “Co-directed by Kemp Powers”, not “Co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers”.

Kemp was heavily involved in the film, particularly at the conceptual and writing stages, but even so it still feels like a Docter film. His last one was Inside Out, the story of a little girl’s personality in crisis. And before that Up and Monsters, Inc., all underdog stories with a psychological aspect. Soul is something similar, the journey by two entities struggling towards fulfilment – Joe, a pianist who dies just before getting the break that will free him from teaching and enable him to live the life of a musician, and 22, the yet-to-be-born soul he meets in the Great Before, where Joe’s soul somehow got stranded while on its way to the Great Beyond. Together these two individuals go on a journey, him to get his life (and gig) back, and her to find the missing “spark” that will make her eligible for life on earth. Meanwhile, chasing after Joe, jobsworth Terry from accounts in the Great Beyond has noticed that a soul is missing and sets out to track it down.

 

In the realm of the Great Before
22 and Joe in the realm of the Great Before

 

The plot is a light lift from Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death – if you’re going to steal, steal from the greats – and there are moments, such as the mechanical “stairway to heaven”, that will be familiar if you know the film. David Niven, Deborah Kerr, the Earth in Technicolor, Heaven in black and white. That one.

Soul’s plot is a lot wilder and more convoluted than I’ve painted it, but it’s easy to follow, even when it swerves from buddy/road movie into body-swap territory and pianist Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is now back on Earth but in the body of a cat, while unborn soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) is inhabiting the pianist’s body.

Fey gets the best of the jokes and Foxx is solid as Joe, the likeable everyman. In another lift, this time from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Graham Norton voices the captain of a phantasmagorical three-masted ship that cannons about in the afterlife, a vocally distinctive presence in a voice cast notably full of African American actors – as well as Foxx there’s Angela Bassett, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad.

For a while Pixar got hung up on rendering stuff accurately – feathers, and hair, drops of water and the like – but they seem to have got that entirely out of their system now. Soul is set in two distinct visual realms: here on Earth, which looks like the sort of Pixar we’re familiar with, and off in the afterlife of the Great Beyond and the Great Before, where the laws of physics are not obeyed quite so strictly, where two dimensions and three seem to slide into each other and where the colour palette can flip in a moment from monochrome to soft pastels to acid.

It’s dealing with death, but Soul does it in a way that’s neither mawkish nor glib. The big message is simple: isn’t it great to be alive. Disney also deals in this sort of affirmative messaging but tend to sloganeering; Pixar just do it better, by showing us the marvels of the physical world – distilled at one point into Joe’s musings on a sycamore seed.

Smart, empathic, funny, brilliantly animated and conceptually fantastic, Soul really is the full package.

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Annie

Quvenzhané Wallis and a cute dog

 

 

Annie is the “turn that frown upside down” musical seemingly custom-built for stagestruck kids. But in writer/director/songsmith Will Gluck’s updating, it breaks out of the greasepaint shuffle-step limbo it’s been consigned to and makes a bold dash for the spotlight. Gluck opens with a swerve, showing us a precocious and stagestruck young ginger Annie holding her classmates to ransom with a show-and-tell delivered with weapons-grade winsomeness. Then swivels to reveal that this isn’t the titular Annie, but another one. The Annie we’re interested in is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the cute kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

 

And god is she cute. A bright little button who is the making of this singing, dancing entertainment that is to the  Little Orphan Annie comic strip what Oliver! was to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

 

The plot remains the same as it was in the 1982 filmed version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, with Wallis as the spunky orphan kid who is treated heartlessly by Cameron Diaz’s foster-parent Hannigan, and then cynically taken up as a vote-catching gimmick by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire running for mayoral office, the kid winning through by sheer pluck, optimism and can-do spirit and melting the heart of the businessman en route.

 

It could easily make you sick, this relentlessly upbeat tone, delivered with boosterish stage-school enthusiasm by a cast heavy with brats, and ickle orphan brats at that. But the cast largely pull it off, Diaz the only one who seems out of place as the overly pantomime Hannigan, while Foxx does a nice line in machiavellian cape-twirling, Bobby Cannavale similarly sulphurous as one of the magnate’s wonks, an ugly sister role.

 

Everyone knows at least one number from Annie – Tomorrow, perhaps, or Hard Knock Life, or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here, and if this production reminds us of anything, it’s how good Strouse and Charnin’s original songs are, and how chirpilly similar to Lionel Bart’s for Oliver! too. And the couple of new additions ease in neatly alongside the old ones, no problem there.

 

Updating is evident in other areas – this is a film very keen to point out how Twittery/YouTubey it is, which is going to look very old very soon, but it’s also full of single disappointed women who, you can’t help feeling, just need a good man to sort them out – Rose Byrne as the another of Foxx’s aides, with a pash for the boss, Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dried up social-services drone, Diaz’s disappointed, spinsterish Hannigan, who was once “almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”.

 

In this respect it’s a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie, but it does at least know how to deliver old-school Hollywood tingles, as when Annie gets on stage and delivers an impromptu song, the orchestra magically falling in with her, Fred Astaire style.

 

The “black Annie” this has been called. And, for sure, Wallis is black, so is Foxx, and doubtless producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had an agenda when they were doing the casting. But why shouldn’t they? It’s their money. The bigger questions are does it matter and does it work. No is the answer to the first, yes to the second.

 

And talking of race, the only mis-step the film makes is in its race (feeble-play-on-words alert) to the rushed big finale which is really the only thing that takes the gloss off this zippy, peppy, bright and occasionally tear-jerking film whose out-takes (over the end credits) suggest everyone making it had a hell of a good time.

 

 

 

Annie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Ray

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 September

 

 

Birth of Ray Charles, 1930

On this day in 1930, Ray Charles was born. Six times married, the father of 12 children, Charles also found time to help create what is now known as soul music, a fusion of gospel, jazz and blues, a prime example being his song Georgia. Sighted at birth, Charles started losing his vision when he was five and was completely blind by the age of seven, thanks to glaucoma. Charles was playing in bars in his early teenage years, by the time he was 19 he was having his first hits. Ten years later, in 1959, he recorded his most famous song, What’d I Say, a song that crossed the race divide in the USA, introducing the notion of soul to many many a rock’n’roller. In spite of these achievements, Ray Charles’s legacy is not secure – acknowledged as important musically (a black musician releasing a record called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962 is bold verging on the dangerous) and politically (he wouldn’t play segregated gigs), with a heroin habit that would render him cool for cats, a voice that went from a squeak to a growl, Charles seems to come lower down the pantheonic pecking order than, say, Roy Orbison or Chuck Berry. Perhaps that’s because of his eclecticism, perhaps because he just kept going, producing records even when no one really wanted them. Or maybe it’s the many cover versions he turned out, this being a culture that values the terrible self-penned work above the inspired, beautiful cover. Unlike many a star in music, Charles was a musician first – “I can’t retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver,” he once said. Ironically it was his liver that retired from him – he died on 10 June 2004 of liver failure.

 

 

Ray (2004, dir: Taylor Hackford)

Ray Charles died not long after providing new voicings to some of his old songs for the long film that bore his name. Taylor Hackford directs, Jamie Foxx astounds as Ray, a performance so good, that as with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, you stop watching for tell-tale lapses within seconds of the actor hitting the screen. It is in many ways a “by the milestones” piece – Ray Charles followed from the death of his brother, his blindness, his early musical precocity, his first gigs, all the way to Charles standing up against racial segregation, the fame and the drugs, the women, the whole damn thing. Ray is the film for lovers of period detail, the early years from the early 1950s up to his golden years with Atlantic Records being the highlight of this film – the clothes, the cars, the clubs are all gorgeously rendered. Joint highlight – Hackford manages to make us understand why Ray Charles was important, why he was great, he makes his music seem fresh and vital again. In this he’s abetted by Jamie Foxx, with a performance that had Oscar written all over it from its first seconds. It’s true that the performance is better than the film, but watch the film and give it its due – it’s only on the home stretch, after we’ve had two hours of prime biopic, as Hackford and screenwriter James L White try to fit too much into the half hour or so remaining, that it stops being flat-out amazing. And by then we’ve had our entertainment.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Jamie Foxx – was any performance more convincing?
  • A biopic about a musician that concentrates on the music
  • The story of a black blind man that doesn’t play the race or disability violin
  • A labour of love – it took Hackford 15 years to get financing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Ray – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Miami Vice

Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

 

 

So masculine it could be used an infertility treatment, Michael Mann’s feature length Miami Vice actually tells the same story that eventually ground down the TV series – Crockett (now Colin Farrell, then Don Johnson) and Tubbs (now Jamie Foxx, then Philip Michael Thomas) go undercover with a drugs gang, get so deep they’re not sure which way they’re facing any more, then refind themselves before screaming towards a guns-blazing finale, designer clothes looking immaculate. Built from what look like a series of high-end international aftershave adverts showcasing the very pinnacle of fast living, it is an out and out exercise in cool glamour. So was the 1980s TV series, of course, but Mann (who produced but never directed any of the TV series) seems out to show everyone concerned that this is how you do it.

“Maximum chromatic saturation” is how Mann describes the look. Full on, might be another. And it applies across the board. Gong Li puts on the stoniest of faces as the implacable villain, while the dialogue is either spat out at whipcrack speed, mumbled in that too-cool-to-enunciate way, or yelled. No one just speaks. Now take all that – the clothes, the guns, the guys, Gong Li, the unnatural vocal styling, then put some shades on it and throw it into a speed boat bouncing across the waves towards a Ferrari 430 Spider, all to a slinky electropop soundtrack. Everything in this film hums, seethes and purrs. It is a hell of an exercise in mood management. It’s so great, in fact, that you’ll hardly notice there’s no real plot.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Miami Vice – at Amazon