Colman Domingo

Candyman

05/09/21

Cineworld

Horror remakes can be decidedly tricky customers. Like those endless Halloween sequels, for instance, they can turn out to be pale retreads of a brilliant original. I have good memories of Bernard Rose’s 1992 Candyman, which was so much more than just another creepy slasher movie. That said, I’m also uncomfortably aware it had its own slew of inferior sequels, so I’m not exactly filled with anticipation at the prospect of Candyman 2021. But, with Jordan Peele attached as producer, I’m hopeful that this new offering from director Nia DaCosta might have something different to offer.

It’s clear from the get-go that this is intended to be more than just a straightforward reboot. For one thing, the opening credits (even the Universal logo) are reversed left to right, as though reflected in a mirror – a delightful reference to the film’s central premise – and then the startlingly stylistic cinematography takes a grip on my senses, aided and abetted by delightful shadow-puppet sequences, depicting the history of the film’s infamous urban legend. There’s also a powerful ‘black lives matter’ subtext running through this version. Some critics have derided it, claiming that it is hammered home a little too forcefully, but I disagree. The message is an important one and it’s clearly stated. It adds to, rather than reduces, the power of the story. And that has to be a good thing, right?

Twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is living in a swish high-rise apartment in the area of Chicago that borders the old Cabrini Green housing project where the original Candyman strutted his grisly stuff. This part of the city has been gentrified over the years and now, Anthony and his art-dealer partner, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), spend their time sipping expensive wine and attending flashy art exhibitions. But Anthony has lost his painting mojo. It’s been some time since he came up with anything new.

When Brianna’s younger brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tells him about an old urban legend, Anthony is interested enough to wander into Cabrini Green with a camera, looking for inspiration. It’s there that he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo), who tells him more about the story of the Candyman. And it’s there too that Anthony is stung by a bee and begins to experience some startling reactions to the venom…

Cinematographer John Guleserian creates a world where everything seems inverted. The sinister glass towers of Anthony’s home are depicted upside down as though plunging into sinister depths, rather than reaching for the sky. Much of the ensuing action is glimpsed via reflections in mirrored surfaces – and one sequence where an art critic is murdered in her high rise apartment, filmed in a distanced silent long shot actually makes me gasp. I have been made to feel like a helpless observer. The film doesn’t shy away from its slasher roots either. There are some genuinely wince-inducing murders and a couple of instances of extreme body horror that almost have me looking away from the screen. But the violence, though savage, never feels salacious – and DaCosta has the canny knack of knowing exactly when to cut away from the action.

Ultimately, this feels like a palpable win, a film that treats the original with reverence but also manages to develop the story in coherent and inventive ways. The stylish art direction adds a dazzling sheen to the whole enterprise. There’s also a wonderful joke in here that provides, once and for all, the definitive answer to an age old question: ‘Why do people in horror movies go wandering down staircases into dark and gloomy cellars?’ I won’t reveal what happens but, in the midst of all the dread, it actually makes me laugh out loud.

There will always be reboots of popular horror movies and many of them won’t be worth the price of admission. But this one, I feel, is a cut above.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

20/12/20

Netflix

The chances are you’ve never heard of Ma Rainey before: I know I hadn’t.

A quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that she was one of the earliest African-American blues singers, an entrepreneur who started her career on the Southern Vaudeville circuit in the early nineteen hundreds and who, through the twenties, became known as ‘Mother of the Blues.’ As the decade rolled on, she made a series of recordings, which introduced Blues music to a new – predominantly white – market.

It’s summer 1927 and Ma (Viola Davis) has ventured North to Chicago to lay down some tracks for the Paramount record label at the urging of her white manager, Irving (Jeremy Shamos). Her musicians duly arrive to back her up, among them a young and ambitious horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Unlike the other members of the band, he senses that the wind of change is in the air and that America is developing a new taste for jazz stylings. He’s eager to be a part of it. His fellow musicians, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), urge him to toe the line. Ma is a tough cookie and he’d do well to do as she tells him, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to spread his wings…

Director George C. Wolfe offers a lean, powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s original play, which is essentially a lament for the way in which prosperous white record producers continually took vibrant black music and bent it to their own whims, earning vast sums of money into the bargain – little of which went to the original artistes. In the titular role, Davis offers a brooding, snarling study of a embittered woman who knows only to well how her music is being stolen from her and who steadfastly refuses to lick the boots of the men who are taking it – even haranguing them when they neglect to offer her chilled Coca Cola in the sweltering confines of the studio.

But of course, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also turns out to be Chadwick Boseman’s final performance and, at times, he comes close to stealing the show. It’s hard to believe that this passionate and talented young actor has already been taken from us. His performance here makes for a memorable farewell but it’s tragic to consider what else he might have achieved had he been given the chance. Levee is a compelling character, the product of horrifying events in his childhood, which have only served to fuel his overpowering desire to make good as a musician – but it is an ambition that will, ultimately, consume and destroy him.

There are some splendid musical interludes, but not so many that they overpower the drama – and, as the temperature rises and tempers begin to fray, there’s plenty of that to relish. The final musical sequence brilliantly pins down the kind of cultural appropriation that forms the central tenet of this film. Netflix has been raising its game in recent months and this is another success for them.

Watch it, and not just to say goodbye to Mr Boseman.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Assassination Nation

24/11/18

Salem. Teenage girls. Mass hysteria. And death. Assassination Nation‘s parallels with the witch trials are not subtle. But they are bold and audacious, timely and provocative. This is a fascinating film.

It’s not a retelling of The Crucible, but it riffs on the themes: a society bound by rules so strict that no one really follows them; the chaos that’s unleashed when the underbelly is exposed. And the teenage girls, easy scapegoats for the mob. Why look for someone else to blame when there are sassy, sexy young women strutting about the town, showing off their nubile bodies and their high intellects?

Lily (Odessa Young) is our heroine: an eighteen-year-old with attitude. Her parents are Mr and Mrs Uptight, squarer than a box, but Lily has opinions of her own. She’s smart: when the school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her to task for submitting pornographic drawings for an art assignment, she argues eloquently; these are not mindless ‘shock-the-system’ images, but a considered response to the world she knows. Taken aback, the principal acknowledges she’s right, but asks her to concede: ‘This is high school; it’s not appropriate here.’

And that’s kind of the point of the whole film: that we all collude in pretending reality is something else. We wear our masks and present public selves that are very different from our private selves, and (some of us) outwardly condemn others who are seen to do the very things that we do too. Writer-director Sam Levinson clearly has something to say about this, and he’s not shy about saying it. The utter absurdity of modern American life is mercilessly exposed.

Things begin to fall apart in Salem when an anonymous hacker starts uploading everybody’s secrets: texts and emails, photographic caches, google searches, everything. It’s no longer possible to maintain the illusion that everyone follows the creeds laid out for them, and the fallout is huge. At first it doesn’t seem to matter too much: the mayor is rightly exposed as a hypocrite, standing on a ‘family values’ platform, denying LGBT+ rights, while secretly cross-dressing. But we soon learn that he’s a victim too, that no one can flourish in a world that condemns individuals when they reveal the truth about themselves.

And then, as more people have their private lives revealed, we discover that the mob is hungry for blood. Even the most innocuous photographs are seen as proof of corruption; we’re back in Crucible territory now: if you’re accused, you’re guilty; there’s really no way out. Eventually, inevitably, Lily’s own phone is hacked. She’s been sexting with a married neighbour, so the townsfolk have a lot to say. The baying crowd turns on her and her friends: they are literally out to kill.

This is a vibrant, pulsating movie, that screams its message loudly and proudly – and largely successfully. Oddly, I detest the first fifteen minutes or so, and am actually contemplating walking out of the cinema (something I haven’t done since Heat) but I’m glad I sit it out, because – once that frantic, in-yer-face, split-screen throbbing is over – it all starts to fall into place, and the opening makes sense in context too.

It’s a film for our times, that’s for sure. There are tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings that seem at first to be poking fun at ‘snowflakes’ but turn out to foreshadow scenes that show how relevant these issues really are. There’s a chilling moment where a mob is chanting, ‘Lock him up!’ about an innocent man: no prizes for making the connection here. I said it’s not subtle. But why should it be? Sometimes the most affecting art is created using broad strokes.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the girls become avengers – it’s clear from the posters, after all, but I have some qualms about the way in which weapons are used in this final third. It’s all a bit glamorous, a bit ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ for my liking. But then, I suppose, the truth is this: in a society as rigid and divided as modern America, the suits who make the rules really had better look out. Because the guns are out there. And those they seek to victimise know how to use them too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield