Jamie Foxx

Just Mercy

09/01/20

Michael B Jordan plays civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in this compelling biopic, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and based on Stevenson’s own memoir. It’s a cautionary tale of how racism and corruption lurk at the very heart of the United States’ legal system, where truth comes a poor second to prejudice.

Although the storytelling here is somewhat workmanlike, the subject matter and strong performances are engrossing; only the hardest of hearts could leave the cinema without feeling utterly outraged. How can a so-called democratic country persist in such appalling and blatant injustice?

Cretton focuses on one of Stevenson’s early cases, representing Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black Alabama business owner sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Ronda Morrison, a white teenager. Stevenson, who is using his Harvard law degree to defend those most vulnerable to the system’s ingrained bias, is appalled to discover the flimsy evidence that has condemned McMillian, known locally as Johnny D. One co-erced testimony from a white felon, it seems, counts for more than dozens of alibis from the accused’s black family and friends; one co-erced testimony, it seems, rules out the need for further corroboration of any kind.

But Stevenson is determined to expose the law’s hypocrisy, to save the poor, the black and the dispossessed one case at a time, so he sets up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. Assisted by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he takes on the establishment, forcing DA Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) to acknowledge that, when he says upholding McMillian’s conviction is helping ‘local people’ to feel safe, he is in fact prioritising certain social groups; local black people feel a lot less safe, exposed to the knowledge that the state can and will kill them for crimes they haven’t committed.

The two leads are perfectly cast, with both Jordan and Foxx delivering outstanding, nuanced performances. Rob Morgan is also most affecting as anguished death-row inmate, Herbert Richardson, whose story illustrates that even guilty lives matter and deserve mercy.

The most heartbreaking thing of all is that, thirty years later, nothing has really changed: parity of justice is still just a pipe dream in the US. But, as this film illustrates, even the most inflexible of systems can be challenged and slowly, with determination, changes can be wrought. It’s just shameful that this battle is so far from being won.

It’s a pity, perhaps, that Cretton has opted for such an understated style: more anger, more excoriation, more subtlety in the depiction of the establishment, might have elevated this to a big-hitter, conveying its vital message to a wider audience. As it is, its an important piece of work, but probably destined to be viewed by relatively few.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Baby Driver

28/06/17

I have a lot of respect for writer/director Edgar Wright. From Spaced, through the ‘three Cornettos’ trilogy, even with Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, he’s always managed to deliver something fresh and original – and who knows how Ant Man might have turned out if he hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped and had managed to bring his initial concept to fruition? I’ve heard plenty of good word-of-mouth about Baby Driver but when I saw the the trailer, I thought the film looked decidedly generic and profoundly unexciting.

I needn’t have worried. This is pacy, original and occasionally thrilling stuff, mostly because it has the brio to pursue a simple idea to its logical conclusion. We’ve all had that moment, I’m sure, walking along a busy street with a set of earphones plugged in, imagining that what’s playing in our head is our own personal soundtrack. Wright has taken that idea and stamped down hard on the accelerator. What he serves up here is essentially a series of stylish set-pieces orchestrated by and choreographed to an eclectic mix of rock classics. Little wonder the trailer couldn’t do it justice. To understand exactly how it works, you have to see an entire track play out.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is working as the getaway-driver-of-choice for crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey). A childhood accident means that Baby suffers from constant tinitus, so being plugged into one of his many iPods helps him function on a daily basis. Every heist he takes part in is, therefore, accompanied by a kicking tune, pretty much in its entirety. But we soon learn that he is a reluctant criminal, only working for Doc in order to pay off a long-standing debt and feeling nothing in common with the genuine gangsters he is obliged to work alongside. They include super aggressive Bats (Jamie Foxx) and weird lovebirds, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez). When Baby meets up with young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he sees a powerful reason to disentangle himself from the clutches of his former employer. But it seems he isn’t going to be allowed to get off the hook quite as easily as he’d hoped…

Car chase movies are two-a-penny, but Baby Driver takes the genre to a whole new level and happily it isn’t only about the car chases. There’s plenty of good humour here and a scene where Baby goes to buy coffee is so beautifully choreographed it’s an absolute delight. Another highlight is a foot-chase set to yodelling oddity Hocus Pocus by the Dutch band, Focus. It shouldn’t work, but it does, effortlessly.

OK, so the film isn’t quite perfect. It sags briefly towards the middle when a gun deal goes wrong and events briefly threaten to tip into Free Fire territory, and there’s that annoying old trope of apparently dead characters coming back for another go once too often – but these are minor niggles in a film that for the most part zips along like the proverbial tigers on vaseline. I also love that this isn’t one of those movies where the protagonists get to drive off into the sunset without any recriminations…

Judging by the sizeable crowd for this early evening screening, Wright has a palpable hit on his hands and that success is well-deserved. Hop aboard this little beauty, buckle in and enjoy the ride.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Annie

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4/1/15

Will Gluck’s reworking of Annie is a curate’s egg of a movie. The screening we attended what not so much peopled by ‘little girls’ whose freckles needed stamping on, as by women my age, who had clearly been fans of the 1982 version – and if they were anything like me – had high hopes this might have more verve and sparkle than the anodyne 1999 Disney adaptation. It certainly does have more verve and spark. In the lead role, Quvenzhané Wallis (an absolute delight in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is as feisty, kooky and determined as she needs to be and, she’s charming too, so that her disarming of Jamie Foxx (the restyled Daddy Warbucks) is quite credibly portrayed. The modernisation is nicely handled also. Foxx plays Will Stacks, a self-made mobile phone entrepreneur in need of a better media image; his cribs-style apartment is pure property porn. Rose Byrne as his PA, Grace Farrell, is perfectly adequate and it’s good to see Annie’s friendship with the (accidentally) racistly-drawn character of ‘mystic’ Punjab ousted in favour of a more sympathetic relationship with Warbucks’ chauffeur, Nash (Adawale Akkinuoye-Agbaje.)

But there are some unfortunate mis-steps too. Cameron Diaz’s Miss Hannigan really doesn’t work. She’s unconvincing as a foster mother of any sort, lurching and gurning her way drunkenly around the children’s home, clearly playing at trashy rather than living it. The music’s a bit hit-and-miss too. There are some interesting re-arrangements of the the old songs and a few new numbers thrown in to good effect, but they all lack lung-power and musicality; surely every musical needs at least one big blousy number? In 1982 Annie had some to spare. Here, they have been summarily kicked out and this is a mistake I think. Likewise the half-hearted choreography. Back in the day everyone hoofed it up in great style but here the actors stumble apologetically around as though they don’t quite want to admit they’re actually in a musical.

Overall, I liked it. Sort of. But I don’t see it capturing the imaginations of today’s kids in the way that Aileen Quinn and Carole Burnett did in the 80’s. This version simply isn’t strong enough to compete with everything that has gone before.

3.1 stars

Susan Singfield