Movie reviews: 'Judas and the Black Messiah' brings Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton's story to the screen
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH: 4 STARS
The most surprising thing about “Judas and the Black Messiah,” now playing in select theatres, is that it took 51 years to bring Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton’s story to the screen.
In 1969, the charismatic Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was shot in his bed during a state-sanctioned predawn raid conducted by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Director Shaka King vividly details how and why he met his premature end.
The story begins when career criminal William O'Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) plan to impersonate an FBI agent in order to brazenly steal a car goes awry. He winds up beaten, in the hands of Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an actual agent who offers him a deal. Either do one-and-a-half years for stealing the car and another five for impersonating an officer or go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. He chooses freedom in exchange for supplying details on the comings-and goings of deputy chairman Hampton and his girlfriend, revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Rising to the trusted position of security captain O'Neal is torn between loyalty to Hampton’s revolutionary ideas and self-interest, i.e., the deal he made to stay out of prison. “Imagine what they would do if they found out their security captain was a rat,” says Mitchell.
As the title suggests “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a story of epic betrayal. King carefully fits the puzzle pieces together to create a complex picture of its characters.
Stanfield, who has been handing in strong performances in films like “Selma,” “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” hits a career high here. His take on O’Neal portrays the conflict of a man who took a dangerous and deadly road to salvation, only to discover he was in way over his head. There’s a complexity to Stanfield’s work as he breathes life into his conflicted character. In real life, years after the events portrayed in the film, O’Neal said of his legacy, “I think I’ll let history speak for me.” History may judge him, call him a Judas, but Stanfield doesn’t. Instead, he helps us understand O’Neal’s bad decisions.
Kaluuya unfolds Hampton as much more than a title. History records him as the assassinated Chairman of the Black Panthers, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” remembers him as a captivating speaker who rallied people for his cause as he established free breakfast programs and negotiated a détente between rival gangs. Kaluuya’s work jumps off the screen, with show stopping speeches and emotional scenes he brings Hampton off the pages of the history books with a well-rounded, fiery performance.
The vivid performances, including Fishback who brings depth to a supporting character, reel you in. King takes the time to let us get to know Hampton and O’Neal, which makes the deadly dance they engage in, leading up to the violent climax, all the more emotionally shocking.
Set more than fifty years ago “Judas and the Black Messiah” feels timely. Many of the issues at play in the story are still hot button topics today. The work Hampton began continues because, as he once said, “you can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution.”
LAND: 4 STARS
“Land,” directed by Robin Wright in her feature directorial debut and now in theatres, is a quiet movie about something that has been on all our minds this last year, isolation.
“I’m not running from anything,” says Edee (Wright) of her new home in the Wyoming wilderness. “I’m not a criminal. I’m here because I choose to be.” Leaving her old life behind after an unspeakable tragedy, she is determined to shut herself off from the world. Woefully unprepared for a Jeremiah Johnson’s style life, she is saved from a near-death experience by Miguel (Demian Bichir), a gentle local hunter and nursed back to health by Alawa Crow (Sarah Dawn Pledge). With Miguel’s guidance Edee learns to navigate the harsh new world she has chosen for herself, and possibly learn to embrace humanity once again. “If you won’t think of the past,” Miguel says, “have you thought about what you want your life to be moving forward?”
Filmed on location in Alberta, “Land” is a breathtaking movie that does not trip over itself to offer easy answers to the big, existential questions it poses. Deliberately paced with little dialogue, it uses the beautiful but brutal landscape and subdued performances to paint its picture of resilience and friendship. It’s a story of the circle of life, how those circles intersect and the impact an act of kindness can have in that overlap.
Wright doesn’t overplay one frame of “Land.” Instead, she allows the heartfelt connection at the center of the story to subtly tell the story of how a friendship can change a life.
SAINT MAUD: 3 ½ STARS
Is Maud (Morfydd Clark), the nurse at the centre of the genuinely creepy “Saint Maud,” a true believer, a woman touched by the hand of God, or a troubled person looking for answers in all the wrong places?
Opening with scenes of an unexplained medical accident, “Saint Maud” wastes no time hinting at the grim visuals to come. Cut to Maud in her dowdy bedsit. Gathering her things, she makes her way out the door, wondering to God what her place in the world is. “Surely I was meant for more than this,” she says as she arrives at the home of her charge, a glamorous former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a late stage cancer patient.
They are an odd couple. Amanda is used to a life of indulgence while Maud is an intensely devout palliative care nurse who believes salvation comes through suffering. “Never waste your pain,” she says. Maud does not approve of Amanda’s lifestyle, but the two women seem to bond in a moment of shared religious ecstasy. Later, when it becomes clear that Amanda isn’t looking for salvation, Maud is fired, pushed to even more extreme behavior to fulfill what she sees as God’s plan for her life.
“Saint Maud” carefully doles out its shocks, allowing a shroud of unease to envelop the proceedings. British writer-director Rose Glass has made an up-close-and-personal horror film that details the protagonist’s torment in very vivid terms. Much of what happens is internal, portrayed through Clark’s finely crafted performance. She is both vulnerable and steely, zealous and unsure before the events of the climax reveal her relationship with God. Whether it is real a test of her faith or imagined is open to interpretation. The final twenty minutes of this short film—with credits it’s eighty-five minutes—are a surreal culmination to Maud’s internal struggle, ripe with religious imagery, gothic sensibility and martyrdom.
“Saint Maud” is a sizzling mix of psychological drama and devotion that could have used a dose of backstory to help us understand why Maud became pious to the point of extremity. As it is we get hints along the way, and while the story is still very effective, it could have been deepened by a better glimpse into Maud’s past.
SKYFIRE: 3 STARS
If action with a side of cheese is your thing then “Skyfire,” now on VOD, might be a Gouda film to put on your movie queue. If not, this is nacho thing.
Set on an island in the Pacific Rim, smack dab in the middle of the Ring of Fire, an area known for volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the story begins with vulcanologist Meng Li (Hannah Quinlivan) building an early warning system. Her boss, entrepreneur Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs), is a mirror image of Hammond from “Jurassic Park.” Hammond built a theme park where cloned dinosaurs ran amok. Harris’s vision is for an opulent resort at the base of an active volcano.
What could possibly go wrong?
When Harris and his wife JiaHui-Dong (An Bai) invite influencers and investors to luxuriate in the amenities offered in this tropical paradise, Mother Nature kicks up a fuss, spewing red hot lava over Harris’s best laid plans. On top of that, Meng Li’s estranged father shows up just in time to dodge the fireballs falling from the sky.
“Skyfire” is unapologetically cheesy. In best queso scenario (OK, I know these puns are not so grate so I’ll stop now) it should be watched with no expectation except the promise of good, mindless fun. It’s loud and proud, a movie that fills the screen with implausible action and character reactions. By the time it gets to the underwater marriage proposal it’s a contender for the 2021 Special Achievement in Silliness award.
And that’s OK. Veteran action director Simon West, he of “Con Air,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “The Expendables 2” among others, keeps things lively as giant Styrofoam boulders fly through the air and lava carpets the earth.
Imagine the rumble of 70s disaster flicks like “Earthquake” with the nature-gone-wild plot of “Jurassic Park” and you’ll get the idea.
“Skyfire,” China's first big-budget disaster movie, is by no means a disaster. It’s an unabashed popcorn flick that revels in its melting pot of clichés, a fondu of clichés if you will, as much as it does its preposterous storytelling.
BREAKING NEWS IN YUBA COUNTY: 2 ½ STARS
Like Rodney Dangerfield, Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) gets no respect. In the new dark comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County,” now available on VOD, she discovers that with respect and unwanted attention comer hand in hand.
A help-desk operator, Sue is verbally abused by random callers, her half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis) doesn’t remember her birthday and even shopkeepers talk down to her. “You’re important. You’re strong. You matter,” she says into the mirror, despite all the evidence to the contrary. When her husband Karl (Matthew Modine), who has been laundering money for crime boss Mina (Awkwafina), goes missing after a tryst with his mistress (on Sue’s birthday no less), people begin to take notice of Sue. Elevated to local celebrity status, Sue weaves a web of lies to keep policewoman (Regina Hall), deadbeat brother-in-law (Jimmi Simpson) and reporter Nancy from discovering what really happened to Karl.
“Breaking News in Yuba County” is part suburban satire, part character study. As a satire it aims to peel back the soft underbelly of big box stores, small town attitudes and middle-age angst.
As a character study, it follows Sue as she blossoms from wallflower into the anxious center of attention.
In a well-oiled machine, these two elements would sit comfortably side-by-side but here the satire doesn’t cut and the characters don’t compel.
The performances, particularly from Janney, tap every ounce of interest from the script, but the underwritten story from Amanda Idoko doesn’t dig deep enough for the satire. Mean spirited instead of insightful, it attempts the kind of juggling act Joel and Ethan Coen perform in films like “Fargo,” where crime, character and satire blend to unveil a more universal truth. Here, Sue’s search for acknowledgement and fame is as uninspired as her oft-repeated mantra, “You’re important. You’re strong. You matter.”