Crown Heights [2017] – A Compelling True Story of Injustice with a Shaky Narrative

Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights (2017) tells the story of gross injustice inflicted upon Colin Warner, an African-American who spent more than two decades behind the bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Mr. Ruskin mildly explores many of the themes of Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the broken American legal system (titled “13th) whose righteous fury exposes the inequities that's only forced upon people of color. While DuVernay provides a broader overview of how the American justice system boosted up incarceration rates to turn prison into a thriving industry, Crown Heights tries to portray one man’s maddening experience of fighting against the apathetic judicial machine. Aided by nuanced performances from Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 12) and Nnamdi Asomugha (also the producer), the movie ought to have been the rich study of a wronged man’s hard psychological survival. But sadly, an overly streamlined and hastened script seldom brings the gripping story to life and doesn’t bestow any deeper insight a documentary or Wikipedia article could do. Nevertheless, Crown Heights is watchable for the lead performances and Ruskin’s few admirable directorial touches amidst his scattershot approach to the material.

Crown Heights is based on an hour-long episode in ‘This American Life’ -- an American weekly public radio show. The program is said to have provided the detailed sketch of Carl King’s long-time quest for justice to free his wrongly imprisoned friend Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield). The film opens in April 1980 following the exploits of 18 year old Colin Warner, an immigrant from Trinidad and now a Brooklyn native. We see him steal a car few minutes into the movie and it’s hinted that he had committed other small crimes. However, when the racist NYPD cops force Colin into their car, it’s not for mere stolen properties. He is arrested for the murder of a young man named Marvin Grant, gunned down in his neighborhood. Threatened with extradition, the detectives turn the 15 year old Clarence Lewis (Skylan Brooks) into their stooge to point out Colin as the killer. Soon, the cops find the real killer Anthony Gibson (Luke Forbes) but the DA office and cops remains hell-bent to prove a possible connection between Antony and Colin, wrongly painting Colin as the get-away driver. Despite the legal aid lawyer’s assurance, the flimsy evidence and a predominately white jury seems enough to convict Colin and confine him to a maximum security prison (for  15 yrs to life).

As Colin encounters disturbing violence within the prison, his childhood best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) does everything he can to exonerate him. They both find out the harsh truth that the lawyers are willing to put in the bare minimum effort on the case, oft remarking that the judicial system rarely accepts its mistakes, especially in a murder trial. Carl King’s unbridled devotion so as to even learn intricacies of the legal process keeps him from the duties of husband and father. He tirelessly raises money and later spearheads an unofficial investigation of the crime that landed Colin at jail. Initially, Colin has a very tough time inside the prison, his rage against a racist guard brings him bout of solitary confinement. Thanks to strong support of his friend and newfound lover Antoinette (Natalie Paul) – an old neighborhood friend – Colin’s momentary desperation gradually vanishes. He channels his inner rage to study law and excel at GED.
Crown Heights mainly suffers from structural problems which never whole-heartedly realize the narrative in an intimate, human-scale. There are quite a few gripping dramatically coherent scenes, yet for the most part, Matt Ruskin rushes through facts of the story without anchoring a strong emotional context. Anything that has to do with establishment of the characters’ inner life is done through pseudo-poetic flashbacks and montages. In fact, these are so simplistic in its realization that it doesn’t reveal anything insightful about Colin as a person. We are perpetually kept in the dark about Colin’s life before the film’s events and hence his character simply remains as a mirror which reflects miscarriage of justice [or a symbol of inequitable suffering]. Colin’s recitation of the sad linePlease don’t let it be a cell’ [as the imprisoned guy’s vivid dreams repeatedly culminates with his realization that he is still inside the cell] would have been more emotionally resonant, had the narrative provided more depth and texture to the character. 

In fact, Ruskin shows the same approach he takes to build up the facts to establish the human emotions. In a subplot, Colin friendship, courtship and eventual jailhouse marriage with Antoinette moves hurriedly, offering only a hazy picture of what brought them together. Earlier, simple montage shots are employed to showcase Colin’s transition from raging prisoner to a bookworm. The narrative boasts rich potential to be an inspiring tale of friendship, but too many subplots, impassioned dialogues, and the hyper-urgency of the narrative only allows minimal glance at this great friendship. One (if not only) particular scene which clearly depicts the connection between Colin and King stands out: when King soulfully laments on his own inner imprisonment (‘it could have been me’). Even as a film that highlights judicial apathy, Ruskin’s narrative lacks the poise and profundity, the only thoughtful scene being the enraging parole debate. Despite such flaws in characterization and narrative, the performances are the saving grace of Crown Heights. Asomugha, the former NFL star, proves to be a brilliant actor delivering the much-needed emotional resonance in some stiff scenes. Stanfield does his very best to explore the character’s conflicted emotions without ever turning Colin into a selfless martyr. Both these actors instill warm emotions into the otherwise cold human-interest story. Eventually, in this era of profound true-crime documentary series, Crown Heights (100 minutes) falls short of directing its righteous fury to produce a deeply humane story. 


Mudbound [2017] – An Earthy and Timeless Portrayal of a Segregated Society

Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hilary Jordan’s 2008 novel Mudbound couldn’t be reductively labeled as a film on the ‘American race problem’. Yes, the story is set in a particular time (post-war America) and place (American South) so as to showcase the familiar, well-documented racial atrocities of the past. Yet the tale is told in a restrained manner with lively, well-rounded characters that it gains a universality, unveiling the fallacy of perpetually involving in the ‘us vs them’ debate. Mudbound tells the tale of two families, divided by race.  It unfurls from the multiple perspectives of the observant family members. Except for the final showdown, the film is devoid of the viscerally brutal racist activities. What we see for the most part is the much-nuanced, preexisting division in everyday life.  Unaddressed historical truths and unaltered, savagely archaic political system diffuses the concept of segregation deep down into the very DNA of the people. Mudbound tells the soulful transformation of few members of the family who takes an effort to break those societal shackles and come to stand on equal ground, finding warmth in each other’s humanity. Despite being occasionally driven by few conventional plot-mechanics and melodramatic turns, the film by and large takes an understated approach which may emotionally resonate across a wider spectrum than just contemporary Americans.

The script for Mudbound, written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams, is structured in changing perspectives which in the earlier portions doesn’t bring much fluidity to the narrative. Each perspective (narrated through the characters’ voice-overs) doesn’t exactly fee disconnected from each other, yet the overwhelming amount of words falters a little in realizing the characters’ inner life. Or one could say the writer provides too much context and constantly interrupts before allowing ourselves to align with the characters. It gets a better once the characters’ inner thoughts are conveyed and their life is witnessed through everyday chores and unspoken emotions. This earlier approach of shifting point of views may seem to work perfectly for a sprawling novel, but on-screen the talky inner monologue only feels dramatically over-familiar.

Although divided by race, the white-skinned MacAllans and dark-skinned Jacksons have attached their hopes and livelihood to the same, sprawling grim stretch of land. Henry MacAllan (Jason Clarke) relocates his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and two little daughters to their family’s cotton farm, situated at Memphis in the Mississippi Delta. Henry’s old father (Jonathan Banks) is a bigoted man who constantly utters the ‘n’ word in a coolly casual manner. Henry’s handsome and bohemian younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has enlisted in the Air Force after Pearl Harbor, flying B-25s Bombers. Henry’s fantasy of leading a peaceful farm life crumbles in the heat and desolation of the unforgiving land. Laura is confined to fulfill the maid role, her youthful glow is replaced with a arid patches. For generations, the land has been worked by the sharecropping family of Jacksons. The patriarch of the family Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) in the Sundays takes up the duty of country preacher. Mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) takes care of three sons and a daughter and staunchly supports her husband’s agricultural ambitions. The eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also enlists in WWII. He is assigned to General Patton’s famous 761st “Black Panther” tank battalion. The two women and the two embittered veterans of the families are the tale’s chief narrators. Ironically, upon his return Ronsel feels he is seen more as an American at the war front than at the home-front. Afflicted by PTSD, Jamie starts to share his combat experiences with Ronsel. The myriad of personal struggles after returning home forges a kind of friendship between the two veterans.

For a change, Mudbound’s technical crew predominantly consists of female technicians: Rachel Morrison (cinematographer), Mako Kamitsuna (editor), Tamar-kali (music composer), Angie Wells (make-up artist) and so on. Director Dee Rees debut feature Pariah (2011) was a Sundance sensation which told the story of a Brooklyn-based lesbian teen. Powered by the performance of Adepero Oduye, Pariah was a stirring coming-of-age tale that deals with conflicting identities and sexual expression. Even though Rees has taken six years for her sophomore effort, she has taken up far-ambitious project with a wider canvas and themes. Rees’ uninhibited vision and fine-tuned sensitivity plays a significant role to cut through the narrative’s irksome melodrama or unearned sentimentality. Rees and her cinematographer Rachel Morrison perfectly succeeds in creating a gritty atmosphere, oft making the visual landscape to signal the characters’ emotional nature. They effectively foreground the palpable cruelty of life in the farm: the omnipresent violence and harsh weather. As I mentioned earlier, the replication of novelistic structure with its internal monologue (uttered with Malick-ian eloquence) and shifting viewpoints slightly overwhelms the action on screen. Nevertheless, Rees and Virgil Williams’ writing at times provides clever insight to the dynamics between the two families, especially through Florence’s perspective. When Henry seeks the aide of Florence to take care of her daughters, she solemnly states in the background, “If something had happened to that woman’s child that would’ve been the end of us”. Hap’s meditation on ‘deed’ is yet another clever piece of writing. To Rees’ directorial efficiency, I must say the film’s memorable achingly emotional scenes happen when only few words are used: for example, the candy-bar scene between Florence and son Ronsel, or when Laura finally has the privacy of a bath and longingly gazes at the horizon, or when Ronsel and Jamie eventually acknowledge their deep friendship. What’s further more welcome of Rees’ visual choice is her good judgment in the portrayal of on-screen violence.

Rees has particularly done well in the realization of characters like Florence and Henry. The African-American matriarch’s watchfulness and quiet dignity consistently adds extra layer to the character who might otherwise be painted in a single note of pity. Henry might be wholly different than his bigoted pappy and his Klansman friends, but he still thinks of his whiteness as a privilege. Henry never uses ‘n’ words to address the black workers, but subtly claims his superiority over Hap (in the way he barges into Hap’s house or imposes economic hardship on the family). Both Jordan’s novel and Rees’ film, despite its gritty authenticity, boasts measured hopefulness.  The final coffin-burying act in the mud hopes for the disinfection of racial hatred from the land. Furthermore, the transportation of another hidden coffin is diffused with both hope and irony; ironical because the African-American finds his coveted freedom in the crisis-ridden post-World War II Germany. Eventually, Mudbound pays hefty tribute to the perseverance of the oppressed who might be figuratively and literally silenced, but never ever defeated. The film contains one of the grand ensemble performances in recent American cinema. Garett Hedlund, whose swagger often gets lost in the poorly conceived characters, has finally been blessed with a memorable one. Mary J. Bilge (hip-hop singer & songwriter) and Carey Mulligan play their role in a very non self-conscious manner, their feelings of empathy and concern well up deep from within. As in Pariah, Rees derives wonderful acting moments while subtly focusing on the characters’ private struggles. 


Mudbound (135 minutes) is an ambitious historical drama which examines the familiar brutalities of Jim Crow era American South in a timely manner using engaging, dynamic characters. Even though execution doesn’t always live up to the grand narrative ambitions, it is rarely less than involving.    

Bad Genius [2017] – A Delightful Thriller about Teen Exam Cheaters

Thai film-maker Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (2017) immediately brings to mind films like Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001); one put an interesting spin on the neo-noir characteristics by setting it in a suburban high-school, while the other brought mind-bending sci-fi themes to high school. Bad Genius brings the heist film setting to school. Instead of robbing truckload of precious metals or bursting through bank vault, the students’ mission here is to cheat on an international exam, which is actually made as intense and unexpectedly thrilling as a detailed robbery. Drawn from real-life exam cheating scandals, Poonpiriya’s second feature provides top-notch popcorn entertainment and savvy social commentary – from institutional apathy, class inequality to academic pressures. Right down to the melodramatic twists and misleading setups, Bad Genius includes all the caper-movie elements, for best and worst. Winning the best feature film award at New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) and becoming a huge blockbuster at domestic market, the film had resonated with and entertained audience around the world because of its universality (who doesn’t hate this exam-oriented education system!).

The titular anti-heroine is a timid, straight-A student Lynn (model-turned-actress Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying’s first role) whose excellent grades gives her a chance to enroll in an elite school. Lynn hails from a middle-class family, but her determined (recently divorced) father Vit (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is eager to provide his daughter the best education. Lynn’s initial reticence to join the school is shattered by school headmistress’ proposal of a scholarship. At grade 10, Lynn enters the prestigious private school. The narrative is told in flashbacks with grade 12 Lynn and her classmates are being interrogated in a darkly-lit room. Lynn’s first friend at the school is Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), a gregarious, chirpy and not-so-academically-smart girl with wealthy parents. She is naturally drawn to acting, but the school demands higher GPA to pursue ‘extra-curriculars’. Hence Grace makes Lynn to tutor her, further providing the title ‘Mentor Lynn’.  Excessively gifted in mathematics, Lynn easily finishes the exam, while her friend Grace desperately stares at the questions despite the tutor’s efforts. Lynn cleverly slips answers to Grace and this later catches the attention of Grace’s rich boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo).

Pat offers a business proposition: a tempting amount for providing answers during the exams. Lynn discovers how her father scavenges for money to pay strange additional fees at school (despite the scholarship). Vexed by this, Lynn devises an elaborate code to relay answers at the exam hall. Soon, quite a few classmates line up to learn  Lynn’s ‘tutoring’ methods. The fool-proof quality of the cheating plan is tested when another poor, scholarship student, Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul) finds something amiss at the exam hall. Bank’s single mother runs a broken-down laundry shop and he finds the idea of cheating at exams disgusting. Due to Bank’s complaint, headmistress gaze falls upon Lynn, while simultaneously the reason for Lynn’s ever-expanding income is discovered by her father. But, unyielding Pat and Grace approaches Lynn with a far bigger business proposition: to help them pass the Standard Test for International Colleges (STIC) and consequently achieve their parents’ dream of going to Boston College.

On paper, it may sound how a comparatively lowbrow activity like cheating in exams can provide the adrenaline rush of high-tech thieves breaking into a vault. This is where writer/director Poonpiriya and his script team (Tanida Hantaweewatana, Vasudhorn Piyaromna) completely surprise us. Their first victory lays in the mostly genuine characterization of Lynn, a mousy girl who embraces deceit after facing with double standards of the system (the golden rule of heist films: the protagonist always steals from the system that has stolen from them). The fine character development combined with detailed and precise evasive plans lends one delightfully tense moment after another. The director perfectly makes use of the visual grammar of heist films: quick cuts, tense close-ups, ticking-clock moments, etc. Except for the final confrontational scene between Lynn and Bank, director Poonpiriya cleverly embeds thematic elements alongside the entertaining portions. The acerbic commentary on the enlarging rifts between haves and have-nots and futility of academic tests largely follows the ‘show-not-tell’ approach. The detached shot of Bank’s mother doing laundry and later the highly focused shot of Pat’s parents having dinner at an opulent restaurant speaks for itself. We repeatedly see the shot of Lynn looking into her reflection on multiple mirrors, hinting at the multiple conflicts tearing her apart from inside. The darkly-lit room where the students conceive the cheating plan perfectly contradicts the final shot as Lynn enters a very white room. Such detailed visual schemes and carefully conceived angles predominantly drives the mood of this crime-caper film.

The performance by the group of largely inexperienced young cast is nothing short of astounding. Good-hearted caper movies don’t only succeed with the plans, but also triumphs over wrong temptations. Bad Genius follows such narrative thread, where we in a conflicted manner root for Lynn to succeed as well as hope for the ‘right’ thing to win over. Like the compassion showcased towards grown-ups wronged by the system, the narrative here boasts enough empathy for the students, including Pat and Grace who are relentlessly spoiled by their clueless parents. Good heist movies always make up for meaningful entertainment because the robbery isn’t just about high-tech gadgets and mastermind plans. It’s often driven by desperation, greed, burgeoning societal pressure among other things. In fact, the success of a heist movie relies on our very personal reaction to the material filmed. Bad Genius definitely prolongs the narrative for the sake of melodramatic twists and infuses misleading behavior just to surprise the viewers. Yet for all its narrative missteps, the film extracts an immediate reaction to its societal themes without getting in the way of lively action. In the end, Bad Genius (130 minutes) turns out to be a highly dynamic, complex and surprisingly poignant caper cinema. 



Bluebeard [2017] – A Psychological Thriller Swamped with Logically Strained Twists

Korean film-maker Soo-youn Lee’s slow-burn psychological thriller Bluebeard (2017) opens with a radio broadcast of weather report ominously announcing the possibility of warmer winters, further adding how ‘once Han River used to unfreeze completely only by April’. Interlaced with this audio broadcast, the camera broodingly moves through an underside of a bridge before resting on the derelict river’s shore as a headless corpse bubbles up through the melting ice. The camera then gracefully pans up to reveal the bustling highway traffic and cuts to the distressed face of Dr. Seung-hoon (a terrific Jo Jin-woong who played the sleazy uncle character in ‘Handmaiden’), traveling in a bus that’s cruising through treeless lands of huge construction sites. It’s an introductory scene that reaches beneath the elegantly structured metropolis objects to gaze at its darkness lying within. It deftly makes a commentary on the turbulent urban societies, in a sort of Lynchian fashion, without making much fuss. Bolstered by Uhm Hye-jung’s cinematography, director Soo-youn builds upon this fascinatingly odd premise, promising to deliver a subliminally creepy moody piece. The brilliant stylistic composition, at least in the earliest parts, generates intensity that makes us clutch for the word ‘Hitchcockian’. Alas, with the predictable, if not inane, onslaught of twists in the third act, the narrative implodes, leaving us with strong dissatisfaction.

Director Soo-youn Lee made her directorial debut with the flawed yet strikingly visualized psychological horror The Uninvited (2003). After a thirteen year gap she has made her second film, which shares her debut feature’s themes of discounted truths and personal trauma. Despite the bizarre and annoying twists in the later-half, Bluebeard is watchable for its persistently effective first 70 minutes and for not following the typical thriller blue-print which we often witness in American works. Over the last decade, Korean screenwriters & directors have concocted some intriguing on-screen sadistic killers. While films like Memories of Murder (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010), and The Chaser (2008) occupies the top-tier in this unique sub-genre, there has also been less impressive, nonetheless greatly entertaining second-tier of killers’ movies like Midnight FM (2010), Confessions of a Murder (2012), No Mercy (2010), Tell Me Something (1999), etc. Bluebeard naturally falls under the second-tier.

Recently divorced and financially broken Seung-hoon, whom we first see in the bus, is a colonoscopy specialist moving from the busy Gangnam district to a clinic in a small town, situated alongside Han River. Despite the menacing atmospheric tone, the narrative sporadically breaks into trademark Korean brand of black humor. First of all, we see patients, under the effects of the sedative used during colonoscopy procedure, babble out their awkward, dirty secrets. Seung-hoon has rented a cramped apartment, which is filled with medical text books and plenty of mystery novels (the doctor’s only pastime), and is situated above a family-run butcher shop. The family’s creepy old patriarch (Goo Shin) is seen consuming raw pork meat and his oddly cheerful son Sung-geun (Dae-myung Kim) tries to establish camaraderie with the visibly distressed doctor. The other members of the butcher’s family are Sung-geun’s chirpy second wife and the reticent teenage son. Dr. Seung-hoon mostly desires to be alone, fending off the amorous advances of his young nursing assistant Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah). He takes his 9 or 10 year old son to a restaurant in the weekend, and the boy is glued to his smart phone than indulge his father with a meaningful conversation.

The doctor’s unease escalates when people in his hospital and news reports repeatedly talk of unsolved serial murders in the area that seems to have resumed after a long period. One day, the old man from the butcher shop has an appointment with the doctor. Under the clutches of the anesthetic, the old man whispers about scattering human parts across the river and other dumping sites; “Fingerprints? If you’re worried, cut off the fingers…” the old man offhandedly remarks as if he’s been doing this for decades. The paranoia that grips the doctor after this drugged confession provokes him to put the pieces of puzzle together and get to the bottom of the truth. Consequently, a mysterious retired cop (Young-chang Song) starts surveilling the doctor. Seung-hoon drinks with the old man’s son and in drunken stupor he slips into the shop’s freezer and finds an important evidence to support his claims: a human head packed inside a black, plastic bag. Soon, the narrative spirals off in different directions and the conflict between butcher and the doctor seems to get more personal. It all culminates with the predictable first layer of twists, over-explained with flashbacks. Later, we witness the purposefully convoluted and kitschy second layer of twists which totally robs the narrative off psychological profundity.

Director Soo-youn Lee abruptly cuts the scene, employs fade out and the diabolically framed scenes are often revealed to be the protagonist’s vivid nightmares. The nightmare episodes increasingly used to insist upon the blurring of boundaries between reality and imagination for Seung-hoon. The repetition of ‘it’s all a dream’ reveals, after a time gradually lessens our interest in the narrative (cheating the viewers too much). All the earlier disjointed cuts and nightmare episodes easily make us to guess Seung-hoon to be the text-book definition of unreliable narrator or beholder. Although the director unnecessarily prolongs these earlier scenes, adding more and more subplots, there are some memorable and deeply unsettling visual flourishes (for example the surrealistic scene where the butchers sharpen their knives as a naked headless body hangs from the hook). The other interesting aspect, from visual standpoint, is Soo-youn’s observation of these freshly popped-up cities. It’s as if she is representing such urban sprawls as the hideous facet of a society (of course, a great no. of outstanding serial-killer films has deftly associated industrialization and rampant expansion of urban spaces with serial killing). Nevertheless, the unconvincing and ill-advised point-of-view shifts in the last half of the film basically undo certain intriguing narrative threads. These insanely prolonged flashbacks and ‘story’s not yet over’ twists suffer from severe lapses in logic and pacing issues. In the end, the film becomes a mess rather than being a puzzle. 



Even though Bluebeard (118 minutes) isn’t a path-breaking Korean thriller, it’s good for half of its running time, exuding a palpably menacing mood. And, those who love thrillers wrapped inside insane amount of twists (no matter how absurd it is) may find it alluring.