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‘Monsters and Men’ Review: A Compelling Study of Racial Turmoil to Fit Our Confused Times — Sundance 2018
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s drama “Monsters and Men” rips from the headlines while going beyond them, following the aftermath of police shooting an unarmed black man from several different perspectives. Green, who makes his directorial debut with this feature after a substantial filmography of shorts, has essentially applied that same skill here. Though at times its message-oriented plot veers toward the obvious, Green’s measured screenplay manages to ask big questions without overstating them. The triptych of stories don’t overlap in obvious ways, and so Green’s quietly effective drama functions less as a linear narrative than a three-point meditation on African American identity at a moment of profound confusion.
It starts, as these stories so often do, with a viral video: Young family man Manny (Anthony Ramos) is hanging out with his peers on a Brooklyn corner when he spots the cops going after a neighborhood street hustler. Phone in hand, Manny captures the video of police shooting the man without cause, then finds himself in a sudden dilemma — publish the video, potentially complicating his stable work-life balance, or keep his head down? Once he goes with the former option, the corrupt machine does its thing, leaving Manny to ponder the nature of his priorities.
In a less ambitious movie, that conundrum might play out across the entire running time; Green, however, uses it as a mere starting point for showing the way such personal actions can resonate across multiple layers of a system at war with its values. The incident leaves police officer Dennis (John David Washington, son of Denzel) in a deeply conflicted state. In an early prologue, he’s seen off-duty pulled over by a white police officer without cause; later, we learn that it’s the sixth such incident of the year. He’s frustrated by the institutional racism around him, but nevertheless maintains deep convictions about the job. When Manny’s video yields an internal investigation, Richard must confront a moral quandary of his own.
In the midst of that mess, he passes by a young man being searched by officers without cause. That’s Zee (Kelvin Harrison Jr., the breakout star of “It Comes at Night”), a high school baseball player who stands a good chance at cracking the major leagues if he can stay out of trouble. The third and final protagonist of the movie’s fluid, chapter-based structure, Zee’s dilemma holds the most power, in large part because it goes in more unexpected directions. Even as his coach and father encourage him to keep his eye on the prize, he’s motivated by the dual impact of his own encounters with the police and Manny’s video to take a stab at neighborhood activism. While the challenges faced by the movie’s older men have a tendency to meander, Zee faces a subtler challenge that crystallizes the movie’s intent, and Harrison plays the character with a grave uncertainty even as he lacks the words to express it.
Green unearths fascinating parallels with his three leads, particularly in the way that each of them struggles to answer friends and relatives who encourage them to stay silent (and therefore complicit) in the injustices around them. Green doesn’t always find the most satisfying transitions between the stories, although in a post-“Crash” era it’s satisfying to see a movie unwilling to make this school of consequential ensemble storytelling into a laundry list of themes. The filmmaker’s naturalistic style — minimal use of music, roving camerawork — echoes the Dardenne brothers, and “Monsters and Men” could easily fit into their filmography of socially-conscious dramas. As with the Dardennes, the thematic trajectory often threatens to overwhelm a clear mastery of form, but when the form wins out it’s a worthy experience.
Green’s patient storytelling approach doesn’t always yield the strongest payoff, but he often lands on extraordinary compositions. One standout moment finds the officer looking directly across one-way glass at an incarcerated man, and when a few seconds lead to several more, it’s almost as if the window has become a mirror. At his best, Green enacts a similar effect with his audience, engaging in a personal dialogue about the contradictory impulses of modern black identity without outright stating it.
Needless to say, the filmmaker is better at observing in characters in moments of solemn contemplation than in conversation. His screenplay struggles through the occasional blunt dialogue. “This job is not a choice,” Dennis tells his concerned wife, who answers, “We always have choices.” And the choice to spend time listening to these characters talk through their problems often distracts from the sheer intensity of watching them think.
Green seems to know that Zee’s story holds the most weight. “Monsters and Men” kicks into high gear with the young man’s decision to take a stand even as his career gains momentum, and a protest rally that veers from poetically inspired to terrifying is the most cinematic paean to the fervor of Black Lives Matter since the movement was born. “Monsters and Men” ends on a rousing note, and after wandering through a series of murky challenges, finds a touch of catharsis in the prospects of acting out. The movie not only illustrates the power of modern activism; in its final moments, it becomes such an act itself.
“Monsters and Men” premiered in the U.S. Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’: Why Gus Van Sant Cast Joaquin Phoenix in a Disabled Role — Watch
Joaquin Phoenix’s casting in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” has proven controversial, given who he’s playing in Gus Van Sant’s film: John Callahan, a quadriplegic cartoonist, musician, and artist. Van Sant addressed the controversy from the IndieWire Studio at the Sundance Film Festival, saying that Callahan himself “wanted the most famous person in the world to play him” and wouldn’t have been bothered by an actor without his own disability taking on the role. Watch below.
“This often comes up with all kinds of lead roles — who are the people playing the lead roles, do they have anything in common with the role itself?” Van Sant said. “I definitely would have used a particular person that was quadriplegic if they were the right actor,” he added, just as composer Danny Elfman chimed in: “A significant part of the story is before the incident, so to do that would have meant completely changing the story, because that’s a major part of the story — before and after the accident.”
“It comes up with so many roles, especially gay roles,” Van Sant continued. “Having Sean Penn was one of the more obvious ones. A person with a particular C5-C6 quadriplegia that John had is very specific, so it would be very hard to do. There was a sort of issue of what John wanted and I think, honestly, if I’d suggested it to John, he would have said, ‘Fuck no.’ Because he wanted the most famous person in the world to play him, which was Robin Williams — he couldn’t wait.”
Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, and Jack Black co-star in the film, which Van Sant adapted from Callahan’s memoir of the same name. “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” premieres at Sundance today and will be released by Amazon on May 11.
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‘Paterno’ Trailer: Al Pacino Doesn’t Want to Say What He Knew or When He Knew It in HBO Drama — Watch
HBO has released the trailer for “Paterno,” its upcoming movie about — wait for it — Joe Paterno. Al Pacino plays the disgraced coach, who became the winningest college-football coach in history prior to his involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Watch below.
“The question isn’t just what he knew, it’s what he did about it,” Pacino said last week at the Television Critics Association. “I think he knew there were complaints. He knew there were rumors. […] I don’t think he was very fond of Sandusky, for whatever reasons — I think there were other reasons.”
“He did act upon it,” Pacino added. “He did say he thought someone should look into this. [But] a guy like Paterno — he’s like an emperor, he’s like a king. He didn’t take up with it because it was out of his control. And I think this is a character who’s used to control.”
Academy Award winner Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) is directing the film, his latest collaboration with Pacino following “You Don’t Know Jack” and “The Humbling.” Riley Keough, Annie Parisse and Kathy Baker co-star in “Paterno,” which will premiere on HBO later this year.
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Sundance Questions: Here’s What We’re Wondering as the 2018 Festival Begins — IndieWire’s Movie Podcast
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off the year with a whole bunch of questions about the marketplace for independent films. This year, there are all-new uncertainties about the biggest buyers and their motives in an environment where stories about late-night negotiations often overwhelm those about the movies themselves. So what happens to the smaller films when everyone’s so focused on the price tag? And which movies are really worthy of discussion, whether or not they find distribution in Park City?
Last year, the biggest buyers were Amazon (“The Big Sick”) and Netflix (“Mudbound”). But with reports that Amazon may scale back on independent film and growing concerns about Netflix’s disinterest in the theatrical business, what are the most viable options for Sundance films? That’s one of the burning questions pondered by Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson in this week’s episode of Screen Talk, as co-hosts Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson also contemplate the movies they’re excited to see and why they hope to be surprised.
Listen to the full episode below.
Screen Talk is available on iTunes.
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