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« Oscar Trivia: How often do three films dominate the acting categories? | Main | Sundance: Zac Efron is "Extremely Wicked..." »
Tuesday
Jan292019

Sundance: Great acting in "Clemency," an education in "The Report"

Murtada Elfadl reporting from Sundance

Should we react to movies based on content or artistic merit? I struggled with two movies at Sundance this week which had incendiary, important content and tackled either a crucial part of history or provided necessary social commentary. Artistically, however, I found both Clemency and The Report lacking...

In The Report writer director Scott Z Burns follows Senate Staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver shackled with delivering lots of exposition) between 2009 and 2014 as he investigates the CIA’s secret torture program post 9/11 on the behest of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening pursing her lips to indicate feelings but otherwise keeping mum) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The subject matter is important, and the film is clearly on the right side of history strongly indicting the CIA and criticizing the Bush and Obama administrations for perpetuating the program and stalling on releasing the report respectively. However it’s also facile in heroizing Jones and Feinstein and presenting them with no nuance. The investigation itself is written, shot and delivered as a dry information dump. There is almost no tension, not one interesting shot, just scene after scene of heavy exposition between people in DC rooms, shot with blunt light and no style. The actors give it their best (it’s a huge cast that also includes Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney and Ted Levine among many others) but can't really bring this material to life. I learned a lot of information but was not entertained or moved.

On the other hand Clemency  - written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu - conjures a lot of feelings: Rage and empathy because of its precise and scorching indictment of capital punishment; marvel at Alfre Woodard’s fantastic lead performance and her many spot on close ups; And unfortunately fatigue and ennui as scenes are repeated or play on for far too long, even those marvelous Woodard close-ups appear too often and sometimes unnecessarily.

Woodard navigates many emotional beats. Her Bernadine Williams is a prison warden tasked with managing death row and ensuring the executions happen. That burden takes a toll on her life, her marriage and her psyche. The film presents her dealing with inmates, families, her prison administration colleagues and her husband as yet another inmate is being prepared for execution. The pace is languid and slow and if it wasn’t for Woodard’s searing agility in playing this haunted woman, the film would not have worked. A tighter edit and more variation in stylistic choices would have gone a long way. It snaps to life when Danielle Brooks comes in for a one scene cameo and just electrifies the film with raw but specific emotions, telling a whole life’s worth of story in a few minutes. I only wish there was more of those moments.

 

 

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Reader Comments (10)

Let the campaign for Alfre Woodard begin. Talk about an "overdue" narrative!

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHustler

After reading this I hope the CLEMENCY team realizes that it's not too late to tighten the film up! From my understanding the director is fairly new so hopefully she has an open mind about ways to improve it. It would be great if Alfre & Danielle got some attention for this but that's not as likely if the film around them is suffering from fatigue of bad pacing.

January 29, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Let's not get too excited,would be nice if Alfre got her moment and the less said about Benings constant snubbing the better.

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I'm honestly just happy that Jon Hamm is in a buzzed-about movie. This and the Natalie Portman astronaut movie may give him a fairly good year.

If they nominate Bening for anything, they'll nominate her for a heavily made-up role playing a famous politician.

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Speaking of Woodard.. how great was Sandra Oh's acceptance speech at the SAG Awards? I love how Alfre Woodard has been such a supporter and champion of actresses throughout the years.

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Q: Did Marisa Tomei steal Woodard's rightful nomination slot for Passion Fish?

Alfre Woodard given an opportunity to lead a feature film is so damn rare it's criminal. Thematic material had no bearing on that pun. Anyone can argue for her work in Crooklyn but the collected hated Spike Lee back then like Charlotte Rampling did when she pulled the reverse racism card.

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Passion Fish is a woefully underrated film, and regardless of where you think Woodard belongs category wise, she should have made the lineup and duked it out with Tomei for the win.

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOnree

@ /3rtful : CROOKLYN is one of my favorite of Lee's films. His sister Joie's co-writing of the script gave the film an awareness of gender that I don't think his movies had enough of up to that point. (Bonus points for RuPaul in a tiny role.)

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHustler

"Should we react to movies based on content or artistic merit?"

Oh my god it is so disturbing that this is even a question, and even more disturbing that it's such a commonly accepted one.

Of freaking COURSE we should react to/value movies based on artistic merit. Who wants to live in a world where art is well intentioned mediocrity?

Murtada, I don't remotely mean to attack you for posing the question, because I totally get where you're coming from, especially in the current cultural context.

But ARRGHH!!! I completely blame Twitter for this situation


(That said, I'm totally watching The Report for Woodard.)

January 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I think in 1992 Woodard split her own vote. I am sure some people nominated her in Best Actress (her rightful placement) ensuring that she was not nominated in either category. The evils of category fraud strike again!

January 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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