The Films of 2020: A Fall From Grace (dir by Tyler Perry)


Let us take a few minutes to praise Tyler Perry.

Seriously, so much time and energy has been devoted to writing about the numerous flaws that can be found in the majority of Perry’s film that I do think we can spare a few minutes to acknowledge all of the goods things about Tyler Perry.

First off, though he undeniably has an ego, Tyler Perry appears to be a decent human being and he frequently puts his money to good use.  At a time when we’ve gotten used to hearing terrible things about some of the richest and most famous men around, Tyler Perry is unique in that we don’t ever seem to hear anything particularly negative about him as a person.

Secondly, Tyler Perry has proven himself to be a far better actor than I think anyone originally gave him credit for being.  Just check out his performance in Gone Girl, for instance.  He took a stock role, the flamboyant attorney, and played it with such wit and intelligence that he become one of the most interesting characters in the film.

Third, Tyler Perry’s films — regardless of what the critics may think of them — have provided roles for a lot of talented black actors and actresses who often don’t get the type of roles that they deserve from Hollywood.

Fourth, Tyler Perry proved that there was a market out there for all sorts of films made for and by black people.  Though many are still loathe to admit, Tyler Perry has played a huge role in changing the way the film industry views black audiences.

With all that in mind, it’s kind of tragic that, for all the good things that you can say about him, he’s still an absolutely terrible director.  There’s nothing wrong with having an ego (and, as my fellow site contributors can tell you, I’ve certainly got a healthy one myself) but I sometimes think that the same ego that has allowed Perry to become a success and do so much good has also prevented him from growing as a director.  How else do you explain that, after having directed over 20 films, Tyler Perry still often seems like a very enthusiastic film student who is just now making his first feature?  How else do you explain that he’s keeps making the same rookie mistakes — i.e., boom mics slipping into the shot, continuity errors, and melodramatic tone changes that often seem to come out of nowhere — even though he’s been doing this for 16 years?

This brings us to A Fall From Grace.

A Fall From Grace was Tyler Perrry’s 21st film as a director.  It was also the first film that he made for Netflix and he also apparently shot it in 5 days.  There aren’t many directors, outside of Roger Corman, who can claim to have shot an entire film in 5 days.  Most directors, of course, would know that you need more than 5 days to shoot a film, especially one that wants to explore a serious issue.  Corman may have spent two days on Little Shop of Horrors but that’s a movie about a talking plant.  A Fall From Grace takes on the criminal justice system.

Jasmine (Bresha Webb) is a public defender who doesn’t get emotionally involved with her clients and who almost always makes a plea deal.  Her husband (Matthew Law) is a cop who is haunted by a recent suicide.  Jasmine’s latest client is Grace Walters (Crystal Fox), who has been arrested for murdering her husband (Mehcad Brooks).  Grace wants to plead guilty but Jasmine suspects that there might be more to the case than anyone realizes.  Why Jasmine suddenly takes an interest in taking Grace’s case to trial is never really that clear but it does lead to a lot of melodrama and a lot of rather clumsy flashbacks.  Eventually, Jasmine just kind of stumbles onto the truth and has to fight to reveal what really happened.

The story is nearly impossible to follow and the film’s action often seems to drag.  Probably the best thing about the film is that Perry himself plays Jasmine’s sarcastic boss.  Perry has a truly impressive beard and he seems to be having fun with the character.  Crystal Fox gives an effective performance as Grace and Phylicia Rashad has some good moments as Crystal’s friend.  Even Mehcad Brooks is convincing, even if he does get stuck with the film’s worst lines.  But Bresha Webb and Matthew Law are boring as the main couple and the story gets bogged down with flashbacks.  It’s just not a very good film.

Still, the film was reportedly one of the most viewed movies on Netflix during the weekend of its release.  The critics may not have embraced the film but Perry has shown repeatedly that you don’t need the critics on your side to be a success.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sounder (dir by Martin Ritt)


The 1972 film Sounder follows the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers living in 1930s Louisiana.

When we first see Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) and his young son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), they’re hunting.  Accompanying them is their loyal dog, Sounder.  As they hunt, two things become very obvious.  Number one, David Lee is a good father who is doing his best to provide for his family under the most difficult circumstances possible.  Number two, the family is desperately poor.  When Nathan finally gives in to temptation and steals a ham to feed his family, the local Sheriff (James Best) shows up at the farmhouse the next day and arrests him.  Nathan is taken away to prison and one of the deputies even shoots Sounder.

Fortunately, Sounder survives and so do the Morgans.  Under the stern but loving leadership of their mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), the Morgan children manage to bring in the season’s crops.  Unfortunately, having to work out in the fields doesn’t leave much time for David Lee to get an education.  When he does go to school, he and the other students listen as a middle-aged, white teacher reads to them from Huckleberry FInn.

After the wounded Sounder finally returns to the Morgan family and recovers from his wounds, David Lee decides that he wants to go to the prison and see his father.  Unfortunately, the sheriff refuses to even tell the family where Nathan has been incarcerated.  None of the white authority figures in town care that the Morgans are struggling or that they’ve managed to bring in the crops themselves.  None of them cares or seems to even understand that David Lee is missing his father.  The sheriff presents himself as being a reasonable man and is never heard to the use the n-word.  Instead, he and every other white person in town refers to David Lee as being “boy,” diminishing everything that he’s done since his father was arrested.

David Lee finally figures out the location of a prison that might (or might not) currently be housing his father.  It’s several miles away.  Accompanied by Sounder, David Lee sets out to make the long journey to the prison.  Along the way, he discovers another school and a far more empathetic teacher named Camille (Janet MacLachlan).  David Lee is forced to make a decision that will effect not only his future but also the future of his family.

Sounder is a heartfelt film.  It’s a film that’s less interested in telling a story with a traditional beginning and end as opposed to just sharing scenes of everyday life.  In this case, it’s the life of family that manages to survive despite it often seeming as if the entire world is arrayed against them.  The film was based on a book that pretty much centered around the dog.  The movie, on the other hand, is more about the family and, despite the fact that the film is still named after him, the dog is pretty much superfluous to the plot.  That said, Sounder still plays an important role because, just as Sounder survives being shot at and remains loyal to the people that he loves, the Morgans survive whatever adversity is tossed at them.  Watching the film, the viewer is very much aware that life is never going to be easy for the Morgans but, at the same time, it’s impossible not take some comfort in the fact that they have each other.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both give strong performances as the resilient Nathan Lee and Rebecca and the entire film is the type of movie that’ll inspire tears even as it inspires happiness.

At the Oscars, Sounder was nominated for Best Picture, where it provided a gentle contrast to the other nominees, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and The Godfather.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, making 1972 the first year in which black performers were nominated in both of the lead categories.  (It was also the first year in which more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress as Tyson ended up competing with Lady Sings The Blues‘s Diana Ross.)  In the end, Tyson lost to Cabaret‘s Liza Minnelli while Winfield lost to The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando.  And, of course, The Godfather also went on to deservedly win the award for Best Picture.

A Movie A Day #265: Hoodlum (1997, directed by Bill Duke)


1930s.  New York City.  For years, Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has been the benevolent queen of the Harlem underworld, running a successful numbers game and protecting her community from outsiders.  However, psychotic crime boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) is determined to move into Harlem and take over the rackets for himself.  With the weary support of Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Schultz thinks that he is unstoppable but he did not count on the intervention of Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).  Just paroled from Sing Sing, Bumpy is determined to do whatever has to be done to keep Schultz out of Harlem.

When I reviewed The Cotton Club yesterday, I knew that I would have to do Hoodlum today.  Hoodlum and The Cotton Club are based on the same historic events and both of them feature Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson.  Of the two, Hoodlum is the more straightforward film, without any of the operatic flourishes that Coppola brought to The Cotton Club.  Fisburne is surprisingly dull as Bumpy Johnson but Tim Roth goes all in as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia is memorably oily as the Machiavellian Luciano.  Hoodlum is about forty minutes too long but the gangster action scenes are staged well.  Bumpy Johnson lived a fascinating life and it is unfortunate that no film has yet to really do him justice, though Clarence Williams III came close with his brief cameo in American Gangster.  (Interestingly enough, Williams is also in Hoodlum, playing one of Shultz’s lieutenants.)

One final note: Hoodlum features William Atherton in the role of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.  Atherton plays Dewey as being a corrupt and sleazy politician on Luciano’s payroll.  In real life, Dewey was known for being so honest that Dutch Schultz actually put a contract out on his life after he discovered that Dewey could not be bribed.  I am not sure why Hoodlum decided to slander the subject of one of America’s most famous headlines but it seems unnecessary.