Film Review: Small Axe: Mangrove (dir by Steve McQueen)


Say whatever else you might want to say about 2020 as a cinematic year, at least it’s giving us five new films from Steve McQueen.

This British director is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and anytime we get new work for him, it’s a cause for celebration.  His latest project is Small Axe, an anthology of five feature-length films that examines the real-life history of London’s West Indian community.  In the UK, the film are premiering on the BBC while, here in the States, they’ll be premiering on Prime.  Through mid-December, we’ll be getting a new Steve McQueen film every week.

The first of these films is Mangrove.  The film opens in the late 60s, with activist Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opening a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.  The restaurant is called The Mangrove and it quickly becomes a base for the community.  It also becomes a target for the Metropolitan Police.  PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) claims that the Frank has a history of tolerating petty crime and that the Mangrove is probably just a front for some nefarious operation.  Of course, what quickly becomes obvious is that Pulley’s main problem with the Mangrove is that its owner is black and so are the majority of its customers.  Pulley is an unrepentant racist, the type of man who sits in his patrol car and complains that the military hasn’t been called in to enforce the law in the neighborhood.  (As obsessed as he is with the military, Pulley also says, with some pride, that he’s never actually served in the army.)  When a new rookie shows up, Pulley informs him that his priority for the night is to arrest the first black person that he sees.

Every chance that he gets, Pulley raids the Mangrove.  When Frank complains, he loses his liquor license.  When the members of the community stage a peaceful protest (“Hands Off The Mangrove!” goes one chant), Frank and eight others are arrested and charged with inciting a riot and affray, charges that could lead to all of them spending several years in prison.  (Affray is the legal term for “disturbing the peace.”)  Among those arrested, along with Frank, are activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitita Wright).  Both Darcus and Altheia insist on acting as their own counsel during the trial, giving them the chance to cross-examine the police and to also take their case directly to the jury.

Though Mangrove is a courtroom drama, the trial doesn’t being until almost an hour into the film’s running time.  Wisely, McQueen instead spends the first sixty minutes of the film introducing us to the neighborhood surrounding the Mangrove and also allowing us to get to know the people who not only work there but also the ones who eat there.  The film shows how, for a community of outsiders, the Mangrove became more than just a restaurant.  It became a center for the entire neighborhood, a place where the members of the London’s West Indian community could safely gather.  For someone like Pulley, the Mangrove was a symbol of everything that he couldn’t control and therefore, it had to be destroyed and its owners had to be humiliated.  As well-handled as the courtroom scenes are, they would be considerably less effective if the film hadn’t shown us why it was felt that the Mangrove was something worth fighting for.  When the Mangrove Nine go on trail, they’re not just nine people who have been unjustly accused.  Instead, they represent an entire community that refuses to continue to bow down to their oppressors.

It’s an often effective film, one that is all the more powerful for being based on a true story.  Much as he did with Shame, Steve McQueen makes effective use of the harsh and rather cold urban landscape that his characters inhabit. One needs only watch Frank walk down a dreary London street to understand why the Mangrove was so important to the community.  As presented by McQueen, the Mangrove provides not only an escape from the harshness of the world but also a safe place to discuss how to make that world maybe a little bit less harsh for future generations.  McQueen is brave enough to allow his camera to keep running, even beyond the point that most directors would have said “Cut.”  McQueen shows us Frank yelling after being brutally pushed into a prison cell, as any director would.  However, McQueen doesn’t cut away once Frank falls silent.  Instead, his camera remains on Frank, making us feel his isolation and his feeling of hopelessness.  It takes just a minute to go from the exhilaration of hearing Frank curse out his jailers to the horror of realizing that Frank is basically at their mercy.

For the most part, the actors make a strong impression, with the only false note coming from Rochenda Sandall, who plays Darcus’s partner and often seems to be performing in a different movie from everyone else.  Malachi Kirby and Shaun Parkes have several strong moments as Darcus and Frank while Sam Spruell plays Pulley as being an all-too familiar monster.  That said, the film is pretty much stolen by Letitia Wright, who brings both fury and wit to the role of Altheia.  Whether she’s exposing the Crown’s medical examiner as a fraud or angrily reprimanding a defendant who is considering pleading guilty, Letitia Wright dominates every scene in which she appears.

Is Mangrove eligible for the Oscars?  Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be.  But, with the rule changes and the fact that Mangrove was not only selected to compete at Cannes (before Cannes was cancelled, of course) but that it also opened the BFI London Film Festival, I think a case can be made for considering Mangrove to be a feature film as opposed to being a television movie.  This is a strange year so who knows?  Personally, I think Mangrove deserves to be considered.  If it’s not nominated for any Oscars, it’ll definitely be nominated for the Emmys.  That’ll be determined in the future.  For now, it can be viewed on Prime.

Insomnia File #43: Legend (dir by Brian Helgeland)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you were having trouble getting to sleep around two in the morning, you could have turned over to HBO and watched the 2015 British gangster film, Legend.

Tom Hardy is Reggie Kray.  Arrogant, handsome, charming, and dangerous to know, Reggie is a club owner who is also an up-and-coming gangster in 1960s London.  Scotland Yard has him under surveillance.  The East End both fears and respects him.  American gangsters want to do business with him.

Tom Hardy is also Ronny Kray!  Ronny is the ugly twin, the one who lives in a trailer and has just been released from a psychiatric institution.  Ronny is openly gay at a time when that was still illegal in the UK.  Driven by jealousy of Reggie and a desire to prove himself superior to everyone who has ever judged or looked down on him, Ronny is determined to make sure that he and his brother become the top gangsters in London.

Together …. they solve crimes!

No, actually, they do the exact opposite.  They commit a lot of crimes.  Ronny is willing to shoot anyone in the head.  Reggie tries to be a bit more respectable.  He even attempts to run a legitimate nightclub.  Reggie understand that sometimes, the threat of violence is more effective than violence itself.  Reggie and Ronny are about as close as siblings can be, even if they do spend a lot of time beating each other up.

Frances Shea (Emily Browning) is the sister of Reggie’s driver, Frankie (Colin Morgan).  She’s sixteen when she meets and falls in love with Reggie Kray.  Reggie loves her too and he even marries her.  (Of course, he has to do a stint in prison first.)  Reggie swears to Frances that he’s going to go straight and that they’re going to have a normal life.  Deep down, Frances know that will never happen so, while her husband and brother-in-law conquer London, she copes with pills.  Lots and lots of pills.

For an American viewer like myself, British gangster films are always fun to watch because they’re just as violent as American gangster films but, at the same time, everyone’s always dressed impeccably and stopping in the middle of all the mayhem to have a cup of tea.  Legend is based on a true story, which turns out to be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  On the one hand, it’s fascinating to see the film’s recreation of London in the early 60s.  On the other hand, the film never convinces us that we should really care about the Krays.  This isn’t a case where, like the Corleones, the Krays are tragic figures who can’t escape their destiny.  Tom Hardy does a great job playing Reggie and he’s an adequate Ronny but you can never quite escape the feeling that the two brothers are just — to use one of their own preferred insults — two wankers who aren’t really worth all the trouble.  This is a film that you watch and you ask yourself, “Why should we care?”  Beyond the novelty of the Krays being twins, the film really can’t provide an answer.

Still, I happen to be fascinated by the early 60s so I enjoyed the film as a historical recreation.  Legend isn’t a bad film.  It’s just somewhat underwhelming.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure
  40. The Spanish Prisoner
  41. Elektra
  42. Revenge

Outlaw King Official Trailer


Outlaw King

Who here has seen Braveheart?

I’m quite sure that a huge number of people have seen Mel Gibson’s second film as director which won him two Oscars: for Best Director and Best Film. While his career has seen it’s major up’s and down’s, he still has done some great work behind the camera as a director.

Now, what does this all mean to this new Netflix Original film coming out this year called Outlaw King? The answer is not much other than both film share a particular historical character in the Scottish king Robert the Bruce. In Gibson’s film he’s a supporting character whose motivations could be seen as very pragmatic and bordering on the villainous.

Outlaw King, by Scottish director David MacKenzie (who directed the great Hell or High Water), will tell the story of the legendary Scottish king Robert the Bruce who won Scotland’s independence from England where William Wallace ultimately failed to do.

I am going on a hunch that Outlaw King will treat Robert the Bruce in a more sympathetic light than how Gibson’s film portrayed him. This time around we have Chris Pine in the role of Robert the Bruce.

As seen in the trailer, it looks like Netflix’s several billion dollar spending spree has come not just luring prominent filmmakers and producers to the streaming site but also allow them the resources to make a film as lush and beautiful as any made under the remaining big studios.

Let’s hope Outlaw King is more on the level of Mudbound and less like Bright.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room


Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Trailer: Taken 3 (Official)


taken-3-poster

Why are bad guys still messing with Liam Neeson…I mean Bryan Mills. He literally took on an Albanian gang in Paris (of all places) who were kidnapping young, female tourists to sell to Parisian sex-slave auctioneer who only did business with a very exclusive clientele. Then the hometown relatives of said Albanian gangsters tried to take him out. That didn’t work out so well.

Now, this coming January just when Bryan thought his life as a retired government worker with a unique set of skills can finally enjoy retirement with his lovely daughter and rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife people are out to be quite the killjoy once again.

Taken 3 will see Liam Neeson back as Bryan Mills, Maggie Grace as his daughter Kimmy and joined by Forest Whitaker as an LAPD inspector tasked with taking him down for a murder he didn’t commit. Once again this sequel will be helmed by that French director with the awesome name: Olivier Megaton.

Some people say Taken 3 (will not call it Tak3n) is just a rehash of The Fugitive, but I disagree. Richard Kimble never broke people’s throats and shot many people in their heads to find those responsible. The throat breaking alone puts Bryan Mills heads above Richard Kimble.

Taken 3 is set for January 9, 2015 release date.