by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In the late ‘60s, William O’Neal, offered a plea deal by the FBI, infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers to gather intelligence on party Chairman Fred Hampton.

By the time it was over, Judas and the Black Messiah made me think of that scene in Psycho (1960) where Norman is cleaning up after his mother and the car starts to sink in the swamp and then stops…and Norman gets nervous.  At that moment, I started rooting for Norman, getting in his headspace: “C’mon, car, sink.”  I was empathizing with the bad guy.  Neat trick.

That’s how I felt during Judas and the Black Messiah.  Instinctively, I know I’m supposed to be rooting for one character, but the movie empathizes with the “villain” character so well that I found myself rooting for him, too.

In the late 1960s, Fred Hampton’s star was on the rise in the black community.  As portrayed in a sensational performance by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is a fiery, charismatic, passionate public speaker who publicly advocates armed patrols of Black Panthers in black neighborhoods to keep an eye out for harassment from white cops.  When he is made Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, the FBI takes an interest.  Well…Hoover takes an interest, which pretty much means the FBI followed suit regardless.

Meanwhile, a petty thief named Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested by the FBI, who gives him a choice: serve a 5-year stretch for impersonating an FBI officer, or…go undercover into Fred Hampton’s Black Panther chapter and bring out good intel that will help them arrest Hampton.  O’Neal agrees, and what follows is an exercise in classic cinematic storytelling and misdirection, done up with glossy modern cinematography that looks like the best movie Oliver Stone never made.

(…actually, “misdirection” is not the right word.  I’m not sure what the right word is.  I’ll explain.)

Fred Hampton is clearly meant to be the hero of the film.  Hoover even refers to Hampton as a “messiah” of the black movement.  This all takes place a few years after both Dr. King and Malcolm X had been assassinated.  (If things had turned out differently, Fred Hampton’s name would be synonymous with King and Malcolm X, but it’s not, and based on this movie, that seems distinctly unfortunate and unfair.)  He boldly walks into a local meeting of white supremacists and, incredibly, turns them around to his way of thinking, using a brilliant metaphor of America as a house on fire.  If that moment is not based on fact, it should be.

So, if Hampton is the hero, then O’Neal is clearly meant to be the villain.  Hampton is the messiah of the title, so O’Neal is Judas, the traitor, the informer.  As a direct result of his intel [SPOILER ALERT], the FBI makes several arrests, including Hampton himself, and eventually initiates a raid during which Hampton is killed in his bed with his pregnant wife in the next room.  (This is all a matter of public record, though it’s interesting that it took this movie to really make me aware of it.)

But it’s easy to make a movie with a two-dimensional villain.  Judas and the Black Messiah does something much more difficult.  It asks us to empathize with both Hampton AND O’Neal.  We see the conflict in O’Neal’s face when Hampton promotes him to chief of security for their chapter.  We see O’Neal’s fear when he is recognized by a member of a local gang.  We see how few choices he really has in his various meetings with his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons), who constantly reminds him that, if he runs, they will find him and put him in jail.  Hampton says numerous times in the film that if he were to die for the cause, it would be a life well spent.  O’Neal has no such ideals.  I’d go as far to say that, if that were me in O’Neal’s shoes, I might do the same thing to stay out of jail.  I know my limits.

So, the entire film, I was pulled back and forth between admiration for Hampton and his cause and feeling anger towards O’Neal; and feeling terribly sad for O’Neal and what he’s essentially being forced to do by the FBI.  In other films depicting the Jesus story, I felt no such sympathy for the Judas character.  Director Shaka King accomplishes what so many other films do not: total alignment with one viewpoint while also demonstrating that not everything is so – forgive me – black and white.

Frankly, for me, the movie is worth watching just for the closing epilogue alone.  We get a glimpse of the real Bill O’Neal being interviewed for a real PBS documentary in 1989, and he is asked what he might tell his son about his role in the events surrounding Fred Hampton’s death.  His answer feels like something he’s rehearsed and said all his life.  And then there’s a closing subtitle…and it’s devastating.

I feel like there is more I could say, but it would involve getting into much more detail about several plot points, and I would prefer to leave them for the viewer to discover on their own.  Judas and the Black Messiah is worthy enough to stand with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) as one of the best films ever made about the black experience in America.


By Marc S. Sanders

Don’t blame Jane Campion.  Blame me. 

The ending to The Power Of The Dog feels ambiguous, but writer and director Campion invites you to think and ponder.  It also helps that I have a good friend who shed some light on how the film actually wrapped up.  I’m grateful because I appreciated the picture even more.  Ironically, my friend didn’t care for the movie.

Technically, Jane Campion directs an absolutely breathtaking film with majestic cinematography and art design of open Montana fields taking place in 1926.  Tech work can only take me so far though, and I appreciated the four different perspectives of the headlining cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Cumberbatch is Phil, a cowboy relic of the Old West.  He’s an expert horseman donned with spurs on his boots, and leather padding on the jeans along with the worn in staple cowboy hat.  He also has a fearful and intimidating temper.  Maybe that’s because his era is soon to be passed by and he’s not designed or updated for anything else.  Plemons is George. Phil’s subdued, business wise brother who knows his way around their Montana ranch, and more importantly knows how to build connections that’ll provide fiscal and political support, while he drives his Ford buggy to get from one place to the next.  Dunst is Rose, the artist of appetizing delicacies and designs who marries George.  She manages the kitchen of her restaurant and can play piano; not exceptionally well but her love for the instrument is what matters.  Her son is Peter, played by Smit-McPhee, a lanky and weak, yet book smart, young adult with his focus on the science of medicine.  He aspires to be surgeon.  So, as the 20th century is now over a quarter complete, these four individuals represent what once was, what is now, what is trending and what will become.

Campion sprinkles her film in more atmosphere than telling dialogue.  The gist of the story is how Phil’s tormenting presence scares both Rose and Peter.  A hair-raising scene occurs midway while Rose attempts to play a song on the piano, only to be drowned out by Phil’s cruel banjo interpretation from the top of the staircase.  Cumberbatch is really scary here as the bear teasing the cub to poke him.  Rose tries again and again to play only to be further interrupted by Phil.  A banjo is an instrument of a bygone era, the Old West.   The piano is the more sophisticated and elegant device to use now within the decorated designs of a reading room.

The future is also upon the characters.  Young Peter purchases a pair of sneakers to wear; not exactly the most appropriate for a horse ranch, nor are his suppressed homosexual yearnings.  Still, the future carries forth as he studies the latest in medicine and surgical practices, whether it is through dissection of a rabbit or studying the most up to date medical journals.

George is the symbol of transition.  He was raised like his brother Phil to be a rancher, but he knows that time has passed.  Currency, technology and longevity are necessary and it is not wise to remain stagnant in a time gone by.  It’s practical to develop connections with the Governor of the state, to drive himself and Rose in a car as opposed to by horseback.  To carry on the family name, it is also prudent he marries and builds a new generation.

I appreciated the subtle visuals and behaviors that Campion weaves into her adaptation from the novel by Thomas Savage.  Over the course of two hours, I was always learning something new, whether it be about the characters or the period setting.  Most telling is the fact that the past can not live in an updated future such as Phil with his suprising and deeply inhibited attraction to Peter.  As well, the future is not going to adjust well to the past like when Peter is trying to learn horse and ranch handling from a teasingly cruel Phil while wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat, white sneakers, and factory tailored jeans.  Furthermore, even if you’re only a frequent movie watcher, you likely are aware that Westerns would pit cowboys against Indians.  Rose demonstrates with her talents for craft how Native Americans are appreciated in this still young new century.  Phil and his ranchers would never imagine such relations to ever exist.

Our history is not comfortable with our eventual future, and our future can not fathom how we ever lived within our past.

Because these two worlds can never mesh in accordance with each other, a loss will have to be committed.  In another storyteller’s hands, The Power Of The Dog, might have resulted in a gun shot, or a stabbing or an illness to eliminate what cannot survive.  As well, long speeches of dialogue would spell out what must cease to continue and what must continue to flourish and go on.  With Campion’s lens, and with Savage’s work, it works atmospherically, however.  The environment of the Montana landscape along with life on a transitioning horse and cattle ranch serve the conflicting time passages and the characters who are relegated to a past, or a present, or a future. 

Don’t watch The Power Of The Dog with expectations of simplicity or quotable dialogue.  I value Campion’s approach to not spoon feed me.  Rather, take in the visuals of the four main characters’ behaviors.  Allow yourself to become more observant of the nature of how things end up.  Powerfully speaking, Jane Campion shows that some people will work well together, while others will crave to blend effectively, and sadly some can never live within another environment or time period, much less someone else’s.

The Power Of The Dog offers a thought-provoking message of loss and reflection while gazing into what’s just beyond.  It’s a very well-made film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Christian Bale is one of the greatest method actors working today. He’ll put on muscle mass for Batman. He’ll shrink himself down to a skeletal 100 pounds for roles in The Mechanic and his Oscar winning turn in The Fighter. In Adam McKay’s new film, Vice, Bale puts the weight to present an uncanny resemblance to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Without Bale and co-star Amy Adams as wife Lynne Cheney, Vice would not succeed. Both will be nominated for Oscars this year. McKay can expect nominations for himself and Best Picture.

McKay approaches Vice similarly to his winning film The Big Short, where a historical debacle of great proportions is told from a comedic approach. However, the gags of Vice don’t necessarily measure up to the absurdity of the real estate investment collapse of The Big Short. Cheney’s accomplishments were just too sad, too tragic, too shocking to laugh at entirely.

Dick Cheney was a drunk who suffered multiple heart attacks. He got kicked out of Yale University. His daughter, Mary, is gay. His other daughter, Liz, went into politics herself and dismissed her sister’s sexual orientation. Dick has remained married to his very wise and very aggressive wife Lynne who more or less rescued him from a wasted life. Dick Cheney shot his close friend accidentally while hunting, and never apologized for it. He was fortunate to receive a heart transplant that continues to prolong his life, and Dick Cheney became Vice President of the United States for two terms. You don’t have to like the guy but you have to admit he’s got a colorful past.

It’s all in the movie. Immediately, McKay puts in a few words of a byline that this film is based on fact to best of their knowledge but they more or less tried their fucking best.

My impression of what could be considered a very divisive film was actually not divisive to me at all actually. Bale along with McKay’s screenplay show a Dick Cheney who truly sees no other way to carry on a political career than with a silent yet ruthless touch. Later, it required more aggressive tactics not labeled as torture and not appearing beyond his authority even if he is only the Vice President. Bale has the voice down, the walk and as noted before the appearance. This film will likely win Best Makeup.

Having recently seen three potential nominees for Best Actress in The Favorite, I have to say Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney beats them all. This is not an Amy Adams we’ve seen before. Lynne is depicted as smart, aware in a mindset of no nonsense bullshit. She gets the job done, and if she had her way she’d take the job herself but she’s aware of her limits as a woman. Adams easily shows her Lady Macbeth in a scene where daughter Mary reveals herself as gay. Dick promises to love Mary no matter what. Adams as Lynne does not. Adams offers an expression that kills. Right there in this scene is her Oscar moment. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

Back to Macbeth for a moment, McKay has a great imagination for gags including elevating the fantasy of Dick and Lynne reciting MacBeth to each other in bed while mulling the possibility of becoming George W Bush’s running mate. It’s more than that for Dick. Both know this is absolute power…finally. I’d accept if their decision to run came down to something like this. It takes an ego trip to obtain power after all. If you’ve already been denied power before, the power trip only becomes more powerful on another occasion.

The Shakespeare gag works. Some others fall a little flat. Some really win. Out of the blue, prior to running on Bush’s ticket, McKay wraps up the first portion of Cheney’s life and literally rolls end credits. Then a phone rings and Cheney’s biggest story begins. The end credits moment is a great psyche out.

Vice is not a perfect movie. A huge misfire occurs midway through the end credits that derails McKay’s best effort at a neutral point of view for the Republican. It’s a moment that screams of present day chaos of opinion. McKay said screw it and folded his hand to take advantage of showing how he really feels. Before this scene, McKay and his cast embraced the Cheneys despite their hard to swallow viewpoints and actions. If you are going to make a movie about Dick Cheney or Barack Obama or Mickey Mouse you, as the storyteller, have to develop an appreciation for the centerpiece. If all you are going to do is bash and mudsling, then perhaps you are not qualified to tell the tale. McKay failed at the finish line.

Still, the journey is always interesting. There are things to learn here, things to recollect and things to question how it all came to be a reality.

A good cast is offered including a surprising appearance by Tyler Perry as Colin Powell; make a movie about this guy and get Perry back. Steve Carrell plays a buffoonish Don Rumsfeld. Was Rumsfeld this stupid and this haphazard? I don’t know. McKay uses him to play the fool and the jester. I doubt Rumsfeld has a loyal fan base ready to wave pitch forks. So who cares, really? It’s in the past.

A casting misfire is Sam Rockwell. Moviegoers are too familiar with the real George W. Bush especially in 2018 following the loss of his parents and his deeply appreciated eulogies. Rockwell teeters on 12:45 am Saturday Night Live material, as he chomps down on chicken wings, with a good ol’ boy Texas dialect. I know people want to believe Bush 43 was this stupid. I’m just not ready to accept that. Ironically, a producer on this project is Will Farrell, widely known for his George W Bush on SNL. Farrell would have been a better George here.

Compliments also go to Jesse Plemons as a narrator with an unknown connection to Cheney. Plemons’ delivery plays well on an even keel.

Vice is a complicated film about a hard man to like with little to know redeeming qualities. Adam McKay is cornering the market on films about American absurdities of the past. He’s good at this kind of filmmaking. This isn’t his best film but it still works. Just get ready to leave the theatre as the real end credits roll. Again, it’s a moment that serves the film’s worst flaw as McKay leaves his imagination at the door. Everything before that was right on track. Adam McKay…next time, don’t think too hard.