‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ early contender for best movie honors

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah / Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s early in the year, but with director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we have an early contender for the the best picture of the year.

The movie details how the FBI entrapped a young hood to become an informant on the Illinois Black Panther Party, and how his decisions ultimately led to the assignation of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old with a vision of uniting various fringe groups to fight the system.

King’s film, co-written with Will Person from a story the two pulled together with Kenny and Keith Lucas, is basically accurate account of historical events, though some dramatic license was taken to create an involving and entertaining film about a charismatic leader in Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his confidant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who betrayed him.

The movie is engrossing with Kaluuya shining as the gifted Hampton, who as a very young man has learned how to channel his hatred into influence and power. He’s magnetic as Hampton. Stanfield is equally as strong as the weak-willed O’Neal, who starts out as a car thief but quickly rises in the Panther organization while living a lie as an FBI informant.

O’Neal takes the assignment from FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to keep himself out of jail, but quickly begins to enjoy the benefits of his role both as an informant and as trusted member of Hampton’s inner circle with the Panthers. O’Neal becomes so trusted that he rises to become the chapter’s head of security.

O’Neal sympathizes with his fellow Panther’s struggle and is conflicted about his role as informant particularly when his intel leads to arrests and deaths. However, every time he attempts to pull away, his FBI handler either reminds him of the charges hanging over his head or he puts more money on the table, which O’Neal can’t resist.

When push comes to shove, O’Neal likes the cash and certainly wants to stay out of jail even if it puts the lives of his Panther associates in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean his decisions aren’t difficult, and the conflict is reflected in a subtle yet powerful feet-of-clay performance by Stanfield.

Kaluuya has the showier part, but he still gives a soulful, nuanced performance, particularly in scenes with Dominique Fishback, who shines as Hampton’s inspiring girlfriend Deborah Johnson.

Again, it’s early, but it’s hard for me to believe I’ll see a much more engrossing or affecting film this year. Look for the movie to garner a number of nominations on the awards circuit for directing, writing and acting.

(R) 2 hr. 6 min.
Grade: A

Earwig and the Witch

Courtesy NHK

“Earwig and the With” is a slight but delightful anime adaptation by Studio Ghibli of the children’s book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones.

The story will instantly remind viewers of aspects of Harry Potter, with the protagonist Earwig being the abandoned daughter of a witch who left the child on the doorstep of an orphanage as an infant.

The story flashed forward 10 years with the precocious Earwig or Erica Wigg, as she is renamed, having run of the orphanage before she is adopted by what turns out to be a blue-haired, overweight witch named Bella Yaga and a demon-in-disguise named Mandrake.

Bella Yaga adopted Earwing to be her servant, which Earwig doesn’t mind because she hopes to learn witchcraft from her domineering keeper; however, Bella Yaga isn’t interested in having a pupil, just a servant.

Earwig eventually turns the tables on Bella Yaga, creating a spell where neither she nor Mandrake can harm her. Here the film ends rather abruptly with a scene at Christmas where not only Earwig’s young friend Custard from the orphanage shows up on the doorstep but also Earwig’s mother, who was once in a rock band with Bella Yaga and Mandrake.

I guess there will be a sequel?

Again the movie is slight on story, but it is charming in a Peppi Longstocking sort of way, and the mystery of why her mom shows up at Christmas does have me hooked.

Obviously, this is the first in what will be a series of movies. While the cliffhanger was a bit surprising, I had enough fun with this adventure to see the next movie when it appears.

(PG) 1 hr. 22 min.
Grade: B-

New in Theaters

  • Judas and the Black Messiah(R) 2 hr. 6 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Rogers Towne, Skylight, HBO Max
  • Land(PG-13) 1 hr. 29 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Rogers Towne, Skylight
  • Minari(PG-13) 1 hr. 55 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback, Rogers Towne, Skylight
  • Nomadland(R) 1 hr. 49 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback

Classic Corner – Hombre

Paul Newman and Diane Cilento in Hombre / Twentieth Century Fox

Make no mistake, Paul Newman was a movie star with all the charisma and charm it takes to fill the big screen. His name alone sold tickets.

However, he also was an excellent and nuanced actor, who could convey emotion with his body language — a tilt of his head or a squint of his eyes.

Take almost any of Newman’s films, and you can almost feel his character from his physical performance as well as his deft delivery of lines.

The 1967 Western “Hombre” is a perfect example of Newman’s quiet confidence and physical presence despite his average build.

In the film, Newman played the Apache-raised white man John Russell, who faces prejudice because of his Native-American upbringing when he encounters “polite society” on a trip to collect his inheritance after his father’s death.

While traveling on a stage coach, the passengers learn of Russell’s upbringing, and at the next stop, Indian agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), who stole $12,000 from the very Apaches who raised Russell, asks that Russell be moved from riding in the coach to with the driver Henry (Martin Balsam). Russell refuses.

However, that’s the least of Favor’s worries. Uncouth fellow passenger Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) teams with several riders to hold up the stage coach because of Favor’s big bank role. The thieves kidnap Favor’s uppity wife, Audra (Barbara Rush) for insurance.

Before the thieves can get away, Russell retrieves his Winchester stowed away on top of the stage coach and guns down two of the riders, one of which had Favor’s money.

Russell keeps the money and heads up the hill with the rest of the passengers following. The bandits led by Grimes follow. After a shootout in the hills, the bandits trap Russell and the passengers in an old cabin on a hill.

The bandits want to trade Favor’s wife for the cash, setting up the exciting climax where Russell faces down Grimes and his bandito partner in an effort to save Audra.

The film, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, makes the point that nobility is determined by one’s actions not their race.