CLEMENCY – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Screenwriter: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 11/1/19
Opens: December 27, 2019


Someone says to you “It’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies!” You’re probably thinking, oh, it’s going to be one of those like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” maybe “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” But no. He suggests one opening right in the middle of Christmas week that will swing into the new year about a conflicted woman working in a prison with a flourishing death row. OK, then. You’re in, but only because you heard that Alfre Woodard is in the major role in what many will consider the best performance of her illustrious career. That might be difficult to image considering the dynamic jobs she has done with “Burning Sands” as a professor in a college with a tragic hazing incident, or as the narrator in “Nat Turner,” maybe in one of her many TV performances like “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Steel Magnolias” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Few actors this year have expressed their fictional job conflicts like Woodard in “Clemency,” a film by Chinonye Chukwu in her sophomore feature, a woman whose debut directing was of “alaskaLand” –about an estranged Nigerian brother and sister forced to reconnect in their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.

“Clemency” is bookended by scenes of almost unbearable tension: opening as Woodard’s character, Warned Bernadine Williams, deals with the botched execution of a Hispanic man—who undergoes the strapping into the gurney as though paralyzed rather than the expected screaming and crying—but who will let loose after the prison staff has difficulty finding a proper vein in his arm or leg. As “Clemency” concludes, Bernadine walks down the hall lost in thought about her entire career, wondering whether it’s worth continuing to be a martinet who refuses to bend past a single rule, but at the same time finding a connection to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) who is scheduled to die for killing a police officer during a robbery fifteen years back.

We know more about the warden by scenes in her home where her husband Jonathan Williams (Wendell Pierce), a teacher, is getting increasingly fed up with her distance from him, her insomnia, her nightmares, her protestations that she does not want to be touched. On the professional level, she spends time with her deputy warden drinking in bars, then reluctantly handing him her keys when he insists on driving her home. Her job requires her to deal with Woods’s lawyer, Mary Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who is burned out from a thirty-year career trying to save condemned prisoners and announceing that he will retire after the case against Woods is finally adjudicated.

We don’t know whether Bernadine is pro- or anti-capital punishment. She hides her views but in her contacts with the condemned Woods, she conveys the impression that she has spent enough time on her job and that she might prefer to ask for a transfer to a prison where the death penalty is not carried out. As a whole, writer-director Chukwu, the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at last January’s Sundance Festival, leaves it up to us in the audience to interpret her views on the death penalty.

There is virtually no music on the soundtrack, a condition that many a film should try to duplicate to avoid annoying intrusions into dialogue. Here ambiance reigns supreme in a drama you should feel free to attend unless you prefer the more melodramatic cases as shown in “Pierrepont: The Last Hangman” based on the life and times of Albert Pierrepont who slipped a rope around hundreds of necks until he burned out, and “I Want to Live!” starring Susan Hayward as a habitual criminal facing execution. Happy Christmas viewing!

113 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

APPRENTICE – movie review


    Film Movement
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Boo Junfeng
    Written by: Boo Junfeng
    Cast: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad, Koh Boon Pin, Nickson Cheng, Crispian Chan, Gerald Chew
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/25/17
    Opens: March 3, 2017

    Ironically, as America moves to the left, the country votes to the right.  Gains have been made in race relations, civil liberties, civil rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, but the U.S. is the only country in the highly developed West to retain capital punishment, at least in some states.  Why so, even though studies have repeatedly stressed that the death penalty does not deter murder?  Instead of polling people who, in the comfort of their homes sip bourbon and spout their political opinions, Boo Junfeng, who directs “Apprentice,” polls the individual who could say, “The buck stops here.”  That person is the one who springs the trapdoor, pulls the switch, releases the gas, or delivers the deadly injection to the condemned.  “Apprentice” focuses on two executioners’ point of view, discovering that both deliver their deadly trade with a measure of doubt.

    Boo, whose first feature-length film “Sandcastle” deals with an 18-year-old who learns a secret about his father, shows a director who is still contrasting the older and younger generations with “Apprentice.”  Here, young Sergeant Aiman Yusof (Fir Rahman) is learning the ropes from a Singapore prison’s chief hangman, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) (“I cannot take credit for the “learning the ropes” wordplay: that’s in the dialogue).  Aiman has a generally hostile relationship with his older sister, Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), accusing her of wanting to marry a man only because the groom-to-be will get her out of Singapore into Australia.  He’s a lonely fellow for another reason.  His father, whom he never knew, was hanged for a grisly murder, and he looks upon executioner Rahim as a father substitute.  Consider it an irony, if you will, but this father substitute also pulled the lever that hanged the young man’s dad, and the assistant, or apprentice, may even be fired for failure to disclose his father’s fate.

    But never mind: Rahim, who bonds with Aiman, is impressed enough with the shy man’s demeanor and his assistance with an execution that he appoints Aiman as his assistant, a stepping-stone to a fast-track appointment to replace him.

    “Apprentice” is about a fellow who does not say “You’re fired,” but who could theoretically think “you’re dead” as he conducts his job.  The bleak, murky prison scenes are filmed in Australia as the subject matter would not please officials in Singapore. The city-state has severe laws for capital offenses, considering drug smuggling to be subject to the death penalty.  Recently Singapore executed several foreigners for just that offense, bringing down the condemnation of arguably more civilized countries.

    In preparing the film, the crew of “Apprentice” studied the subject for five years, employing Alan Shadrake’s book “Once a Jolly Hangman” as principal print enlightenment.  (The book, which has no reviews on Amazon, is for sale for just $598.99 but don’t forget the $3.99 shipping cost. And that’s for a used copy.)  You can learn the subject for less than that on the big screen, and what’s more the film seems authentic since it is based largely on an interview with Darshan Singh, who executed up to 18 convicts a day.

    I don’t know that this film should be considered a broadside against capital punishment.  At least in Adrian Shergold’s British movie “Pierrepont: The Last Hangman,” the title figure Albert Pierrepont had enough doubts about his job that during a long career, he decided that capital punishment does not work and got out of the field.   And that’s a guy who put the rope on the necks of Nazi war criminals that should have received an ever worse penal fate.

    The atmosphere of “Apprentice” is minimalist, largely dark areas of the prison where Rahim shows kindness to the condemned on their penultimate days, delivering nice clothes for the inmates to wear for the hanging.  Aiman, however, has his own view, accusing the chief of a faux kindness offered simply to make the job easier.

    The film received an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes, motivated perhaps by the journalists’ cri de coeur against the death penalty, yet my own impression is that the severity of Singapore’s laws does not have much an input in the movie.  You have learn on your own how rigidly that small country interprets crimes like drug smuggling, a crime that in the Philippines these days evokes executions of the criminals by law enforcers right on the street.  Benoit Soler is behind the lens of an Arri Alexa but is partly responsible for too literal an impression of the story.  For a more melodramatic one, you’d do well to take in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.”

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?