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The Truth

8 Jul

 

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Who knew that for his follow-up to “Shoplifters” (2018), a darkly riveting curio about a family of petty criminals, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda would make an emotionally tumultuous French melodrama that feels like a revisit of Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours” (2008) while being wholly original. Besides the setting, both films are driven by the doe-eyed intensity of Juliette Binoche and wrestle with family reckonings. In “The Truth,” the one prominently in the catbird seat is Fabienne Dangeville, a legendary, César-winning French actress in her 70s played by Catherine Deneuve, a legendary French actress in her 70s – it’s priceless to witness Fabienne bristle at the mere mention of Brigitte Bardot. Binoche plays her daughter, Lumir, a screenwriter who has come home for a visit with her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), a struggling TV actor, and their precocious 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).

It takes a little while for mother-daughter barbs to abrade the reunion serenity, and for Hank and Lumir’s marriage to show its frayed edges (“You said you had stopped drinking!”) from behind boho photo-op posturing. Filling the fore until then is a giant tortoise named Pierre who patrols the garden and the sci-fi film Fabienne is working on, playing the daughter of a mother (Manon Clavel) who never ages and looks like a young French film starlet from the ’60s next to Fabienne’s septuagenarian.“The Truth” is sly in its meta, tongue-in-cheek deconstructive approach. The main rubs come through Fabienne’s newly released memoir, with details that lead Lumir to declare on a few occasions “that never happened,” and Fabienne’s aloof, blasé diva complex, which conceals loneliness and lack of real human connection. In one scene where she has an emotional epiphany with Lumir, as the tears have barely dried she proclaims she wished she had saved it for the screen. Is she about her art, her family or her legacy?

The amazing thing here in is Koreeda’s comfort sliding into a très French film. Don’t get me wrong, the plumb of inner desire and personal agonies is not far off from “Shoplifters” or Koreeda’s brilliant 2004 kids-living-alone drama “Nobody Knows,” but this feels like hitting the ice for the first time and never having even the semblance of a wobble. The film, which Koreeda co-wrote, is primarily in French; Hank can barely speak a lick of it but is trying constantly to be at the center of conversations he has little inkling about, which could be seen as some kind of comment about the arrogance Americans drag to the party no matter where they go. The end of “The Truth,” however, is not about big statements, but reaching understanding. It’s quiet, wistful and from the heart.

The King of Staten Island

12 Jun

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Funny guy filmmaker Judd Apatow directs funny guy Pete Davidson is “The King of Staten Island,” a semi-autobiographical account of arrested development on the urban isle of the film’s title. Apatow, known for punchy comedic hits such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) and “Knocked Up” (2007), and Davidson, whose wide-eyed edginess shines on “Saturday Night Live,” dial up one long “finding yourself” dramedy (almost two and a half hours) that’s unfortunately a tad slight on the laughs and way too long on the melodrama.

Davidson plays a version of himself as Scott, a 24-year-old tattoo artist living with mom (Marisa Tomei) and in a friends-with-benefits relationship with his sister’s best friend, Claire (Bel Powley). He won’t be seen in public with her and she wants something more – but slack, stunted dudes always think they have more in their hands than they do. Mostly Scott hangs out with a posse of the similarly rudderless (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson and Moises Arias) who get high, complain about their stagnant situations with passive zeal and occasionally crack a funny joke. Then one day Scott offers to give a 9-year-old kid named Harold (Luke David Blumm) a tat. The kid taps out at the first squiggle of ink and later that day shows up with his dad (Bill Burr), who wants Scott or his mom to pay for the removal or he’ll call the cops.

Turns out Burr’s Ray is a firefighter (with a “big thick [fill in the blank]” as we’re told by his ex) who knew Scott’s father – a firefighter who died in the line of duty on 911 – and starts to date Scott’s mom. There’s a lot of relationship turns in “The King of Staten Island,” which becomes tedious after the umpteenth miscommunication and overreaction. Davidson’s not as razor like or effective as he is in his short jabs on SNL. Tomei and Burr, however, are quite excellent. Tomei, vulnerable and warm while digging in her heels, and Burr, casting shadows of John Voigt’s macho prison escapee in “Runaway Train,” is affable and complex beyond the script. Powley, so amazing in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” also doesn’t get a lot to work with, but you notice her when she’s onscreen. Apatow’s daughter Maude plays Scott’s antagonistic sister, and real-life firefighter turned “Reservoir Dogs” actor Steve Buscemi plays one of the hose draggers down at Ray’s station.

Da 5 Bloods

12 Jun
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Spike Lee’s latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” was supposed to get a theatrical release, but Covid-19 has changed the rulebook. Lee was also supposed to be a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival last month, but that’s postponed to 2021.

The gorgeously composed film, something of a Vietnam War reconciliation project, is a hot hodgepodge of socially conscious branding wrapped around a treasure quest thriller adorned with reappropriated cultural icons – namely Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which crops up from time to time, most obviously in the form of a disco four of the five titular “bloods” visit upon their return to the country where they fought some 40 years earlier. “Da 5 Bloods” starts out with some archival imagery of the poetically loquacious Muhammad Ali, politically active blacks taking to the street and iconic clips of savagery from the Vietnam War with voiceover telling us that African Americans make up 11 percent of the population but made up 33 percent of the fighting force, posing the question: “Will history stop repeating itself?”

The “bloods” in question were part of an Army squad, and have reunited to return to ’Nam to gather the remains of a fifth blood (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”) who was killed in action. They know loosely where his body is, as well as a hefty stash of gold bricks. Of the returning four, Delroy Lindo’s Paul stands out the most: He’s a Trump supporter (Lee and Lindo vociferously oppose Trump and his policies, but that’s kind of the point), wears a red MAGA cap throughout and has a prickly relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), who’s in tow. What ensues is a strange olio of “Grumpy Old Men” gone up river “Apocalypse Now” style before straying into “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” territory as the loot is also sought by a French opportunist (Jean Reno, “Le Femme Nikita” and “The Professional”) and a faction of Vietnamese nationalists who want to settle an old score with the “bloods.” It’s a lot to unpack as Lee continues to stir in revisionist history and social barbs. It’s a compelling mess that’s almost too rich for its own good, and a better war film (postwar film?) than Lee’s 2008 “Miracle at St. Anna.” Somehow too, Paul Walter Hauser (Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “Richard Jewell”) makes his way on scene and that MAGA hat, for better or worse, takes on its own persona.

It’s amazing to realize that Lee won his first Oscar only last year, for the “BlacKkKlansman” screenplay. He’s made a lot of films in his time, and not all have stuck their landing; but as a filmmaker, Lee’s always been a risk taker, and one with something to say. At the end of “BlacKkKlansman” Lee stitched in footage of the violent Proud Boy tiki march in Charlottesville; here there’s a “Black Lives Matter” chant with a hopeful flourish. (Lee also just completed the short “3 Brothers: Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd,” which should require no explanation.) “Da 5 Bloods” may not be Lee’s finest film, but it comes at the right time.

Shirley

7 Jun

‘Shirley’: Author has plenty of horror to handle, even some to deal out as couple comes to stay

By Tom Meek

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Josephine Decker’s screen adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s “Shirley: A Novel,” is a haunting affair that, while steeped in reality, is highly fictionalized (that tag “A Novel” being a tell). The film catches up with author Shirley Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, in the 1950s, where she’s in a deep depression because her brutally alluring short classic “The Lottery” is found appalling by early readers. It doesn’t help that her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name,” and so good in the Coen brother’s “A Serious Man”), a literary critic and professor, is too interested in his own career to deal with his wife’s malaise – so what better way to pass the buck and get some me time? Rope in your starving writer teaching assistant and wife as emotional wet nurses by giving the them free room and board in your country manse.

“Shirley” plays fast and loose with dates and events (such as when works were published, and the timeframes of events leading up to them) but that’s okay – what Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins are after is a character study of Jackson, turning her mental anguish into something of a near gothic horror story that Jackson herself might have written (think Ken Russell’s 1986 spin about Lord Byron and Mary Shelly, “Gothic,” and you’d have the right idea). What wins the bold gamble is Elizabeth Moss nailing the author’s weepy depression, her simmering anger against her wayward husband and ultimately, her literary resolve. Moss, who rose from her wallflower persona on “Mad Men” to more full-bodied roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and as a punk diva in “Her Smell” (2018), has become something of an icon of Covid-19 streaming in the chasm created by studios holding back products for theatrical releases following the shutdown: This endeavor and Leigh Whannell’s radical reimagining of “The Invisible Man” both went from theater to smaller screens (along with “The Hunt”) without missing a beat. She notches a new level here, and you feel as if this isn’t her topper yet.

A key background element to “Shirley” is the real-life missing Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden and the powerful pull it had on Jackson – the case would became the basis for her novel “Hangsaman.” Then there are the attendants, the newlywed Nemsers, Fred (Logan Lerman, “End of Sentence”) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”). Whiskey pours at night, as does sexual innuendo. As Rose and Shirley spin off into a strange codependent relationship punctuated by bouts of mania (from pregnancy and depression) and jealously, we also get a good lesson in the misogyny of the time as the two men stay out, carousing and pawing after other women indiscriminately. Overall, in the tightly clustered affair, we’re not too far from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” territory.

Decker’s plumped similar internal anxieties with her 2018 cornerstone, “Madeline’s Madeline” and digs in deeper here, but it’s Moss who carries the film with a moody soulfulness complemented by the ensemble around her. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is as affable as he is contemptible, and Young holds her own in simmering tense scenes with Moss. It’s a dark, near-real work that bears both fangs and fruit.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

31 May

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Because of his WASPy, blue-blooded demeanor and cheeky curiosity, George Plimpton always stuck me as a something of a cross between Thurston Howell III and Hawkeye Pierce – the latter maybe because Alan Alda played Plimpton in the 1968 film based on the writer’s bestselling book, “Paper Lion.” Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling, in their plumbing of the author, editor and sometimes actor, seek to paint a portrait of a man who was more than the sum of his stunts, which famously included turns as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins, acting with John Wayne and performing with the New York Philharmonic.

Plimpton choose to call these endeavors “participatory journalism,” and it made for good readership in the pages of Sports Illustrated back in the days when Hemingway and Richard Ford were turning in copy. (There was also a “Plimpton! Adventures in Africa” TV series in the early ’70s, hence the film’s title.) He was a string bean of a kid – one of the big reveals early in the film is Plimpton at the prestigious Exeter boarding school failing to make a sports team, which makes his bold undertakings later in life feel like he had something to prove. The main event the film homes in on is Plimpton going a few rounds with boxing legend Archie Moore, the only man to fight both Ali and Rocky Marciano.

And where there is George Plimpton, there is The Paris Review, the literary magazine Plimpton help found in the ’50s and edited until his death in 2003. His love of figures such as Hemingway and Roth is palpable throughout the film, especially in his relentless pursuit to get such luminaries to sit down for interviews. As the doc progresses, Plimpton’s love of the Review shines through even brighter as he becomes a pitch person for car sales and garage openers to make money to support the literary rag. The ads make for a wonderful little time capsule.

Plimpton, as the movie paints him, was a romantic and idealist who kept close ties with the Kennedy family and was there to help wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Plimpton also enjoyed a party, hosting late-night soirees in New York with the likes of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg. His son Taylor, who reads some of his father’s pieces throughout the film, recounts being kept up regularly by the late-night carousing. Plimpton was also friends with Hugh Hefner and dabbled in acting – we all know of his turn as a shrink in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), but he also had small parts in “Rio Lobo” (1970) and even “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

Not all were warm to the eclectic Plimpton. Several literati, such as James Salter, make brief appearances in the film to brand him a “dilettante” – something echoed by Plimpton himself, as the film is imbued with an eerie sense of rue that the journo did not produce “more serious” works.

Other notable local flavorings include former hockey player and coach Mike Milbury, who was one of the Bruins whom Plimpton (often seen wobbling on skates in clips) embedded with, and co-director Poling, who later partnered with Independent Film Festival Boston founder Adam Roffman for the beguiling 2015 short doc, “Spearhunter.”

Bigger familiar faces who make the doc include Ken Burns; “The Wild Bunch” (1969) screenwriter Walon Green, who directed an episode of the “Plimpton!” show; and author Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) whose literary career Plimpton helped launch. Bean and Poling’s balanced tribute makes clear Plimpton was a lover of adventure and new things, and wanted to bringing those experiences firsthand to his readers – and to do so he was unafraid to go into the lion’s den.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

25 May

‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’: Failed film haunts, so director does retake on a cruel comic genius

 

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“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is something of a therapy session for director Peter Medak, who worked with Sellers on the abysmal 1973 pirate comedy “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak was an up-and-comer hot off the 1972 hit “The Ruling Class” and chanced into Sellers – the world’s most revered comic actor of the time – and at the “Pink Panther” star’s behest, agreed to helm the film conceived by Sellers’ comedic running mate, Spike Milligan. Medak, 35 at the time, said yes (“How could I not?”) and the film went on to be an unmitigated disaster. It ran well over budget, and has still never fully been released.

What we get from Medak’s unique point of view – which is kind of meta, as he’s a filmmaker making a documentary about the making of a film he made – is rue, remiss and a tang of anger. Sellers, after all, pretty much quit the film early on and, as Medak has it, did plenty to undermine the young director and upend a once-promising career. The film is not a hit piece on Sellers, though, and ultimately embraces the troubled star as it delves into his several messy relationships, cardiovascular issues and, as Medak frames with care, mental health issues. Medak’s assessment of his star is backed by Sellers’ daughter, who provides earnest and thoughtful insights.

What’s also amazing to glean from Medak’s rewind is his own journey as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II and the Communist iron glove that took hold during the formation of the Soviet Union. But nothing looms as large as Sellers to Medak; it’s the thing that has consumed him for years, and the use of “ghost” is the title is more than apt. The dissection of the production, the filmmaking process and the shenanigans of Sellers and Milligan provide for jaw drops, be it Sellers leveraging his heart condition via a doctor’s note so he could go party in a pub, or the magical transformation of a Chinese junk into the pirate ship only to have it crash on its maiden voyage. Similar films about the making of great films (from the clips of “Noon” that you see here, you know that is not the case), “Burden of Dreams” (1982, about “Fitzcarraldo”) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991, about “Apocalypse Now”) are more distant and observant; “Ghost of Peter Sellers” to me felt like a somber “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018), Orson Welles’ last, unfinished film framed inside of a documentary. There’s loose narrative play in that film, but Medak here stays close to his heart. In the end he brings it all home while shedding light on careers and films worth remembering … even if the one he’s focused on is not one of them.

Fourteen

20 May

 

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A sharp, clever character study revolving around two friends whose relationship takes on varying shades (ever darker) over a 10-year period. In “Fourteen,” streaming from The Brattle Theatre​’s Virtual Screening Room, what initially looks wholesome and organic becomes something forged more out of matters of necessity, guilt and obligation.

When we first meet Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) they’re young Brooklynites with bright futures. Jo is statuesque and stark in style, form and attitude, especially compared with Maria, who’s petite, pixieish and demurring. They’re Mutt and Jeff in more ways than one. Early on we think we understand the balance; Maria works as a kindergarten school teacher, while Jo allegedly is a social worker but seems to be always out of work for one technicality or another. Her ostensible dysfunction and bad situation pools and expands as we drop in on the pair in various settings (a spare apartment, a dinner party, broad windowed cafe or sitting on a park bench) getting snapshots of the evolution of their relationship. And there’s men, and sex, always there but never as important as the Jo and Maria dynamic, its inherent camaraderie and edgy jealousy.

In one drop-in, Jo quips to Maria, just back from an unsatisfactory date, “You know you have a tendency to think people are insulting you when they try to fuck you.” It’s an odd exchange, but you’re on the edge of your seat trying to dissect and plumb. You learn the title of the film is the age that Jo is diagnosed with certain mental disorders, the kind that slip under the radar and manifest themselves in bigger, more problematic ways as they become pillars of the formed adult.

Made for less than $100,000 by critic and writer Dan Sallit, “Fourteen” is a lo-fi wonder, long on talk and short on setting – the kind of small, intimate film John Cassavetes used to make. Sallit’s big win here are his two impressive leads, who should see their stock soar. They and the film have likely triumphed in ways that might not have come about without Covid-19.

Spaceship Earth

10 May

 

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One of my daughter’s favorite rides at Disney World is Spaceship Earth, so it caught her attention when I told her I was seeing a movie called just that, and left her crestfallen when she learned it was essentially a Nat Geo special about old people living in a greenhouse in the desert. The documentary by Matt Wolf follows the rise and fall of (and what went horribly wrong with) Biosphere 2, the artificial environment built in Oracle, Arizona, where, from 1991 to 1993 eight people sealed themselves off in a self-sustaining complex as an experiment to see if humans could live in a contained terrarium without the regular gifts of Mother Earth – aka Biosphere 1.

The stage is set as a bunch of San Francisco idealists and entrepreneurs caught between the Wall Street greed of the 1980s and the Internet bubble conceive an experiment in controlled sustainability and, with deep pockets, build it and select their earthbound astronauts – which, like the Starship Enterprise, has a scientist, doctor, biologist and engineer among the crew. Their mission: to live in the mini Earth (it has its own sea) for two years without contact, nutrients, sustenance or air from the outside. Sunshine is fair game.

Given where we’re at today, you could view Biosphere 2 as the ultimate quarantine, but it’s when personalities take center stage that “Spaceship Earth” gets interesting. Of the eight people in scientific lockdown there’s a couple, a fitness freak physician who waves his virility wide and high to a near gonzo degree, and the must-have MacGyver, ever with screwdriver in hand and donning a utility belt as things go bust now and then. The big challenges inside the bubble come when oxygen levels get low, or one woman gets her hand caught in a straw shredder; outside, project head John Allen, who comes off as something of a cult leader, is embroiled in court proceedings regarding control of the endeavor. It’s one of a few small failings of Wolf’s doc that the enigmatic persona of Allen, a self-described ecologist and early climate change whistleblower, remains vague and unprobed. As the film has it, many in the science community labeled him a hack and Biosphere 2 a stunt producing no real data of value. Times have changed, however, and that’s another failing: There’s no contextual relevance for the experiment to our Biosphere 1 today.

Wolf’s straight-ahead use of archival footage and interviews with surviving terrarium astronauts (terranauts) is effective in conveying the more intriguing narrative of how personalities played off each other in such a confined petri dish. It’s a chronicle of a curious blip in history, a time capsule of the era and food for thought for the future, especially in these self-contained times.

The Bellmen

10 May

 

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“The Bellmen” is the kind of weak-kneed, cheeky comedy David Spade or Rob Schneider might have made a decade or so ago. It’s a lo-fi romp about a posse of misfit bellhops at a fancy Arizona resort that plays its thin premise loose and fast for sophomoric laughs; what deepens it are the inadvertently topical plot developments that involve hand sanitizer and a white person hijacking another’s heritage for their own gain.

The film centers on a boisterous, posturing hunk named Steve (Adam Ray), something of a throwback to the blow-dried salad days of Scott Baio and John Travolta. Steve’s proud and boastful of his station as bell captain, and a professed bellhop for life. His main ambitions besides quality service and landing a big tip are Kelly (Kelen Coleman, of “Big Little Lies”), the cute head concierge, and his frat boy hazing of new bellhops – if only Jerry Lewis could apply. People check in and people go, as the ribald bellmen bite their knuckles over statuesque check-ins while barely maintaining professional standards. Then there’s the big weekend where the hotel is filled with folks teeming to see a self-help spiritual guru named Gunther (Thomas Lennon, “Reno 911!”), who plays up his mystic Indian roots and arrives with a pair of comely attachés in bikinis who administer hand sanitizer liberally and regularly to a cult of wide-eyed worshipers. That hand cleanser, it turns out, does more than just sanitize: It opens your mind to the power of suggestion and loosens your purse strings. Steve smells something amiss, but he’s waived off as a goofball control freak to those slathered in the stuff.

Written and directed by Cameron Fife, extending a 2017 TV short, “Bellmen” runs freely with its shaggy dog underbelly of paradise concept, a genre for which “Caddyshack” (1980) remains the gold standard. The slack comedy notches its laughs mostly from Lennon’s slippery guru, who has an answer for everything from under a knowing, raised eyebrow, and his slinky twosome as they mind – and libido – control the masses with ease. The core story about Steve and Kelly’s budding romance never fully grabs, but Ray does get a solid opportunity to spread his comedic wings when his despondent Steve goes on a tequila bender south of the border. He’s holed up in one of those spare adobe dwellings you’d find in a Sergio Leone film, an unwanted houseguest of a señorita and her son who take pity on him but are also deeply annoyed by his drunken babbling and chest-beating bravado – which the language barrier serves only to deepen.

One can’t image Fife was tapped into the whole Covid-19 hand-sanitizer hoarding spectacle at the time of writing and filming. The timelines just don’t marry, which makes “Bellmen” both oddly timed and timely. It’s trite, innocuous fun. Just ring the bell and forget your bags.

The Third Strike

10 May

By Tom Meek

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In states such as Massachusetts, where recreational marijuana is legal, the processing for awarding sellers’ licenses has been done with a preference and prioritization for those from communities adversely impacted by drug criminalization laws. That translates mostly to people of color from inner-city enclaves, though just what “adversely impacted” means may be elusive to most looking in at the process. For anyone who’s wondering or finds that phraseology somewhat vague, Nicole Jones’ documentary “The Third Strike” arrives to set you straight.

“The Third Strike” revolves around laws enacted in the early 1980s that made a three-peat drug offender a candidate for life in prison – actually, automatically, with no deliberation or real process. That may sound good if we were talking about a violent criminal, but this is about people who deal an occasional dime of weed, something barely above a jaywalking offense today. In the threes-strikes era, a person who commits murder three times would be entitled to parole hearings and the possibility of release; deal even a small amount of weed three times and it’s essentially “a death sentence,” as one taking head in the film puts it.

To underscore the point, Jones examines the case of Edward Douglas, the first man released as a result of The First Step Act in January 2019. Key players in his freeing are attorney MiAngel Cody, who leads a liberation project, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who talks in convincing volumes about the injustice of the “three strikes” law. Jones’ juxtaposition of Douglas’ transgression with those of hardened violent criminals is an easy sell, but the soul-shaking win of the film is the man himself, a sweet, jovial, innocent sort, looking to catch up on lost time with family and grateful rather than angry. He brims with innate warmth and obvious humanity.

The conclusions of “The Third Strike” are nothing new, but it does shed a powerful light on social inequities of color and crime and reminds us of people who did little more than spit on the sidewalk still rotting in jail, tagged with a sentence more ironclad than that of the repeat killer one cell over.