Meet the new year, same as the old year

The films from last year have wrapped and the movies of 2024 are about to begin. What did we really learn?

2023 proved that Ben Affleck is a better director than George Clooney.

Among the first releases of the new year are Night Swim and Self Reliance.

Night Swim turns out to be a bit of a let down even for a Blum House horror film. A pool that kills, haunted by the spirits of previous victims. Imagine the sequel possibilities where all the water bound spirits can have their own spin-off prequel. Don’t hold your breath.

The real pity is the waste of a great cast with Russell Wyatt and Kerry Condon as the couple who move into the house adjacent to the swimming pool. Ninety-nine percent of the shivers are cheap jump scares of sunken spooks.

Self Reliance got a one-day AMC release in advance of its Hulu streaming premiere. It’s a Jake Johnson joint, starring Johnson, directed by Johnson, written by Johnson.

Andy Samberg plays himself, and one day pulls up to Johnson’s Tommy in a limo and offers him a part on a prestigious television game. If Tommy can avoid people trying to kill him for one month he wins a million dollars. Some stipulations apply. 

Guest stars include Christopher Lloyd and Anna Kendrick. Self Reliance works best when it sprints with a comic The Running Man pace. On Hulu beginning January 12.

AMERICAN FICTION

Opening wide after a few weeks in select theaters American Fiction revolves around a book that becomes a sensation. The true author cannot be revealed. Eventually the truth will have to come out and when it does it will be even funnier than everything that preceded.

Jeffrey Wright plays the writer of said novel not unlike a super hero that cannot reveal his true identity.

Very engaging even if debut feature writer/director Cord Jefferson creates too many endings trying to paint himself out of the corner of his satirical plot.

CLARENCE

The Book of Clarence combines Biblical epics and Blaxploitation with a dose of Tarantino styled historical revisionism.

Jeymes Samuel directs with tongue-in-cheek vengeance always aware of the parody inherent in the story of the crucifixion.

Samuel introduces the film explaining that he was honoring the style of classic films like Ben Hur and Spartacus.

For the record, classic Hollywood directors and Biblical epics go hand-in-hand. In addition to William Wyler helming Hur and Kubrick cutting his studio teeth on Spartacus, directors as diverse as King Vidor (Solomon and Sheba where Yul Brynner grew his hair out for the role), George Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told), Frank Borzage (The Big Fisherman), knocked out religious themed films in their later years. Perhaps best remembered is the 1956  The Ten Commandments (De Mille). The most recent would be Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Samuel has found something unique around which to shape his allegory. There are occasional violent images but nothing to compare to his previous  The Harder They Fall. At the same time there’s a magical realism that manifests at the oddest times. There’s a whole section that compares the slap as a physical assault with an eye toward cultural satire a la the Will Smith slap that destroyed the Oscars, itself a dated convention just like the type of movies Samuel skewers.

LaKeith Stanfield plays Clarence and in a dual role plays his twin brother who is an apostle of Christ. The film is divided into three chapters, or books are they are referred to in film interstitials.

Clarence states that he’s not a believer in God. But when he sees the amount of money the Messiah brings in he proclaims himself a prophet and creates his own traveling miracle circus.

Along the way we enjoy supporting and cameos roles from a great line-up of talent that includes Alfre Woodard, Omar Sy, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Oyelowo, along with others. James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch pop up with one of them unrecognizable most of the film because he’s in blackface. You know one of them plays Pilate.

Clarence finds himself in a predicament when the occupying Romans decree all messiahs outlawed. Soon he’s defending himself on trial for his life. 

Real fans of the Jesus fan fiction will be familiar with Michael Moorcock’s sci-fi novel Behold the Man. The 1969 book follows a down on his luck scholar who is chosen for a time travel experiment to the year 28 AD because he speaks Amharic, the language spoken at the time of Christ. When the protag meets Jesus the messiah turns out to be a teenage retard and his mother a whore. Unable to accept the reality of the situation our hero literally becomes the new Jesus, preaching right up to his cruxfiction.

This mirrors the journey of Clarence. When he runs afoul of the law he plays his part so well he’s about to be executed Roman style on the hill of Golgotha.

The entire film is scored wall-to-wall rock video style with much of the music composed by Samuel, himself a producer/musician under the stage name The Bullitts.

Costumes and hair styling are top notch. Location photography in the Italian city of Matera provide a perfect look at the past. (The Southern Italian city with its ancient walls and roads also pops up in films as diverse as Quantum of Solace, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and The Passion of the Christ.)

The Book of Clarence walks a tightrope of social satire with ease never losing its balance. Opening January 12.

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