Review: ‘The Book of Clarence’ (2024), starring LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard and James McAvoy

January 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

James McAvoy (far left) and LaKeith Stanfield (second from right) in “The Book of Clarence” (Photo by Moris Puccio/Legendary Entertainment/TriStar Pictures)

“The Book of Clarence” (2024)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in 33 .A.D., in an alternate version of Jerusalem, the comedy film “The Book of Clarence” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An atheist rogue, who is heavily in debt, pretends to a miracle worker to con people out of money, much to the chagrin of his identical twin brother, who is a follower of Jesus Christ.

Culture Audience: “The Book of Clarence” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and people expecting a witty satire of Christianity and racism, but they won’t get much wit in this movie.

LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy and R.J. Cyler in “The Book of Clarence” (Photo by Moris Puccio/Legendary Entertainment/TriStar Pictures)

“The Book of Clarence” is writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s attempt to make a religious satire like classics from Monty Python or Mel Brooks. But it’s a muddled mess where the best jokes aren’t very amusing. A talented cast cannot save this dull flop. “The Book of Clarence” also lazily panders to unnecessary negative and over-used stereotypes that do nothing substantial for the story.

The best religious satires are those where audience members don’t have to know much about religion to enjoy the satire, because the story and the characters speak to larger issues about humanity and social structures. That’s one of the failings of “The Book of Clarence,” which relies too heavily on comedy where viewers need to have better-than-average knowledge of Judeo-Christian teachings to understand some of these movie’s intended messages.

Another big problem with “The Book of Clarence” is that it goes back and forth between lampooning Christianity and skewering racial oppression of black people, but the movie often loses focus and ends up not saying much at all. There are chase scenes in the movie that are meaningless. Major characters from the Bible are reduced to making shallow appearances, when their characters could have been developed in an impactful way.

In “The Book of Clarence” (which takes place in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem), Clarence (played by LaKeith Stanfield) is an unemployed loser who doesn’t do much with his life but commit petty theft, gamble, and sell and smoke marijuana with his best friend Elijah (played by RJ Cyler), who is a stereotypical stoner sidekick. Black men who use drugs and are involved in criminal activities? What a stupid, unoriginal and overused stereotype in movies.

The movie opens by showing several men in with their hands and feet nailed to crucifixes. Clarence is one of the men. A man who looks like the usual portrayal of Jesus Christ is another one. “The Book of Clarence” circles back to this scene toward the end of the movie, after it’s been shown how Clarence ended up on this crucifix. It’s a long and disjointed slog to get to that point, filled with cringeworthy dialogue and unfunny “jokes” that make everyone look like idiots.

In one of the movie’s early scenes Clarence and Elijah are in a chariot, and they are racing against Mary Magdalene (played by Teyana Taylor) in another chariot. Clarence and Elijah both get shot with darts and fall out of their chariots. Mary Magdalene then races off and isn’t seen again until after a long time-wasting stretch of the movie. It’s an example of some of many pointless scenes in “The Book of Clarence.”

Clarence is heavily in debt to a local thug named Jedediah the Terrible (played by Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who has given Clarence a deadline of 30 days to pay his debt. Meanwhile, atheist Clarence is bothered by the fact that his estranged identical twin Thomas (also played by Stanfield) has become a follower of a self-proclaimed Son of God named Jesus Christ (played by Nicholas Pinnock), who has amassed a growing number of followers but also detractors. Jesus keeps his face hidden under a hood until a “face reveal” that’s supposed to be suspenseful but is anti-climactic.

Clarence still lives with his loving and compassionate mother Amina (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste), because he is too financially broke to afford his own place. Amina is heartbroken that her only children are feuding with each other. Meanwhile, Clarence is dealing with his own heartbreak issues, because he’s pining for a beautiful woman named Varinia (played by Anna Diop), whom Clarence thinks is out of his league. Varinia also happens to be the sister of Jedediah.

Roman Empire officials are the story’s racist oppressors in “The Book of Clarence,” which has scenes that are obvious parallels to how racist modern-day police treat black men. Clarence and Elijah are minding their own business on a street when they get stopped and harassed by Roman law enforcement saying that Clarence and Elijah “fit the description” of two wanted criminals. Clarence and Elijah have multiple run-ins with a sadistic Roman named Decimus (played by Tom Glynn-Carney), who takes pleasure in targeting people who aren’t white.

When he’s not being racially profiled by white Romans, Clarence is being hunted by Jedediah and his goons, with Elijah as his drug-addled wing man. Clarence thinks up a scheme to get the money that he owes to Jedidiah: He pretends to be a Jesus disciple who can perform miracles, in order to con people out of money. “The Book of Clarence” is basically a ripoff of the 1995 stoner comedy “Friday” (starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker), wrapped in the guise of a religious satire.

John the Baptist (played by David Oyelowo) sees through Clarence’s fake religiousness when Clarence asks John to baptize him. Other characters in the movie that are based on biblical characters are the Virgin Mary (played by Alfre Woodard); Judas Iscariot (played by Micheal Ward); Barabbas (played by Omar Sy); and Pontius Pilate (played by James McAvoy). One of the few white people in the movie who isn’t portrayed as evil is Benjamin (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a dirty homeless beggar, who gets a makeover that is supposed to be a symbol of “whitewashed” rewriting of history.

“The Book of Clarence” isn’t a cohesive story. It’s just a bunch of poorly conceived sketches that are strung together with bibilical references. Many of the plot developments go nowhere. The acting performances are mostly mediocre or just plain awful. Clarence’s relationships, such as those with his twin Thomas and his would-be love interest Varinia, are boring and hollow, when they should be among the most interesting aspects of the story. Here’s an example of the movie’s moronic dialogue: Clarence says to Varinia: “I am spirit over sandals in love with you.”

The movie is capable of maybe eliciting some mild chuckles from viewers, but mostly the plot just goes around in circles, and then tries to wrap things up in a sentimental way that is unearned and phony, considering how cutting-edge this comedy want to be. Worst of all, “The Book of Clarence” is pretending to be a provocative and clever satire, when it’s really just a witless stoner movie. In that sense, this disappointing dud is just like the movie’s namesake Clarence: a sham wanting more respect and glory than what is deserved.

TriStar Pictures released “The Book of Clarence” in U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Together’ (2021), starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan

August 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan in “Together” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street)

“Together” (2021) 

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Culture Representation: Taking place from March 2020 to March 2021, in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom, the comedy/drama “Together” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple, who are opposites in many ways, confront issues in their love/hate relationship when they have to quarantine together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Audience: “Together” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about love relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy in “Together” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street)

The comedy/drama “Together” is a very talkative relationship movie that could easily have been a stage play because the entire story takes place at one house. The movie’s appeal is largely dependent on the talent of co-stars James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan. They are two of the movie’s three cast members who speak. McAvoy and Horgan also have about 99% of the screen time and speaking lines in the movie. And much of it consists of conversations and monologues that are funny, rude, angry and sometimes poignant.

Fortunately, McAvoy and Horgan succeed in making their very flawed characters sizzle with a wide range of emotions that are realistic for a troubled couple navigating their way through a quarantine together during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Together” (directed by Stephen Daldry and written Dennis Kelly) takes place from March 24, 2020, to March 22, 2021, in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom. By the end of the movie, the unnamed, unmarried couple portrayed by McAvoy and Horgan have a reckoning about where their relationship is headed, and they decide if they are going to stay together or not.

The couple at the center of the story are only identified as He and She in the film’s credits. They are both opposites in many ways. He is a businessman who used to be a high-ranking corporate executive and has started his own tech consulting business that is failing when this story begins. He’s politically conservative and hates the idea of government welfare because he thinks people on welfare are lazy. He has a very arrogant and condescending view of people who are working-class and poor, even though he comes from a working-class background in Scotland.

She’s from England and politically liberal—someone whom a conservative would call a “bleeding heart” liberal, although she likes to think of herself as a moderate liberal. She comes from an upper-middle-class background (her late father was a dentist), and she believes that the government and society in general should do more to help poor and disenfranchised people. It’s why she works as a refugee coordinator.

This often-bickering couple has a son together named Arthur, nicknamed Artie (played by Samuel Logan), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. Artie stays in the background for most of the movie. Artie also doesn’t speak until the last third of the film, when the quarantine lockdown has lifted and the COVID-19 vaccination has become available. This family trio lives in a cluttered, upper-middle-class two-story house.

There are two scenes where Artie is briefly shown on a backyard trampoline. The movie quickly shows only person outside of the household: a boy who’s around the same age as Artie and who lives next door. This unnamed boy doesn’t speak in the movie, but he also has a backyard trampoline that he’s seen jumping on at the same time as Artie. Viewers will get the impression that even without a quarantine, Artie is a loner anyway because he and his parents never mention Artie not being able to hang out with any friends during the lockdown.

The beginning of “Together” doesn’t waste time in showing the volatile relationship between these on-again/off-again lovers. It’s the first day of the quarantine lockdown, and they’ve just come back from stocking up on food from a grocery store, where a lot of panic buying was going on. This argumentative couple—who talk to the camera, as if they’re filming video diaries for an audience—can’t even agree on the name their son should be called. He thinks their son should be called Artie, while she prefers Arthur.

He says to the camera, “The only thing keeping us together is our child.” He then says to her about how during quarantine, he’ll miss the routine of leaving the house. “Just saying goodbye to you [to go to work] is the best part of my day!” She snaps back and says to the camera, “Just being in the same room as him is like a sadness and a soul stink both mixed together.”

The insults don’t end there. He says to her, “I hate your face.” She replies, “When I look at you, I get the exact same feeling as my dead dad’s cancer.” They both trade these types of verbal barbs while looking at each other or acting as if the other person isn’t there and talking directly to the camera.

How did these two miserable people end up together? They tell their “love story” in bits and pieces, during their conversations and monologues. Like many romances that turn sour, things started out wonderfully. They had an “opposites attract” relationship where their differences seemed charming to each other in the beginning. And they definitely fell in love.

However, even early on in their relationship, they disagreed and argued over fundamental things. A turning point in their courtship happened when a hipster friend of theirs named Nathan convinced the couple to go on a New Age type of rustic retreat with Nathan and some other people. During this retreat, the participants were required to get up early one morning to harvest mushrooms.

The male partner in the couple got food poisoning from eating the mushrooms. His food poisoning was so severe that he needed hospital treatment. And describing it all these years later, he says it felt like a near-death experience. Because of this health scare, the couple decided to have a child together.

Artie or Arthur is a fairly quiet child who can occasionally be seen eavesdropping on some of his parents’ arguments. They seem to be aware that he listens in on them talking because they sometimes lower their voice when they say things they don’t want their son to hear. And the man in the couple thinks that Artie is a little strange, but when he talks about it with his partner, this father often over-compensates by raising his voice to praise Artie in case the child can hear nearby.

In the beginning of the movie, the man tells his partner about a recent trip to a grocery store, where he wanted to buy aubergines to cook for their son. He saw a grocery store employee with a large stock of aubergines and asked her if any were available to buy. She says no, because another employee who recently got infected with COVID-19 could have handled this produce, and the store is investigating to find out if the aubergines would be safe to sell.

The man in the relationship practically brags with glee about how he verbally abused this grocery store employee when she declined to take £1,000 that he offered to get her to give him one of the aubergines. He says that he called this employee a “big-nosed prick” and a “fucking loser.” And to further demean her, he also said: “This is the reason why you’re stuck in this shitty job, and I’ve got an E-Class [Mercedes] Benz waiting for me outside!” He also said that he dropped all of his groceries on the floor and then walked out.

The man’s partner is so horrified and disgusted by hearing this story that she walks away. It’s meant to demonstrate how callous and condescending he can be. But over time, things happen during the pandemic that teach him some humility and appreciation for people and things that he took for granted. The man in this relationship has a more transformative arc than the woman during the pandemic lockdown.

Throughout this one-year period that’s depicted in “Together,” the couple experiences more ups and downs, including news that a few people they know have been infected with COVID-19. They argue some more, make up, and then argue again. It seems to be a pattern in their relationship that gives them a lot of stress, but it’s something that they’re oddly comfortable with because that’s all they know in how to communicate with each other.

Artie has only one grandparent: his mother’s widowed mother. The parents of Artie’s father are deceased. Artie is very close to his maternal grandmother, who needs nursing care and cannot visit during the quarantine lockdown. Artie’s mother is very worried about what will happen to her mother, who has another daughter who also lives in the United Kingdom. A decision is made on whether or not the grandmother should continue to receive care at home or should be moved to a nursing care facility.

Although none of this couple’s relatives is seen in the movie, the types of relationships that Artie’s mother has with her sister and mother have a deep emotional effect on her. It’s not stated if the man in the relationship has any living relatives. This movie’s lack of a family background for the male protagonsist is a minor screenplay flaw that can easily be forgiven because his character’s personality is so vivid (as unlikable as he can be) and very realistic to how a lot of insecure people behave.

The woman in the relationship isn’t a saint either, since she and her partner say some awful, hateful things to each other. Her main personality flaw is that she doesn’t like to show vulnerabilities and puts up a front that she can handle anything at any time. And that “stiff upper lip” façade might come crashing down on her.

One of the criticisms that “Together” might get is how the couple’s son is mostly in the background during this story of a family that’s supposed to be in lockdown together. The parents do seem self-absorbed, but they are not neglectful, since there are scenes where they interact lovingly with their son. However, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers didn’t want Artie/Arthur to say or do much in this story, because the movie’s focus is on how these squabbling parents are dealing with their own issues that have nothing to do with their son.

Because these two adult characters are front and center for the entire movie, viewer enjoyment of “Together” will be affected by how much someone is willing to spend 92 minutes going on a talkative roller coaster ride of a couple whose relationship always seems on the verge of collapse. Fortunately, Kelly’s witty screenplay gives McAvoy and Horgan an ideal platform to showcase their considerable acting chops. It’s a ride that is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes amusing, but it’s definitely not boring.

Bleecker Street released “Together” in select U.S. cinemas on August 27, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. BBC iPlayer premiered the movie in the United Kingdom on June 17, 2021.

2019 Academy Awards: performers and presenters announced

February 11, 2019

by Carla Hay

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced several entertainers who will be performers and presenters at the 91st Annual Academy Awards ceremony, which will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. ABC will have the U.S. telecast of the show, which will not have a host. As previously reported, comedian/actor Kevin Hart was going to host the show, but he backed out after the show’s producers demanded that he make a public apology for homophobic remarks that he made several years ago. After getting a  firestorm of backlash for the homophobic remarks, Hart later made several public apologies but remained adamant that he would still not host the Oscars this year.

The celebrities who will be on stage at the Oscars this year are several of those whose songs are nominated for Best Original Song. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will perform their duet “Shallow” from their movie remake of “A Star Is Born.” Jennifer Hudson will perform “I’ll Fight” from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG.” David Rawlings and Gillian Welch will team up for the duet “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from the Western film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” It has not yet been announced who will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from the Disney musical sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.”** It also hasn’t been announced yet if Kendrick Lamar and SZA will take the stage for “All the Stars” from the superhero flick “Black Panther.”

Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic do the music for the “In Memoriam” segment, which spotlights notable people in the film industry who have died in the year since the previous Oscar ceremony.

Meanwhile, the following celebrities have been announced as presenters at the ceremony: Whoopi Goldberg (who has hosted the Oscars twice in the past), Awkwafina, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Tina Fey, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Amandla Stenberg, Tessa Thompson Constance Wu, Javier Bardem, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Emilia Clarke, Laura Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Stephan James, Keegan-Michael Key, KiKi Layne, James McAvoy, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Momoa and Sarah Paulson. Goldberg and Bardem are previous Oscar winners.

Other previous Oscar winners taking the stage will be Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney, who won the actor and actress prizes at the 2018 Academy Awards.

Donna Gigliotti (who won an Oscar for Best Picture for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love) and Emmy-winning director Glenn Weiss are the producers of the 2019 Academy Awards. This will be the first time that Gigliotti is producing the Oscar ceremony. Weiss has directed several major award shows, including the Oscars and the Tonys. He will direct the Oscar ceremony again in 2019.

**February 18, 2019 UPDATE: Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Los Things Go,” the Oscar-nominated song from “Mary Poppins Returns.” British rock band Queen, whose official biopic is the Oscar-nominated film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” will also perform on the show with lead singer Adam Lambert. It has not been revealed which song(s) Queen will perform at the Oscars.

February 19, 2019 UPDATE: These presenters have been added to the Oscar telecast: Elsie Fisher, Danai Gurira, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, John Mulaney, Tyler Perry, Pharrell Williams, Krysten Ritter, Paul Rudd and Michelle Yeoh.

February 21, 2019 UPDATE: These celebrities will present the Best Picture nominees: José Andrés, Dana Carvey, Queen Latifah, Congressman John Lewis, Diego Luna, Tom Morello, Mike Myers, Trevor Noah, Amandla Stenberg, Barbra Streisand and Serena Williams.

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