Film Review of the Week


Clemency (15)

Review: Life and death are confirmed by last-minute telephone calls in Clemency, a quietly devastating drama told through the eyes of a death row inmate bound for the chamber and a long-serving warden, who must remain emotionally detached until the final injection of potassium chloride stops heart function. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu wanders the same echoing corridors as Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile and Just Mercy, exploring different facets of the American criminal justice system.

Her second feature is emboldened by a fearless central performance from Alfre Woodard as the sleep-deprived warden, who is as much a prisoner of her hulking facility as hundreds of men in her care. Over the course of two riveting hours, Woodard chips away at her character’s armour, which she wears to protect against visible twinges of doubt, until trickles of saltwater break through and smear her unmovable, cold facade. Her omission from this year’s Oscar nominations was an injustice. Aldis Hodge also delicately reaches into our chests to rip out our hearts with a measured supporting performance as a prisoner, who has always pleaded his innocence. In one horrifying sequence, he repeatedly pounds his forehead against a wall, determined to seize control of his destiny once hope of a stay of execution has been extinguished. “I say when I die!” he screams forlornly as guards race into the blood-smeared cell to restrain him.

Chukwu opens to sobering and gut-wrenching effect with the bungled execution of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo). The first injection of midazolam is supposed to render Jimenez unconscious but the prisoner fits violently as his parents and invited guests watch in wide-eyed horror through glass from an adjacent room. Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) is haunted by Jimenez’s final moments, writhing in agony on a gurney, and she repeatedly seeks solace in a local bar rather than in the arms of her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). “I don’t see how it’s going to work living with an empty shell of a wife,” he pleads. “I need a pulse, Bernadine. I need to know you’re still here.”

His wife coolly prepares for the execution of prisoner Anthony Woods (Hodge), who has served 15 years for the murder of a police officer but has always asserted that his accomplice pulled the trigger. Lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) hopes the governor might weigh up the evidence and grant Woods clemency. “I am going to fight for him right up to the moment you stick that needle in his arm,” Marty snarls at Bernadine, “Just so you know.”

Clemency is a powerful character study, which delivers its knockout blows in prolonged silences on both sides of the sliding bars. A telephone call between Woods and his estranged ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) pulses with unvarnished raw emotion but it’s Woodard who inevitably sears into the memory. A three-minute close-up of her face finally registering everything we have been feeling, her posture perceptibly sagging as the piercing scream of a flatline on a heart monitor steadily increases in volume, is almost unbearable.

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Dreambuilders (U)

Review: A resourceful girl abuses the power to shape her night-time imaginings in a colourful Danish computer-animated adventure co-directed by Kim Hagen Jensen and Tonni Zinck. Dubbed into English language for its cinema release, Dreambuilders teaches wholesome messages of sisterhood, compassion and compromise, laced with sticky sentiment. A linear script visualises our dream states as prop-filled wooden theatre stages, suspended in mid-air on long metal chains, which are accessed by mine carts on rollercoaster tracks. It’s a neat concept, providing Jensen and Zinck’s picture with a couple of vertiginous set-pieces as cutesy characters careen along the undulating metal pathway at dizzying speed, slaloming above and below myriad fantastical dream performances.

Repeatedly, the film encourages young viewers to let their imaginations run amok when they snuggle down quietly in bed but Dreambuilders doesn’t always heed its own excellent advice, following a linear narrative trajectory with minimum emotional distress. Vocal performances are solid but instantly forgettable and there’s a discernible lack of humour to prevent parents from enjoying a cheeky visit to their own dream stages during the undemanding 77 minutes.

Minna (voiced by Robyn Dempsey) is a caring and sensitive girl, who shares a seemingly unbreakable bond with her father, John (Tom Hale). They are a close-knit unit, taking on the world side by side after Minna’s mother, celebrated singer Karen Mitchles (Alberte Winding), abandons them to chase her musical dreams. The relationship is threatened by the arrival of John’s new partner Helene (Karen Ardiff) and her selfish, social media-obsessed daughter Jenny (Emma Jenkins). John attempts to allay his daughter’s fears, asking tenderly “Don’t you want to be a real family again?”

Determined to make her father happy, Minna puts on “her happy hat” but spiteful Jenny makes everyone’s lives a misery and threatens to have Minna’s beloved pet hamster Viggo Mortensen sent to an animal shelter. That night, Minna escapes harsh reality in her sleep and the girl discovers that her slumbering fantasies are created on a hand-built and painted set each night by a dreambuilder called Gaff (Luke Griffin) and his army of dream-bots. Minna learns she can gatecrash other dreams and the girl resolves to teach selfie-snapping arch-nemesis Jenny a lesson. “Disturbing other people’s dreams can have catastrophic consequences,” warns Gaff, who fears the wrath of the Inspector (Brendan McDonald) if Minna enacts her plan, codenamed Fix Jenny.

Dreambuilders makes light work of its central moral dilemma, quickly resolving differences with minimum character development. Jensen and co-director Zinck distil key plot points in dialogue, clearly signposting their humble intentions. A nightmare sequence involving hordes of clockwork spiders shouldn’t inspire sleepless nights.

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