For a review of “Sleight,”
By day, Bo ( Jacob Latimore) is a street magician, wowing passersby with truly impressive sleight of hand for tips. By night, he slings party drugs in the clubs and on the streets of L. A. But all the time, he’s the protective guardian of his sister, Tina ( Storm Reid), just two orphaned siblings against the world. In “Sleight,” cowriter/ director J. D. Dillard and co- writer/ producer Alex Theurer have created an unlikely superhero origin story, executed with the style, themes and budget of independent cinema.
The central conflict of “Sleight” revolves around Bo’s competing livelihoods. Magic is his passion, a calling so strong that he has subjected himself to physical extremes. Inspired by a Venice Beach illusionist he encountered as a kid who had carved a hole in his hand for an illusion, Bo believes that anyone can do a trick, but the person who’ll do anything is the true magician. A Houdini poster illustrates his inspiration to push himself to the limit for his craft.
But selling drugs pays the bills for Bo and Tina, a side hustle that has sucked him in far deeper than he ever imagined. His boss, Angelo ( Dulé Hill), has started to rely on him in ways that test Bo’s morality and identity, and going against the boss is far more dangerous than even Bo wagers. Also, Bo’s recently met cute community college student/ cupcake salesgirl Holly ( Seychelle-Gabriel), and he doesn’t suspect she wants to date the local drug dealer.
The magic is the setting and the soul of “Sleight,” while the drugs offer stakes and danger to the story. At times, the drug subplot can feel a bit overwrought and inauthentic; as committed as Hill is, it’s hard to buy him as the ruthless and cold- blooded Angelo, and the budget limitations are a bit clearer during those scenes.
But Dillard and Theurer pull off the most important thing in the film— the character and his journey. Latimore shines in this lead role, and “Sleight” is a star- making performance for this on therise actor. The high stakes of his entanglement with Angelo force Bo out of his comfort zone, and he relies on his skill with magic to slide out of some sticky situations. However, it becomes far more than just an optical illusion, and as Bo pushes himself to the limit, he makes a breakthrough from the kind of sleight of hand magic to what seems to almost be real magic.
The film leaves the supernatural elements just ambiguous enough, only hinting around the edges at the possibilities of what could be. It’s a smart move for a film that’s grounded in a gritty reality about a kid struggling to make ends meet in a tough world that hasn’t been fair to him. But the wisps of real magic that dance around the edges of “Sleight” imbue the film with a fresh, exciting dynamic.
In their feature film debut, Dillard and Theurer have efficiently utilized their resources to demonstrate a deft control of character and tone that leaves you wanting more from Bo’s story, and curious about what the filmmakers could do with a bigger project. “Sleight” fuses superhero story with a tough coming- of- age tale, and it enlivens and elevates both genres into something new and different, while heralding the arrival of Latimore as a star.
“Sleight,” a WWE Studios release, is rated R for language throughout, drug content and some violence. Running time: 90 minutes.
There are as many different ways into a troubling documentary film subject as there are subjective definitions of a fair shake.
The intriguing, bluntly confrontational “American Anarchist” speaks to both those truths. It comes from director Charlie Siskel, codirector of the excellent documentaryas- detective- story “Finding Vivian Maier.” He’s also the nephew of the late Tribune film critic after which Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center is named.
Siskel’s subject here is William Powell, the man who wrote the notorious 1971 bestseller “The Anarchist Cookbook” in fit of brazen revolutionary defiance when he was an angry, disillusioned 19- year- old looking to make his mark. Culled from military manuals and other sources he found, among other places, in the New York Public Library, Powell offered a wealth of practical information about how to make TNT and other explosives at home. Alongwith the recipes, “The Anarchist Cookbook” is packed with sentiments along the lines of: “Respect can only be earned by the spilling of blood.”
He never lived it down. Powell earned relatively little money fromthe book’s popularity. When copies of what he refers to, euphemistically, as “the cookbook” started turning up in the homes and apartments of terrorists and mass murderers, from Columbine to ISIS, the author’s guilt and mortification pushed him away from America. For decades he and his wife worked around the world as educators and school administrators, focusing on children with special needs.
Siskel secured Powell’s cooperation for a series of interviews at his home in rural France. Across four days in June 2015, the filmmaker questioned Powell on the touchy subject of the book, its bloody legacy and its author’s culpability. Variously dodgy, wrenching, testy and sobering, Powell’s answers often don’t answer much. But Siskel keeps hammering on his subject, or target, until things get interesting.
At the Venice Film Festival last year, where Siskel’s documentary made its world premiere, the filmmaker told me: “I have a lot of empathy for Bill. We all make youthful mistakes. His just happened to play out in a way most of ours don’t — publicly, and with serious ramifications.” Siskel said that going into the project, he hoped Powell would “be willing to look back at his life and face himself, by participating in this film.” Things became “adversarial,” he acknowledged, which is easy enough to discern in the finished product. “But he wanted to be pushed.” Powell died the year after the interviews with Siskel.
“American Anarchist” has a tone that’s at times not so much inquisitive as haranguing. In the years before his death Powell disowned the book, though if an author can be equal parts in denial and in confessional, that’s the Powell we see here. Did “The Anarchist Cookbook” qualify as a legitimate if provocative publishing phenomenon, or was it simply an object lesson in the dangers of free speech? Did Powell take too long to speak and write about his regrets? There’s a moment in “American Anarchist” when Ochan, Powell’s wife, notes that “we all do dumb things. But not everyone prints them in a book.”
Writers or not, we all carry our former selves inside of the people we became, and are becoming still. Siskel’s movie — flawed, somewhat limited but never dull — makes Powell eat his words and then, in metaphorical terms, write the restaurant review.
“American Anarchist,” a Gravitas Ventures release, is not rated. Running time: 80 minutes.
William Powell stars in the documentary “American Anarchist.”