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Thursday, June 22, 2017

This Is How You Do a Movie Trailer

In case you've been underground, the trailer for director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther hit recently and it was everything dreams are made of, and puts Chadwick Boseman at the forefront where he should always remain. I thought the actor would have more than enough to juggle given the ginormity of playing the title character of an iconic superhero on the big screen, but today brought MARSHALL to my attention, in which he plays the the title character again, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Blending modern hip-hop tunes, endless swag that connects Marshall's character to today's contemporary idols and activists, and a stellar cast that includes Sterling K. Brown, Josh Gad, and James Cromwell, this trailer for MARSHALL is cute extraordinarily well. My body is ready.

Here's the synopsis:

Long before he sat on the United States Supreme Court or claimed victory in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a young rabble-rousing attorney for the NAACP. The new motion picture, MARSHALL, is the true story of his greatest challenge in those early days – a fight he fought alongside attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a young lawyer with no experience in criminal law: the case of black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), accused by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of sexual assault and attempted murder.
Watch the trailer:

MARSHALL opens in theaters October 13. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

OKJA is a Moving, Profound, and Urgent Story about a Young Girl's Resistance Under a White Establishment

No matter where you fell with it, The Get Down, which was abruptly canceled by Netflix recently, at least it centered on young characters of color who were given the agency they deserve to carry a narrative. It was one of the few series that did so (vastly surpassing the landscape of the big screen) and has left audiences questioning when's the next time we'll see another show that has the same impact.

Well, the verdict is still out for series television. But Netflix has coupled this kneejerk decision with an epic new film starring a young actress of color whose character's main motivation is to reclaim something that was stolen from her by a large corporate white establishment--and she'll do whatever it takes. If that's not a rebound, I'll don't know what is. OKJA, director Boon Jong Ho's latest starring 13-year-old South Korean actress Seo-Hyun Ahn, is at once innovative, uncompromising, and moving. And especially in this sociopolitical climate, it's urgent.

On the surface, this is a story about a child and her massive pet pig. It could have easily even been an animated film, except that it challenges all previously established standards of the genre. Ho has presented Mija (Ahn), a young female hero who's not dependent on a male friend/love interest or even a best girlfriend to guide her. In fact, her only guardian, her grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun), can't even suppress her once Okja, her pet and best friend, is stolen from her to be sold as processed meat in America. It's not so much the concept of just how we get the meat we see at the grocery store (regardless of your feelings on that, it's a normalized behavior to which many have become accustomed); it's the fact that this particular American company, Mirando Corporation led by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), has arrogantly taken something that doesn't belong to them, with not even an acknowledgment to its owner. Then they are offended when she takes offense (a typical white supremacy reaction).

Thus kicks off the action of the narrative, Mija following the company to America-- knocking over every adult in her path. That is until she encounters an animal rights group led by Jay (Paul Dano) who seem to have her best interests in mind and is Mirando Corp's biggest threat. Because they are mostly a white organization, with the exception of K (Steven Yeun), the crew of course assumes they can save Okja better than Mija (who never speaks a licks English in the entire film) can. But that's the beauty of Ho's story here. Mija doesn't need anyone to save her, doesn't need to speak the same language as her enemies, and she doesn't even need to be an adult; yet she is in total command. Okja's captors, a determined yet cartoonish group of people including animal TV show host and bumbling idiot Dr. Johnny Wilcox (hilariously played by Jake Gyllenhall), Lucy, whose frustrations are undoubtedly motivated by basic sibling rivalry and having a mouth is full of metal, serve as both comic relief in the movie but also to show how ridiculous the system is. We even see the bad guys slipping on marbles while chasing Mija. It's one of those it's-funny-because-this-is-how-it-really-is kind of thing.

Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, OKJA is a story about love, resistance, bullies, and how we treat the most defenseless on the planet. It doesn't attempt to break down the system; moreso it presents what the system looks like through the story of how one young girl in South Korea fights against it. That in itself is profound.

OKJA is in theaters in NYC and LA and on Netflix June 28.

Monday, June 19, 2017

On Reinventing the Romantic Male Lead and THE BIG SICK

I will always find it interesting when people fail to recognize (or flat out dismiss) a political statement, even despite the subtlety of the situation and the argument of "how far we've come since this was a real political statement." If Loving and the outrage over a recent Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial young girl and her interracial parents taught audiences anything, it is how far we've come yet how far we still have to go. That said, THE BIG SICK is one of those films that is a political statement despite it being presented as one.

Or so its co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani has admitted. He recently told Variety Magazine, “It is interesting that the movie is being seen in a different context than it was intended. Obviously it would be great if our movie came out and people didn’t see it as a political statement because it really isn’t. It is just a love story and a comedy.” Here's the thing: THE BIG SICK is an interracial comedy starring a Pakistani-American male (Nanjiani) and a white American woman (Zoe Kazan) as the romantic leads, hitting theaters at a time when the United States president has tried to ban Pakistanis from entering the country, accusing them of being a terrorism threat. So yeah, it may not be his intent to make a statement (after all, the film is inspired by the true love story between Kumail and his real life wife--and co-writer--Emily V. Gordon), but it is one anyway.

In sharing their own romantic tale, Gordon and Nanjiani help normalize the idea of a love that can exist across cultures. But even more profoundly, it doesn't ignore the obvious differences between them -- from his family's tradition of arranged marriages to the fact that she's a free spirited divorcee. In other words, it doesn't neutralize their cultural nuances to try to appeal to mass audiences. In fact, similar to Aziz Ansari's wonderful Master of None series on Netflix, we see Kumail's (Nanjiani) family contextualized in the film and having a significant influence in his life as he straddles his cultural traditions and his very different American upbringing to which he's become assimilated.

But this isn't to take away from the fact that THE BIG SICK is thoroughly entertaining, and not to mention charming. Nanjiani is hilarious as Kumail, the deadpan uber drive/comedian whose chance encounter with the perky Emily (Kazan) in his car would alter the way he looks at love. If Hollywood needs more proof that non-white male actors can be excellent romantic leading men, Nanjiani's performance here should be more than enough evidence of that. He's hilarious, while portraying the right amount of gravitas when the scene calls for it. As its title indicates, the film spends much of the time in a hospital when Emily suddenly falls gravely ill, bringing together Kumail and Emily's parents (played by the exceptional Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who rush in from out of time to be by their daughter's side) to form an unlikely relationship. So Kumail shares the bulk of his scenes with Emily's parents, especially Terry (Romano), breaking romantic comedy tropes that show romance strictly between the man and woman. Here, the male love interest is circumstantially wooing her parents (which is actually not a bad way to court a woman). It has the same meet, conflict, and resolve format that most romantic comedies follow, but it has an actual purpose, intentionally or not.

Meanwhile, there's Kazan, who never really goes outside her natural range of cute and affable, though it works perfectly for this role. It lends itself to the tenderness of this movie, which is a much needed refresh for the romcom genre and, yes, the political statement we deserve right now.

THE BIG SICK opens in select theaters June 23, followed by a national release on July 14.

Watch the trailer:

Friday, June 16, 2017

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner Star in a New Thriller from the Writer of SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER

Okay, first of all, if you still haven't seen Hell or High Water you are losing at life, big time. And not because Jeff Bridges is in it. Though his performance was hyped up, let the record show that it is in fact Chris Pine who is exceptional in this film (and should also put the whole "Which Hollywood Chris is Better?" debate to rest).  Writer Taylor Sheridan's screenplay is a big reason why that movie worked so well (and why Sicario is even more tremendous to watch).

That said, I'd pretty much watch most anything Sheridan writes, including WIND RIVER, a new thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner that he also directed. Olsen and Renner play a FBI agent and a game tracker, respectively, investigating the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation. Jon Bernthal (who was also in Sicario) is among the cast.

Watch the trailer and let me know what you think:

WIND RIVER hits theaters August 4. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mandy Moore and Claire Holt are Deep Sea Bait in the Derivative But Decent 47 METERS DOWN

I know, right? It's so cliche. Two young women look to spice up their summer and take their minds off things like sour breakups by going deep sea diving in the middle of the ocean, hoping to catch a glance at some of the beautiful sharks they keep hearing about out there. I'll never understand why people would intentionally put themselves in the middle of danger, and talk about it like it's supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yeah, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because you'll likely never get another opportunity to do anything else again, including swimming, walking, or even breathing. So yeah, fun time.

But this summer needed a shark thriller. It's become the American way. We spend all year talking about our big plans for the summer, which for many of us includes some kind of beach activity, so Hollywood naturally must combat that with its best don't-go-near-the-water movies. And we fall for it every single time. 47 METERS DOWN is no exception. Starring Claire Holt and Mandy Moore (aka my new favorite actress after completely slaying expectations in the NBC drama, This is Us), the film is every bit as basic as most Jaws knockoffs, but it's consistently engaging even though you know just about everything that's going to happen in every single scene.

The dichotomy between Holt as Kate, the more adventurous friend to Moore's more cautious Kate is just one reason why the film works. Though both characters could have been fleshed out more (I personally could have used some explanation as to why Lisa's ex would call her boring, right before he dumped her. But I guess we needed more affirmation that becoming shark bait wouldn't ever be a thing that for which Lisa would normally volunteer herself), we spend enough time with them to understand the strength of their friendship, its complexity, and how being in a life-or-death situation could really put that to the test.

But of course, the larger piece is the horror story. Lisa and Kate being locked inside a rickety cage and dropped into the ocean with the innocent intention of gawking at seawater creatures. You know nothing good can come from that, but you watch as they struggle to try to save their own lives, and taunt us with the notorious "I'll be right back" line when all their naive dreams end up in bloody tatters. Thankfully director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door) at least doesn't subject his woman protagonists to skimpy bathing suits and flighty one-liners. Instead he delivers a thriller with atmospheric cinematography that places the viewer into the cage with Lisa and Kate, and into the dark, endless ocean that swallows them hole. We root for them, especially Lisa, for whom it becomes increasingly clear that this is a moment that she's determined to survive, to prove something to herself. But unlike Blake Lively's character in The Shallows, Lisa's motivation is a frivolous, underdeveloped breakup narrative, while the former carries far more urgency.

But 47 METERS DOWN is a cheap summer thriller with a bite, B-movie fare that's heavy on empty calories but engrossing enough to consume as a one-time only guilty pleasure. You'll likely not come back for seconds.

Rating: B-

47 METERS DOWN is in theaters Friday.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER: What Happens When White Hollywood Tries (and Fails) to Connect with a Woke Audience

For a film that's supposedly "the first to address Trump-era issues this year," BEATRIZ AT DINNER quickly destroys the very character it aims to present as a social justice warrior, a woman of color who chooses not to sit idly as those around her bask in their own ignorance, to the point where each pointed, forward-thinking liberal rant she utters comes off awkward, terribly so. She's turned into a punchline instead. Despite being directed by a Puerto Rican-American filmmaker (Miguel Arteta, The Good Girl), it becomes painfully clear that the script was written by a white male scribe (Mike White) whose credits include nary a narrative that centers people of color.

Let me set this up for you: Salma Hayek plays the title character, a masseuse originally from Mexico whose healing has become the pride and joy of one of her most influential clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), a rich white woman who's hired Beatriz for an in-home treatment in preparation for her husband's corporate dinner party at their home that same evening. However, Beatriz has to stick around after the appointment because she gets stranded there when her car breaks down. Eager to express pity and inclusivity (mostly for bragging rights among her similarly aloof friends), Cathy invites Beatriz to her dinner. Already, Beatriz is an outsider, someone who was not invited to the party, inappropriately dressed, only brought to this residence to provide a service for Cathy. And even more strikingly, she's the only person of color at the table, the only one of working class. She's not even supposed to be there, and all the guests know it. It is expected that she shut up, eat her catered meal prepared by a Latina and a white gay chef (presumably also placed as intentional props in the film), and be thankful for Cathy's wonderful gesture. Right away, the sea of white faces at the dinner table very noticeably struggle to enjoy their dinner, empty conversation, and libations in the presence of the "immigrant help" sitting among them, silently not being addressed or catered to.

But wait, there's more. Beatriz shares a strange story with Cathy in the middle of her massage about how her goat was killed that morning. Yes, a goat, in Southern California. One of several she apparently keeps as pets, unironically. And she's deeply spiritual, in that she not only heals through the power of massage, but she apparently has visions. WHY must she be set up this way? Why couldn't she just be the only person of color at the table but maybe Cathy's friend or a corporate associate of her husband (David Warshofsky)? Or just a regular person with an actual invite to the party, who's responding as anyone would to the offensive and remarkably out-of-touch remarks of her white counterparts? Why oh why does she have to be so outside the box? It taints every clear-minded, valid thing she says to these fools.

Because White (or white Hollywood) clearly can't fathom why a person of color with the same economic status would even encounter a situation in which she is compelled to defend her citizenship among the clueless and privileged, or that a person of color would even be among this class. As a result, he makes her a stereotype, a trope that is more easily digested in white America than a three-dimensional character of color. He gives her agency in that the story is driven by her character, except he doesn't really because he neither portrays her genuinely nor thoughtfully.

So why even bother with this story at all? What is the point of plopping this character in the middle of a table of white conservatives whose conversations center on successful business ventures, hunting, and the latest reality star scandal? If you're going to make a statement, make the statement. White gets up to the plate, and decides to make her a joke instead. Literally, for no reason at all. Having Beatriz react in frustration over business titan Doug Strutt's (John Lithgow) corporate ivory tower of self motivation and indifference, after everything we know about her at that point, weakens everything she says because we're made to think that she's kind of a looney tune. And it doesn't help that her retort is more spiritually motivated, propelled by a "feeling" she gets, rather than a visceral reaction to injustice.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't tell you how the movie ended. But it is as frustrating to watch as, well, most other scene in the movie. It's unredeemable and unsatisfying. BEATRIZ AT DINNER could have been a very smart film that addresses some of the social issues brought to the service during this Trump era, but instead it chickened out, at the expense of its own protagonist. What a shame.

Rating: D (* out of *****)

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is in theaters Friday.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Interview: Gina Prince-Bythewood Talks SHOTS FIRED and Telling the Story of the America You Don't Normally See on TV

Gina Prince-Bythewood and a scene from Shots Fired featuring DeWanda Wise

If you haven't been watching SHOTS FIRED on Fox, then you've been missing out on one of the smartest, timely, and fascinating shows on television right now (outside of ABC's American Crime, which was just brutally canceled for no reason at all). Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, the narrative kicks off with the murders of a young black man and a young white man at the hands of police. Through that impetus, it tells the story of criminal justice, police misconduct, civil unrest, and race.

In just nine episodes, the series, co-created by writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights), has explored what social justice looks like in the modern era, the role of the black church, local government corruption, and more, seamlessly. And on top of all that, it has one of the best casts on TV: Sanaa Lathan and Stephen James as the officers called to Charlotte in response to the murders, DeWanda Wise and Jill Hennessy as the mothers of the two men killed, the amazing Aisha Hinds as the respected pastor of the local church, Helen Hunt as the governor (yes, a woman governor!), Stephen Moyer as a police lieutenant, and Tristan Wilds as the sheriff deputy accused of killing an unarmed young white man. And that's not even everyone. Did I mention Richard Dreyfuss is also on the show too?

With the series finale of this limited television event coming up Wednesday, May 23, we caught up with Prince-Bythewood to talk about the inspiration behind the show, its phenomenal soundtrack, political statement, and working with some of the best talent Hollywood has yet to truly recognize on Sunday's Cinema in Noir podcast. Tune in below. The interview begins at the :30 minute mark.

Don't miss the highly anticipated finale of SHOTS FIRED Wednesday, May 23 at 8pm on FOX.

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