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Monday, July 24, 2017


I'l have to assume that there will come a day when a black woman headlining a film isn't cause for a think piece, social media hashtag, and a parade. But today is still not that day. And I don't think I ever want to not celebrate the fact that a woman like Jessica Williams--irreverent, nose-ringed, confident but not sassy -- executive produced and stars in a film that was written just for her (by a white guy, no less). But sadly, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES is only isn't up to par with the tremendous talent of the former Daily Show correspondent, who still brings her keen observational comedy and wit to this Netflix romantic comedy only to have it wasted.

Like anything involving Williams, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES does play against type. It's a romcom that doesn't adhere to the typical girl meets boy, he breaks her heart, she runs after him, he's not ready to commit to her, then much later runs to find her when he is through man whoring around town format. Though the title character and Williams's alter ego is aching over a breakup, triggering her to passive aggressively plan dates with guys she's not interested in to places where she hopes she'll bump into her ex (Lakeith Stanfield), she is still very much in control of her situation. An aspiring screenwriter, Jessica meets Boone (Chris Dowd) on one of these non-date dates and ends up kinda liking him, at least enough to sleep with him. So, they have a thing, and it's light and fun until his baggage ends up getting between them and their situation becomes no longer tolerable.

But, the film is hollow and as scattered as its protagonist (who, to be fair, is also razor-sharp, ambitious, and delightfully feminist). The plot is paper thin, unorganized, and fails to make an impact. And I'm baffled by the fact that the story seems to take place in a metropolitan city, yet Jessica and her ex are the only people of color. Jessica's dates are all white. Her bestie Tasha (Noël Wells) is white. And the only places they seem to go are coffee shops and hipster joints (not like black folks don't like coffee or random bars, but I question it with these optics). It's like writer/director Jim Strouse (the white guy I mentioned earlier) saw Williams's talent, but could only write her in his dominant gaze of whiteness. Which is woefully problematic, a lost opportunity.

While Williams herself is magnetic and commanding in the role, she's just not given enough character development or substantial material to really use this vehicle to catapult her to the status of which she is so deserving.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES launches exclusively on Netflix July 28.

Watch the teaser trailer:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The WONDER WOMAN Origin Story About to Rock Your World

Well, I'll be doggone. The Wonder Woman comic was inspired by two badass queer women? And we get to see their story on the big screen, written and directed by a queer woman of color (Angela Robinson, known for The L Word and True Blood)? Oh Hollywood gods, you get it wrong so many times, but when you're right it is so so good!

Set in 1940s, PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN is an origin story that stars Luke Evans as Harvard psychologist and Wonder Woman creator Dr. William Moulton Marston and Rebecca Hall stars as his wife Elizabeth, while Bella Heathcote plays their lover. More in the official synopsis:

While Marston's feminist superhero was criticized by censors for her 'sexual perversity', he was keeping a secret that could have destroyed him. Marston's muses for the Wonder Woman character were his wife Elizabeth Marston and their lover Olive Byrne, two empowered women who defied convention: working with Marston on human behavior research -- while building a hidden life with him that rivaled the greatest of superhero disguises.

Please, please, please be good. This could be epic, y'all. 

Here for Rebecca Hall, here for Angela Robinson, and here to look at Luke Evans. Bring it. My body is ready for it all. 

PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN hits theaters everywhere October 27, 2017!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Quickie Review: LANDLINE Starring Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, and John Turturro

For what it's worth, LANDLINE is just about the most harmless film you'll watch this year. It's not bad. It's not great. But it is unremarkable.The most interesting thing about it is the fact that it's set in the 90s, making it a bit of a nostalgia trip and a reminder of how strange yet glorious that era was with its backpack purses, homemade mixtapes consisting of songs dubbed from the radio, and mom jeans. It was organized lunacy and we loved it.

But the film relies on this too heavily. It becomes clearly very early on that there is nothing more compelling about it. Certainly not the story, which is essentially about a family dealing with its individual existential crises -- none of which are particularly groundbreaking. There's Dana (Jenny Slate), engaged to be married to her l, longtime beau , Ben (Jay Duplass), when she regrettably hooks up with an old flame Nate (Finn Wittrock) for a frivolous affair. Her sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is in an experimental phase of her life, halfway committing to everything including her boyfriend (Marquis Rodriguez), drugs, and her unsatisfying home life. Pat (Edie Falco) is the tough-as-nails matriarch who may have just realized how cripplingly unhappy she is at home. And Alan (John Turturro) is the "the good cop" of the family, the dad who's always been too worried about his daughters hating him to discipline them, and whose passivity has made him the wilted wallflower in the house, unseen and ignored. Each of them is propelled to make a series of poor choices that serve as the climax of the film.

The thing is, it's too play-by-numbers and aggressively unspecial. This is from the same director (Gillian Robespierre), who gave us the wonderfully unexpected Obvious Child starring Slate. But LANDLINE doesn't have the same magic. It's shockingly...basic. The story and characters are stale, even despite the solid cast, which is the film's only sell point. But good chemistry between the actors (Slate is always a sure bet) and witty one liners aren't enough for today's more sophisticated indie audience craving something that sticks in their minds long after watching it. LANDLINE is at times endearing, funny, and crushing, but it is instantly forgettable.

Rating: C- (*** out of *****)

Amazon Studios will release LANDLINE in theaters Friday, July 21.
Watch the trailer:

Friday, July 7, 2017


Make no mistake: what we've seen with the latest contributions to the Planet of the Apes franchise is in a word, spectacular. From the special effects to the astonishing performances led by Andy Serkis as the impenetrable ape Caesar are worth the price of admission alone. In this modern, somewhat anarchic sociopolitical era in which words like resistance and self-empowerment are merely a state of being rather than aspirations, there's something deeply comforting and humanistic about a species fiercely protecting their right to exist. So much so that they're willing to fight for it.

Which brings us to WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. We're reached that point in this threequel when the usual tactics of mild but steady aggression and militancy are no match to good ole American warfare, machine weapons, minefields, and torture. And that's just where we're at in this movie. After losing his wife and son, Caesar is compelled to go off into the middle of battle and fight on his own, even if it means sacrificing himself.  But of course, his posse--including Maurice (Karin Konoval)--doesn't let him go out on his own in good conscious. They follow him as he is lured right into the lion's den, so to speak.

Traveling across snowy mountains and dangerous terrain, they confidently combat the elements, until they come across one young girl (Amiah Miller), a mute, who somehow ends up being a part of their crew, even coming to their aid at their most vulnerable.

Now wait, for a franchise that has shepherded the very notion of authority and agency of a marginalized nation, inserting someone, a white girl at that, to be their lucky charm and miraculously circumvent capture of her own is counterproductive with the entire franchise's theme, and utterly unnecessary. Why, as we reach this culminating point in the franchise, is this even a thing? I have to tell you, I was perplexed and even angered by this.

It just seems so arbitrary, and really futile to have a quiet young white girl, a picture of innocence, tag along with this crew that already has their hands full with actual life and death drama. Is it to appeal to larger audiences (I mean, does this franchise really have an audience problem though)? Was the idea of a civil uprising in the midst of war too much for director/co-writer Matt Reeves, who may have been trying to move away from the narrative's racial themes? And so is that why we now have a silly little ape "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), for comic relief? I mean, we're in the middle of a major war that could annihilate the apes. Things are dire. Apes are dying left and right. And this is the culminating film in a franchise. We really don't need to have either of these characters, especially as Caesar himself is coming dangerously close to his own fate, and realizing his legacy among his comrades.

Not that Zahn and Miller aren't solid in their roles (this is the best work I've seen from Zahn in years); it's just that there's so much else here in the film that is in fact great. By this point in Caesar's story, we see the community he has led, the camaraderie and friendships he has nurtured and maintained. We see his strength and his vulnerability, effects of fighting endlessly for years, and a realization that he may not win this war but that he has not much else to lose except his surviving son, who he knows will be well taken care of. There's a complex, layered story here that is deeply captivating, but that is peppered with these frivolous add-ons that do nothing for what makes this series so great. And that's problematic.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Woody Harrelson's role in the film as Caesar's arch nemesis The Colonel. In true Harrelson form, he chews up scenery in a way that is both dramatic and hilarious, but he gets the point across. Caesar wants him dead, and therefore we want him dead. And he's just...a bad guy. That's made very clear here. Say what you want, but Harrelson has always been and still is very fun to watch. Does it work here? Eh, file it in the same folder as Zahn's performance. It's as perplexing as it is enjoyable. He makes it work for him.

All in all, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is as heart-wrenching as it is disappointing at times, with still some of the best performances we've seen from non-human characters in a long while. It's meant to be experienced on the big screen, and you're meant to be transported to this astonishing community, and want to fight their fight with them. For that, they succeed on all bases.

Rating: B (**** out of *****)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

So, GIRLS TRIP Looks Hella Fun

So, one of my writer friends insists that this is "the female version of The Hangover." Take from that what you will. The Hangover is actually a movie I can't seem to quit, but I have never cared for the act of describing a film through the guise of its male comparison. It's condescending and unnecessary.

That aside, word of mouth for GIRLS TRIP has been great, and folks on my Twitter feed are already buzzing about getting their crew together for a night out to the movie theater to see this. As for me, I can't say I am hyped about it, but I'll tell you one thing: whoever thought of putting Regina Hall and Queen Latifah in a movie together needs their own award because these two women are easily among the smartest, hardest working actors in Hollywood. I refuse to debate this. Oh, and Mike Colter (Luke Cage) and Larenz Tate? Yes, please. Plus, I can't stress how important it that Hollywood (shout out to director Malcolm D. Lee!) is attempting to break the stereotype that black people--particularly black women--don't travel. That's worth a discussion in itself.

Here's the official synopsis:

Producer Will Packer (Ride Along and Think Like a Man franchises, Almost Christmas) presents Girls Trip, a new comedy from director/producer Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man franchise, Barbershop: The Next Cut).

When four lifelong friends—Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah—travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there's enough dancing, drinking, brawling and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.

Check out some stills:

GIRLS TRIP hits theaters July 21. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On BABY DRIVER, Defying Genre, and the Rebirth of the Soundtrack

For all intents and purposes, writer/director Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER is having a moment. Here it is, at the height of summer and, most of us still thinking that Wonder Woman is going to rule our lives at least through the end of August, then in comes this cool AF film, Think about it: it's an action/musical film that has not only defied genre expectations, but it's also re-imagining what musicals look like (like, re imagining them in a great way, not like La La Land).

Honestly, I didn't really know what to expect from this film walking into it. I have to admit, I half expected a toddler behind the wheel of a car. But no, it's a full-fledged adult (played by Ansel Elgort) with pouty pink lips and baby bottom-smooth skin burning rubber all over the highway in a car filled with criminals he's paid to chauffeur. How adorable.

This will likely be the only action movie you'll ever see with a choreographer credit taking prime real estate in the opening credits and it has nothing to do with amazing stunts or fights scenes. It is actually rhythmic movement to the beat of your favorite old school jams. The strangely affable Baby (Elgort), not to be confused with Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, spends most the movie tuning out his adrenaline-fueled lifestyle with his favorite songs that far exceed his years on steady rotation through earbuds -- putting him in a constantly chill mood and disconnected with the slimy thugs around him (played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Kevin Spacey) he drives from crime scene after another. The other part of the movie he spends wooing his ladylove (Lily James) who --unsurprisingly -- works at a soda shop diner off the road, just like your favorite 80s music video crush did. It's literally like we've been transported inside one of Rick Springfield's songs, if Rick Springfield also offered more gunfire and explosions. It's utterly delightful.

But what's most thrilling about BABY DRIVER is its soundtrack, which I alluded to above. You actually want to sing along to each of these songs! None of them is new, unless this is your first exposure to Barry White, Queen, and Martha and the Vandellas (in which case, shame on you), and Baby lip syncs each of them just like most of us do in the shower, except well. But this marks the return of a real film soundtrack that you actually want to seek out in a music store, er, on iTunes or wherever music is sold these days. Back in the day, there used to be myriad films with dope soundtracks (e.g. Boomerang, The Big Chill, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, to name a few). That is, until around the 2000s when most were replaced with classical, purely instrumental, and moody tunes that you couldn't sing along to. That was a very long, and very dark time.

In that sense, Wright has perfectly packaged the type of film that appeals to music lovers, romantics, and action aficionados across generations alike. He has created a musical earworm that just so happens to come with wild car chases and a fun story that has heart when you least expect it. I dig it.

Rating: B+ (**** out of *****)

Check out this trailer remixed by Mike Relm:

Friday, June 23, 2017

THE BEGUILED is Overwhelmingly Empty and Out of Touch

Sofia Coppola has a problem. I don't know if it's her privileged Hollywood upbringing or what, but she is fascinated by the mundane, detached, and the overwhelming emptiness of life. But my god, does she sure know how to make all of that look gorgeous. Because film is so visual, this is one of her assets. But what she struggles with is the story in between, or the lack thereof. Even Lost in Translation and Virgin Suicides, the only two films of hers I am fully engaged in and appreciate through the closing credits, follow this same pattern.

With THE BEGUILED, Coppola attempts to move beyond her typical character moroseness to which she has become accustomed to tackle broader themes of feminism and male chauvinism by way of a secluded group of Christian women and girls nestled in a Virginia mansion during the Civil War. Why Coppola, who wrote and directed this film from director Don Siegel's film of the same name, would choose to connect with the modern conversation with a premise so distant from a contemporary scope, is beyond me. On the one hand it's extremely hokey and conventional, its characters performing quaint songs inside their living room after dinner, making it hard to even hard to care about it. But beneath that lies a layer of repression, sexual frustration, and cunning. And I don't know whether that's Coppola's way of challenging the culture or presenting some kind of feminist statement. Either way, it is incredibly weak, proving that maybe Coppola isn't really comfortable with venturing outside her usual themes.

With a cast led by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, THE BEGUILED has the potential to become a captivating narrative, but the characters are drawn in such a boring and uninspired way that they only become interesting once a man enters their lives. And that in itself defeats the whole feminist reaction to this film. Maybe in 1971 when the original film was released, the story of a small school of girls and women during the Civil War who retaliate against a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) they take in after he seduces them and incites a rivalry between them was considered defiant. But now, it's just completely out of touch. The movie goes from 0 to 100 with no real objective but to look pretty and feminine. It's slow and prosaic, even when Coppola attempts to titillate audiences with close-ups of Farrell's bare body as Kidman's character washes him down, or even at the end when he meets his demise at the hands of his women caretakers. I just don't care by that point in the film. What Coppola fails to recognize is that her audience is far more sophisticated than this. None of this is impressive, special, or even beguiling for that matter. It's utterly outdated, awkwardly humorous at times, and by its last 30 minutes I honestly don't care what happens to any of these characters even when the setup becomes clear. Its conclusion is even more eye roll-worthy. Like, you're just going to end like that?  Ugh, whatever.

There are no real takeaways from this film, nothing you want to remember it for after seeing it (unless you count the progressive adage that you become less of a man once your leg is amputated). The film kinda just goes off, presumably back inside the time machine from which it came.  Good riddance.

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

THE BEGUILED in theaters in New York and Los Angeles today, expanding to more theaters on June 30.

Watch a clip:

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