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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Race, Religion, the White Male Gaze, and FREE STATE OF JONES

You've probably already heard the news by now: FREE STATE OF JONES has become the mascot for all white savior movies for the rest of time. So, no need for me to dwell on that in this post. But yes, it's over the top and serves as another reminder from Hollywood that if it wasn't for white people, black people all over the country would still be enslaved. Thanks, Hollywood, you're nothing if not predictable.

But there is something particularly interesting to watch in this film, something that is virtually absent in other films set during the Civil War in Mississippi: its biblical messaging. Beyond its persistent need to tell us how courageous, heroic and color blind real-life dissenter Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) was, it does manage to depict how symbolic the Bible was in the mourning of black lives lost, churches burned, and the everyday survival of dissenters and black people at a time when both were considered expendable. It kept them from giving up, giving in, and gave them faith when it was nearly depleted. Which, in turn, made black churches targets for the KKK and other white supremacist groups--and still does to this day.

So, kudos to writer/director Gary Ross for keeping that theme important throughout, though that's not the focus of the film. He aims to present the older narrative through the 1940s miscegenation trial of Davis Knight, great-grandson of Newton and Rachel Knight, a former slave with whom Newton had a long-term relationship. Davis was charged with marrying a white woman. But Ross ends up overextending himself by shifting between the two narratives--the more contemporary one serving zero purpose, however, to the main story, and bringing down its quality.

In fact, it's hard to determine what Ross is trying to say here. It's partly about the dissenters of the Confederate Army, known as the Knight Company (led by Newton)--a virtually unexplored history in the cinematic canon. It's also about Newton's relationships with freed black people, with whom he fought against the Confederate soldiers, his romantic interests--including his wife (played by Keri Russell) and Rachel (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw)--as well as his faith. All of that, however, at the expense of thinner storylines that could have been better fleshed out--like that time Serena and her son (with Newton) came to live with Newton and Rachel (and their son) together in one house like that's totally appropriate and not awkward. And the parallel of the modern narrative to the older narrative remains a mystery.

All this to say, the very concept of race in FREE STATE OF JONES is told through a skewed, white sympathetic lens, punctuated by Rachel commenting on her newborn son's nose and asking whether he looks black or white, and Newton buying back the 12-year-old son of Moses (played by Mahershala Ali) from his white masters.

While all the performances are solid, there's too much of a distance from the setting of the story to truly create an immersive experience between the audience and the film. Newton's perspective eclipses the entire film, advancing the white male savior gaze--which is oppressive at times. His omnipresence in almost every scene further perpetuates the idea that black freedom lays squarely in the hands of a heroic white man. The film would have been more aptly presented as a biopic on Knight himself, which would have illuminated the narrative Ross is ultimately telling more effectively.

Rating: C 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gird Your Loins, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR is Out For Blood (Again)

I know I'm supposed to hate on The Purge movies like a bad ringworm as other film snobs apparently do, but I can't help it. I love these movies, and all the nonsensical--yet uncomfortably true to life--chaos they portray. We're now at the third installment, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, and writer/director James DeMonaco--and his star, Frank Grillo--returns with a premise that hits close to home as his futuristic, anarchic America sees a woman running for president. More in the synopsis:

Expanding the universe introduced in the hit franchise that electrified the culture and earned $200 million at the worldwide box office, Universal Pictures' The Purge: Election Year reveals the next terrifying chapter that occurs over 12 hours of annual lawlessness sanctioned by the New Founders of America to keep this country great.

It's been two years since Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night. Now serving as head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), his mission is to protect her in a run for president and survive the annual ritual that targets the poor and innocent. But when a betrayal forces them onto the streets of D.C. on the one night when no help is available, they must stay alive until dawn...or both be sacrificed for their sins against the state.

Once again returning to collaborate with franchise creator James DeMonaco on The Purge: Election Year are the series' producers: Blumhouse Productions' Jason Blum (Insidious and Ouija series, The Visit), Platinum Dunes partners Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ouija series,The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and writer/director DeMonaco's longtime production partner, Sébastien K. Lemercier (Assault on Precinct 13, Four Lovers).

I'm game, of course. 

Universal Pictures just unveiled a more new images from the film:

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR is in theaters Friday. Who else is with me?

THE NEON DEMON Is The Most Basic Nonsense I've Seen In A While

In Nicolas Winding Refn's new film, THE NEON DEMON, high-fashion models are skinny, insecure, and friendless. In other words, they're the exact stereotype of most models portrayed on film since the beginning of time--boring and one-dimensional as f**k. And for the first hour of the film, it looks like this is going to be Refn's entire thesis. But then it gets so much worse; it turns into a bloody disaster.

We seem to be living in a cinematic age in which it's perfectly acceptable for filmmakers to present movies that are beautiful to look at but utterly nonsensical. And maybe that's what Refn is getting at here, but I never thought the same guy who gave us Drive would turn around and give us this trash. But, here we are.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model from Nowheretown U.S.A., who've just landed in the Big City (exact locations unspecified, of course) with big dreams. She's very, very green, with no modeling experience. Yet she lands a meeting with a big time agent (Christina Hendricks), who tells her she's the next It girl, but she has to be 19 years old not 16.  And she starts ditching her one friend (who's really more friends with her than she is with him) in favor of pretentious fashion photographers, and soulless models most interested in her inevitable demise.

If this already sounds like an after school special, it basically is--down to Fanning's clunky performance that fails to be convincing. But then, Refn tries to flip the narrative on its head by throwing in blood--lots of blood--corpse sex, and (to solidify his desperation for shock value) cannibalism. It's a nightmare, in the very worst way.

Which is a shame because, again, THE NEON DEMON, is gorgeous to look at. The women are aesthetically beautifully--though all a little out of their minds--and the photography (complete with the avant garde fashion shoots and glitzy club scenes) is stunning. But the story is a hot mess. None of the main characters are interesting, at all. However, Hendricks and Keanu Reeves (who plays Jesse's slumlord) are intriguing to watch in their brief scenes--albeit completely wasted in the film. In fact, I want to see them do the spin-off film. We actually don't even have to call it a spin-off, because we can pretend this one never happened.

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brief, Spoiler-Free Thoughts On Tonight's Season Premiere Of RAY DONOVAN


If the season four premiere of Ray Donovan is any indication, Ray (Liev Shreiber) is about to have 99 problems and two of them might come from women in his life. The first episode, which I won't spoil for you here, sets Ray up with another f**ked up job involving a member of the law enforcement and one mystery woman darting from the scene of a crime, played by none other than Lisa Bonet. I'm itching to see what kind of chaos she'll bring to Ray's life, because her storyline already sounds hella twisted.

And back at the home base, where ish is always hitting the fan, some life-altering news is about shake up Ray's world--and I am really interested to see how he's going to react to it.  

Meanwhile, father-of-the-year Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight), is up to no good as usual--wreaking havoc in another zip code. Trust me, we definitely haven't seen the last of him.

That's all I'll say about tonight's episode, directed by Liev Shreiber. Let's circle back afterwards to dish about it in greater detail. You can leave a comment in the box below, or hit me up on Twitter

Season four of Ray Donovan premieres tonight on Showtime at 9pm. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Little Heads Up Next Time, Showtime

Ugh. After creating my fantasy conclusion of the epic ordeals of Lily (Billi Piper) and Vanessa (Eva Green) on Penny Dreadful, Showtime had to one up me by pulling the plug on both of them with the surprise series finale last week. On the one hand, I praise the network for pulling off the impossible in this day and age of spoiler-rich Internet forums: shock value. But on the other hand, I could have used a heads up to prepare myself for the gut-wrenching finale.

As I nurse my wounds over a show with which I had a love/hate (but mostly, admirable) relationship, Showtime managed to piece together a modest--yet satisfying--consolation prize: a compilation video of be-scenes footage from each episode this season. And it looks like despite its sinister premise, the cast enjoyed a lot of silly moments off camera.

Check it out:


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Tom Cruise is Mad As Hell in the New Teaser for JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

In the midst of what will surely be high-level thirst for award nominations this fall, Tom Cruise seems to be more than happy to just elevate our blood pressure by punching out every dude who crosses his path.

I'm talking about the new teaser of JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, in which the actor reprises his title role as an investigator with a penchant for raging out on a regular basis (there's a little more to this character, if I remember from the original 2012 film, but not much).

Paramount Pictures isn't giving away too many details, but here's the plot description from IMDB:

Jack Reacher returns to the headquarters of his old unit, only to find out he's now accused of a 16-year-old homicide.

Check it out:

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is in theaters October 21. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Women Aren't Faring Too Well This Season on PENNY DREADFUL

Let me just put this out there: Eva Green's performance as Vanessa Ives on Penny Dreadful is the only reason I watch the show. Oh, and John Clare/The Creature (tenderly played by Rory Kinnear). So, about 30 minutes into last Sunday's episode 7 titled "Ebb Tide," I was nearly fast asleep waiting for them to get back to a scene with Vanessa and/or John aka The Creature when Lily (Billie Piper), one of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments-gone-wrong, is being badgered by three men (including Frankenstein) threatening to turn her into "a real woman." Meaning, turn her into a submissive, pleasing, feminine gift to men, and cure her of her man-eating, free-thinking ways.

And just like that, I woke up.

I had all but written Lily off as a woman on the wrong side of feminism when these male neanderthals threatened to destroy her bra-burning instinct. Suddenly, she became interesting to me. I am now paying attention to her, just as her socio-political freedom is being stripped away. How, on a show that has highlighted some of the strongest female characters in genre ever (on both the big and small screens combined), has a vital woman character fallen to the mercy of three men?

That's okay, at least there's Vanessa, who's so boss she's even got the devil scared of her in episode 4 titled "A Blade of Grass." Sure, she's had her share of sinister souls relentlessly biting at her heels, but I thought her new beau, Dr. Sweet (Christian Carmano), would help turn everything around for her. But no, he ended up being Dracula, which made me both angry and heartbroken for Vanessa. Of course, she was furious when she discovered this in episode 7, and confronts him because she's a grown woman who never backs down from a conflict. But then...then...she allows him to sweet talk her with his beguiling speech, and he sinks his teeth into her neck. WHY GAWD WHY?!

How did a woman so independent and wise fall prey to this bloodthirsty maggot? Ugh, I hate him so. My only hope is that Vanessa turns into a super vampire and becomes head mistress of the land of vampires (or something). She cannot simply become Dracula's victim, just like Lily cannot become a trained rat under the discretion of three weak men. I beg of you, dear Penny Dreadful writers, do not make them male playthings.

Next week we've got a two-episode season finale coming, which I'm sure will be jam packed with twists and turns and shoe-throwing moments. In a perfect world, Vanessa and Lily will band together to form the most dysfunctional yet mesmerizing dream team ever on the small screen. One can hope.

Tune in to Penny Dreadful on Showtime Sunday at 10pm.

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