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Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscars 2016: We're Still Talking About Diversity in Terms of Black and White

After Sunday night's Oscars, I think it's safe to say that Chris Rock will not be friends with Jada Pinkett-Smith, wife of actor Will Smith, who starred in Concussion, and whose performance many believed was "snubbed" (but did they hear his bad accent though?). He basically said, in light of her refusal to attend this year's ceremony, that she probably wouldn't have been invited anyway (which could actually have been true, but it was funny because it was Rock keeping it real). As expected, the comedian went all the way in on the controversial lack of diverse acting nominees and #OscarsSoWhite--even recycling his previous Oscar bit where he visits a black neighborhood and asks folks their opinions on the nominees (they thought he was actually making up some of these movies. NOPE).

But, yet again, the rhetoric focused strictly on black representation--ignoring the fact that no Asian, Latino or any other ethnic actors were nominated either (for whom the Oscars have an even lower tolerance). Rock made references to the history of racism against black people in America, even noting that people could have really chosen literally any year to boycott the Oscars, but was back in the day probably more focused on being lynched and the KKK (another one of those "it's funny because it's true" Chris Rock moments).

While he was dead-on in his opening monologue, it just reaffirmed how attention continues to go unpaid for other marginalized groups. Most think pieces I've read have focused on the lack of black representation, the history of Oscars' relationship with black performances, to the point where #OscarsSoWhite has been turned into a #WhereAreTheBlackActors? conversation? How is it that in 2016 we are completely okay with dividing marginalized ethnicity groups, making their collective platforms weaker?

Some say not enough Latino and Asian actors, for instance, have spoken out against the lack of representation. But I'd argue that they have spoken out--including Gina Rodriguez and Ken Jeong--but for some reason their comments never make as big of a wave (which begs the question "Whose comments actually matter?).

This has been a long time bee in my hornet, since we've first reopened this discussion about what it means to be diverse and inclusive--and it still hasn't really been acknowledged.

But of course, I'd be remiss not to mention Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's second consecutive Oscar win lastre night for the remarkable The Revenant. However, I still maintain that Hollywood only warmed up to his talent since he started working almost exclusively with white casts in recent years. He previously made a career out of highlight many Latino talent in great movies like Biutiful and Amores Perros. Yet it was only when Iñárritu linked up with Michael Keaton and co. for Birdman that he actually started being taken seriously. Coincidence? I think not.

I'm not going to spend this whole post lamenting over the wins I didn't like (because I really did like Rock as the host, otherwise), so here are a list of my favorite wins:

  • Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant (because, finally)
  • Best Actress: Brie Larson for Room (one of the most well deserved wins ever, seriously)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl (the only great thing about that movie)
  • Basically all the Tech Categories: Mad Max: Fury Road (maybe one day we can finally live in a world where genre films are respected as more than "visually impressive" with amazing performance, but until then this is pretty awesome)
See the full list of winners here

Courtney Elaine: What It's Really Like to Be a WoC Film Critic (Blog Series)

I still remember the first day I fell in love with film. It was the holiday season of 2001. My family was gathered around my grandparents’ brand new DVD player for a special screening. My grandmother told me with great pride, that the musical I was about to watch was legendary. “It's a musical starring beautiful black kids,  Courtney. Wait till you see, baby.” Of course, my 11-year-old self had no idea what she was talking about. However, I quickly learned. All it took was one viewing of The Wiz to make me fall in love with film. One glimpse of Diana Ross as Dorothy fueled my obsession.

Over the next few years, I watched as many films as I possibly could. I spent nights learning the lines to Love and Basketball. I unapologetically recited the lines to Poetic Justice and Do the Right Thing to my TV screen as I watched them over and again. I was inspired and empowered by the beautiful brown faces on my TV screen. As I grew older, I enjoyed learning those beautiful faces weren't just in front of the screen, but also behind it.

However, things started to slow down the more I searched for brown women who wrote about these films. I began to wonder where are all the WoC film critics were. I started collecting articles and anything I could by women writers. It's safe to say those articles by women of color were nowhere near as vast as our male counterparts. This lack of representation inspired me to become a critic.

It goes without saying that there is a demand for WOC film bloggers. We contribute a unique perspective on film that is often ignored and overlooked. Our diverse experiences equip us with the tools to critique films with a different level of sensitivity and understanding. It's unfortunate that our voices are often muffled by others.

Once, when I attended a press junket for a film, a fellow reporter from a larger company suggested I must have been an assistant and not a reporter. Apparently there was no possible way a young woman like myself could have been in the same room as him, about to interview the same A-list stars.

Our opinions and knowledge on film are continuously challenged when we enter a room with males of the “majority” race. I believe race and gender can definitely play a part in how we interpret a film. And sadly, with our opinions introduced in the public sphere on social media platforms like Twitter, our opinions are challenged now more than ever.

However, I am still extremely grateful for social media. It has made it easier to connect with like-minded WoC critics and push our work out there. Our voices are finally being heard. Websites like Black Girl Nerds and Shadow and Act provide places for our voices to be heard. I hope in the near future, more digital spaces and opportunities are given to WoC film critics. I’d like to see us represented not only on the big screen, but the major publications that write about film. I want to see our bylines in the New York Times and other media. Our push for diversity on the big screen should also extend to the film critic community. Our voices can make a difference.

Courtney Elaine
Courtney Elaine is a writer, producer and junior development executive from New York City. When she's not working full time for VH1, she's running her small production company, By Courtney Elaine. Her bylines can be seen on Global Grind, The Jasmine Brand, Necole Bitchie and Madame Noire. Follow her on Twitter

For more information on this blog series, click here.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

My Take on the Independent Spirit Awards: Your Move, Oscars

To all you Carol fans (and there seem to be a lot of you): your beloved film went home with one solitary award at Saturday's Film Independent Spirit Awards. A well deserved recognition to cinematographer Ed Lachman--proving my point that the only truly remarkable thing about the movie is its poignant visuals.

Go ahead and weep. I know you were betting your firstborn on at least Rooney Mara take home a statuette. [insert evil laugh here]

But I digress. The low-key ceremony was, as usual, not only entertaining (thanks to hosts Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani), but actually gratifying to watch. True, my personal favorite Advantageous lost the John Cassavetes award and Mya Taylor did in fact end up winning for her performance in the problematic Tangerine (making her the first transgender actress to win a Spirit Award). But then again:

  1. Taylor's acceptance speech was especially endearing
  2. Abraham Attah won for his staggering portrayal in Beasts of No Nation (solidifying his MVP status)
  3. The lovely ladies of Room (actress Brie Larson and screenwriter Emma Donaghue) reminded me that sometimes these awards get it right with their wins

Given the positive energy of the ceremony, built on the idea of inclusion and support of the independent community, I'm not going to reiterate how still completely baffled I am about all this love for the mostly generic Spotlight. Oops, I guess I just did. 

Check out the full list of winners over on Deadline

Friday, February 26, 2016

Crooked Cop Thriller TRIPLE 9 Mostly Shoots Blanks

Literally as I write this post, I have just received another pitch from a publicist about a movie that I can go ahead and file under TRIPLE 9 status. It's fitting that the beginning of the year, and on the same weekend as one of the most lackluster slate of Oscar films in its history, Hollywood would plop yet another pile of poo into the box office black hole.

To be fair, TRIPLE 9 isn't a bad movie. It's mildly exciting to watch at times, with the types of twists and turns that aren't really that twisty (because you sorta expect them), but you appreciate the effort enough to remain invested through the ending credits. But it's the kind of crooked cop film that will likely wind up on a random list of "100 Crooked Cop Movies" compiled in no ranking the next few years. It's that derivative.

And what's perhaps most miserable about it is that you're not compelled to care about any of these characters--despite the fact that a lot of f**ked up s**t happens to some of them, repeatedly. Which is a shame because the cast is really, really good. I mean, you have Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Norman Reedus, and Clifton Collins Jr., who comprise a cast of characters whose individual stories (and in some instances, lack thereof) are paper thin--to the point where Ejiofor as a gangster forced to do one last dangerous heist in order to get his daughter back from his ex and her Russian mob sister (Winslet in a rare uncomfortable performance to watch) is all we've got to hold on to (and it's straight out of a bad cartoon)

So right away, the audience is looking for something, anything, else to which they can turn their attention. Which brings us to the action of the plot, where the lines blur between cops and criminals--you don't know who to trust and who's going to end up turning against whom. There's some suspense, decent acting (though Affleck clearly phoned his performance in), and brooding music, but ultimately the film is a forgettable, bargain basement version of The Departed.

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

TRIPLE 9 opens in theaters today.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Do We Care About This New BAYWATCH Movie?

This is how I imagine all scenes with
Dwayne Johnson to look like
The Rock, er, I mean Dwayne Johnson has been tweeting incessantly about this new BAYWATCH reboot (bless his heart). I mean, are there really folks out there excited about this? Well, I'm sure straight men are waiting impatiently to see more half naked women running in slow motion on a beach for two hours. but I'm not.

Anyway, here we are. Paramount Pictures has just announced that the film, which also stars Zac Efron, has begun principal photography and production will take place in Miami and Savannah (of course). Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) is directing the film from a screenplay by Damian Shannon (Freddy vs. Jason), Mark Swift (Freddy vs. Jason) and Barry Schwartz. In other words, this seems super generic.

But wait, Priyanka Chopra (Quantico) and Ilfenesh Hadera (Billions, Chi-Raq) are among the cast. Which begs the questions 1) Why would they do this? and 2) Does this mean I now have to care about this movie? Ugh, what a dilemma.

Here's the plot:

“BAYWATCH” follows devoted lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) as he butts heads with a brash new recruit (Efron). Together, they uncover a local criminal plot that threatens the future of the Bay.

Yes, of course it's basic. 

BAYWATCH will be released on May 19, 2017

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On #OscarsSoWhite, Slavery Context, and THE BIRTH OF A NATION

I'm just going to say (again) what you're not supposed to say: I'm really fatigued by films narratives within a slavery context. Now before some of you jump down my throat, I know that Nate Parker's (of whom, by the way, I have been a huge fan since he burst onto the scene in the Denzel Washington-directed drama, The Great Debaters) Sundance darling THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a slave rebellion film. It's a film starring, directed and co-written by a black man (Parker)--which means there should be no white savior syndrome or what I have recently come to refer to as the Race complex (when the black heroic protagonist is reduced to a supporting role in their own movie). After all the buzz I heard coming out of its record-breaking Sundance Film Festival debut this year, it may very well be an amazing film

But again, that's not my point. It's the fact that out of all the diverse films in a variety of genres on the Sundance slate (according to many of the roundups I've read, the festival was almost like the perfect response to #OscarsSoWhite), mainstream media (and yes, black media as well) has focused strictly on The Birth of Nation. Maybe because it's an amazing film, but I also wonder how much its slavery context--given that it's proven to be a narrative that leads to Oscar gold these days--has to do with its instant acclaim. And how much systemic Hollywood racism, and the often disturbing fascination to see actors of color confined to certain roles, plays a role here. If the cast and quality were applied to a contemporary drama or other narrative, would it receive the same praise?

I'm definitely going to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION (whose October 7 release date was just announced today), but I find this trend interesting on a variety of levels. I just want there to still be room for other narratives--horror, comedy, action, other dramas--featuring actors of color within this cinema landscape. Because it's not just about ethnic diversity among the cast, it's also about the narratives being inclusive, and that there be spaces for women filmmakers of color to have the allegiance to venture outside their supposed designated genres.

It's 2016, folks. If not now, when?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

They Finally Made a Movie Inspired by the Met Gala

I think fashion snobs call this "high drama."

The Met Gala, one of the most decadent soiree's in the fashion industry, has inspired a new documentary--opening this year's Tribeca Film Festival on April 13. Which means, this event will no longer be something I watch online and snark about its outrageous/gorgeous gowns. I am going to have to take it seriously.

According to the Tribeca announcement released on Monday, THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY "looks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's most attended Costume Institute exhibition in history, 'China: Through the Looking Glass.' The film follows curator Andrew Bolton, now Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, in an exploration of the tension between fashion and art. With unprecedented access, filmmaker Andrew Rossi captures the collision of high fashion and celebrity at the Met Gala, one of the biggest global fashion events co-chaired every year by Condé Nast Artistic Director and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour."

I have to say, it's a rather inspired choice to open the festival. But I will remain intrigued, if only to gawk at the fashion. Check out the trailer:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Kimberly Renee: What It's Really Like to Be a WoC Film Critic (Blog Series)

I love movies. I always have. My first visceral memory is going to the old Queen’s Park movie theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. I remember being there with my mom going to see my first “big girl” movie, Little Shop of Horrors. I was mesmerized by everything about the movie: the look of it, the music, the gigantic singing plant, and most of all the trio of black girls singing in the background. Why didn’t I have a live chorus following me around narrating my life through song? I desperately wanted to be a part of that world.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and I am actually interviewing one of those girls, Tichina Arnold (aka Crystal) for our podcast Cinema in Noir. It was a surreal moment. I still don’t really believe it happened (but it’s archived so I know it did). This full circle moment was not one that I ever expected to happen. But it was one made possible in large part to the community of women film writers that I find myself connected to. They are a community that is often devalued, underrated, and ignored. But it is a community that is mighty; the sisterhood of women film writers of color.

In a recent Atlantic article, one female film writer suggested that the rise in online publications led to the downfall of the female voice in film criticism. She states, “When the print journalism establishment hit the rocks in the early days of the Internet, and again in the aughts, women suffered.” But what the writer fails to acknowledge is that before the rise of the internet, women of color were being routinely left out of the conversation of film criticism. And except for a brief parenthetical mention, women of color were left out of her article altogether.

In my experience, the internet has given me the freedom and autonomy to claim a creative space of my own. I started back in 2007 because I wanted a site where black women were celebrated for their work in front of and behind the camera. At the time I didn’t know if a space like that existed. And if I did, I didn’t know how to access it.

When I joined Twitter in 2009, my access and ultimately my world changed. Twitter has helped me connect with a community of like-minded women of color film writers. I met my Cinema in Noir podcast co-hosts Candice Frederick, Rebecca Theodore and former co-host Rocky Seker on Twitter. The connections I have made via Twitter have expanded my perceptions of what film criticism looks like.

While women of color are often left out of the conversation when it comes to traditional film criticism, I have found that many women film writers of color have built brands and followings using online platforms. Platforms like Reel Talk Online, The Lewis Effect, Cinema Bun and Two Brown Girls have gone beyond writing only about “women films” and cover every genre. Other women film writers of color have created spaces that cater to specific niches of film like Grave Yard Shift Sisters, Reel Artsy, and Blacks in Period Films. And others have created hashtags and movements like #Films4Justice, #BlackGirlsAreFromTheFuture and communities where women of color can express their love for a myriad topics like Black Girl Nerds. Regardless of the angle, women of color film writers have expanded the definition of film criticism and joined in the conversation without waiting for permission.

To quote writer Renina Jarmon, podcasting and blogging enabled me to “find my tribe, claim my
Kimberly Renee
voice and establish my brand.”* I echo that sentiment. In finding my tribe, I found myself. My community of women film writers of color inspire and empower me in ways the will never know. They have helped me find my voice as a film blogger. They have challenged me to think bigger. They have supported me. They have embraced me. And for them I am grateful.

*from the book Black Girls Are From the Future, Essays On: Race. Digital Creativity and Pop Culture

Kimberly Renee runs and is the co-host of "Cinema in Noir." Follow her on Twitter.

For more information on this blog series, click here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

RACE and Hollywood's White Savior Problem

Apparently the only way Hollywood can have an unknown black actor play a renowned real-life person on the big screen is to have a relatively white character upstage him in his own story. Such is the case of RACE, the new film that follows track and field Olympian Jesse Owens's at the height of his career.

At first, I was thrilled to learn that Stephan James, perhaps most known to many for his small role as John Lewis in Selma, was getting a chance to play an iconic character in his own film. I was surprised, since Hollywood rarely gives opportunities to lesser known actors of color (especially roles that are as high profile as this); they barely cast seasoned actors of color in roles. But somehow they managed to usurp the usual bigotry of Hollywood to helm a major motion picture that featured a young black man as a hero. Bravo, Hollywood. One step forward.

Yet, one giant step behind. Sure, James is essentially the star here (I think). But Jason Sudeikis, who plays Owens's coach Larry Snyder who gave Owens his first big break, sure has a whole lot of screen time for someone who should really be supporting James. From his locker room rants to his sympathetic revelations of a career and marriage lost, it was Snyder who was made to look like the underdog in the movie--despite the fact that Owens has to deal with being a talented black man in a sport that takes as much pride in its racism as it does its athletics. And this is in the 1930s, before the Civil Rights Movement.

RACE doesn't exactly hide the racial unrest of the era it's depicting, but it definitely feels more sanitized than you'd expect--complete with a subplot highlighting the friendship between Owens and Luz Long, his German competitor during the 1936 Olympics. The script, from screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (who also penned the atrocious Frankie & Alice), is very generic, safe. It doesn't make Owens's victorious story a compelling one. In fact, it often seems like the action is happening around Owens, and not involving him. Aside from his relationship with his wife and daughter (seen mostly in passing scenes), the most interesting parts of the film are the negotiations over the possible boycott of the Berlin Games, just before the rise of the Nazi government--which almost seem like a separate movie because Owens's relation to it isn't always clear.

Ironically, since it is believed that Owens came to Adolf Hitler's defense when it was widely reported that Hitler, who was the Chancellor and Führer of the 1936 Olympics, refused to congratulate him due to his Aryan supremacy--something still deemed controversial today (and told very differently in the film). 

At its best, RACE celebrates the story of an American hero--a story we definitely need right now in cinema. And it introduces audiences to James in what could have been a career-making performance had it been more finely written. But the film is woefully disjointed, frustratingly removed from its lead character, and overly sanitized.

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

RACE is in theaters nationwide February 19. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Making the Case: THE MARTIAN and Oscar Films with Happy Endings

I was probably one of the biggest fans of Gravity. The idea of a woman in space, fighting to save her own life once all hell breaks lose and her entire team is demolished was endlessly captivating to watch. But what is still most intriguing is the fact that we continue to debate the ending of the film, with most speculation being that her victory was a dream and she actually perished in outer space. Why? Because it's considered far more compelling to kill your protagonist even after they spent the last two hours in the ordeal of their life.

Think about it. I know I for one hate most romantic comedies because they are too cookie-cutter, too "and they lived happily ever after." I am drawn toward films like Thelma and Louise, The Departed and Black Swan--films that trust their audiences enough to know that they won't run for the hills if their protagonists don't make it to the closing credits. Hell, even some of your favorite TV shows have killed off characters you've loved.

Which is why Oscar nominee The Martian that much more intriguing. Spoiler alert if you haven't already seen the film: it does have a happy ending. The astronaut left to die after a failed mission on Mars lives. There's a little suspense in between, but his crew comes back to rescue him in a gloriously cheesy ending that--surprise!--you actually root for. I know, I know. This goes against all of what I just finished talking about above, and that's what's great about it. It made me wonder whether we are conditioned to root for these f**ked up endings, and that that is part of what makes them great films. I mean, The Martian is a simple, cookie-cutter sci-fi drama that doesn't reinvent the wheel or, honestly, doing anything that fantastic. Does it deserve an Oscar nomination? Eh, perhaps not. Does Matt Damon deserve a nomination? Hard pass (not like he isn't good, but I can name about 10 other actors who could have stepped into the role and delivered the same decent performance). But I digress.

What I'm getting at is in the sea of solemn, depressing and astoundingly mediocre utterly non-thrilling Oscar nominated films this year, The Martian stands out as one of the very few (save for Mad Max: Fury Road and maybe 2-3 others) that is simple--without any bells or whistles. And I have to say, I was thoroughly satisfied by that.

The Martian is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blogger Meetup: The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

One of my goals this year is to schedule some face-to-face time with the awesome online community of bloggers I've connected with since starting this site seven years ago. And what better way to do it than at a film festival--where we can share thoughts on what movies, trends, and new talent are coming down the pipeline in person.

In April I will be covering the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York City, so please let me know if any of you will also be there so we can link up (I'll be the one wearing a backpack, eyeglasses, and carrying a notepad--my typical nerdwear). I'd love to also chat about our upcoming individual projects and any collaborative opportunities.

Hit me up in the comments section if you're going. I hope to see you there!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Karen Stevens: What It's Really Like to Be a WoC Film Critic (Blog Series)

I've never been to a press junket, film screening or a red carpet event where I looked around and thought to myself: "Wow, this place is full of WoC film critics." In my experience, I've never encountered an abundance of black film critics at a film event (outside of covering things like NAACP Image Awards and black film festivals). I always tried to reach out and connect with other WoC critics/reporters, even if it was as simple as giving them the "nod" or a smile, saying "Hi," or swapping business cards. It's nice to be acknowledged, because when you're a black woman covering a red carpet event, sometimes you can be overlooked.

Something that also must be noted is the lack of WOC publicists in the film scene. Usually there is a vast majority of white publicists at most screenings and red carpet events that I go to. The connection between publicists and film critics/bloggers is an important one that doesn't get talked about that often. Publicists are the ones setting up interviews for their clients (actors, filmmakers, etc.) sending you the press releases about new films and TV shows, and giving you the info for all the press days and private screenings. Whenever I connect with a WoC publicist, they tended to be more inclined to help me out with scheduling interviews and screenings, and honestly, I felt more valued as a professional in their eyes.

Saptosa Foster and Shanté Bacon of 135th St Agency are two of my favorite WoC publicists. I remember meeting Saptosa at a Disneyland press junket for Disney's Tangled. I had interacted with her online via email and all throughout our correspondence I was impressed by her skill and level of expertise.

When talking about WoC film critics getting more visibility and opportunities, it's important to talk about WoC publicists getting more opportunities too. I'm not sure what the numbers are in regards to WoC publicists running PR campaigns for major studio films, but if it's anything like the rest of Hollywood in regards to diversity it might not be too good. That's something worth looking into. How many WoC publicists are getting steady marketing and publicity gigs in Hollywood?

The struggle for visibility and opportunity goes well beyond actors and filmmakers in the #OscarsSoWhite movement. It effects film critics, publicists, photographers and so many "behind-the-scenes" type people. When you're a WoC in any of these fields, you have work extra hard to get your foot in the door, and even then you're often still not seen as an "equal" or a true peer.

I've been to "mainstream" film events where the white reporters don't recognize PoC talent like you do as a WoC film critic. A PoC actor can walk the red carpet and you can sense the questions on the white reporters' faces: "Who is this?" Whereas, a WoC critic is often familiar with these actors. One of my favorite moments from the Golden Globes this year was the bit with Eva Longoria and America Ferrera. Their commentary was funny because it's true. A WoC film critic knows the difference between Eva Mendes and Eva Longoria, and Rosario Dawson. Why? Because we're out there trying to watch as many movies of theirs as we can. We're familiar with their projects beyond the "mainstream" shows or movies most people associate them with. WoC critics have been following the careers of the Taraji P. Henson and Michael B. Jordan long before they were "popular." Randall Park from ABC's Fresh Off The Boat isn't new to me. I remember Park from indie flicks like The People I Slept With. I know these kind of things because as a WoC blogger I make the effort to find out who these talented PoC actors are in supporting roles. I see their potential even when they're cast in "stereotypical" roles with limited screen time in major films. That's part of what WoC film critics bring to the table. We see the potential and artistry of PoC actors and filmmakers. We do the extra research, and we're willing to do the interviews with upcoming PoC talents that white media outlets, and white critics just don't see. I mean, they see them obviously, but they don't really see them, notice them, follow PoC actors, filmmakers, cinematographers the same way that WoC critics do. Their art matters to us, right from the start.

Karen Stevens
Do I like it when white publicists only push "black content" on me? No, I find that limiting. I do my best to champion PoC filmmakers and actors when they have a film or performance that flies under-the radar, but that doesn't mean I don't want to screen or interview white actors and filmmakers. I consider myself a film fan first, and like every other movie critic, I'm looking for the kind of film that moves me, and speaks about the human condition in a fresh and exciting way. We're all looking for new movies to fall in love with. As a WoC film critic I want the industry (and general public) to see the beauty, and value, of PoC stories on the big screen. PoC filmmakers can craft stories just as universal, and poignant, as white filmmakers. The same goes for all POC filmmakers.

Karen Stevens runs - loves French New Wave, and believes that filmmakers
like Ava DuVernay are ushering in a new wave of black artistry called "Subtle Core." Follow her on Twitter @reelartsy.

For more information on this blog series, click here.

Friday, February 12, 2016

CABIN FEVER Review: Eli Roth and Co. are Making a Good Living Off Trash Horror

About 15 minutes into watching the new iteration of CABIN FEVER, I began to wonder if this is either a so bad it's good film (which --let's face it--is actually just a bad film), or if it's a satire. 90 minutes later, I came to the conclusion that I was giving the film way too much credit.

Ultimately, CABIN FEVER is not a smart film--by any stretch of the imagination--which by definition means it is definitely not a satire. It does not reinvent the story of a group of 20-somethings seeking thrills at a rundown cabin in the middle of nowhere (I still don't understand how this sounds like a fun vacation), and it doesn't escape the cliche of gratuitous sex scenes and randomly homicidal locals. It's not a self-aware film. It's legitimately a film that thinks it's great. (Oh Eli Roth, you're nothing if not an spectacular underachiever).

But I can say this about the film's co-writer, Roth: you can tell he's having a thoroughly good time coming up with this trash. Seriously, his films are like the chocolate caramel popcorn of horror--we all know they're bad for you but they remain in incredibly high demand. So, here we are.

You are already familiar this riddle: what do you get when 5 simpleton millenials encounter a mysteriously fatal virus at their horror movie prop cabin in the woods? Answer: exactly what they deserve. Like too many derivative horror films before it, CABIN FEVER begins and ends with characters whose deaths you crave just to shut off their stupidity. It doesn't matter who they are really; they're just the awkward fifth wheel and the two couples whose main arc is sleep, f**k, and become virus victims. Yet again, the ridiculous sex scenes are underscored by the very nude woman and the partially clad man (because Hollywood is still stuck on stupid when it comes to how sex works).

Spoiler: everyone gets the skin-decaying virus. A lot of dumb arguments ensue. The trailer is basically the whole film. And then it ends (thankfully).

You're welcome. I watched this, so you don't have to.

Rating: F (0 out of *****)

CABIN FEVER hits theaters in New York City and Los Angeles today.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A New Film, Executive Produced by Emma Thompson, Brings Attention to Child Sex Trafficking in South Asia

Please, please, PLEASE don't let this film be another white savior story. That's the only thing I see as a possible red flag after reading about SOLD, the upcoming film that tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who is abducted and trafficked across the Nepal-India border. Because it's so rare that we get to have a film released in America with a young brown girl as the protagonist and featured on the movie poster; to think that her narrative might be usurped by the heroic arcs of characters played by Gillian Anderson and David Arquette would be too unfortunate for words.

But anyway, let me hop off my soapbox and tell you more about the film. Oscar-winning director Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Molly's Pilgrim) directs Niyar Saikia as Lakshmi in this adaptation based upon the international bestselling novel by Patricia McCormick and inspired by actual events. Emma Thompson executive produced the film, which was written by Joseph Kwong. More in the synopsis:

A young girl, Lakshmi, leaves her home in a quiet village in the Nepali Himalayas in the expectation of a job in big city India. However, upon her arrival in Kolkata, she soon realizes she has been trafficked into a prison brothel, where she must struggle daily to survive against impossible odds. A US photographer (Gillian Anderson) hears her cries for help and works with an NGO, to spearhead a dangerous mission to rescue her. Finally, Lakshmi must risk everything for freedom. SOLD is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a clarion call to action.

I'm not sure what role David Arquette plays in the story, but the fact that he's in this kind of film at all is...interesting. But I am really, really intrigued by the story so far. Plus, anytime we get to see Agent Scully on the big screen is a good day--white savior aside.

Watch the trailer:

Anyone here read McCormick's book? I'd love to hear some sight as the trailer was a bit broad. Share your thoughts in the comments section. SOLD will open nationwide on April 1. 

That XXX Sequel is Really Happening

I know Vin Diesel threatened us with a XXX sequel recently, but I definitely marked it as spam (and thought about calling the police for harassment). But alas, it's really happening, according to a Paramount Pictures release today. I'm not going to rehash my confusion over Diesel's career (and this now three-film franchise, for that matter), because I'm sure it won't matter to you die hard fans.

There are a whole lot of B-action talent attached to xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE, which seems appropriate--from director D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four) to screenwriter Chad St. John (London Has Fallen). So, take from that what you will. Here's the synopsis:

The third explosive chapter of the blockbuster franchise that redefined the spy thriller finds extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) coming out of self-imposed exile and on a collision course with deadly alpha warrior Xiang and his team in a race to recover a sinister and seemingly unstoppable weapon known as Pandora’s Box. Recruiting an all-new group of thrill-seeking cohorts, Xander finds himself enmeshed in a deadly conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of world governments. Packed with the series’ signature deadpan wit and bad-ass attitude, “xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE” will raise the bar on extreme action with some of the most mind-blowing stunts to ever be caught on film.

xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE is currently shooting in Toronto, with additional filming in the Dominican Republic. A release date has not been made public. 


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Watch 4 New Clips from the Jesse Owens Film, RACE

Is it just me or have there been, like, no commercials about RACE, the upcoming film that tells the story of Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens? Seriously, what's up with that? I was just telling a group of friends that this movie is coming out this month (February 19, to be exact), and they hadn't even heard about it. But yet, I've seen about a trillion Zoolander 2 commercials. I see you, Hollywood, and I ain't feeling it.

Thankfully, Focus Features has just released three new clips from the film to whet your appetite. Check 'em out:

Look out for my review on this film prior to its release later this month. To read the synopsis of the film, see my previous post

Monday, February 8, 2016

Natasha Parks: What It's Really Like to be a WoC Film Critic (Blog Series)

One day, probably five years ago, I decided to start an experiment. I go to the movies pretty often, so I started to pay attention to notice the people around me in the theater. I wanted to see how many people like the same movies I like, how old these people were, what ethnicity they were. And I was shocked at what I concluded. Most of the time, I share a theater with middle-aged white men. They are the people I run into most at the movies. Mind you, I tend to like superhero movies, crime/suspense movies, science fiction movies, and romcoms (romantic comedies, they are my favorite), so that probably would be considered normal. But it still surprises me that on several occasions, it has been me… and several other middle aged-white men.

I decided to look at reviews of movies I liked. The one thing I kept running into was that none of the critics I found looked like me. All of the reviews I saw were written by white men. Occasionally, I would run across a woman writing but that too was rare. I didn’t get it. Is their opinion the only one anybody cares about? I knew that was not true. Because I cared.

You see, when I decide to see a film, I don’t care whether it’s a “black” film, a “white” film or a “whatever color” film-- or whatever label people choose to put on it. I care about the story. That’s it. This, in my opinion, would make me a better person to give a review of a film. Most of the time, the critics I see (mainly white) will see a “black” film and they will let some of their biases seep through the whole review. And think it’s okay to stereotype the film as “urban” or “street” because they feel like they can’t connect with the story. I think minority film critics are able to connect to the real heart of a story better, because most of the time, they are not biased. They already know they won’t see a minority in the film so they can pay attention to the story.

Trying to break into film criticism is a large task, because of all the reasons above. There has been no color for so long; it’s hard to change the mindset. But I don’t think that should stop efforts for more diversity. If anything, it should make it more necessary. But as we have seen from the uproar these past few weeks about this year's Oscar nominations, we have a long way to go.

Here is a prime example of how long of a way we have to go. I get approached from various online publications to write reviews. I welcome them, and am so appreciative to get approached. On more than one occasion, online publications with a lack of color in their writers have approached me to review a film with a majority black cast. Mind you, just because the film's cast is predominantly black does not mean that I will want to see it. But I saw the films for them and reviewed them. On every occasion, my review never got published. Why? As a writer, you know I am thinking my writing is horrible, that I am the worst writer in the world, that I should have just said no to them (life of a writer). But I decided to submit the reviews to other publications, with a little more color in their writers. They got published. Now what, you may ask, was the difference? The reviews I wrote weren’t glowing, but they weren’t bad either, because the films were good films. I went back to check the “no color” publications to see if the reviews that got picked over mine were good. They were all scathing reviews of the same black films. Not one good review. Even though, all these films had gotten glorious reviews everywhere else. I was speechless for probably a week, meaning I couldn’t write anything for that whole week. But when I got back to writing, my mission was clearer.

Natasha Parks
After that day, I decided my opinions are out there and will stay out there. Maybe nobody cares to read it, but it’s at least there. And I will support any and all that join me. Because we have to. If we don’t make a sound, they don’t know we’re here.

Natasha Parks is an entertainment blogger who loves all things television, film, and books. And cupcakes. Can’t forget those. You can follow her on twitter @mwishesbdreams and on her website

For more information on this blog series, click here.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Let's Look at Some Big Movie Trailers During the Super Bowl, Shall We?

I know, I know. I'm sure many of you may be watching the Super Bowl to actually catch the football game. But us film nerds are tuning in to watch the commercials and--let's face it--the exclusive film spots. I've got my hands on a few them coming your way in 3...2....

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (in theaters and IMAX March 11):

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2 (in theaters June 3):

DEADPOOL (in theaters February 12):


X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (in theaters May 27):

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"We Don't Need to Seek Acceptance From Anyone"

With the possibility of Straight Outta Compton getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar now null and void, it was great to see the film receive top honors at Friday night's NAACP Image Award ceremony. The win capped off a beautiful evening that was not only about awarding excellence on the big and small screens; it also underscored the importance of recognizing people of color in Hollywood.

But the Image Awards aren't "the response to #OscarsSoWhite," and they're not a trending topic (to borrow Viola Davis's analogy) that merely contributes to the ongoing conversation about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. The Image Awards, like the Alma Awards and the Asian Film Awards, have not been around for years to pick up the Oscars' slack. They exist to honor their own. Period. And if the Oscars ever decide to honor non-white actors on a permanent basis, these awards will still be around. Because, as Taraji P. Henson, winner of Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series (Empire), stated: "We don’t need to ask for acceptance from anyone. We are enough, we’ve been enough and we always will be enough."

Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, took home the trophy for best documentary (sadly beating out my pick, What Happened, Miss Simone?), while Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Sanaa Lathan (The Perfect Guy), O’Shea Jackson, Jr., (Straight Outta Compton) and Phylicia Rashad (Creed) took home awards for their performances.

To see the complete list of winners, visit the NAACP Image Awards website.

Friday, February 5, 2016

On Indie Romcoms, The Duvernay Test, and ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG

It was Viola Davis who commented about the lack of substantial roles as love interests for women of color on the big screen. They're often prostitutes, sexual victims, or practically asexual (meaning, their characters help the protagonist--a white woman--with her romantic dilemmas with no sexual desires of her own). It's preposterous.

That said, I love that Jamie Chung plays the romantic lead in ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG, a film she also co-executive produced with her real-life hubby and co-star, Bryan Greenberg. I also love that Davis, Chung and other WoC in Hollywood are taking matters into their own hands by creating their own films and narratives (Davis even has a film production company). Chung partnered with writer/director Emily Ting on a story that lends itself pretty closely to Richard Linklater's Before series in that it focuses on the dialogue between two strangers flirting with ideals on love, companionship, and ambition.

We see that familiar and very white narrative unfold between an interracial pair in ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG, except this time it's infused with cultural nuances that, while they don't reinvent the wheel, offer a fresh perspective. Take for instance, the fact that Ruby (Chung) is the fish-out-of-water American visiting Hong Kong for the first time, and Josh (Greenberg) is the white American living in Hong Kong for the past decade, who shows her around town. Too often it's been the other way around where the Asian woman who lives in the non-American city, doesn't speak any English, and falls for the mysterious (and culturally tone deaf) white American (this is is, of course, if the Asian female character isn't playing a sex worker).

Another intriguing aspect of the film is that Ting is unafraid to approach dialogue that doesn't avoid the fact that the two have different ethnicities and are enveloped in an open conversation where comments like "Oh, you have an Asian girl fetish?" aren't out of place. In fact, they're completely appropriate given the narrative.

But it takes a lot more than diverse romantic leads and authentic dialogue to make a great film. PoC characters don't automatically legitimize a film. Though the conversation around "The Duvernay Test" (named after filmmaker Ava Duvernay), which challenges Hollywood to cast actors of color in substantive roles, is an important one to have, we must still advocate for characters that are interesting and three-dimensional. Sadly, ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG is just not enough--even with its commitment to depicting society as it really is: diverse. Both Ruby and Josh are underdeveloped and we don't feel invested in their characters outside of the conversation that's driving the plot. For a romantic comedy starring a real-life couple, it remarkably left me quite cold.

I want to see more of Jamie Chung on the big screen, and I am intrigued enough by Ting's passion for the project to be interested to see what she does next. But I'm all set with this project. 

ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG opens in theaters and On Demand February 12.

Rating: C

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Everyone is Infected in the New Trailer for CABIN FEVER

So, as it turns out, horror comedy CABIN FEVER doesn't look like it's going to be all that funny. Judging by the new trailer, there's nary a joke in sight. Twenty-something-year-old nitwits populate a cabin in the middle of nowhere and start coming down with the heebie-jeebies. And s**t hits the fan from then on.

Check it out:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ashlee Blackwell: What It's Really Like to be a WoC Film Critic (Blog Series)

Jada Pinkett Smith in a scene from Scream 2

Ashlee Blackwell, founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters, shares her experience covering black women representation in the horror genre:

I had spent my lifetime thinking very intensely about films I was passionate about. I commonly kept those thoughts inside my vessel because when I exercised this nerdy endeavor in front of others, it was commonly met with odd looks of disdain. What I understood early on in my most fragile of formative years was that horror was the stepchild you only brought out of the basement when company left your home. The exuberance it gave me did nothing for my social IQ, and without any desire to “fit in,” I kept my love of the genre confined to my head and television on the weekends.

This intensity helped me produce some of my best papers in college and not long after, check out the virtual activity of blogging. In the beginning, I knew I had a lot to say about the horror films I loved, and realized that my approach to film criticism was slightly different. Looking back, I saw my written work as both intimate explorations and assertions for a particular film’s merits. This was done with much fervor. Because horror films, although numerous books, articles, and essays were written about the genre and have great fans doing the same, weren’t taken seriously. It was comments from acquaintances and random people who told me my approach was something special that propelled me to do more. I was channeling all of the energy that I had built up since a child with no social outlet for my horror fandom and using this as a space for its release.

It wasn’t until I began Graveyard Shift Sisters that my voice as a film critic became a bit more refined. This was the natural next step in my evolution because as a black woman, I was starting to become discontent with the lack of dialogue on or visual representation of women of color in horror and wanted to do more than focus on our victimhood in these narratives. I imagined that there was more of a variety of our history in the genre and the importance of highlighting characters and stories that moved beyond stereotypes, addressed them, or mirrored them with alternative perspectives.

As a black woman film critic, it was even more imperative for me to do a lot of research if I was going to challenge popular notions of black representation in horror cinema. I also wanted to add my personal touch; what scares me and who were the characters and their traits that I vulnerably and confidently saw in myself. It was how films had always resonated with me, but I could now add how, when, and why the image of a black woman in these narratives was important to examine within the spectrum of history.

Initially, I wanted to connect with Zena from The Real Queen of Horror and Penna of Pixie’s Horror Galore, being as they are the only two black women horror film bloggers out there I was aware of when Graveyard Shift Sisters was birthed in October 2013. Their enthusiasm for the genre was exciting and gave me the extra push to niche out my own little corner of horror film criticism. With their work in mind, I cannot stress how important Twitter has been to my perception of film and influence. It is my daily interaction with and observation of other women of color who genuinely love horror that hold nothing back with their critiques and praises. I’m so thankful for their presence and their voices because they help me understand that I was never alone and expand the perceptions of horror film criticism.

I never wanted to be, and still don’t think I am, “the voice of” or “authority” on anything necessarily as I more so see my work as a film critic like the dissertation that’ll never get me a Ph.D. (because I’m still very much an academic at heart). I offer a portion of horror film criticism that celebrates the overlooked roles of black women for far too long. With many more independent women of color filmmakers creating speculative films, this is an exciting time to be in a film critic division where race and gender are interlocked, embraced, and addressed on multiple levels. I am thrilled about the possibilities of looking at more film projects where their creativity brings something fresh to the horror genre and hopefully, are given the recognition they richly deserve.

Ashlee Blackwell is the creator, head writer, and managing editor of Graveyard Shift Sisters, a
Ashlee Blackwell
blog dedicated to highlighting women of color in the horror and science fiction genres. She’s a BA/MLA graduate of Temple University and has written for Shock Til You Drop, Paracinema, Shadow And Act, and Black Girl Nerds. Additionally, she serves as an Associate Editor of Ax Wound magazine and works closely with the international movement, Women in Horror Month.

Follow Ashlee on social media: Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram.

For more information on this blog series, click here.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Quickie Review: Horror Anthology SOUTHBOUND

Well, it's not awful. That was my legit reaction after watching SOUTHBOUND, the latest big screen anthology horror that is basically like watching one long nightmarish evening play out in real time. And this is actually a compliment. Because, well, have you seen the recent crop of anthology horror we've been getting lately? This one at least has a narrative.

In essence, SOUTHBOUND plays off the horror trope of getting lost on the road in the middle of nowhere surrounded by low-key lunatics--some of whom are their friends. I can't say I was ever truly scared watching any of the five interlocking tales, but I remained intrigued throughout (though that could have been attributed to the fact that I kept waiting for something surprising to happen. It never did). That's the biggest problem with this anthology: everything that you expect to happen actually does. The shock effect is missing, and therefore the intensity that drives a great horror film is nonexistent.

But it's a fun film for a rainy Friday night or for a teenage sleepover (seriously, it's perfect for popcorn and pajamas). For that, it's useful.

I'm not sure if veteran producer Roxanne Benjamin plans to expand this into a series, but if she does I'd like to see the production quality amped up. And while there are plenty of fans who love the empty gore of the V/H/S series, I'm going to need something a lot more substantial.

SOUTHBOUND is in select theaters February 5 (and VOD on February 9).

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