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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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

THE CONJURING 2 Has a Passionate Love Story Wrapped Inside a Terrifying Nightmare

By now, I'm sure most of us horror nerds have seen The Conjuring 2. And it's just as sinister, unsettling, and 70s-styled as you've already heard (and might I add a hearty Amen to that, because you just never know these days with modern American horror). Bravo.

But what folks aren't really talking about is how romantic the film is. Yes, in the middle of my pulling my scarf practically over my entire face watching some of these scenes in the theater (by myself, by the way, at night like a boss), there are genuine moments of heartfelt passion between the two paranormal experts, Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson)--united in demonic ghost worlds yet strengthened by their eternal love for each other. While The Conjuring 2 focuses on the couple's latest subject, Janet, an 11-year-old girl in England possessed by the ghost of a 70-something-year-old man enraged by the fact that Janet and her family are residing in his old home, there's an underlying layer that highlights a central theme in both Lorraine and Ed's characters: love and compassion.

We saw this in the previous film, though a little more dimly. We knew that Lorraine and Ed are accustomed to thrusting themselves into some of the most horrifying situations ever documented, and through it all they've relied on each other for safety, validation, and companionship. But in this latest installment, perhaps because their lives are both threatened beyond their worst nightmares, their love becomes the only thing left that can save them and keep them from disposing their faith. And with that, we see more scenes of them at home with their daughter, looking pleadingly into each other's eyes in desperate fear of losing each other, and putting each other's lives into their hands. I guess it's true what they say: in the face of death, all you can cling to is what (and in this case, who) is worth staying alive for.

As is the case in many great horror movies, including The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, there are themes of love, family, and tenderness which heighten the urgency of the frightening conflict--and The Conjuring 2 is no different. It creates a connection between the characters and the audience, and carves a sense of humanity in the middle of a truly extraordinary phenomenon. Now, I'm not saying that horror films can't scare the bejesus out of you--quite the contrary--but to dismiss the fragility of love and familial dependency found in each of these stories would be to denounce the very thing that gives them their legs.

Rating: B+

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Condola Rashad Looks Troubled Yet Menacing in a New Film Directed by Oscar Nominee Milcho Manchevski

Can I just say how much I am fascinated by Condola Rashad's career? Daughter of Madame Phylicia Rashad (most known as the matriarch of The Cosby Show, who's carved a spectacular career beyond that across all media platforms), Condola is a two-time Tony Award nominee (Stick Fly, The Trip to the Bountiful) who's appeared in Money MonsterElementary, Steel Magnolias (Lifetime), Smash, Billions, and Master of None. And now she's starring in an enigmatic new movie directed and co-written by Oscar nominee Milcho Manchevski (Before The Rain).

According to a brief press release issued Tuesday, BIKINI "tells the story of a documentary filmmaker and his girlfriend who take a charismatic but troubled woman into their home, turning their lives upside down." Judging from the photo above, I'm guessing Rashad plays the "troubled woman."The film is reportedly walks a thin line between reality and fiction, which makes it that much more mysterious (that and the fact we don't have a whole lot of information on the premise, yet).

Production in New York has just wrapped, so expect to hear more about this soon.

It's Only June, But Apparently It's ALMOST CHRISTMAS

Any opportunity to get gifts, I say let there be Christmas every day. Just don't let the festivities end up looking like the joyful messiness in the trailer for ALMOST CHRISTMAS, the upcoming film with a glitzy cast (everyone from Gabrielle Union,  Danny Glover, and Mo'Nique, to Omar Epps and Kimberly Elise) written and directed by David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim).

The film won't be released until November 11, but you can get a first look in this teaser:

Get ready to make this film a part of all of your holiday plans this year.

Will Packer, who's seriously killing the game right now with hits like Think Like a Man, Roots (History Channel), and Ride Along, is also a producer on the film. Seeing as we're already hearing about this film so early in the year, expect to see a ton more commercials and teaser clips coming up for the next, oh, five months or so.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

We're About To Learn a Whole Lot More About Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin

Am I the only one who didn't know that Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series was inspired by a real person, actually named Christopher Robin? Well, he was. And we're about to learn more about him in a new film about A. A. Milne, who penned the famous franchise of children's books, TV shows and films inspired by his son's (Christopher Robin) toys.

Fox Searchlight Pictures just announced via press release Tuesday that Domhnall Gleeson is stepping into the role of Milne and Margot Robbie will play his wife, Daphne, in the upcoming film, GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Synopsis:

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN gives a rare glimpse into the relationship between beloved children's author A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher Robin, whose toys inspired the magical world of Winnie the Pooh. Along with his mother Daphne (Margot Robbie), and his nanny Olive, Christopher Robin and his family are swept up in the international success of the books; the enchanting tales bringing hope and comfort to England after the First World War. But with the eyes of the world on Christopher Robin, what will the cost be to the family?

A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin
(and I presume the teddy bear prototype for Winnie the Pooh)
Simon Curtis, who's directing the upcoming American remake of The Intouchables with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, is helming this project.

I don't know, in the age of hyper adult video games and grown cartoons, are kids still into old school fare like this? Are they the target audience here? I mean, I am a huge Winnie the Pooh fan, but I feel like my generation is the last to appreciate books and characters like this. I guess we'll have to wait and see. I'm not familiar with any of the real characters, so I am just going to have to assume Gleeson and Robbie are good fits (they're generally good actors, so...).

Anyone else have an opinion on this? Let me know in the comments box.

Friday, June 10, 2016

It's Been Almost 25 Years Since BOYZ N THE HOOD

And you know what I'm going to say, damn, we're old. Seriously, where has the time gone?

Director John Singleton's drama, BOYZ N THE HOOD, a classic coming-of-age story about three young black men living in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, marked a time in Hollywood history when modern black characters were actually drawn as three-dimensional, many with college dreams, intelligence, and flaws. They were human, imagine that.

The movie, which opened in theaters on July 21, 1991, was really Black Lives Matter before it became a popular trending topic. And its key characters were played by three of the biggest stars in Hollywood to this day: Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube (along with Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, Nia Long, and Angela Bassett in vital supporting roles).

Now, 25 years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and SVA Theatre will present the film on a big screen again on June 12, followed by what it sure to be an captivating conversation between Singleton and bestselling author Walter Mosley (who can certainly offer a few thoughts on writing compelling black male characters lifted from his popular Easy Rawlins series alone).

Purchase tickets for the screening and post-film discussion here.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Trailer Talk: Christopher Meloni Is Back to Playing A Brooding Detective in MARAUDERS

Those of you who abandoned Law and Order: SVU once Christopher Meloni jumped ship for greener pastures back in 2011 may be particularly interested in his return to law enforcement in the upcoming action film, MARAUDERS, alongside Bruce Willis, Adrian Grenier, and Johnathon Schaech.

And it doesn't look half bad, as far as summer actioners go. Check out the synopsis:

When a bank is hit by a brutal heist, all evidence points to the owner (Bruce Willis) and his high-powered clients. But as a group of FBI agents (Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista and Adrian Grenier) dig deeper into the case - and the deadly heists continue - it becomes clear that a larger conspiracy is at play.
Watch the trailer:

MARAUDERS is in theaters July 1. Thoughts?

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