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Friday, September 30, 2016

Director Amma Asante Returns to Fox Searchlight with the Romantic Drama, A UNITED KINGDOM

How exciting! I just love that we're beginning to see more of a variety of women of color filmmakers doing their thing on the big screen. I've been hearing about Amma Asante's new romantic drama, A UNITED KINGDOM for a few months now and had assumed that a studio had already picked it up, giving the success of her glorious 2013 film, Belle, and the fact that Hollywood middleweights David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are in it. But, Fox Searchlight just announced today that they have acquired the film, making it the second consecutive feature collaboration with Asante.

In case you're unfamiliar, here's the synopsis of A UNITED KINGDOM:

A UNITED KINGDOM is the true story of the forbidden love of King Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman from London, which caused an international uproar when they decided to marry in the late 1940s just as apartheid was being introduced into South Africa. It was a decision that altered the course of African history.

Along with the variety of WoC behind the camera, there has also been a significant array of narratives that realize characters fully: three-dimensional, human, and with agency in their own story. I'm looking forward to this. 

A UNITED KINGDOM is scheduled to be released on February 17, 2017.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Merry Christmas, From Viola Davis and Denzel Washington To You

Awww....Hollywood royalty Viola Davis and Denzel Washington have sent us an early Christmas gift this year, in the form of the teaser trailer for the film adaptation of FENCES. And it has exactly what you hoped it would: an intriguing representation of the narrative, Davis's renowned cry face, and one of Washington's epic speeches.

I kid (kinda), but FENCES looks to be another compelling contribution (and likely Oscar contender) to the vast variety of black storytelling we're seeing lately--and derived from none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson. In case you missed it, here's a recap of the story from an earlier post. 

Watch the trailer:

FENCES opens in theaters December 25. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Get Hyped: The Daily Show's Jessica Williams Will Headline A Film Specifically Developed For Her

I'm pretty sure I am one of very few people on the planet who have never seen a single episode of "The Daily Show." But, after learning about comedienne/podcaster ("Two Dope Queens") Jessica Williams through a random Internet search, I am now very familiar with her particular segments on the Jon Stewart-turned-Trevor Noah hosted show. And now I am hooked. Funny, astute, engaging, and always ready to call out the dark comedy that has become our current political and pop culture landscape, I had always hoped that Jessica Williams would become the next big thing and get her own show. I mean, just look at this:

Long story short, she hasn't exactly reached Hollywood A-list status...yet. But, Monday brought the news that Williams has been cast in an as yet untitled movie that was specifically developed for her by writer/director Jim Strouse (People Places Things), alongside LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Short Term 12, The Purge: Anarchy), Chris O'Dowd, and Noël Wells (Master of None). Williams will also executive produce the film. Here's a little more about it:

Jessica (Williams) is an aspiring playwright in New York City trying hard to get over a recent break-up with her boyfriend. She sees light at the end of the tunnel when she meets Boone (Chris O’Dowd), himself recently divorced. Together, they figure out a way to make it through the tough times - and in the meantime, they realize they like each other - a lot. Stanfield will portray the ex-boyfriend Jessica still carries a torch for and Wells portrays Jessica’s best friend and confidante.

I'm so ready for Williams, the movie star. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this one. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

UrbanWorld Review: Issa Rae's Hilarious New Series, INSECURE, Boldly Dismantles the "Strong Black Woman" Trope

"We don't have high standards. We are just tired of being expected to settle for less."

If there is a line from executive producer/co-writer/star Issa Rae's eagerly anticipated premiere of the HBO series, INSECURE, that best encapsulates its message, it is this. But, in keeping with Rae's brand of awkward yet poignant observations of life as a black woman in America, it's delivered by Rae's character (Issa Dee) in response to a snotty young teen in a classroom who criticizes her for being chronically single. Because there is really no better time to assert your aggression against single shaming than when you're doing a presentation about a non-profit organization for youth. That's the thing with Rae, she may not say it at the most appropriate time, but she's always going to say that uncomfortable truth that many don't think to say out loud. And it's always hilarious, you know, because it's true.  

For that, you can call her the young black female Seinfeld. But with INSECURE, Rae has done something far more significant. She's given a long overdue small screen voice to young black women who are smart, single, feminist, vulnerable and yes, insecure sometimes. Dismantling the oppressive "strong black woman" trope in primetime, she reminds us that we don't always have the answers, we don't always have our s**t together, and we are painfully aware of how we don't always know how to fill in those awkward silences. But we're pushing forward anyway. 

For those of you who followed Rae's similarly witty and oh-so-spot-on YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, will be excited to learn that the now It girl hasn't gone full Hollywood and left what put her on the map behind now that she's a primetime star. In fact, as she recalls at a screening of the premiere episode at UrbanWorld Film Festival recently, she had offers to work on other projects before this came along (including one with none other than TV titan Shonda Rhimes), but network intervention led to several rewrites that diluted her voice beyond recognition. She ended up turning it down, then one month later INSECURE came around.

Freestyling ratchet music it in her bathroom mirror, dealing with white employers who only see her as their black girl expert, and navigating the dismal dating scene in enough self-deprecating material to perform a one-woman show. But I'd be remiss if I didn't praise the awesome Yvonne Orji, who plays her newly single bestie, Molly, who Issa tries to cheer up by taking her on a night on the town (This of course has disastrous results. I won't spoil anything here, but all I'll say are the words "Broken P*ssy"). Rae has certainly found her match with Orji, an actress whose facial expressions alone will make you laugh to the verge of tears. She's the yin to Rae's yang in that she's the social butterfly who can charm the pants off any dude and confidently lead boardroom. But she also has a soft side, a trait Rae herself was adamant about incorporating in the show. "I know we have #BlackGirlMagic, but I don't always feel like that," she revealed at UrbanWorld. "I wanted to show that on the show."

With the amazing variety of narratives heating up the small screen lately, it's comforting to know that TV is finally catching up with the nuances of reality. INSECURE not only offers an authentic portrayal of relationships (whether it be work, friends, significant others, and self), but it's given black women (which includes Melina Matsoukas, director/executive producer) the allegiance to create characters and storylines that don't fit an established archetype. It's bold, smart, wildly entertaining, and unapologetic. I'm here for every last bit of it.

INSECURE premiere on HBO October 9 at 10:30 PM. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Why I've Become Just Cautiously Optimistic about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

So here I was on Friday, counting down the days until the film adaptation of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN opens in theaters (today marks 11!), when I just so happened to double check the director behind the project and...just like that my excitement instantly deflated.


The guy that brought us the problematic The Help and Get On Up is also behind one of the big screen adaptation of one of the best books I've read this year. *insert all the sad face emojis in the universe here*

But, I am going to remain cautiously optimistic. Maybe this won't have the same misfires that Taylor's other films did. Maybe Taylor's true calling is engrossing thrillers adapted from bestselling novels. I mean, it could happen...I guess.

For those who are unfamiliar, here's the synopsis:

Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett, Edgar Ramirez and Allison Janney star in DreamWorks Pictures' The Girl on the Train, from director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get on Up) and producer Marc Platt (Bridge of Spies, Into the Woods). In the thriller, Rachel (Blunt), who is devastated by her recent divorce, spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds.

Based on Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train is adapted for the screen by Erin Cressida Wilson. The film's executive producers are Jared LeBoff and Celia Costas, and it will be released by Universal Pictures.

Check out a few new stills from the film:

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN opens in theaters October 7. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

QUEEN OF KATWE is a Gorgeous, Inspiring Look at a Young Black Life Fully Realized

A few months ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had a chance to catch the first episode of the new Roots mini-series on the History Channel (which later became a ratings success), as well as the pre-screening discussion with the actors, including the series lead Malachi Kirby, who marveled over his experience working on the project in Africa. Rarely do big screen depictions of the continent highlight its joy and beauty, he said.

I thought of his statement again recently while watching QUEEN OF KATWE, which tells the true story of a young girl from Uganda who rises to become a chess prodigy amid challenging circumstances. Sean Bobbitt's radiant photography, capturing the crease in each character's smile line, the wistful yet determined furrow of their brows, and the movement of their hips as they dance with excitement, combined with the vibrant costumes and gorgeous landscape, immediately invites you into the narrative. That's because you never feel like you're watching the typical somber meditation of life in Africa that is relentless and one-dimensional. Rather, you're watching life in all its shades: joyful, messy, devastating, and triumphant. Powerful.

Based on a remarkable true story, which later became a bestselling book, QUEEN OF KATWE shines a light on the journey of 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi (portrayed by astonishing newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who, lured by the smell of porridge in her nearly depleted belly, stumbled onto a makeshift chess group and defied all the odds to become an international hero.

If this sounds like a quintessential Disney film to you, then you're half right. Yes, it's wholesome and finishes on a heartwarming high like many other cherished Disney stories. But at its core lies a story of redemption, cultural pride, feminism, and economics--elements of a young life contending with extraordinary challenges. As one of few girls in war refugee-turned-missionary Robert Katende's (charmingly played by David Oyelowo) group of budding young chess stars, Phiona's genius is at first an unwelcome threat against her male counterparts. But with time she was embraced, and was even looked up to, by everyone from her teammates to her firm yet loving single mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and even Katende himself. And years later (the film spans several years of her life, beginning in 2005), when the little Katwe team battles the upper class prep school prodigies when she takes her first ever flight across Uganda, Phiona comes face to face with the realization of how Katwe (and more specifically, the people of Katwe) are regarded--or disregarded--to everyone else. With a fighter's passion and a fierce yearning to overcome her circumstances, Phiona simultaneously comes of age and transfixes a world of fans--ultimately going on to compete in the 41st Chess Olympiad in 2014.

QUEEN OF KATWE is a mesmerizing story of a life fully realized, a life that's often overlooked and not given a chance. Its young cast, led by the Nalwanga's nuanced performance, help illuminate layers of humanity resting deep in the "slums" of Uganda, exhibiting talent well beyond their years. Meanwhile, Oyelowo and Nyong'o's performances temper the film with heart-wrenching emotion. And Mira Nair's touching portrait of Katwe's inspiring young queen with a dream is one to remember.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Trailer Watch: 'AND STILL I RISE' Promises to Illuminate the Inspiring Life of Icon Maya Angelou

If there was ever a documentary that was stacked with pressure to be absolutely perfect from audiences across the world, it is MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE. First of all, it is tasked with illuminating the life of iconic writer/activist/performer/hero Maya Angelou (something that could really take several movies in a row could struggle to exemplify). And it features interviews with other greats like Cicely Tyson, U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and Oscar winner Common (to name a few of the stars), sharing how Angelou and the legacy she left behind has impacted their lives. Oh, and the late Angelou herself appears in her own words, adding a deeply personal element to the narrative.

Guys, this could be major. Read the synopsis:

With never before seen footage, directors BOB HERCULES and RITA COBURN WHACK present her incredible journey, shedding light on the untold aspects of her life with remarkable unmatched access. This intimate and personal portrait of Dr. Maya Angelou's life is a touching and moving tribute to her legacy. Distinctly referred to as “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture,” icon Maya Angelou gave people the freedom to think about their history in a way they never had before. Dr. Angelou’s was a prolific life; as a singer, dancer, activist, poet, and writer she inspired generations with lyrical modern African-American thought that pushed boundaries.

This unprecedented film celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou by weaving her words with rare and intimate archival photographs and videos, which paint hidden moments of her exuberant life during some of America’s most defining moments. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana to her inaugural speech for President Bill Clinton, the film takes us on an incredible journey through the life of a true American icon.

The film also features a remarkable series of interviews with friends and family including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s grandson, Guy Johnson.

Now watch the trailer:

Very, very hyped about this. MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE will open in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco theaters on October 14.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

And in Non-BRIDGET JONES'S BABY News, The Trailer for THE WHOLE TRUTH Starring Renée Zellweger and Keanu Reeves

Suffice it to say that just as much energy media spent criticizing Renée Zellweger's alleged plastic surgery in the trailer for Bridget Jones's Baby, also went into lambasting the film's ultimate box office disappointment. But you know where nearly no energy was spent? On discussing the actual quality of the film. So, I guess we're left to assume from the media narrative that the actress's face ruined the film. Ah, Hollywood, you're nothing if not ridiculous.

Flash forward to less than a week after Bridget's release, Zellweger gets another chance to win over critics (and hopefully stage a real comeback) with THE WHOLE TRUTH, a crime thriller in which she's starring alongside Keanu Reeves, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jim Belushi. So far, it sounds promising, and a welcome departure from the otherwise straightforward, likable characters Zellweger normally plays.


Defense attorney Richard Ramsay (Keanu Reeves) takes on a personal case when he swears to his widowed friend, Loretta Lassiter (Renée Zellweger), that he will keep her son Mike (Gabriel Basso) out of prison. Charged with murdering his father, Mike initially confesses to the crime. But as the trial proceeds, chilling evidence about the kind of man that Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi) really was comes to light. While Ramsay uses the evidence to get his client acquitted, his new colleague Janelle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tries to dig deeper - and begins to realize that the whole truth is something she alone can uncover.

Check out the trailer:

THE WHOLE TRUTH opens in theaters and VOD on October 21.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

IFP FILM WEEK: Rose McGowan - Unfiltered, Ambitious, and Tired of Hollywood Bulls**t

Few other women in Hollywood have given it a bigger middle finger than Rose McGowan. We all know about the double standards, racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other lovely perks of being in the show they call biz. But McGowan, who you may know from Scream, Jawbreaker, Charmed, or Grindhouse: Planet Terror (my personal favorite), a product of the Hollywood machine, has been astonishingly vocal about all of it. After quitting the acting business a few years back after seeing a distorted image of herself on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 2010, McGowan decided to take the reins of her career and pivot behind the camera to present her directorial debut, Dawn (reviewed here).

As part of IFP Film Week last weekend, McGowan candidly discussed everything from her latest endeavors (including a book and an small screen project with SeriesFest!) to Hollywood patriarchy and growing up as an actor:

A movie she admires:

The Parent Trap (1961 version, the only one that matters).

On social media:

"To quote Ashton Kutcher, 'Twitter is the only place where an actor can have a voice for themselves.'"

On battling injustice, inequality, and Hollywood fatigue:

"So many directors treat actors like couches that talk. There is no human resources for actors."

Advice she'd give male filmmakers on how to portray genuine women characters:

"Don't just look at how you would consume a movie. Think about your female audience."

On playing Paige on Charmed:

"It was the hardest character I ever played because she was so normal." #Irony

On her reported "feud" with Shannen Doherty:

"One of Shannen's strong points is that if she didn't like you, she told you."

On other Hollywood gripes:

"My biggest problem was working with people who had no clue what they were doing. I often found that I was directing myself."

Monday, September 19, 2016

IFP Film Week: Rebecca Hall On Portraying the Complex, Eccentric, and Tragic CHRISTINE

In less than one month audiences nationwide will be able to immerse themselves in the big screen dramatization of a Florida news anchor's startling true life story that culminated in her taking her own life in the middle of a live broadcast. But, as its star Rebecca Hall is quick note, CHRISTINE (previewed last week on the site) isn't about her jaw-dropping death. "It's a film that shows how you can celebrate a life without glorifying its ending."

Hall discussed working on the film with director Antonio Campos as part of the IFP Film Week conversation series in Brooklyn this past weekend, moderated by Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker Magazine. It was an engrossing dialogue that highlighted the film's depiction of 1970s feminism in the workplace and depression, while also examining Hall and Campos's artistic process to create the character of Christine Chubbuck with very little information about her to go by.

Rebecca Hall on getting into character:

"I only had about 15 minutes of video of Christine to get an understanding of her." While the actual video of Chubbuck's death remains MIA now, Hall said she watched footage of Chubbuck doing one of her typical human interest interviews, which she described as "very dull." She credits screenwriter Craig Shilowich, who interviewed some of Chubbuck's coworkers and friends, as helping her round out the character.

On what compelled her to take the role:

Hall had never heard of Chubbuck's story before, but upon reading Shilowich's script, she asked herself, "Why am I so disturbed by this? I knew that it felt important. It made me think about what it must have been like to be this person. It's so rare that as an actress that you get such a feminine film. A woman who is unlikable."

On the role feminism plays in Chubbuck's story in the film:

"She isn't sexually viable and she doesn't get saved by a man." Hall said.

On understanding Chubbuck's character:

"Christine is a unique and eccentric individual. She was constantly performing for those around her and checking in with those watching to see if what she was doing was ok," Hall said.

On the effect Chubbuck's story had on the film's talent:

"For better or worse, the act was a public tragedy," Hall said. Campos added, "By the end [of the film], you just feel devastated." Hall also said that Shilowich, who combated his past depression by throwing himself into his work, was fascinated by how it was Chubuck's work that served as a catalyst.

CHRISTINE hits theaters October 14.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Trailer Watch: Rebecca Hall Transforms into the Real-Life News Anchor Whose Name Tragically Made Headlines

This looks so good, guys.

Coincidentally, I was just tweeting the other day how as a J-school grad, I continue to be surprised by how journalism has evolved (and in some instances devolved) in favor of click baits and sensationalism. Which is perhaps at the basis of CHRISTINE, starring the criminally underrated Rebecca Hall as the real life Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news anchor who made national headlines in 1974 when she committed suicide during a live broadcast. I know, wild.

Looking at the new trailer, which is definitely intriguing, the film looks like it also explores such topics as depression, feminism in the workplace, and social awkwardness--all embodied in Hall's performance.

Full synopsis:

Rebecca Hall stars in director Antonio Campos' third feature film, CHRISTINE, the story of a woman who finds herself caught in the crosshairs of a spiraling personal life and career crisis. Christine, always the smartest person in the room at her local Sarasota, Florida news station, feels like she is destined for bigger things and is relentless in her pursuit of an on-air position in a larger market. As an aspiring newswoman with an eye for nuance and an interest in social justice, she finds herself constantly butting heads with her boss (Tracy Letts), who pushes for juicier stories that will drive up ratings. Plagued by self-doubt and a tumultuous home life, Christine’s diminishing hope begins to rise when an on-air co-worker (Michael C. Hall) initiates a friendship which ultimately becomes yet another unrequited love. Disillusioned as her world continues to close in on her, Christine takes a dark and surprising turn.

Based on true events, Campos’ intimate and sensitive portrait of a woman on the brink is grounded by Hall’s impeccable and transformative performance as Christine. Rounding out the supporting cast are superlative performances by Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), Tracy Letts (“Homeland,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), Maria Dizzia (“Orange Is The New Black”), Timothy Simons (“Veep”) and J. Smith-Cameron (“Margaret”).

Watch the trailer:

I'm actually attending a panel with Hall and Campos as the special guests for IFP Film Week, which should be interesting. CHRISTINE opens in theaters October 14. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Jessica Chastain is Channeling All Kinds of Corporate Badassery in the MISS SLOANE Trailer

So, as some of you may already know, I worship at the church of Jessica Chastain. I think she can do no wrong, even in the wrongest movies like *ahem* The Help (yeah, I said it). After her Oscar-nominated turn in the aforementioned movie, she's gone on to portray some of the most interesting ice queens in modern cinema--Lucille in Crimson Peak, Anna in A Most Violent Year, Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, and the title character in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, to name a few. In short, I think she's the cat's meow.

Which is another reason why MISS SLOANE caught my attention. The actress stars as a ruthless D.C. lobbyist who goes to great lengths to get her way--no matter the risk. Synopsis:

MISS SLOANE is the story a brilliant but ruthless lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) who is notorious for her unparalleled talent and her desire to win at all costs, even when it puts her own career at risk. The thriller pulls back the curtain on how Capitol Hill games are played and won as Sloane faces off against the most influential powers in D.C.

Chastain re-teams with director John Madden (The Debt), and stars alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Mark Strong, and John Lithgow.

Watch the trailer:

I'm very intrigued. MISS SLOANE hits theaters December 9. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Homophobia, Satanic Rituals and Cult Horror: The Heinous Case Against the San Antonio Four in 'SOUTHWEST OF SALEM'

Sadly, when I first heard the story of four gay Latina women in 1990s Texas who were wrongfully convicted of the gang rape of two little girls, it was when SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year--three years after they served 15 years in jail, and as they continue to struggle to fight to reclaim their innocence and piece together what is left of their families. Excuse me for my extremely delayed response, but I am enraged.

This seems to be exactly the reaction director Deborah Esquenazi is hoping for as she encourages audiences to join the exoneration campaign for these women. SOUTHWEST OF SALEM, a documentary told through the eyes of the four women, unfolds like a horrifying nightmare. Esquenazi recounts the events leading up to the women’s incarceration, going as far back as when the women met, became friends, couples and mothers—reinstating their humanity after their names and reputations had become synonymous with satanic rituals, cult behavior, and child molestation, thanks to their intensely conservative home state and media scrutiny. With this film, their identities are less about the stigma of being relentlessly called “perverts” but rather about reclaiming their themselves as Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez--citizens in a country that feebly clings to the slogan of "all people are created equal."

Anna is the first one of the “four” to speak on camera. Esquenazi interviews both her (through the glass of the visitation area in prison) and her mother, fighting to hold back tears the entire time. Anna's friend Liz, the aunt of the two young girls, was forced to leave her own young son--with whom she was pregnant at the time of the accusation--behind when she was sentenced. She tells her story of coming out when she was 18 years old, meeting Cassie, a mother of two from a previous relationship, and together raising her children. Through this narrative, Esquenazi paints their individual portraits that the media and Texas community failed to reveal.

Then we hear Liz's story, in her own words. Arguably the most complicated narrative to tell as it is her two nieces who accuse the "four" of sexually abusing them, and she was also pregnant with their father's (her brother-in-law's) child, folks were ripe to declare a guilty verdict despite Liz's testimony that Javier, her brother-in-law, had been obsessed with her at the time and she was worried about what he might do to her. Liz, pregnant and in a tough predicament, met Kristie (another one of the "four") and they fell in love.

Through home videos, family testimonials, and recorded footage of the trial, news reports, and ultimate homecoming, Esquenazi weaves together a film about four lives that were eagerly halted, distorted, and shamed, women who were removed from society due to Latina hate, lesbian fear, and utter disdain for their "perverted lifestyle." She shows how their lives were held up in front of a society that fought tirelessly to dismantle their humanity, associating them with heinous crimes and satanic imagery because they felt "this is what gay people do."

As most documentary filmmakers who present real-life stories dealing with the justice system and crimes against humanity (which I would consider this to be, as the only criminals here seem to be the rigged justice system and disgusting court of opinion), Esquenazi has her own agenda. Though each of the women have been released from jail, their names remained tarnished with child molestation and satanic charges engraved on their reports as the court still refuses to grant them their innocence. So Esquenazi has teamed with the National Center for Justice, the Innocence Project of Texas, and other criminal experts who are helping to clear their names--a fight vigorously led by the San Antonio Four themselves who have struggled to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed by a system in which they are not welcome.

Through the haunting images of lives torn apart, Esquenazi highlights their intimate personal stories post-prison--particularly with Liz, who reunites with one of her nieces years later after she recants her statement. While it was interesting to know the answer to the "what ever happened to the two little girls?" question, the documentary itself quickly fell off its course at this point--about three quarters into the film. It would have been more compelling to end with a a poignant quote from one of the "four" regarding their innocence. Instead, the conclusion is open-ended, and not just because their fight is ongoing but the choice to pursue the story of the two little girls (which then led to their father's shifting perspective) makes the film drag on needlessly losing its intention (and Esquenazi's obvious agenda).

That said, the story of the San Antonio Four is more imperative than the way the story is ultimately packaged in SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR. Without the sloppy presentation of the confounding facts at the end of the film, it would have been a more impactful film. But what it does succeed at is bringing attention to a case that should never really be forgotten.

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

Friday, September 9, 2016

Badass Feminist Filmmaker Lexi Alexander Will Take On "The Dark Side of Pro Wrestling" in a New Movie

Academy Award-nominated director Lexi Alexander, a huge supporter of our "Cinema in Noir" podcast, has just signed on to direct a new film based on the life of late wrestler Chris Benoit. I'll admit, I've never seen a single wrestling match ever in life, and I am mainly interested in the fact that Alexander will be at the helm (not only is she unafraid to be vocal about racial and political injustice in Hollywood, but she has managed to evade the stereotypical films Hollywood consistently throws at women filmmakers). CROSSFACE looks to be yet another fist clenching project to add onto her list of credits, which already include Supergirl, Arrow, and Punisher: War Zone

As a non-wrestling fan, I had to look up Benoit's story online, and my, what a narrative it is: Professional prestige, fame, and murder. I'm curious to see how Alexander will tackle the themes in this movie, which I'm sure folks will want to compare to Foxcatcher. But I have a feeling she'll be able to highlight more of the nuance and vulnerability of Benoit's story. Benoit's story may also remind folks of the Will Smith movie, Concussion, which suggests that repeated blows to the head in aggressive sports can lead to concussion and brain damage (which reportedly caused Benoit to commit double-murder homicide). 

Here's a little more about the movie:
Based on the book, "Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry" by Matthew Randazzo V, “Crossface” will tell the story of WWE superstar Chris Benoit as he struggles to maintain his family life, while the pressures of wrestling cause him to spiral out of control. Benoit was a well respected, world champion wrestler, who, over the course of a weekend in June 2007, murdered his wife and son before taking his own life. It was later discovered that Benoit was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, severe brain degeneration, believed to be associated with his career as a wrestler.

From the Let It Play Productions press release, Alexander states:  “I was pretty certain I'd stay in TV rather than returning to the feature world, because the material just seems so much better in TV, especially in drama, but then “Crossface” came my way. A heartbreaking, true story about the dark side of wrestling...I couldn't say no to that."

My body is ready. 

First Look: Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are Maliciously Uncoupled in NOCTURAL ANIMALS

If Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal's upcoming thriller is anything like the brutally romantic Gone Girl, I'm all the way in. That was the vibe I got after reading the synopsis for NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the film adaptation of Austin Wright's novel about a former husband and wife who discover haunting secrets about each other and their relationship through his unpublished manuscript. Here's the synopsis: 

From writer/director Tom Ford comes a haunting romantic thriller of shocking intimacy and gripping tension that explores the thin lines between love and cruelty, and revenge and redemption. Academy Award nominees Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal star as a divorced couple discovering dark truths about each other and themselves in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.

And with Tom Ford behind this, it's going to be visually breathtaking. The film also stars Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Andrea Riseborough. So, this could be really, really good. 

Check out a few additional images from the film:

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is in select cities November 18, and in additional cities November 23, then nationwide December 9. Thoughts?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sanaa Lathan and Shiva Negar Will Help Michael Keaton Take Down a Terrorist in AMERICAN ASSASSIN

I will continue to say that we have yet to see Sanaa Lathan truly deliver as an actress on the big screen. I think lack of opportunity has prohibited her from flexing her acting skills, though her unhinged portrayal in Out of Time offered a snippet into her potential. But we still need to see more commanding performances like that. Will AMERICAN ASSASSIN be the film that catapults her career? Eh, I doubt it. But she teams with Michael Keaton as a CIA Deputy Director. So there's that.

Along with Lathan, who's just been announced as a new name in the cast, Shiva Negar (Hemlock Grove, 24 Hour Rental) also joins the film as a badass Turkish agent on a mission to stop a spree of terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Here's a little more on the film from a press release issued by CBS Films and Lionsgate on Wednesday:

AMERICAN ASSASSIN follows the rise of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) a CIA black ops recruit under the instruction of Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). The pair is then enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on both military and civilian targets. Together the three discover a pattern in the violence leading them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent (Shiva Negar) to stop a mysterious operative (Taylor Kitsch) intent on starting a World War in the Middle East.

The thriller is adapted from Vince Flynn's bestselling counter-terrorism book of the same title by Stephen Schiff (The Americans, Ultimate Rush) and directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger, Homeland, L.I.E.).

I know he's still trying to win over many critics, but Taylor Kitch pleasantly surprised me in both The Normal Heart and True Detective, so I am interested to see what he brings here. And Keaton is just always the bee's knees. So, let's just say I am cautiously optimistic about this one. 

What say you? 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On FENCES and the Need for More Black Stage-To-Film Adaptations

Time and time again I have written about Hollywood's creative bankruptcy when it comes to narratives with actors of color (and across the board, really, but even worse when it comes to actors of color). It's like those making all the power plays in Hollywood haven't ever taken a trip to their local library and bookstore, where they would clearly see the plethora of amazing narratives just waiting for their big screen debut.

Literally, every other medium is light years ahead of the big screen, including Broadway, which, as I have written about before, continues to be the most inclusive medium out there--more than film and TV. Which should make it ripe for big screen adaptations. Hell, if Nine and Jersey Boys can be adapted for the big screen despite being wretched (the adaptations, not the stage musicals), so can something like FENCES, which is making its way to the big screen in December. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington have reprised their Tony Award-winning roles as Rose and Troy, a married couple living in the 1950s and dealing with racial turmoil, shattered dreams, and familial drama.

Written by August Wilson and premiering for the stage in 1983, this film adaptation is also directed by Washington and remains one of the most important  black "slice of life" dramas in history, following in the footsteps as such classics as Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

All this to say, I'm psyched. I'm psyched to see Washington behind the camera again (his directorial efforts of The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher are criminally underrated). I'm psyched to see a black drama that sees its black protagonists as humans and not tragic victims. And I'm prematurely psyched about the potential of more black stage productions, those that highlight the diversity of our stories and characters, coming to the screen. Can Eclipsed be next, please and thank you?

FENCES is in theaters December 25.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Return of Captivity Horror: Final Girls, Claustrophobia and the Inferiority Complex

We are more than halfway through 2016 and I find it really interesting that the three smartest, most entertaining, and genuinely scary American horror movies all fall within the category of captivity horror. You know the type: the ones in which the protagonist--ultimately a woman--winds up trapped in the primary setting of the film (usually a home, often her own) with a sadistic villain. This isn't anything really new in the horror genre, but it's definitely worth noting that in a presidential election year where we see a woman running for the highest position in America, we've seen a great number of women in film being held hostage by men who seek pleasure in turning them into their inferior victims.

Then again, as we've seen time and time again in this category of film, the women rise up, take charge, and reclaim their heroism--standing tall by the ending credits as victors of the story, the omnipresent final girls of horror. Take for instance, Hush, a Netflix original film that seemingly came out of nowhere (I only caught it when it popped up in my "recommended picks" list one day) and instantly became a "Did you see that?" moment on social media. The story follows a deaf woman who becomes trapped in her own home when a killer takes her handicap for weakness a la Audrey Hepburn's character in Wait Until Dark, and tries to elongate his torture tactics on a "helpless" woman. He's mistaken, because (spoiler alert!) she rips him a new one.

In the same weekend (the second weekend of March, to be exact), we also saw 10 Cloverfield Lane
take the big screen box office by storm. There were many theories about what its narrative alluded to (I remember one in particular even drew comparisons to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy), but what is at its core is a middle-aged white man (played by John Goodman) who comes across a young woman (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) presumably in the midst of a difficult breakup. He seizes the opportunity to manipulate her into believing that the apocalypse had come and his was the only place of refuge. Ah, mansplaining at its best. Needless to say, our female protagonist here figured things out and devised her own rescue plan.

And most recently there is Don't Breathe, another out-of-nowhere movie that had very few commercials and early buzz leading up to its release more than a week ago and is now the number 1 movie at the box office for the second weekend in a row. This pot boiler initially sets itself up to be another home invasion thriller by three white inner city millenials who feel they were robbed of society's goodwill so they steal from the rich in order to return the earth back on its axis. (I can get on my soapbox here about how so many millenials feel that the world owes them something and that they shouldn't have to work for anything, but I won't because that's not the point of this post). Anyway, they chose the wrong house to burglarize one night when they broke into the home of a blind ex-military man (Stephen Lang) still reeling from both the horrors of combat and the wrongful death of his teenage daughter by a drunk driver (a rich white girl who spends not a single day in jail for the crime because irony). The crooked millenials get more than what they've bargained for when Lang's character retaliates hard core, sealing final girl Rocky (Jane Levy) in his house to be his prey while his rabid seeing eye dog rips and roars across the dark, rickety house that has bobby traps everywhere. Like most modern horrors today, there are several false endings, so the increasingly claustrophobic setting makes for a serious nail biter.

I have a feeling this isn't the last we've seen of either of these three original horror films. I just hope that the captivity horror continues to reinvent itself and not become an endless cycle of the same narrative. With visionary film-making and thoughtful writing, this could be the very thing that saves modern American horror.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Astronauts, Sneakers, and Guns: A Review of KICKS

I often wonder which black movies get turned down and why. Because there are a few persistent narratives that get retold over and over by different filmmakers and different actors. Meanwhile, other narratives--those that aren't aligned with the predominant cinematic image of black life that makes white audiences comfortable--too often get shuffled to the margins (or never see the light of day, I presume). For instance, the coming-of-age story, led usually by a group of young black men who come into their adulthood through traumatic encounters with gun violence and other crimes, is a popular trope in Hollywood. KICKS, the first feature-length film from director and co-writer Justin Tipping, is no exception to this rule. 

And while this isn't to dismiss that this is a sad truth of a black life; it's just not the definitive truth as black is not a monolith. But in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, when countless young black lives are being introduced to crime when faced with their own mortality at the hands of others, KICKS is sharply indicative of an alarming image that plays on loop in news headlines. Jahking Guillory stars as 15-year-old Brandon, a young student a little left of the popular crowd, who has set his sights on a pair of Jordans that will undoubtedly elevate his social status both in the school hallways and in his Oakland neighborhood. And he will do anything to get them.

As it turns out, getting them isn't the challenge (a roundaway guy was selling them for cheap out of his trunk). But immediately after he flosses the sneakers around his neighborhood, he gets jumped for them at the basketball court by a group of guys who leave him bloodied and barefoot. Rather than cower in a corner, for the first time in his life Brandon decides to stand up for himself--at whatever cost.

Thus sets up the conflict of the narrative, a surge into manhood, apparently without the assistance of a father and even a mother (though she's alluded to in the film, we never actually see her--rounding out the stereotype of young black men having to grow up on their own). Tipping manages to skirt the traditional narrative by incorporating a sci-fi accent by way of a lingering astronaut designed to serve as Brandon's conscious. The motive isn't entirely clear, but I can only assume that our young protagonist, whose interests outside of the pair of Jordans are apparently nil, may actually be a lowkey sci-fi nerd. Too bad Tipping didn't play that up more as blerd culture is prominent right now (and deserves more representation on screen).

Nevertheless, KICKS should be praised for introducing audiences to a virtually unknown and impressive young black male cast. Beyond Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace (son of the late rapper, Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace) and Christopher Meyer play Brandon's ride-or-die sidekicks, who provide much needed humbling and support for Brandon once he attempts to play by the rules of the streets and puts both himself and his crew in danger.

Obviously, KICKS is about much more than a pair of sneakers. It's about manhood, growing up in the hood, and the inner struggles you don't see played out on the news: neighborhood bullies, the fight for hood domination, and colorism on the streets. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but I'm interested to see what Tipping does next.

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

KICKS is in theaters Friday. Watch the trailer.

Watch the trailer:

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