This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Hate U Give’ Confronts Racism and Police Brutality via High School Cinema

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CREDIT: Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Anthony Mackie

Director: George Tillman Jr.

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Uneasy Race Relations and the Dangers of Living in a Volatile Neighborhood

Release Date: October 5, 2018 (Limited)/Expands October 12, 2018/Expands Nationwide October 19, 2018

About two-thirds of the way through The Hate U Give, Starr Carter’s father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) lines his children up on their front yard and has them recite a creed he has instilled in them since birth: “Reasons to live give reasons to die.” If you have ever worried, or experienced, how living up to your ideals can put you or your loved ones in danger, this moment is essential viewing. If you can be upstanding and strong-willed enough to avoid being taken down by scandal or shame, then you do not have to worry about too many vulnerabilities. But you can still be devastated if you have a lot of love. Maverick defiantly insists that his children make peace with that for the sake of their family, and his example is a wonderful expression of what parents should demand of their children, or indeed what everybody should demand of their fellow human beings.

This is the inflection point that brings into focus the dilemma that Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is struggling with throughout The Hate U Give. She is the only witness to her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), an unarmed black teenager, being fatally gunned down by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop. She is thus Khalil’s best potential advocate for justice, but she must weigh going public with her account against the potential consequences. She risks alienation from her classmates at the predominantly white high school she attends, as well as much worse from the local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who would seek retribution for the wrong secrets getting out. Not to mention the moral and emotional responsibility of possibly becoming a symbol for an entire movement.

The power of The Hate U Give is in the well-realized vision of its lived-in community. Starr and her siblings are growing up in a classically American code-switching existence: living in a low-income, predominantly black community while getting educated at an upper-class, majority white school. The Carters have the means to move out of their home, but their familial and cultural connections make that decision a little complicated. Theirs is a family that has close blood relations with both police officers and career criminals in a manner that makes perfect sense.

The portrait of Starr’s high school, though, does not quite have as much depth. While the casual racism that her classmates display is believable, the white characters are not always fully fleshed out, occasionally sounding like little more than stereotypes. One partial exception is Starr’s boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), who may say some clueless or insensitive things, but when confronted with a real crisis, he asks Starr genuinely, “How can I help?” This is absolutely no white savior narrative, but it is a story that recognizes the importance of communion and reconciliation.

The film’s title is inspired by the lyrics of 2Pac, who philosophized that communities of color were oppressed by outside institutions influencing them towards fulfilling their worst stereotypes. Ultimately, Starr realizes however that communities must heal themselves, as they are kept down not just by the hate they receive but also the hate that they self-inflect. The truest explanation is that it is really a combination of both, and while The Hate U Give attempts to end on a somewhat overly simplistic note, it does otherwise present a scenario that sincerely conveys that complication. There is hate out there, whether or not you give it or only receive it, but ultimately it is up to every individual to choose to live for love.

The Hate U Give is Recommended If You Like: John Hughes Films, Social Justice

Grade: 4 out of 5 Reasons to Live

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Smallfoot’ is a Bighearted, Non-Abominable Delight

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Animation

This review was originally publshed on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Yara Shahidi

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Falling Thousands of Feet with Few Lasting Consequences

Release Date: September 28, 2018

A surefire formula in storytelling is the whole ol’ switcheroo. Taking a timeworn trope and turning its perspective inside out has proven to be valuable on many occasions. Smallfoot runs with that idea, getting a lot of mileage out of reversing its approach to a common myth. It does not just presuppose a world in which Yeti do exist, but one in which there is an entire race of them with their own advanced society. Furthermore, to the Yeti, the existence of humans is the stuff of legends, thus the moniker of the mythical “Smallfoot.” It’s not the most profound premise, but it’s delightful enough to tickle those in the mood for wonder.

It all comes down to, as so many of these animated jaunts do, an interspecies friendship. Migo (Channing Tatum) is a Yeti on the verge of taking on some adult Yeti responsibility when his world rocked by the appearance of a creature with a less-than-gigantic footprint. He proceeds to venture down below the clouds to find the truth behind this encounter, which is when his path crosses with Percy Patterson (James Corden), a nature TV host desperate to restore his popularity. Both man and beast can speak intelligently, but Migo’s words sound like growls to Percy, and Percy’s sound like squeaks to Migo. Yet somehow a connection is forged, and the repartee is quite charming from Tatum and Corden, as well as Zendaya as a fellow Yeti who is especially enthusiastic about the existence of Smallfoots. Providing the ominous (but also unnervingly wise) counterpoint is Common as the Stonekeeper, a Yeti elder who knows the reality of Yeti-human history but propagates an elaborate mythology designed to prevent the truth from being exposed.

As you might guess based on its genre and some of its cast members, Smallfoot is a musical, which I found to be a tad exhausting. To be fair, that is my typical reaction to musicals, what with their inherently overly dramatic manipulation of emotions, and Smallfoot‘s songs do not do much to change my mind. But there is one number rapped by Common that wonderfully reveals the foundation of Yeti society and serves as the crux of the film. The tension driving the best moments of Smallfoot are all about being lost (or not quite lost) in translation. The fear and anticipation mixed up by this inherent confusion leads to a bunch of hijinks and a lot of intrigue and ultimately an attempt at peace and integration that offers hope that this motley world can make it with all of its mixed-up parts working together.

Smallfoot is Recommended If You Like: The search for Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, Happy Feet, Storks

Grade: 3 out of 5 Footprints

This Is a Movie Review: The Partnership Between ‘Megan Leavey’ and Bomb-Sniffing Rex is One for the Ages, Elevating an Otherwise Ho-Hum Biopic

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Kate Mara, Edie Falco, Ramón Rodríguez, Common, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Medium-Grade Explosives Injuries

Release Date: June 9, 2017

There is plenty of research and apocryphal evidence suggesting that dogs experience genuine emotions and form interspecies bonds much the same way that humans do. This always comes with the caveat that we can never exactly know the accuracy of those conclusions, as none of us has ever literally been inside a dog’s head. Most of the research I have encountered has included little, if any, reference to military bomb-sniffing dogs, which is a bit of a lost opportunity as that high pressure occupation surely has a noteworthy effect on the canine psyche. But at least now we can examine the compelling evidence of Marine Corporal Megan Leavey and her dog Rex.

Megan Leavey is a fairly straightforward military story, but it distinguishes itself with its high-class casting and its crew of sniffers. Kate Mara is sufficiently lived-in as the title character, imbuing actual personality into voiceover about how she needs to escape her boring New York town. As her parents, Edie Falco and Bradley Whitford do as much as they can with underwritten, limited screen time. And a fellow soldier (Ramón Rodríguez) strikes up decently sizzling chemistry with Leavey, despite the extent of their attraction consisting of an opposites attract thing where she’s a Yankees fan, and he’s a Mets fan.

But forget about the humans, we’re here to talk about Rex! We can also discuss Megan a little, so long as she bonds sufficiently with Rex. Obviously, she does, given the film’s whole premise. The two save a lot of lives in their bomb detection efforts and in the process grow as close as any human and dog experiencing intense stress together could.

After retiring from the service, Leavey fights through bureaucracy all the way to the U.S. Senate to change Rex’s “unadoptable” classification. It is not hard to get the audience on your side in such a mission, but it can be challenging to avoid schmaltz. This film makes you tear up, but it also earns your respect. Megan enters therapy to deal with her PTSD and her grief over missing Rex, and both ailments are treated with the dignity that they deserve. Their ultimate reunion is affecting not just because it is always adorable to cuddle a dog, but because Mara thoroughly convinces us that Leavey really did learn how to love from Rex.

Megan Leavey is Recommended If You Like: The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, Homeward Bound

Grade: 3 out of 5 Good Boys

 

This Is a Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

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This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for BANG! BANG! BANG!

Release Date: February 10, 2017

The first John Wick was one of the loudest theatrical experiences I have ever endured. I did not encounter this complaint from anyone else, but I’m fairly certain I was not going insane. It’s possible that this particular auditorium’s sound mix was way out of proportion, but I am intimately familiar with that theater, so that explanation is unlikely. With Chapter 2 now on the way, I can safely say I feel vindicated about calling this franchise the most aurally assaulting around.

This hitman free-for-all kicks off with engines revving and metal crashing in an opening car chase that leaves you no opportunity to get your bearings. You might have enough time to put your hands over your ears, but barely. At least there appears to be a rhythm to the volume – a physical one, that is. In conclusion, I have spent two paragraphs explaining that my favorite part of John Wick: Chapter 2 is how great a massage it gave me, via the vibrations caused by the cacophony. I may have some moral qualms about deriving relaxation from such wanton violence, but this is a patently fantastical universe (despite its lived-in New York trappings), so we can skate around that a bit.

The concepts that the first John Wick introduced to the action genre are ones for the ages. The global hitman battle royale is like a magical underworld that exists within the shadows. Plus, the hotel serving these assassins, in which all killing is forbidden, with Concierge Lance Reddick whisking us in, is a rich setup for comic relief. But it was all undone by sloppy editing that I could not believe an otherwise sophisticated flick thought it could get away with. Maybe a new hand on the controls is just what was needed, as Evan Schiff takes over for Elísabet Ronalds, and there is a whole lot more patience in the cuts. If Keanu Reeves is going to shove a pencil in one guy’s ear and another guy’s neck, we want to be able to see it. And in Chapter 2, we see EVERYTHING.

John Wick films are less about plot and more about setup. In this edition, Wick is forced to repay his debt, but it proves to be a trick to make him vulnerable. This is all just an excuse to get to the action, and it is effective. Wick’s reputation is an almost supernaturally skilled killer, often discussed in hushed tones and referred to as “The Boogeyman.” Yet his actual name is also repeated ad infinitum. The highest compliment I can pay this movie is that the action is so relentlessly intense that that lapse in logic does not matter.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is Recommended If You Like: The first John Wick But Wish It Had Been Edited Better, Laurence Fishburne Shouting to the Heavens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Million Dollar Bounties