‘The Photograph’ Captures Generations of Love Blossoming and Spreading Free

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Courtney B. Vance, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Sizzling Moments

Release Date: February 14, 2020

The ads for The Photograph have been giving off strong “Nicholas Sparks, but with black people” vibes. However, I had a hankering suspicion that it wouldn’t actually be as saccharine as that glossy presentation suggested. First and foremost, the two leads, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, are not exactly for taking on such gloopy material. Surely their presence would ensure that things would end up a little more left-field than this genre typically goes. Indeed that has turned out to be the case, but to be fair to the marketing team, this is not an easy movie to advertise. It has a slow-burn meditative spirit (driven along by Robert Glasper’s jazzy piano score) that does not immediately grab you in the way that trailers are meant to in a couple of minutes. But if you simmer in it for a couple hours, your heart might just grow a few sizes.

Michael (Stanfield) is a reporter working on a story that happens to involve recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). He then finds himself smitten by Christina’s daughter Mae (Rae), who is working her way through the truth bombs that her mom has left her in a pair of letters, one addressed to Mae and one to Mae’s father. Meanwhile, writer-director Stella Meghie frequently takes us back to Christina’s young adulthood in small-town Louisiana where she is unable to reconcile a possible future with the man that she loves (Y’lan Noel) and her dreams of making it big in New York City. She tends to always choose her professional goals over her loved ones, and in a case of family history rhyming, Mae and Michael find themselves worried that they are going to do the same. That struggle to find the nerve to say what you know is in your heart is deeply felt in The Photograph.

I have noticed a lot of excitement around this movie about the potential to see black love that is not also about trauma on the big screen. And if that is what you are looking for, I suspect that you will be satisfied. The blackness in The Photograph is not meant to represent all blackness, as Michael and Mae’s story is by no means a microcosm of all people of color. They are two people who happen to be black and happen to be falling in love. The details are their own, while also being part of a continuum of their lineage. It is an openhearted, generous story that I think a lot of people are going to be happy to witness.

The Photograph is Recommended If You Like: Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, A bottle of wine and a record player on a rainy night

Grade: 4 out of 5 Darkrooms

This Is a Movie Review: Ben is Back

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CREDIT: Mark Schafer/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

I give Ben is Back 3.5 out of 5 Relapses: http://newscult.com/movie-review-ben-back-mixes-familial-addiction-crisis-suburban-thriller/

This Is a Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Dog-on-Dog Violence and Dictatorial Tendencies

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Nothing, right? We human beings still love dogs, and that cannot possibly ever change! But what if something so terrible happened that it could make us turn on them? One of the functions of fiction is training ourselves to handle horrible hypotheticals. Thus, with the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has delivered an invaluable how-to guide for if the world should ever turn so severely on our furry companions.

Twenty years in the future, Japan has banished its entire canine population to the bluntly literally named Trash Island, due to a widespread outbreak of snout fever and dog flu. The two conditions appear to be connected as how HIV can lead to AIDS. In this dystopia, the fear from those in charge that the disease could spread to humans is enough to override any bounty of puppy love, despite promising progress for a cure. So intrepid folks must step up on their own to save the dogs, like the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned ward of the state adopted by his distant uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari ventures to Trash Island to save his canine protector Spots (Liev Schreiber), who also happens to be the outbreak’s Dog Zero. Joining up with him in his quest are a group of other cast-off dogs with variations on the same sort of name – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent stray who has always lived on his own.

An island entirely populated by dogs might sound like the pinnacle of Wes Anderson giving into his most indulgent instincts, but the darkness of the premise is enough to assuage any of those concerns. Plus, the animation does not hold back from the more aesthetically displeasing elements. These pups are mangy, with fur falling off and distorted pupils. They are also fairly irritable; one early standoff results in an ear getting bit off. Isle of Dogs works as an adventure film as well as it does because it does not back away from the danger, while still bringing plenty of fun to that peril. Fight scenes are portrayed in cartoon chaos clouds, while an accidental trip through a trash incinerator is met with droll acceptance. The set pieces are whimsical, but the stakes are life-or-death.

Isle of Dogs could easily be appreciated just for its surface level sensations, but like so many talking animal flicks, there is an allegory lurking not too far below. And considering current worldwide political trends, Wes Anderson’s anti-fascist storytelling is profoundly welcome. Quarantining a contagious population is an understandable disease control tactic, but what happens to these dogs is more banishment than quarantine. And when a solution appears to be possible, Mayor Kobayashi hides that development for the sake of retaining power, trotting out clearly fraudulent election results in the process. BoJack Horseman-style anthropomorphic dogspeak (“my brother from another litter”) helps it go down easy, but these are heavy ideas that deserve and are granted careful consideration.

A few more items worth noting: even though the setting is Japan, the dogs just about exclusively speak English, even when communicating with humans speaking Japanese. In fact, there is a good deal of American and Japanese cultural mixing. All the political machinations are translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), apparently for American and other English-speaking audiences, and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against Kobayashi. The bilingual setup feels woven together mostly seamlessly, though I do wonder if Asian audiences might have a different take on the matter than I do. And I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, pounded along by unrelenting taiko drums, keeping the tension both constantly uneasy and delicious.

Isle of Dogs is Recommended If You Like: Wes Anderson Symmetry, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animal Farm, Zootopia, The Goonies, BoJack Horseman

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Puppy Snaps

 

This Is a Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

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

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Ur Freak On with Death

Release Date: June 9, 2017

I laughed derisively when the Universal globe logo spun around and gave way to the “Dark Universe” logo, but the joke was on me, as the best parts of this new interlocking cinematic franchise are the ones setting up its upcoming entries. More fundamentally, the reason the joke was on me was because I held out hope throughout The Mummy that something unique or especially thrilling might happen.

As far as reboots go, once again resurrecting the Egyptian tomb-dwellers is far from an outrage. This undead crew is part of the cinematic and larger cultural collective unconscious, so there is plenty of room for new generations of storytellers to add their spin. But this particular version of The Mummy is maddening because it never establishes a convincing reason for why it should exist in the first place.

There is a fairly clean setup in which the Ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) makes a deal with Set, the god of Death, but then is defeated and laid to rest thousands of years to become the title villain. Then Tom Cruise swoops in as low-rent Indiana Jones Nick Morton and slips open her tomb, thus unleashing the Pandora’s box of the Dark Universe. So far, so reasonable. But then the story gets bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo about daggers and prophecies and whatever. Universal so obviously wants to copy the success of Marvel, but it is not going to do that by following its worst habit of focusing way too much on the MacGuffins. Are there mythological nerds out there who actually care about this minutiae?

All this plot-centric gobbledygook can be forgiven if The Mummy can provide the genre thrills, but the results in that department are mostly meh. Cruise is as game as always, but the action, while competently shot and coherently edited, is not especially memorable. The one mildly saving grace comes from the stabs at horror. Boutuella’s snake-like body and shadowy face provide a canvas for some decently scary images, as her pupils split into two pairs and her corpse decomposes into a dusty pile of bones (reminiscent of the effects of drinking from the wrong grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Alas, that is all inconsequential, because the real purpose of The Mummy is prologue to a series of tales in which Dr. Jekyll is the de facto Nick Fury. Russell Crowe plays the good doctor with a motivation apparently split between defeating monsters or assembling them. That dichotomy is potentially interesting and fits the character, but it is a distraction from the actual movie it is in.

At the beginning of this review, I said that I was somehow excited for the rest of the Dark Universe, but mulling everything over, I should probably temper my anticipation, though I still hold out a smidgen hope. The Mummy’s conclusion indicates that the next entries might actually kick back and have more fun by giving extra screen time to characters like Morton’s partner Chris Vail, brought to screeching, howling life by Jake Johnson (New Girl fans will be confused every time he calls Cruise “Nick”). For its lead character, The Mummy could have really used with more off-kilter energy. Cruise can be edgy, but he is too straightforward to match the hysterical, almost Abbott and Costello-esque vibe that Johnson employs to intermittently resuscitate this DOA franchise to life.

The Mummy is Recommended If You Like: Tom Cruise-related schadenfreude, Jake Johnson (though you must be able to endure long stretches without him)

Grade: 2 out of 5 Decompositions

This Is a Movie Review: Terminator Genisys

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Arnie-Smile-Genisys

Terminator Genisys basically ignores the third and fourth movies in the series, but it should be noted that 3 and 4 do not really grapple with their predecessors, at least not very meaningfully. T3 backtracks on the message of T2, while Salvation merely fills in the blanks in a way that mostly stands on its own. Genisys, meanwhile, crisscrosses 1 and 2, while new machinations try to prevent or delay the victory or defeat of Skynet. It does not completely stand as its own thing, but there is so much thrown together (mostly gracefully), that it works as something. It manages to be fascinating, at least in an academic sense.

Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese’s interactions are colored by the knowledge of destiny, as they grapple with how to or how not to fulfill the roles that have already been set for them. It is a fairly effective treatise on the nature of stories in which the characters “know” what they are “supposed” to do. Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney’s performances are not much more than serviceable, but maybe that is the point. Maybe in being locked into their roles, they cannot add too much extra color.

The most consistent draw of this series remains The Terminator himself. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been on a bit of a hot streak in finding relaxed, playful subtleties in his performances, and that continues here, as his awkward cyborg smiles are just exactly right. Also, J.K. Simmons shows up as a beat cop who gets caught up in everything, and he is completely superfluous but very much welcome.