‘Zola’ Has Me Feeling All ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here’

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Zola (CREDIT: A24)

Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Jason Mitchell

Director: Janicza Bravo

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for The Full Array of Language, Nudity, and Violence

Release Date: June 30, 2021 (Theaters)

There’s a lot of balls to Zola, both in the sense of chutzpah and exposed private parts. Check your pulse at the door, this one is not for the faint of heart. It has the verve and vibe of a no-holds-barred good time, but it’s all in the name of pandemonium. The ostensible attraction of this story for moviegoers is that while it’s terrifying for the people it happened to, it’s exhilarating to witness from the comfort and safety of your local multiplex or couch. But by the end, the only thought I was left with was, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.” And I suspect that’s exactly the sort of trick that director/co-writer Janicza Bravo was attempting to pull off.

This is definitely a story of something happening to someone, as opposed to that someone taking charge. Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) would probably like to think of herself as a person who’s in control of her own life, at least as much as anyone can be while getting by in a capitalist society. But when ripped outside your comfort zone, you might suddenly find yourself at the mercy of powerful forces.

Based on a viral tweet thread by the real Zola and a Rolling Stone article inspired by that thread, the movie tracks the quick rise and fall of her friendship with the alluring Stefani (Riley Keough). One day, Zola is Stefani’s waitress; the next, they’re best buds driving hundreds of miles to make it rain at some Florida strip clubs. But what Zola hadn’t bargained for is the annoying presence of Stefani’s hangdog boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun). And what she REALLY hadn’t bargained for was Stefani’s pimp X (Colman Domingo) advertising her adult services without her consent.

Zola presents Stefani as a perpetrator of instant betrayal and someone she never should have trusted with in the first place. One of the most telling moments happens when the movie suddenly switches perspectives, with Stefani offering a much shorter, cleaner, and more unbelievable version of the entire journey. That section might seem to be the closing argument of Stefani as a dangerous siren, but it’s also further evidence to me about how much she is being manipulated by X or anyone else in a position to destroy her whole life. There’s no way out for Stefani, and no indication that she’s even considered the possibility of how to escape. For Zola and the rest of us, it’s a relief that this was just a temporary scrape with the underworld.

Zola is Recommended If You Like: Watching a great time turn into an awful time

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Backpage Ads

Movie Review: ‘The Mustang’ is a Quietly Beautiful Tale of a Convict Finding Redemption Through Horse Training


CREDIT: Focus Features

Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Bruce Dern

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tennerre

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: R for Horse-on-Human and Human-on-Horse Violence and Prison Profanity

Release Date: March 15, 2019 (Limited)

Is it possible to forgive yourself and move forward from the worst, most destructive mistake you’ve ever made in your life? That’s the question at the heart of The Mustang, the feature directorial debut of French actress Laure de Clermont-Tennerre. Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenarts) is in prison for assaulting his wife, but you don’t know that’s his crime until about halfway through, because he’s so tightly coiled that he barely conveys any information vocally beyond acknowledging people’s presence and asking them to go away. You get the sense that he wasn’t always this way, or at least that it wasn’t always this extreme. A key scene is a group therapy session in which the therapist (Connie Britton) asks Roman and the other convicts, “How long from the thought of the crime to the actual crime?” For most of them it was a matter of seconds, a moment of passion that instantly, dramatically altered their lives and self-perception.

For Roman, he cannot see a way back to himself or a version of his life in which he could ever again be comfortable spending time with his pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon). But despite the personal hell he is stuck in, a chance for redemption comes through via, of all things, a program for convicts to break and train wild horses (run by a no-nonsense Bruce Dern, charming in a crotchety sort of way). You don’t have to think too deeply to see the symbolism of Roman as a broken animal and to know that’s how they form such an empathetic bond after a violently unpromising introduction (Roman pounds the horse’s chest out of frustration in an early training session). Thankfully, De Clermont-Tennerre wisely underplays just about every moment, allowing Schoenaerts’ quiet intensity to do its job and speak every message that needs to be conveyed. This is a movie about hope emerging from a profoundly hopeless situation. That always has currency in cinema, and life itself.

The Mustang is Recommended If You Like: The Rider but with a lot more quietly intense masculinity with hidden sensitivity, The Shawshank Redemption

Grade: 4 out of 5 Wild Horses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ is a Nauseatingly Intense Portrait of Abuse of Power

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Annapurna Pictures

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

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, John Krasinski

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: R for a Real-Life Waking Nightmare

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 4, 2017

To sum up my feelings on Detroit, I feel compelled to borrow from Trevor Noah’s take on the footage of the Philando Castile shooting: I can’t really recommend that anyone watch it, even though I think everyone needs to see it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s dramatization of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident is often sickening and rarely allows for any catharsis, even in its slower moments. Even the epilogue title cards, which typically let some light shine through and or at least offer some hope, are just as depressing. The ending left me on edge, about to break down and cry. The point of Detroit is not depression porn, or value posturing, but capturing a moment of a social ill that is not just a moment but a lingering epidemic. Its message needs to be heard, and it is presented in a manner in which it cannot be ignored.

Going into Detroit, I knew little about the specifics of this incident beyond its racial overtones. But soon enough the truth became depressingly obvious. As the film descends into the pit of its most harrowing moments, it becomes clearer and clearer what sort of terrible ending it is headed towards. We have seen this absence of redemption and justice again and again. The smallest of comforts can be drawn from the fact that this is not a new tragedy, but that only leads to the realization that we may be suffering through a never-ending cycle of violence.

Some of the details of the real-life July 1967 event remain in dispute, and the film makes sure to acknowledge that. What is clear, though, is that three black men died that night and that nine other motel residents – seven more black men and two white women – were badly beaten. Without the ubiquitous recording technology of today, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but it is not hard to accept Detroit’s version of events.

The narrative unfolds in three portions. The opening is a survey of the racial tension of the country in general and Detroit specifically, with an animated prologue explaining how the end of Civil War and its resulting migratory patterns led to this crisis. The conclusion is a pointedly abrupt courtroom drama. But the significant majority is the middle, which reenacts the night at a seemingly real-time pace. It plays like a horror film, with the Detroit police as the home invaders. The Michigan State Police and National Guard offer some chances to escape the terror, but only in a way that protects themselves and provides no long-term relief.

Detroit features a notably large cast for such a painfully intimate setting, and each individual is given their moment to illustrate the major themes. As a security guard attempting to aid both the police and the victims, John Boyega is the personification of internal conflict. As a brazenly, sadistically racist officer, Will Poulter makes it difficult to hold on to the belief that no person is intrinsically evil. A certain well-known actor shows up late and plays strikingly against type as the officers’ lawyer. And Algee Smith has a star turn as one of the victims. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer attempting to break through with up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics. You can see his soul withering away at every turn, but just enough brightness shines through on his face to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a happy future could be in store.

Detroit is Recommended If You Like: Fruitvale Station, Home Invasion Horror, Getting Righteously Angry

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Death “Games”