‘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

Movie Review: ‘Luce’ Walks a Unique Tightrope of Cinematic Manipulation

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Brian Bradley, Andrea Bang

Director: Julius Onah

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity When the Passive-Aggressiveness Becomes Too Unbearable and Some Sex and Nudity When It’s Too Pressure-Filled to Keep It In

Release Date: August 2, 2019 (Limited)

Sometimes I will come around on a film a few days or weeks (or even years) after an initial watch. But now I have discovered that it is possible for that dramatic transformation to complete itself over the course of the film itself. I thought I had Luce pegged about fifteen minutes in as a bunch of stiff, confounding nonsense, and the next sixty minutes or so didn’t do much to change my perception. But then the conclusion came along, and the puppetmasters revealed themselves. This film wanted me, all of us in the audience really, to be highly skeptical, only to declare: that’s how we gotcha.

The title character (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a prized high school student: a model student, athlete, and debater. He’s got loving adopted parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) and a concerned mentor in the form of his history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). But not all is as hunky-dory as it seems. Ms. Wilson is worried that something dangerous might be lurking under the surface when she discovers some fireworks in Luce’s locker. The hubbub that ensues has me constantly thinking, “All this over fireworks?” But of course there’s more to it than that. Ms. Wilson has given her students an essay assignment in which they must assume the perspective of a historical figure. Luce chooses a war criminal, which is unnerving to some because he was trained as a child soldier in Eritrea before he was adopted.

This setup is ripe to touch upon the pressure of expectations (either good or ill) based on stereotypes. But most of Luce feels ill-equipped to handle that, opting instead for melodrama and overwrought hand-wringing. I frequently wanted to yell, “Is anyone in this movie an actual person?!” Throughout it all, though, my attention is held, if for a while only because of the baroque score courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (hot off their indelible work on Annihilation). The secrets are exposed, with multiple layers needing to be ripped away, and the game is complete. By the end, it is still a weird mix of high and low stakes, but it manages to be a masterclass in filmmaking manipulation.

Luce is Recommended If You Like: Having your expectations upended

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fireworks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Monsters and Men’ Knows How to Recreate a Tough Reality, But It’s a Little Undercooked

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CREDIT: NEON

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

Starring: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, But Nothing Particularly Explicit Given the Subject Matter

Release Date: September 28, 2018 (Limited)

Monsters and Men, which details the fallout of a police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man in Brooklyn, is emblematic of a certain strain of realistic film that leaves you hanging but justifies its anticlimax by ensuring verisimilitude. While its lack of a firm ending – or even a firm thesis statement – may be true to life, it is not exactly a formula for great cinema. It is respectable enough and hard to get angry at, but it is entirely legitimate if, as a filmgoer, you would prefer more satisfaction. A happy ending is not necessarily what we’re looking for here, but a firmer political stance or a clearer artistic point of view would have been beneficial.

The action is divided into three vignettes centered around three young men of color in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. There’s Manny (Anthony Ramos), the boy who recorded the shooting on his phone and struggles with the potential consequences of releasing the footage; Dennis (John David Washington), a black police officer who explains the racism he has experienced to his colleagues and the officer’s perspective to his friends and relatives; and Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school baseball star being courted by the major leagues who feels drawn to activism despite his father’s fears for his safety.

Manny and Zyrick’s dilemmas are compelling but ultimately thinly sketched. Dennis’ predicament, however, could have been meaty enough to build an entire film around. Washington has already played another code-switching cop this year in the much rowdier and more effective BlacKkKlansman. That film, in attempting to explain how a black man could justify a job in law enforcement, had the benefit of digesting the past, noting for one thing the significance of breaking racial barriers. Explaining this dilemma in 2018 may be an even thornier issue; it’s a topic worth tackling by a bold film, but Monsters and Men isn’t quite bold enough.

Monsters and Men is Recommended If You Like: The long journey of racial equality, Slice-of-life short stories

Grade: 3 out of 5 Dilemmas

This Is a Movie Review: ‘It Comes at Night’ Isn’t Just About Paranoia, It IS Paranoia

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

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for Frequent Bouts of Vomiting Blood

Release Date: June 9, 2017

A common rule of thumb in horror is that which remains unseen makes for the scariest monsters. What if this guideline were stretched to its furthest limit? Could a total lack of evidence – the unseen itself as a concept – be the ultimate horror? The paranoia-fueled It Comes at Night makes a strong case for just that.

While the titular “It” remains beyond anyone’s perception, its effects are clear and visible right from the get-go. The film opens in a cabin in the woods, that staple of horror film settings, stripped down to its bare essentials. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live with their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in a most desolate location. Their first order of business is disposing of Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to some sort of deadly contagion that appears to be looming as a threat over the entire world. How far from society has this family removed itself? Or has civilization broken down entirely such that there is no society to detach from? How far into the future does this take place, or is this present day? Does time even matter?

All this uncertainty ensures that no happy ending can come out of someone breaking into Paul and Sarah’s thoroughly boarded-up home. Will (Christopher Abbott), the intruder, somehow manages to get an invitation out of Paul to join them in the house, along with his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), but it is an uneasy peace. The two families divvy up their supplies evenly, but the issue here is not fairness, it is trust, which is impossible to establish. The specter of death in these woods is ever-present but also unknowable – anyone could be its agent, even without intending to be. A simple changing of one’s mind is cause for confrontation.

At the risk of giving too much away, I think it is important to note that It Comes at Night might not exactly be the film that its advertising makes it out to be. This is a major issue at a time when horror hounds expect visceral thrills out of something low-key like It Follows or they anticipate comprehensibility out of something inscrutable like The Witch. It Comes’ trailers give the sense that there is some monster lurking in the woods that is the source of the disease. That might be true, but that is also beside the point. It could also be a government experiment gone wrong, or it could be a nameless, faceless apocalypse-level pandemic. But the prime monster in this slice of the world is paranoia. When the structure of one’s reality breaks apart irreversibly, there is no such thing as security or sanity.

It Comes at Night is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, The Others, The Blair Witch Project

Grade: 4 out of 5 Infections