‘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

Adam Sandler is Unbound in the Almost Unbearably Intense ‘Uncut Gems’

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Abel Tesfaye, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesa

Director: Ben and Josh Safdie

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: R for Shouted Overlapping Profanity, the Violence of High-Stakes Gambling, and a Few Sexy Times

Release Date: December 13, 2019 (Limited)

I know some people who don’t love sports but are able to appreciate athletics when it’s in a movie because you really get to see the emotions and stories behind the games. That has perhaps never been more viscerally true than it is in the climax of Uncut Gems, which hinges on a specific stat line in the deciding game in the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. There are millions of dollars at stake in high-profile events like these, and writing-directing brother Josh and Benny Safdie were astute enough to realize that they could craft a particularly gripping narrative out of one story behind those millions. To wit: New York City diamond district jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has placed a bet on the performance of Boston’s star baller Kevin Garnett, and it is no exaggeration to say that it is probably the most significant bet he has ever placed in his life.

The thrill of Sandler working with auteurist directors is that they don’t ask him to change his persona. Rather, they push him to be the most fascinating version of himself. As is the case with Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love or Danny Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Howard fits squarely within the classic Sandler mold. He’s an unapologetically shouty, emotionally sloppy man-child, but with a dash more (or rather, a hundred dashes more) of recklessness than usual. He’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt all around town, particularly with his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who’s hired a couple of heavies to hound him. But he’s recently come into possession of an extremely valuable precious stone from Ethiopia that could be worth millions. His mixture of predicament and great fortune leads him to broker a potential deal with a precious metal-hungry Garnett, while also dealing with a malfunctioning door buzzer, getting locked while naked in his car trunk, and a wife (Idina Menzel) who can barely stand him. He does also have a much younger girlfriend (Julia Fox) who’s crazy about him, but not in a way that’s particularly healthy for either of them. Anyway, even with all that boiling in the stew, Howard actually has a few opportunities to clear his debt, but he just can’t help himself as he keeps doubling down and going for an even bigger score.

Uncut Gems is a natural companion piece with the Safdies’ last film, 2017’s Good Time, which starred Robert Pattinson and Ben Safdie as a couple of low-level bank-robbing brothers. Uncut Gems matches Good Time for claustrophobia and raises the stakes in terms of catastrophic decision-making, but it allows for the possibility of hope that a happy ending is somehow possible. A lot of that is thanks to Sandler, who when he is actually invested in a performance is so immensely likeable (and is still fairly likeable even when he’s being lazy). It’s not hard to root for Howard. That of course leads to the question, should we really be rooting for him? If all his high-risk decisions work out (and logic dictates that they certainly can), then he’ll never learn to live more reasonably. But at a certain point, with the whirlwind that his life causes everyone around him, I just want it to end. If it all goes wrong for Howard, it also goes wrong for so many people who don’t deserve it. There a few possibilities for how this can all end, all of which are guaranteed to leave you with a ton of adrenaline pumping.

Uncut Gems is Recommended If You Like: Good Time, the NBA playoffs, Colonoscopies set to synth music

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 African Jews

Movie Reviews: With ‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson Can Add the Whodunit to His Collection of Filmmaking Merit Badges

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CREDIT: Claire Folger © 2018 MRC II Distribution

Starring: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Noah Segan, Edi Patterson, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Frank Oz, Raúl Castillo, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Rian Johnson

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Explosions, Possible Poisonings, and (Attempted?) Stabbings

Release Date: November 27, 2019

If you’d like to dust off a musty old genre and guide it to unexpected new depths, then you might just want to call Rian Johnson. He’s already shown what new joys await in a neo-noir mystery, a time-travelling actioner, and the biggest franchise of all time, and now with Knives Out, he moves on to the whodunit, and the answer to that question is, “By golly, Rian Johnson has done it once again!”

Since every whodunit needs a murder victim and a set of suspects, Knives Out has a bounty of them. The recently dead man is super-wealthy mystery novelist (wink, wink?) Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and the folks who might be responsible or maybe know something consist of his mother Wanetta (K Collins), his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). While his employees generally get along with him, his family members all have reason to resent him (and they also keep mixing up which South or Central American country Marta is from). Naturally enough, there are also a couple of police detectives on hand (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an idiosyncratic private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired under mysterious circumstances.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

The trick that Knives Out pulls is that within twenty minutes, it reveals everything (or nearly everything) that happened in thorough detail. Harlan’s death is initially ruled a suicide, and we are shown pretty much unmistakably that he sliced his own throat, and everyone’s presence at that moment is accounted for. Done deal, then? Well, there’s still nearly two more hours of running time left. The script keeps itself honest thanks to one particularly telling character quirk: Marta’s “regurgitative reaction to mistruthing.” That is to say, whenever she lies, or merely even considers lying, she spews chunks. Thus, there is no other option than for the truth to similarly spill out, and there is no room for contrivances to keep the audience in the dark. But that having been said, information can be obscured and unknown unknowns can take some time to make themselves known. Ergo, Rian Johnson gives us the simultaneous joy of being let in on a little secret while also playing the guessing game.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

In addition to Knives Out‘s masterful mystery machinations, it additionally offers plenty of keen observations of human nature. There is the ever-timely message of the tension that emerges when the haves and have-nots bump against each other, as well as the chaos that can reign when fortunes swing wildly. Furthermore, there is an astute understanding of the difference between truth and honesty, and how the latter can help you survive when the former is hidden. All of this is to say, motivation matters a great deal in cinema, and in life.

Knives Out is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Logan Lucky

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Colorful Sweaters

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ is a Textbook Example of How Not to Reboot

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CREDIT: Reiner Bajo/Sony Pictures Entertainment

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

Starring: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Sylvia Hoeks, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang

Director: Fede Álvarez

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Violence and Sexual Content, But Relatively Mild by This Series’ Standards

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Where do you go if you’re an iconic character whose creator isn’t around anymore? For the supernaturally proficient hacker Lisbeth Salander, that worry applies twofold. Stieg Larsson, the original author of the Millennium book series, passed away in 2004, with all three of his Salander-starring novels published posthumously. With the books proving immensely popular, the series was eventually continued about a decade later by David Lagercrantz with The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. I haven’t read Lagercrantz’ entries, so I don’t know how they compare to Larsson’s work, but I do know that they haven’t been the sensations that the originals were.

Similarly, the film edition of Spider’s Web is arriving with much less fanfare than David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation (or even the Noomi Rapace-starring Swedish-language version). Dragon Tattoo got mostly strong reviews and cracked $100 million at the box office, but it proved to be too expensive and brutal to immediately continue on as a franchise. Still, it does director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, 2013’s Evil Dead remake) no favors to be working with a version of Salander that is so far removed from Larsson and Fincher’s conceptions. To be fair, in order to truly succeed, it would have to succeed, so the problem is really that Spider’s Web is ultimately too generic. Dragon Tattoo featured brutal, hard-to-watch moments of abuse, but they made for striking, unforgettable characters. Spider’s Web, alas, reduces Salander to a standard-issue avenging angel caught up in inscrutable international intrigue.

Don’t blame Claire Foy, who is certainly willing to be as unapologetic and deeply committed as is necessary to embody Salander. And don’t blame Sylvia Hoeks as Lisbeth’s long-lost sister or LaKeith Stanfield as an enterprising agent. (Sverrir Gudnason, however, is not a particularly inspiring Mikael Blomkvist.) But do blame the not-particularly-deep story they are caught up in. Ghosts from the past and not-so-legitimate government authorities have caused problems for Salander in the past, but this time, they do not offer much unique to say about the human condition.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is Recommended If You Like: Cookie-cutter sprawling mystery thrillers

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hacks

This Is a Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You

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CREDIT: Annapurna Pictures

I give Sorry to Bother You 5 out of 5 Hybrids: https://uinterview.com/reviews/movies/sorry-to-bother-you-movie-review-boots-rileys-mind-blowingly-original-debut-is-one-of-2018s-best-films/