Movie Review: The Newest ‘Shaft’ is Not the Baddest Mother. Shut Your Eyes.

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Luna Lauren Vélez

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Shameless Ladies Man Behavior and a Fair Amount of Gunfire

Release Date: June 14, 2019

Private investigator John Shaft has been the epitome of cinematic cool ever since his debut nearly fifty years ago. In the 2000 reboot, Samuel L. Jackson was an obvious choice to continue Richard Roundtree’s legacy as John II, the original Shaft’s nephew. But in the latest iteration, Jessie T. Usher is about as far from badass as he can possibly be as John II’s estranged son JJ. That is meant as both objective fact and damning criticism. He’s supposed to be out of step with the men in his family. He’s working for The Man as an FBI data analyst, and while he’s got some sweet chemistry with a longtime friend (Alexandra Shipp), he’s hardly a sex machine to all the chicks. The idea is that when JJ teams up with his dad to solve a case of wide-ranging corruption, he’ll finally be able to live up to the Shaft legacy, but the concept of cool on display here is too outrageous and unchill to actually be cool.

If you’re expecting a blaxploitation throwback, you’ll need to recalibrate right quickly. This is much more of a culture clash buddy comedy, solidly in the vein of director Tim Story’s work in the Ride Along series. The central conflict is between Sam Jackson Shaft pushing a toxic form of big dog masculinity and Jessie Usher Shaft being a reasonable human being. It’s nice that JJ pushes back against his dad’s bullheaded ideas of how to be a man, but it doesn’t help that every Jackson delivery of emotional immaturity and gay panic is meant to be a laugh line. Overall, this Shaft is confused and vastly out of touch, as exemplified by a stunning moment of gun fetishization in which JJ shows off his firearms skills to the tune of a classic Phil Spector Wall of Sound needle drop and then immediately afterward reiterates his distaste of guns. Adding to the confusion is John Sr. and John II acting like they’re now father and son instead of uncle and nephew. Perhaps that’s an effort to distance the original from a potentially legacy-killing sequel, which is an understandable decision.

Shaft is Recommended If You Like: Stomping all over the classics

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Trench Coats

Movie Review: ‘Little’ Squanders Its ‘Big’-In-Reverse Premise on Too Much Broad Comedy

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CREDIT: Eli Joshua Adé/Universal Pictures

Starring: Marsai Martin, Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Justin Hartley, Tone Bell, Mikey Day, Luke James, Rachel Dratch

Director: Tina Gordon

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for An Adult Woman Trapped in a Child’s Body Trying to Drink and Flirt Like an Adult Woman

Release Date: April 12, 2019

There is a creepy subtext to high-concept comedies about kids fantastically becoming the adult version of themselves. But the likes of Big and 13 Going on 30 avoid being actually creepy films by choosing to sidestep those implications. However, the fact remains that their main characters are children in adult bodies who find themselves in situations that could very well turn sexual. Physically, they may have magically become mature, but emotionally they remain the same, so ethically it’s all sorts of confusing. Little reverses the premise, turning the adult into her middle school self, and it also embraces the creepiness, which is confusing in an inside-out sort of way. Is a 13-year-old girl hitting on her teacher morally acceptable when she’s actually a grown woman under a magic spell? Little convinces me that it is, bizarrely enough. The rest of the movie, alas, raises all sort of unanswered conundrums.

Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) has become the successful head of a tech company by adopting an I’ll-take-whatever-I-want attitude in response to the bullying she endured for being a nerdy science kid. She may have plenty of cash and a decent amount of respect in an often sexist and racist industry, but all of her employees are deathly terrified of her and she doesn’t have any close friends or family. So for a few days she turns into her younger self (in the form of black-ish‘s Marsai Martin, who came up with the idea and at 14 is the youngest person ever to receive an executive producer credit on a Hollywood production) to get back in touch with what originally fueled her passion in the first place. That’s all well and good, but the shenanigans that happen to get her to that realization are a little more suspect.

A movie like this is obviously not aiming for verisimilitude, but how the characters grapple with the break from typical reality shows how much thought and care did, or did not, go into the story. On that matter, Jordan’s sudden absence from work is too easily brushed off as illness, while the sudden appearance of a little girl is too often not explained at all. (Occasionally, the explanation is that Jordan has a daughter, but that’s only employed when the scene requires it.) Also, the whole school subplot is catalyzed by a wacky misunderstanding involving Child Protective Services and concluded in just as weightless a fashion. What will CPS do when they realize that Jordan has disappeared from school after attending it for only a couple of days and then they discover that the child version of her no longer exists? Little provides no answer, but I wish it would have, because it could have resulted in plenty of hilarity. Depending on your sense of humor, there may very well be plenty of opportunities for you to heartily guffaw during this movie, but instead of mostly being a natural outgrowth of the premise, they mostly feel like a random series of hijinks.

Little is Recommended If You Like: 13 Going on 30, Insecure, Thirsty Women Admiring Shirtless Men

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Donut Trucks

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: ‘Support the Girls’ is a Low-Key Look at the Ins and Outs of a Curvy Family Sports Bar

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

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

Starring: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, Junglepussy, Dylan Gelula, Lea DeLaria, AJ Michalka

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for a Nipple That’s Visible for a Fraction of a Second

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)

A wayward day at work, especially if you have a job in the service industry, has a way of making time feel distorted. And if you’re working at a Hooters-style “family” restaurant, you also have to contend with the distortion of typically agreed-upon social mores. So it is for Double Whammies general manager Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall), who finds herself at the nexus of so many little disasters over one day. Every shift at Double Whammies is a potential disaster, so it is no surprise that an early scene features Lisa explaining her zero tolerance policy towards “grabbers.” On top of that ever-present risk, this day is just a circus. A bunch of potential new waitresses are recruited for an extracurricular car wash, somebody is stuck in the vents, and the cable is threatening to be out during a big boxing match.

Support the Girls has the look and feel of a shaggy dramedy, capturing the minutiae of suburban service employment without directly commenting upon it. But it turns out that there is a tighter focus to writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s approach than he at first lets on, as Lisa is closer to the end of her rope than we initially realize. An alternate title could have been We Caught Her on a Good Day and a Bad Day. There’s a weird mix of committed and easygoing at play here. Hall is steely enough to make Lisa’s journey compelling, but I’m more interested in probing the psyche of Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), her most enthusiastic waitress. Maci is the type of person who suddenly pops out of a door to shoot confetti and declare, “You’re the best and we love ya!” She is a burst of consistent positive energy, which in this environment is alarming but never less than genuine. How do the Maci’s of the world stay on all the time? Are they role models for us all? Or maybe ideal best friends? Or perhaps cautionary tales struggling with demons they never show us?

Support the Girls is Recommended If You Like: Anything with Regina Hall or Haley Lu Richardson

Grade: 3 out of 5 Crop Tops