Tag Archives: ShouldSee

Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

Judas and the Black Messiah Poster

bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

Bliss Poster

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Poster

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

[4 stars]

This intense day-in-the-life story of black performers will leave you breathless. It’s a powerful slow motion car crash of a tale that slowly exhumes the past and pain of its characters. But it is full of defiance and joy as well.

Based on the hit stage play, as part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, it has made an uneasy transition to screen. Wilson’s dialogue is fast and dense. On stage that works, on screen it has a tendency to feel a little forced even when expertly delivered and directed. However, the rhythms and music of it all eventually settle in and pay off. You just have to have a little patience. The incomparable George C. Wolfe took the reins of this film to guide it through its paces and he knew how to get it where it needed to be.

But for all the excellent efforts that deserve praise, you see this offering for the performances of Viola Davis (Widows) and the late, great Chadwick Boseman (21 Bridges) who both utterly transform to transport you and shake you till your teeth rattle. They are simply jaw-dropping. The raw passion and life they’ve conjured is the kind of thing you remember for years.

Take Ma Rainey for a ride. It’s a bumpy one, and with a powerful one-two punch, but it isn’t something to be missed.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Poster

Unpregnant

[4 stars]

This one caught me off guard. After Never Rarely Sometimes Always I was expecting another solid, but intense, journey of two young women. Instead, I got a dark comedy with a message and some very grounded, if exaggerated, plotting. So add a bit of Booksmart (but way more palatable) to get the sensibility. And, to director and co-writer Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s (Valley Girl) credit, the script uses everything she throws in there, and not in ways you really expect. Not bad for a Sophomore outing.

But a huge part of the success of this film is down to its intrepid youths. Haley Lu Richardson (Five Feet Apart) and Barbara Ferreira (Euphoria) work beautifully together. And Richardson, in particular, manages to negotiate a challenging subject with a real humanity and sense of reality.

There are some nice cameos in the film to keep it moving along through its somewhat crazy road trip, but why spoil them? Unpregnant is a delightful comedy about a serious subject and a bitch-slap to the conservative bastards that have put women at risk to serve their own ends. And the ending is some of the most honest and tender presentations I may have ever seen. Make time for for Unpregnant. It will both surprise and entertain you.

Unpregnant Poster

 

Tenet

[3.5 stars]

As the first big film victim of the pandemic, Christopher Nolan’s (Dunkirk) Tenet was probably the most anticipated film to bomb in 2020. Not because of the film but because of the shutting down of the theaters and the studio’s stance keeping it from going straight to streaming (unlike the WB/HBO Max decision barely 4 months later). It had limited audience potential to begin with, and many of us had to just await the 4K release, abandoning hope of seeing it on a bigger screen. My time finally came (and was used to inaugurate a new, larger screen of my own).

Tenet is definitely one bat-shit crazy story that is sure to hurt your head, no matter how far you may get ahead of it. And I got way ahead of it. But Nolan was playing in my wheelhouse with this one. It never ruined the moments, but I think I had more rushes of satisfaction rather than gasps of surprise than most. Now, up front, the science in this latest epic is utterly absurd. You have to just let that go and run with it. The depiction of the conceit is really fun and inventive.

John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) creates a solid action-hero who’s ability to go with the flow (in any direction) is pretty fun to watch. He’s a soldier with a soldier’s mentality of working with what you’ve got, even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time. Robert Pattinson (High Life) delivers a great side-kick and very different persona than you’re used to seeing him do. But while these two drive the action, Kenneth Branagh (As You Like It) really steals the acting show in this flick. His performance is nuanced and chilling, but with a human inside the horror. Even Elizabeth Debicki’s (The Burnt Orange Heresy) tortured and trapped wife and mother doesn’t have the depth and impact of Branagh’s delivery.

The 2.5 hour runtime of the film is utterly invisible thanks to the pacing. And while the dialogue is packed, it is often only a backdrop to the story. I absorbed maybe half of what was being talked about, but was never out of step with the intentions. I do look forward to rewatching the movie to see what more I may pick up, however. But the film is a veritable fire-hose of information streaming at you and you have to choose where to invest your brain as it unspools. It is also, of course, gorgeous visually and sound designed to within a picometer of its life. You may disagree with the choices in some cases, but Nolan is utterly in control of this film from beginning to end.

Now, back to that big-screen sadness. Honestly, as long as you’ve a reasonably large screen and a good sound system, I’m not sure it makes that big a difference. The visuals aren’t predominantly panoramic or otherwise huge, though certainly there are some moments. And seeing it with an audience to gasp and gawk together probably would have been a bit more energizing, but the story is plenty gripping on its own. Do I feel a little cheated? Sure, but I wasn’t at all displeased with my experience at home. If you like Nolan, particularly his more crazy flicks like Inception or The Prestige, you’ll be on board for Tenet.

Tenet Poster

Costal Elites

[3 stars]

When writer Paul Rudnick decided to vent his spleen about the (now) outgoing administration, he did it with his typical tongue-in-cheek earnestness. The five monologues traverse a number of subjects and different people, but have much in common. First and foremost they are all reactions to very real actions and sentiments expressed or otherwise felt around the country. And, second, they all profess some level of defiance and hope, even at their darkest.

Bette Midler (Hocus Pocus) serves as the launch point and ultimate coda to the story. She is the quintessential NYer, as much parody as parable, and a little too close to the truth at times. Dan Levy (Happiest Season) and Issa Rae (The Lovebirds) deliver some sharp observations about what’s changed in the world with contained humor that constantly threatens to explode. And Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Monsterland) wraps it all up in a quiet, contemplative bow with a view from the front lines of a NYC hospital. But, honestly, it was Sarah Paulson’s (The Time Being) struggle with her family that I found the most effective of the five, even if it was a side-trip in the overall story. Hers was the most relatable and most lamentable of the stories.

I wish Jay Roach (Bombshell) had managed some of the internal transitions better, or had insisted that Rudnick remove the off-camera characters and allowed the characters to just soliloquize. Every time they answered back to unspoken questions it shattered the illusion for me. These weren’t questions we, as the audience, would have asked in most cases. And, honestly, the moments could have been rewritten to keep it all flowing smoothly. But, that said, Roach did help these five actors navigate their various high-wire acts to tie it all up nicely for an entertaining, if somewhat self-conscious commentary.

Costal Elites is very much what it calls itself. The stories and statements reflect both the good and the bad that the title implies, and wittingly falls into its own trap without finding a way out of the impasse. To be fair, I don’t know if that was intended or simply the reality. Either way it is a wonderful expression and reaction to the dark reality that has smothered the nation, and it’s a bald wish for it all to end.

Coastal Elites Poster

Sound of Metal

[3.5 stars]

You know when you watch a pair of friends going through a tragedy and you know exactly how it will end up, even if they don’t? That’s Sound of Metal. Not that the film isn’t emotionally satisfying, and not that the performances and craft of the production aren’t wonderful, but there aren’t really any surprises. This is definitely a film that is about the journey, and in this case that’s more than enough.

It’s the performances that sell this film. Riz Ahmed (Venom) and Olivia Cooke (Life Itself) are the couple at the core of events. A pair of punk rockers scraping by on small performances and merch sales as they travel the country in a rather nicely appointed RV. Yes, that gets explained. We get to watch Ahmed’s world collapse and Cooke’s sacrifice to his needs. It is all very raw without getting histrionic. These two are survivors and, while certainly implacable in their ways, flexible to circumstance. With the guidance of Paul Raci, Ahmed is brought to a nexus of choices and, well, that’s the crux of the tale.

The fourth main character in this piece is sound itself. Director and co-writer Darius Marder puts us in Ahmed’s world. We learn as he learns. We suffer as he suffers. We’re lost until he isn’t. It’s wonderful story telling. Unlike The Tribe, which presents a deaf society and drops you in it, we have to learn how to be deaf, much like Ahmed’s character.

For all the stakes, this is really a story of love. Love of music. Love another. Love of self. We’re utterly locked-in to Ahmed’s issues and efforts. And it’s a journey worth taking, for the sound design alone if you struggle to see the appeal of the rest. But once you’re there, you’ll stick around for the story as well, right through to the inevitable end.

Sound of Metal Poster