(On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m really, really glad I waited four years to see Selma, because if I had seen it upon release (or—even worse—during its Oscar run), I would have been sorely tempted to dismiss its appeal as righteous Oscar-bait feel-good progressive tripe. Four years later, as American racism runs resurgent with an unrepentant ruling party cozying with white supremacists and a president who thinks there are “some fine people on both sides” of the racism question, we clearly need to go over the basics again. Racism is bad, discrimination is bad, hate is bad and violence is bad. And if that message hasn’t been dumbed-down or amplified enough so that everyone gets it, then let’s do it again. And again. Until at least a sizeable majority of American voters get it and act accordingly, putting the “economic anxiety” garbage to rest. That’s a lot of baggage to put on Selma, but it’s a film that can take the extra load. Cleverly written by Paul Webb and exceptionally well-directed by Ava Duvernay, it’s a film that describes the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s mind-boggling that this happened only fifty years ago, and even more mind-boggling that the United States, as shown by the 2018 midterm elections, are still having issues with racial voter suppression. Directed with some energy and awareness of the complexity of the issue portrayed on-screen, Selma feels like a political thriller more than a history lesson, and it doesn’t shy away from complex portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King. Capable actors like David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson and Carmen Ejogo (as well as many other actors in smaller roles, some of whom have become familiar names since the film’s release) are there to help, and some sequences—most notably the violence that interrupts the first march, breathlessly narrated by a journalist—are intense. But it’s also a film about moves and countermoves in conscious activism, and it is far from being as cheaply manipulative as it could have been. Movies like Selma often become activist acts of their own, by reminding us vividly of the nature of progress and what is needed to achieve it. At this moment, we need all the inspiration we can get.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Despite my best intentions, I continue to have a hit-and-miss relationship with critically acclaimed horror movies. Sometimes I fully align and claim the film’s greatness to the ends of the Earth (that’s you, Babadook), sometimes I keep staring at the screen thinking that I’ve missed something (that’s you, VVitch). It Comes at Night falls squarely in the second category: While others have praised its take on the aftermath of a viral apocalypse, I kept wondering until the end credits what was so special about the film. It’s certainly not the premise, which is undistinguishable from dozens of other movies in just the past few years. It’s not the darker-than-black tone with no likely survivors, as that has become a solid horror cliché. It’s certainly not the pacing: saddled with a slow, deliberate and agonizing rhythm: It Comes at Night feels interminable even at 91 minutes. The acting talent isn’t bad (with special notice to Joel Edgerton and a thoroughly de-glammed Carmen Ejogo) and there’s clearly an intentional aesthetic at work from writer/director Trey Edward Shults in the way it shows a family disintegrating thanks to external and internal pressures. But considering the everybody-dies ending, the large number of unexplained ambiguities and the misanthropic tone, all kinds of viewers—casual and jaded alike—may come to feel that it asks too much in return of very little payoff. I’ll respect the intention behind such a measured psychological horror movie far more readily than a shlockfest, but the end result is depressingly similar: It Comes at Night is a film that doesn’t feel as if it’s worth watching. Certainly not twice, maybe not even once.
(Video On-Demand, February 2018) I’ve heard Roman J. Israel, Esq. discussed as a fascinating character study wrapped in an underwhelming story, and that certainly has some merit as a description. The best thing about the film is Roman J. Israel, Esq. as played by the ever-capable Denzel Washington, a genius-level lawyer with substantial social interaction problems. Comfortable in his role as the rarely seen brainy half of a two-man small legal outfit, Israel starts having problems once his partner dies, leaving him to fend off in a hostile environment. Getting hired is difficult enough that he’s got to accept a few favours, but staying employed is even more difficult when his personality clashes with just about everyone in a top legal firm. Issues of romance, class, crime and legal ethics come to complicate this already challenging situation, but even with all its flourishes (and occasional action sequences), Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems to deflate as it nears a conclusion. I suspect that the film would have been more successful with a more upbeat ending. In the meantime, we are free to admire Washington’s portrayal, or its nuanced look at the life of an idealistic lawyer. Both Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo continue their streak of good supporting performances. Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn’t meet the considerable expectations set by his debut feature Nightcrawler, but his follow-up remains a watchable effort and a decent showcase for Washington.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Even after two movies in which to explain themselves, I still think that the very premise of The Purge series is nonsensical, perhaps even moronic. Twenty-hours of unpunishable violence? Yeah, I’m sure that’s going to solve problems. Still, even the least impressed reviewers will admit that The Purge: Anarchy goes much farther in fulfilling its ambitions than its prequel: Writer/Director James DeMonaco at least has the guts to try something more challenging. While the first film was a glorified home-invasion horror movie, the sequel is a pure thriller, much of it spent running in order to avoid the violence of The Purge. Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul make for a compelling mother-daughter pair of protagonists stuck in a bad situation. Still, they can’t do much to raise the level of a film content in hitting the same targets with unsubtle bluntness. Its attempts at social conscience (in acknowledging the The Purge weeds out the weak to the benefit of the powerful) don’t seem particularly well-developed, once again mistreating a high-possibilities premise into nothing much more than a pretext for ludicrous suspense. While The Purge: Anarchy works on a basic thrill-machine level, it quickly becomes frustrating as soon as we have time to start asking questions.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s something extremely comfortable in Sparkle’s story about three female singers trying to make it in late-sixties Detroit. It doesn’t take a detailed history of The Supremes to know the place, understand the challenges and guess the dangers they face from boyfriends, drugs, fame and familial disapproval. The music is familiar to the point of being curiously forgettable, the period detail easily mirrors countless other similar films and the stage cinematography feels like an old comfortable sequin dress. The plot, more episodic than tightly-wrapped, can be followed along with some narrative pleasure even it’s a blend of conventional elements. The only real question is whether the actors can do something with this material, and whether the music is worth it. Sparkle doesn’t exactly sparks when it comes to its songs: they all skew toward the sultry rather than the rhythmic side of Motown –viewer’s appreciation will vary according to their own tastes. Fortunately, the film does quite a bit better when it comes to performances: Mike Epps is deliciously evil as the antagonist, while Carmen Ejogo does fine as his main victim. Jordin Sparks is comparatively duller as the title character (it’s not a challenging role, especially compared to Ejogo’s harsher dramatic arc) but relative newcomer Tika Sumpter gets a little bit more substance as the third sister of the ensemble. Elsewhere in the cast, Whitney Houston gets one last role as the matriarch-who-learns-better, while Derek Luke is unexpectedly charming as the good guy. While Sparkle won’t have much of a legacy, it is an acceptable film for those who want just a little bit more of that Motownish magic.