Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best Music of 2016

The nominations for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards were announced on December 6th. There weren't too many surprises in the major categories. Beyoncé received the most recognition with nine nominations. Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West received eight nominations. Chance the Rapper received seven nominations.

The nominations for Album of the Year included 25 by Adele, Lemonade by Beyoncé, Purpose by Justin Bieber, Views by Drake and A Sailor's Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson. Of the names on this list, the one who's not as well known is Sturgill Simpson. A Sailor's Guide to Earth, which is also nominated for Best Country Album, is only his third album and his first under a major record label, that of Atlantic Records.

Erik Ernst of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says, "The vibrant album features varied sonic landscapes that bound from rich symphonic strings to classic horn-driven soul." Ernst named Simpson's latest as #1 on his top ten list. Kevin Coffey also put Simpson on his #1 spot after having said, "Simpson has maybe the greatest voice in country - it can lull you in a love song or shake down walls - and hands that sizzle up and down the fretboard."

The nominations for Record of the Year include "Hello" by Adele, "Formation" by Beyoncé, "7 Years" by Lukas Graham, "Work" by Rihanna featuring Drake, and "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots. The nominations for Song of the Year include "Hello" by Adele, "Formation" by Beyoncé, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" by Mike Posner, "Love Yourself" by Justin Bieber and "7 Years" by Lukas Graham.

These nominations really have more to do with sales than with quality. If you look at Billboard magazine's list of the best-performing singles of 2016, that's where most of the aforementioned songs come.  Bieber's "Love Yourself" is at the top of that list, having spent 24 non-consecutive weeks in the top ten. "Work" by Rihanna is the fourth, best-performing single of 2016. "Stressed Out" is number five. "Hello" by Adele is number seven. "7 Years" by Lukas Graham is number twelve. "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" by Mike Posner is number fifteen.

The only song nominated that isn't a best-selling track is "Formation" by Beyoncé. There isn't a lot of information via Billboard for the song's sales in the United States. Her album did very well, but the only song from that album that's considered best-performing in 2016 is "Sorry," which is way down at number 71. This could be due to the controversy surrounding "Formation" and Beyoncé's rendition of it at Super Bowl 50, as well as the controversy surrounding its music video.

The Grammy Awards has never shied away from controversial music artists and songs. Some might remember the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks, leading to the creation of their 2007 album Taking the Long Way, an album that would win that country group Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. So, if history is any indication, Beyoncé is primed to be the ultimate winner on February 12 when the award show is telecast.

There are a lot of news headlines in 2016 that I could mention, but the only headline that caught my eye was the release of the debut album of Mykki Blanco called Mykki. Blanco's not top of the list of Metacritic's Best Debut Albums. That distinction goes to Whitney, King, The Frightnrs, Nao and Kaytranada. However, Blanco the year prior had announced that he or she was HIV positive. Blanco is African-American and is a rapper. The last time an African-American rapper announced something like this was Eazy-E back in 1995.

Since Eazy-E's death that same year, you can count on one hand how many songs have been released by black artists regarding HIV and AIDS, despite the fact that the black community is the most affected by HIV, according to the CDC. TLC did the song "Waterfalls" (1995) and Coolio did "Too Hot" (1995). Both songs were about the dangers of unsafe sex. Wu-Tang Clan did "America" (1996) and Janet Jackson did "Together Again" (1997). Those four songs were basically it from black musicians on HIV. Mykki Blanco's album, therefore, is commenting and shining a light where there has mostly been darkness.


Best Folk / Country

A SAILOR'S GUIDE TO EARTH by Sturgill Simpson
BIG DAY IN A SMALL TOWN by Brandy Clark 
LET ME GET BY by Tedeschi Trucks Band
LITTLE WINDOWS by Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones
MY WILD WEST by Lissie
THE WILD SWAN by Foy Vance
CLEOPATRA by The Lumineers
BEULAH by John Paul White

Best Rock / Alternative

NONAGON INFINITY by King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
LIGHT UPON THE LAKE by Whitney
GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees
SYNESTHETICA by Radiation City
COMMONTIME by Field Music

Best Pop / Electronic

HOPELESSNESS by Anohni
EVERYBODY'S HEART IS BROKEN NOW by Niki and the Dove
JOANNE by Lady Gaga
LUKAS GRAHAM by Lukas Graham
THE WAVE by Tom Chaplin
TRAGAME TIERRA by Big Black Delta

Best R&B / Soul

LEMONADE by Beyoncé
BLACKSUMMERS'NIGHT (2016) by Maxwell
BLONDE by Frank Ocean
LONG LIVE THE ANGELS by Emeli Sandé
LOVE & HATE by Michael Kiwanuka
BUILDING A BEGINNING BY Jamie Lidell
CHARLENE by Tweet

Best Rap / Hip Hop

WE GOT IT FROM HERE... THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE by A Tribe Called Quest
HELLA PERSONAL FILM FESTIVAL by Open Mike Eagle
REVELATION PT. II: THE FRUIT OF LIFE by Stephen Marley
CASHMERE by Swet Shop Boys
SLAY-Z by Azealia Banks

Best Songs from Non-Listed Albums

"At Your Best (You Are Love)" by Frank Ocean (cover of The Isley Brothers)
"Back to Life" by Alicia Keys from The Queen of Katwe
"Every Night You've Got to Save Me" by Mass Gothic
"Beggin & Pleadin" by Brandy
"Help Me Run Away" by St. Lucia
"Better Look Back" by Lucius
"Hey, No Pressure" by Ray LaMontagne
"How Could I Have Known" by Keaton Henson
"Black America Again" by Common
"Me Too" and "I Love Me" by Meghan Trainor
"(I'm the One) Big Big Fun" by White Denim
"Try Everything" by Shakira from Zootopia
"All Night" by Trashcan Sinatras
"Moonlight" by Ariana Grande
"Dawnstar" by Beth Orton
"Vivica" by Jessy Lanza
"She Don't Belong to Me" by Tom Odell
"Drive It Like You Stole It" from Sing Street
"Mad Love" by JoJo
"Nothing Left" by Kygo f/ Will Heard
"The Girl With Better Clothes" by Crooked Man
"Surprise Yourself" by Jack Garratt
"Copper Wire" by The Range (James Hinton)
"Gonna Make Time" by The Frightnrs
"Some Other Arms" by Benjamin Francis Leftwich
"You Gotta Move" by Parker Millsap (cover of Negro spiritual)
"Evan" by Little Scream
"To Love Somebody" by Karl Blau (cover of Bee Gees)
"Location" by Khalid
"Scar" by Foxes
"Wherever I Go" by OneRepublic
"Shrine" by Jeff Beck
"Some Gardens Green" by Chris Robinson Brotherhood
"Oyster" by D.D. Dumbo

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sexiest Stars of 2016

20. DWAYNE JOHNSON - the former WWE wrestler was chosen as "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine. He also won the Mr. Olympia ICON Award, which is a bodybuilding competition. Earlier in 2016, he also won a People's Choice Award for his HBO series Ballers. He was named 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2016 by Time magazine. He is the world's highest-paid actor, according to Forbes magazine with $64.5 million a year. He first debuted on TV as a wrestler in 1996, so he's now marked his 20th year in the business. The 44-year-old made a name for himself in the late 90's and early 2000's as "The Rock," his brash wrestling persona. He broke out in blockbuster films with his role as The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns (2001). He cemented his movie star status with his role in Fast Five (2011). He was in two hit films in 2016, Moana and Central Intelligence, but in 2017 he will potentially have three hit films to celebrate including April's The Fate of the Furious, the continuation of his popular character in Fast Five, and Memorial Day's Baywatch reboot.

19. DAISY RIDLEY - the 24-year-old is now known around the world as Rey, the breakout star of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, part of one of the biggest movie franchises in history. She was included in the list of People magazine's World's Most Beautiful 2016, but this year she helped to produce a documentary called The Eagle Huntress, which is all about female empowerment and not just subjective beauty. Through her Instagram account, she also talked about confidence issues due to medical problems she had but she overcame them.


18. SASHA LANE - the 21-year-old starred in her very first film American Honey, directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold who discovered Lane sunbathing on a beach. Lane is half-black and half-Maori. She was born and raised in Texas. For her debut role, she's since won Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards.

By Mark Abrahams for 'GQ'

17. KRISTIAN KORDULA - there is so little information on this actor but he appeared earlier this year in Tyler Perry's The Haves and the Have Nots, as well as in one episode of The Mindy Project where he was playing a character who was Indian in his ethnicity. It's not much but he's a guy whose beauty can't be denied.


16. AJA NAOMI KING - the 31-year-old actress first caught me eye in the TV series Emily Owens, M.D., but she is currently co-starring in the hit ABC series How to Get Away with Murder. She recently got a NAACP Image Award nomination for her role in Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. The Yale University grad has really been standout in her series with another sexy actor who has been on this list, Matt McGorry.


15. DANIEL SUNJATA - the 44-year-old from Chicago who got his Master's from NYU first caught my eye in Showtime's The Feast of All Saints (2001). In 2003, he received a Tony Award nomination for the play Take Me Out. His best and probably his longest role was started in 2004 in FX's Rescue Me. This past year, he played a hotshot, sexy lawyer in Notorious, which replaced Scandal on Thursday nights.


14. SARAH GADON - the 29-year-old Canadian has appeared in several David Cronenberg films within the past fives years. Her two standout roles in that time period were in Denis Villenueve's Enemy and Amma Asante's Belle. In 2016, she had a very sexy role opposite Logan Lerman in Indignation. My favorite role of hers was in the Hulu series 11/22/63, opposite James Franco.


13. RIZ AHMED - the 34-year-old was born in London. His parents are Pakistani immigrants. He got his degree at Oxford University but studied acting at the University of London. His film debut was in Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (2006). His breakout role was in the black comedy Four Lions (2010). He received a lot of acclaim, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, in Nightcrawler (2014). This year, he was a pretty busy boy. He was in two TV series, The OA on Netflix and The Night Of on HBO. He also had small roles in Jason Bourne and Rogue One - A Star Wars Story.


12. COLTON HAYNES - the 28-year-old actor was in two hit, superhero shows, MTV's Teen Wolf and CW's Arrow. This year, his work output slowed. He only appeared briefly in The Grinder and Scream Queens, which qualifies for this list, but what makes him standout has been his social media output. His Instagram account has been one of the most interesting and sexiest things online.


11. KYLIE BUNBURY - the 27-year-old Canadian has biracial parents. Her father is of Guyanese descent. I first saw her in the CBS series Under the Dome. This year, she had her breakout role as a female Major-League-Baseball player in FOX's Pitch.


10. VINCENT RODRIGUEZ III - the 34-year-old Filipino-American from San Francisco is a triple threat. He sings. He dances. He acts. He's one of the stars of the musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He's the definite object of desire and lust.


9. GAL GADOT - the 31-year-old is a Gucci model and one of the highest-earning models in Israel. She was an enlisted soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. She made a name for herself in Hollywood by starring in the fourth, fifth and sixth films in The Fast and the Furious franchise. Yet, her role in this year's Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has many people eager for her solo film Wonder Woman, which is coming in June 2017.


8. TREVANTE RHODES - the 26-year-old is one of the stars of the critically acclaimed Moonlight. He's from Louisiana but graduated from University of Texas at Austin where he was a Track-and-Field star. He got involved in Terrence Malick's film Weightless, which was shot in Texas around 2011 to 2012. That film won't be released until March 2017 though.


7. BRANDY NORWOOD - the 37-year-old R&B star led and co-produced a new sitcom in January 2016 called Zoe Ever After. She released a new and very hot song, "Beggin & Pleadin," which will be a part of her new tour. She also did a reality show with her brother Ray J, which will air on FOX as My Kitchen Rules.


6. RUSSELL TOVEY - the 35-year-old British star of the stage and screen made the list before, but he had such a great year in 2016 that he deserved recognition again. He started the year on Broadway in A View From the Bridge, where jokingly his shirtless scene caused people to faint. He had a small role in The Lady in the Van, a prestige film that was released the year prior in England but had a limited run in the U.S. He had small roles in AMC's miniseries The Night Manager and HBO's movie-version of Looking. His sexiest role was his regular gig in the second season of ABC's Quantico. He will have an even sexier role in the British film The Pass, which is an adaptation of a play at the Royal Court Theatre, which got released in the UK in December.


5. JENNIFER LOPEZ - she's 46 but still extremely hot. The Puerto Rican from the Bronx was a Fly Girl on In Living Color back in 1991. Her first leading role was in Selena (1997). She's the first Latina to earn over $1 million with Out of Sight (1998), opposite George Clooney. Her debut album was On the 6 in 1999. In 2001, her 2nd album J.Lo was #1 on the Billboard charts in the same week her film The Wedding Planner was #1 in the box office, making her the 1st woman to do that. Over the decade, she has become the highest-paid, Latin entertainer, building a successful, business career. She was the inspiration for Sir Mix-a-Lot's, 1992 hit, "Baby Got Back" as she is celebrated for her curvaceous figure, having been named "Sexiest Woman" by Details, FHM and People magazines. She blew a lot of people away this year with a stunning turn in NBC's Shades of Blue, a cop show co-starring Ray Liotta.


4. ISSA RAE - the 31-year-old writer and actress from Los Angeles created the web series Awkward Black Girl, which premiered on YouTube in 2011. The web series became a hit. In 2013, the Stanford University graduate who had a degree in African-American studies began working on a comedy pilot with Larry Wilmore, the creator of ABC's Black-ish. HBO picked up the pilot and the fall 2016 saw her show Insecure premiere to critical acclaim. Rae writes and stars and she is phenomenal.


3. KOFI SIRIBOE - the 22-year-old from Los Angeles is from Ghanaian descent. He started acting when he was only 14 with a role in The Longshots (2008) starring Ice Cube. He had small parts here and there. He signed with Wilhelmina Models. He got a recurring role in the MTV series Awkward. His breakout role came in 2016 with OWN's Queen Sugar. However, this same year saw the release of Kicks, in which Siriboe plays the villain but who is just as sexy as he is scary.


2. MORENA BACCARIN - the 37-year-old from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, graduated from Juliard. She co-starred in the series Firefly in 2002 and the ABC remake V in 2009. She earned an Emmy nomination for her role in Showtime's Homeland. She's currently co-starring in FOX's Gotham and had a supporting role in the blockbuster Deadpool earlier this year.


1. ALDEN EHRENREICH - The 26-year-old from Los Angeles was cast to be the new Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars film in 2018. He was reportedly discovered by Steven Spielberg at a bat mitzvah. His first feature film was Tetro (2009), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He got a lot of positive notice for the YA adaptation of Beautiful Creatures (2013). He's worked with more big-name directors like Park Chan-Wook in Stoker and Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine. His breakout role didn't come until earlier this year when he caught the attention of many in Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar. Many film critics, either in the LA Times or ScreenCrush, said that the actor who looks like if James Dean and Sal Mineo had a baby "steals a movie from... Josh Brolin, George Clooney, [and] Scarlett Johansson." His latest film is the lead role in Rules Don't Apply, which brings legendary filmmaker Warren Beatty back to the director's chair in nearly 20 years. With all this and being tapped as the next Han Solo certainly makes Ehrenreich Hollywood's current It Boy.


Special mentions go to some amazing athletes at the Rio Olympics. Pita Taufatofua was the Tongan flag bearer whose oiled upper-torso made him a viral-video star and the object of swooning by the female hosts at The Today Show. The Taekwando master was eliminated in his first match but he made a lot of people want to know where Tonga is on the map. Elena Delle Donne is the WNBA star from Delaware who helped the U.S. team take home the gold in baskeball. She also looked stunning in ESPN magazine's Body Issue. Jeffrey Wammes is the Dutch gymnast who medaled in London but couldn't quite get the gold in Rio, yet he's nothing short of gorgeous, but Danell  Leyva is the Cuban-American gymnast who won Bronze in London and Silver in Rio. He performed topless in Rio in fact and is currently a model for Mr. Turk swimwear.

Shout outs to other actors in consideration for the sexiest list include Tae-ri Kim, the breakout star of the Korean film The Handmaiden. Billy Flynn is the soap stud of Days of Our Lives who recently got a role in a thriller to be released sometime in 2017. Emma Roberts continues to be an interesting screen presence in Scream Queens but she also had a summer hit film Nerve. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman is one of the stars of Lifetime's Unreal. He also had a small role in the comedy Dirty Grandpa earlier in the year, but he's one of those guys whose absolute beauty can't be denied.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

Friday, December 30, 2016

Movie Review - Fences (2016)

There has been a long tradition in Hollywood of taking Broadway plays and adapting them for the silver screen. Obviously, there are the huge musicals like Les Misérables (2012) or Chicago (2002). There are also the smaller productions like Doubt (2008) or On Golden Pond (1981). Yet, one condition of adapting a stage show to the screen is this idea of "opening it up." A Broadway play is confined to a single stage, but a film isn't confined. It can go anywhere and be anywhere. A film can show us vistas and landscapes that audiences have to imagine for the most part at a Broadway play.

However, many great adaptations haven't opened it up. They've instead remained confined to one place or a singular space. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) and Richard Linklater's Tape (2001) as well as Lumet's Deathtrap (1982) are some thus examples. They were all compelling mysteries or thrillers, adapted from the stage-to-screen, yet stayed limited to one location. When it comes to comparable, family dramas, limited to one location, the family home, two films come to mind. One is A Raisin in the Sun (1961) starring Sidney Poitier, based on Lorraine Hansberry's play. The other is A Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), starring Katherine Hepburn, based on Eugene O'Neill's play.

As great as one might consider those aforementioned films, this one from actor-director Denzel Washington is one that I would certainly add to that list of great adaptations of Broadway plays. Of course, the play itself, written by August Wilson, won the Pulitzer Prize and won the Tony Award. Comprised mostly of dialogue, the words are impeccable and impressive, and the characterizations are nothing short of incredible.

The performances are vital to conveying those words and those characterizations. There are six actors in the cast and Washington can overshadow them all. He's very electric, funny and verbose. In fact, the first reel of this movie feels like one, long monologue. Other characters speak, but Washington dominates spinning stories and commentary that are the most entertaining and engaging things you'll hear on screen this year if ever.

Anytime Washington opens his mouth, his voice drowns out anything else, yet he sucks you into his whirlwind. Washington years ago was in a film called The Hurricane (1999) but in this film he literally is a hurricane, a verbal hurricane, so powerful, so strong and a little intimidating but somehow sexy, even as Washington has put on some pounds here. He's not his chiseled and buff self. Yes, he's now 62 years-old, but throughout his career Washington has maintained a peak, muscular form. Here, he plays Troy Maxson, a garbage man who works for the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950's, so he wouldn't be ripped. However, he's still attractive as Hell, but he draws you in with his charm, his personality.

That being said, as much as a juggernaut or as much as a steamroller Washington is, he does, as a director, allow the other five actors their moments to shine and not just once but multiple times. Despite the fact that the whole thing takes place mostly in Troy's house and mostly downstairs or in the backyard, it never felt boring, slow or all that still. There was such energy and verve to it that even when characters are sitting, there's still momentum to it.

Essentially, this film is a character study of a very flawed man, yet a good man. Throughout the movie, he has conversation after conversation delving into a myriad of topics and we get his strong opinions about each topic. Some topics are small like which grocery store to shop. Other topics are huge like whether or not he should commit his brother, Gabe, played by Mykelti Williamson, to a psychiatric hospital. Some things he says are shocking like hating Jackie Robinson or his flirtations or dalliances with women who aren't his wife. Mainly, he tells stories about his life. Some stories feel like outright lies like his wrestling with death. Other stories are heartbreaking like his terrible relationship with his father, which resulted in Troy leaving home at age 14.

Troy has had a tough and hard life and it in many ways has made him tough and hard. He can be incredibly gentle and sweet like when he's with his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis (How To Get Away with Murder). He can also be really jovial with his best friend Bono, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, the Tony nominee who played the same role in the Broadway revival. Yet, he's really tough and hard on his two sons, particularly his youngest son.

Russell Hornsby (Lincoln Heights and Grimm) plays Lyons, the eldest son who is 34 years-old and who wasn't raised by Troy. Lyons is not Rose's child. He was the son from Troy's first marriage. Troy is tough on him, especially when it comes to Lyons' choice to be a musician instead of getting a more stable job. Yet, what's great about Washington's direction is that he gives all his characters moments to shine and it starts with Lyons whose first monologue stops Troy dead in his tracks or rather derails him. It's a great moment that Hornsby absolutely nails.

Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) plays Cory, the youngest son who's probably only 17. He is Rose's child, and as such he gets the brunt of Troy's tough love. Troy is strict and controlling. Cory takes it, but it's like a boiling pot. He tries to push back in various ways but Troy always slaps him down verbally. Cory is on the short end of Troy's oppressive fathering. The key issue is over Cory wanting to play sports, particularly football. Troy won't let him or only under difficult rules that Cory has to work. Cory wants to focus on his sports though.

Troy isn't unreasonable, but he's stubborn as Hell and won't budge on anything. Rose can occasionally talk him down. However, it can seem like Troy is going too far in his intransigence. He's very smart and convincing, but it's a form of fatherhood that one could question. The film seems to grapple with the debate of if Troy's form of fatherhood is a good thing or a bad thing, and it dares us to deal with this character and either love him or hate him.

It's a knockout. It's refreshing to dive into this pool and live with these people and feel the strong emotions swirling around. It's not just a gut punch. It's just constant hits, solid hit after solid hit, and the entire cast delivers it superbly. It's one of the best films of the year.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.

Movie Review - Phantom Boy

Both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. spent hundreds of millions to pump out several, super hero films this year. GKids Animation spent a small fraction of what Marvel and WB did and has in many ways made the best super hero film of 2016. Directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, the French animators who made the Oscar-nominated film A Cat in Paris. The style employed in that cartoon is again used here to great effect. The colors and designs are just wondrous and at times magical. It seems like they mainly utilized traditional, hand-drawn, 2D animation with perhaps some 3D computer assistance.

The story is about Lieutenant Alex Tanner, a heroic, plain-clothes cop who tries to stop a villain named Broken Face or just The Face who has caused a blackout in the city. He has a computer virus that can do a lot more damage. Broken Face threatens to use the virus unless the Mayor gives him a billion dollars. Alex is hospitalized and can't leave, but he has a reporter named Mary who comes to help.

Alex also has the help of a little boy named Leo. Leo is hospitalized as well, but Leo has discovered he has a special power. Leo's spirit can leave his body and fly around to far places without anyone knowing. In other comic books or TV shows with sci-fi or fantasy elements, this power is called astro-projection. There is a danger to this and watching Leo confront that danger but still push forward is part of the thrill of this movie, as he tests the limits of what he can and should do.

As usual, Felicioli and Gagnol pepper in so much comedy in this movie, that it's more than entertaining. Broken Face is like a Batman villain from the 90's animated series. He's like a 30's gangster in modern times. Yet, he has a dog and two goons at whom he's constantly complaining and yelling. It's funny to watch as Felicioli and Gagnol definitely have some meta-commentary about comic book villains here.

I was more on the edge of my seat watching this than I was for a single second in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. There was more heart and pathos here. The relationship that Leo had with his parents and sister Lily resonated more than any other live-action blockbuster this year with actual human beings. It was all complimented with the Symphony Orchestra of Bulgaria that provided score on the soundtrack.

Rated PG for thematic elements, violence and a suggestive situation.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 24 mins.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

DVD Review - People You May Know (2016)

The movie is advertised as about four friends, which leads one to assume that it's an ensemble piece, but, like most movies, some characters get more attention than others. Of the four, one is the clear protagonist. Two are obvious supporting characters and the fourth is just an afterthought. That fourth character isn't even put onto the poster. It's not as if the four characters needed equal time, but the way writer-director JC Falcón lays out this movie feels imbalanced like some characters needed more screen time, and others needed less, if not dropped all together.

Sean Maher (Firefly and The Playboy Club) stars as Joe Sanders. He emerges as the clear protagonist, mainly because he's given two story lines to juggle. One involves a surprise pregnancy and the second involves an online relationship. For a nearly two-hour movie, that's not too much, but with everything else thrown into the mix, Joe's story lines get distracted or not enough due diligence.

During a drunken and drug-addled night, Joe has sex with his ex-girlfriend, Delia, played by Andrea Grano. Some time later, he realizes that he got her pregnant. The problem is that Joe is gay and Delia is dating one of his best friends, Rodrigo, played by Nacho San José. Unfortunately, Falcón never shows us the scene of how the two ended up having sex. Falcón goes from the two dancing to the next morning where they're lying naked on top of each other on a couch. That edit literally creates a plot-hole, which never gets filled.

Both Joe and Delia were drunk and on cocaine, but, despite what anyone says, people don't just have sex by accident. Someone had to initiate. Both looked very coherent while they were dancing, so they must have been conscious of what they were doing while in the act. So many unanswered questions are then raised. How long was the encounter that at no point did either have a sober thought that they were committing adultery, nonsensical adultery because neither want to be with the other and it's not as if they couldn't get laid from someone else?

Once the pregnancy is revealed though, Joe pushes to terminate and Delia pushes to keep it. Because we have no clue what happened the night of conception, there's no real point of contention. Basically, Joe has to accept the baby and be a part of its life or not. It would have been more interesting if Joe wanted the baby and Delia didn't. Joe's resistance feels like it's more about the betrayal of Rodrigo, but he's upset to a degree that it's going to be some burden or great responsibility that doesn't come across as anything more than whiny. Joe is a writer but we're never really told what Delia does. Both seem wealthy enough that a baby wouldn't disrupt either of their lives that much.

Delia's resistance of an abortion doesn't resonate in the modern times. She admits that she knew Rodrigo was sterile, but she never says what her plan was if she never had sex with Joe because she makes this argument like she has no other options, especially at her age. However, R&B pop-star Janet Jackson announced this year that she was pregnant through natural conception and she's 50 years old. Back in 2001, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz announced she was pregnant through sperm donation and she was 52 years old.

Trey McCurley in 'People You May Know'
Yet, as typical as it is, Falcón still could have mined the scenario for more drama. Yet, Joe comes around rather quickly. After about 65 minutes, more than half-way through, the movie abandons the whole pregnancy story line and the movie becomes all about Joe's online relationship. It goes into an awkward and potentially interesting place. It just comes rather late to have as great an impact. It feels rather disjointed from everything in the first half. Plus, the resolution is satisfying only on a prurient level and not on a dramatic one in that we never come face-to-face with the person to whom Joe was actually talking online and on the phone.

It doesn't even do what an episode of Catfish: The TV Series does. It provides this fantasy or gay wet dream where a devilishly handsome stranger whom Joe only knows in a few pictures all of a sudden falls in his lap and without much effort is able to get him. Given that tons of episodes of Catfish: The TV Series never results in what happens here, it's unrealistic. Yet, Trey McCurley (Hot Guys With Guns and Crazy Bitches) who plays Tom, the guy in the online pictures, the veritable Facebook stranger, is a tall, gorgeous and really sexy dude, so I can't blame Falcón for making a wet dream out of him.

Curt Hansen in 'People You May Know'
Mark Cirillo (The Seminarian and The Last Straight Man) co-stars as Herbert. His character gets really short shrift. He has a relationship with Nicholas, played by Curt Hansen, a relatively new actor to the big and small screen but who has mainly done theater. Herbert talks about his relationship with Nicholas, but the movie never really shows us that relationship, aside from a brief hike. However, Hansen delivers an amazing monologue about Nicholas losing his first boyfriend and coming out to his parents that's heartbreaking. It makes me wish Falcón had depicted more of Herbert and Nicholas, if only to see more of Hansen who in that scene proves he's a great talent.

There's a lot to admire about this film, a lot that is engaging. However, when watching this movie, all I could think about was a similar movie with a more comedic bent. Happy Endings (2005) with David Sutcliffe (Girlmore Girls) is the movie that came to mind. Sutcliffe plays the better version of Sean Maher's character or at least the version of a gay man dealing with sudden fatherhood in more compelling ways.

Not Rated but contains full-rear male nudity, graphic sexual situations and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Movie Review - Kicks (2016)

Mahershala Ali is probably going to be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moonlight. However, most will ignore this movie in which he gives just as good a performance playing practically the exact same character but just with a different name. It's not confirmed if his character here is a drug dealer like he is in Moonlight, but he certainly has the same demeanor, the same swagger as it were. His is a supporting role in both films, so his screen time isn't that great, but his presence is strongly felt regardless if he's on camera or not. His function in both films is demonstrably similar. He's there to mentor or offer guidance to a young black kid about to be pulled into street violence, as a person well-versed in it himself.

Jahking Guillory stars as Brandon, the young black kid in question. He's a teenager, probably 13 or 14, maybe 15. However, he's significantly shorter than his friends or other kids his age. He also looks younger than he is. He looks like he's only 11 or 12. This makes him feel like he doesn't fit in high school. The only thing that makes him feel like he can be on equal footing with everyone else is if he has the new Air Jordan sneakers, which are the envy right now. Given that all the kids hang out on the basketball court and given how much their culture is a basketball culture, the Air Jordan sneakers make sense as a prized object of desire.

The child actors in Moonlight are going to get a heap of praise as the 89th Oscars grow nearer, but the child actors here led by Guillory are equally outstanding, if not more so. Guillory, through narration mostly, is able to be more verbal than the child actors in Moonlight. Yet, he comports himself extremely well and delivers the beats, a lot of the same beats as in Moonlight, with just as much heart. Christopher Meyer (NCIS: New Orleans and Wayward Pines) who plays Rico and Christopher Jordan Wallace (Notorious and Everything Must Go) who plays Albert are excellent in their roles as Brandon's best friends and sidekicks. Both are funny, charming and my hope is to see them on screen again soon.

Kofi Siriboe in 'Kicks'
Kofi Siriboe who was one of the breakout stars of Queen Sugar, the TV series by Ava DuVernay, is phenomenal here as a wild and violent thug named Flaco. He's scary. Yet, Siriboe has such a strong and magnetic presence on camera. One can't help but be drawn to him, and it's not just because of his dashing good looks, which can easily fluctuate from terrifying to tender. He's sexy, but like with Ali's character, Uncle Marlon, Flaco is appealing almost because of his acidity and toughness. He's a father whose love is hardness, a paradigm echoed in Denzel Washington's Fences.

Whether knowingly or not, director and co-writer Justin Tipping in his feature debut channels August Wilson. Tipping also embraces a little magical realism in the form of an astronaut who frequently visits Brandon. It's not a hallucination or an injection of science-fiction as in Donnie Darko. It's merely a visual metaphor of how Brandon feels through this story. It's also a clever way to connect to Mahershala Ali's other film this year, Hidden Figures, which also involves astronauts.

Rated for violence, drug / alcohol use, language and sexual content involving teens.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 27 mins.

Movie Review - The Land

It's similar to Rick Famuyiwa's Dope (2015) but darker, not as comedic, more tragic. Instead of three inner-city kids who find themselves in possession of a lot of drugs, which prompt them to become drug dealers, here we have four kids. It's less diverse in that all four are boys and all four are straight. Instead of bikes, the main boys ride skateboards. Bicycles seem like too much for even these boys to afford. They come from impoverished backgrounds and just to survive, they've turned to crime, grand theft auto, and not the video game. Of course, one can add assault and battery to their list of charges because they carjack people by beating them in the head. Yet, we're supposed to feel sorry for them, and we do because as it turns out, these aren't bad kids.

Writer-director Steven Caple Jr. has made not just a version of Dope, but it's a version of John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood. Instead of Los Angeles, Caple focuses on the inner-city of Cleveland, Ohio. Aside from the weather and the general landscape, not much is different. Who Caple decides should have the most spotlight is slightly different.

Singleton had the only character with a strong black father with the most spotlight. That character is presented with the option of being pulled into gang violence and he walks away. The character who chooses the opposite, the character who uses gang violence to get revenge is the side character. Here, Caple does the reverse. The character who walks away from the violence is the side character and the character who embraces the violence is the one with the most spotlight.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. stars as Cisco, the Latino teenager with that spotlight. His parents aren't in the picture. He's being raised by a white, drug-addicted diner owner called Uncle Steve. Also, staying with them is Steve's black prostitute girlfriend who attempts to molest Cisco. Cisco has many reasons for needing money and needing a way out of his situation. He and his friends consider a job at McDonald's, but when they come upon the drugs, they easily succumb to the temptation of fast cash through drug dealing.

Linda Emond (Julie & Julia and Indignation) co-stars as Momma, a white woman who runs a fruit stand that's like a little farmer's market. Yet, it's through her that the drugs are being trafficked. She employs black bikers, black thugs who ride motorcycles, as her enforcers. When Cisco steals some drugs, those drugs end up belonging to Momma. She is a calm but cold and calculating woman. She's ruthless as well, and it's a matter of time until she discovers that Cisco and his friends are the thieves.

For a good portion of Caple's film, he builds some good tension as the inevitable collision of Cisco and Momma nears. What Caple falters is the incident in the second act, which pushes Cisco into violence. Basically, one of his friends is killed in a drive-by shooting just as in Singleton's film. Unfortunately, the shooting doesn't have the emotional resonance as in Singleton's tour-de-force. Without that resonance, Cisco's actions and the consequences after in the third act don't hit as hard as they could have.

Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and brief nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 41 mins.