Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Movie Review - The Age of Adaline

Michiel Huisman (left) and Blake Lively
in 'The Age of Adaline'
It's a beautiful film with two beautiful people in the leads. It's a woman and man who are both stunning, gorgeous, smart, engaging and charming. In terms of a romantic film, depicting the love between a couple, that's pretty much half the battle. The other half can be a bit tricky and that other half is basically, "So what" or "What else?"

Yes, we see two beautiful, smart and monogamous heterosexuals hook up, but if that's all you got, it's pretty lame. Most romantic films, therefore, employ a gimmick. The gimmick here is that Blake Lively (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Savages) who stars as Adaline Bowman, a linguist and archivist who is the widow of a Golden Gate Bridge engineer and single mother to one daughter, becomes a woman who no longer grows old.

She was born on January 1, 1908, but a car accident in the 1930's where she was struck by lightning after her heart arrested caused her to stop aging. She then remains frozen at the age of 29 or so, even into the year 2015. She's 107 years-old but she looks like she's 29. In the 1960's, she continued to live her life, but people began to notice that she wasn't aging. She decided to leave and change her identity.

Adaline realizes she can't have a committed or long-term relationship because she wouldn't be able to grow old with the other person, so eventually he would die and she would go on indefinitely if not forever. She sees this as only heartbreaking, so she avoids getting involved with men. This changes when she meets a lovely and very persistent man on New Year's Eve.

Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones and Treme) co-stars as Ellis, a young entrepreneur who made a fortune selling an invention with his college friend. He pursues Adaline after seeing her one day reading and doesn't let up. He's an interesting and sweet guy, so Adaline is easily taken with him, as anyone probably would.

Harrison Ford co-stars as William Jones, an astronomer and father of Ellis who meets Adaline on the weekend of his 40th wedding anniversary to his wife Kathy, played by Kathy Baker. However, William realizes that Adaline is the same woman whom he met over 40 years ago when he was only 26, yet she hasn't aged since. It's revealed that William was in love with Adaline and wanted to marry her.

This opens the door for the film, directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind and Celeste & Jesse Forever), and written by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, to explore all kinds of questions about true love, especially when you factor in variables like huge age-gaps and the idea of love over time and how it equates with building a life. Yet, this film is not interested in any of it.

Adaline is 107 years-old and Ellis is in his late 20's or early 30's. The question is if their relationship only works because she doesn't look like she's 100. If Adaline actually looked as if she were 100, old and wrinkled, would Ellis have approached and essentially pursued her? That's the question this movie doesn't want to ask, or it knows the answer and wants to deny the truth.

At one point, Adaline is at a New Year's Eve party with her friend who is blind and possibly in her 50's or older. A young man walks up to Adaline and her friend. Both women are sitting there, but it seems as if the man is more interested in Adaline than her older friend. Adaline dismisses this man, but it seems obvious that the man would have preferred Adaline because she's younger and seemingly more beautiful. This is an essential question that this film avoids.

Another thing this movie avoids is the fact that Adaline has had sexual relations with both a father and his son. Ellis is the son and he apparently has no problem with it. If that's the case, that's fine, but this movie should have addressed it. We don't even see Ellis react to the news or that information in the moment. The movie skips over it and it's a cop out. How would the rest of Ellis' family react to Ellis being involved with the woman his dad almost married? It would make for an awkward family dinner that this film doesn't want to handle.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for a suggestive comment.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Movie Review - Mommy (2015)

Xavier Dolan has made yet another film about a weird relationship between a mother and son. His directorial debut was I Killed My Mother, which has a lot of similarities and/or parallels with this movie. It's so much that this, his fifth feature's title here could have been "I Killed My Son."

Dolan even employs the same actress who played the mother in his debut. Clearly, Dolan has issues regarding his mother that he needs to work out. Hopefully, this will be the last at least for a while. He should wait at least 10 or 20 years, so that he can get further perspective or work on his writing.

Dolan does excel at aesthetics. He can craft interesting if not compelling visuals and he can perhaps pull good performances from his cast, but his writing feels hollow or superficial at best. He has a good idea that he's building in this film but he leaves it on the surface. He doesn't dig deeper. It could be then beholden to the actors to pick up the slack and carry the weight, which they do for the most part, but it's not enough.

The writer-director employs a filmmaking gimmick where he presents the entire film in an aspect ratio of 1:1. Instead of seeing a widescreen image, which most audiences are accustomed, the image is a perfect square. On the screen, the image looks pillarboxed with a lot of black space on the left and right side. It's not even the 4:3 aspect ratio or the slightly adjusted Academy ratio. It's a perfect square and it's really distracting.

Dolan's intent was to intensify the emotions of his character or thrust the audience more intimately into the world that he's showing. Yet, the movie bumps into its own walls as almost to be clunky and loud to a point that I couldn't invest or be absorbed.

Anne Dorval stars as Diane, a no-nonsense, strong-willed, boozing mother living in Canada who speaks French. She's a single mom who is struggling financially. There's not much explanation of her life before the start, or her relationship with the father of her child. She goes to pick up her son who was in a detention center after he sets the cafeteria on fire, which horribly scars another teenager. Diane, however, doesn't care or dismisses that incident outright. Her dismissal of that undermines her character for much of the movie.

Antoine-Olivier Pilan co-stars as Steve, the son who was in the detention center. He seems to be only 15 or 16 years-old. Supposedly, he sets the fire that got him kicked out the center. He could be charged with a crime, but he's not. He does become the subject of a civil lawsuit, but Steve's character never addresses it, nor does he address whatever happened that sent him to the detention center in the first place. As such, Dolan doesn't address it and actively avoids it.

The avoidance of these things reeks of a lack of empathy in certain regard. It creates a chill that makes the movie too cold to which to get close. It creates a hollowness that Dolan isn't able to fill or bridge with his aesthetics. Even in a clear cinematic moment when Dolan opens the screen to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which is the current widescreen format, the movie gets a little warmer but yet there's still a distance to it. Widening the image in this one moment is meant to convey a different emotional state. Yet, I don't get how it's distinguished with other moments of similar emotional states that we have to stare at in such a box.

Suzanne Clément co-stars as Kyla, a next-door neighbor who used to be a teacher. She's on sabbatical after experiencing some problems. She's shy and seems somewhat anxious. She has a stutter and perhaps is slightly agoraphobic. She befriends Diane and Steve, and even starts to tutor Steve who is incapable of going to school. Kyla and Steve seemingly bond, but the question is why.

Particularly, there's no sense why Steve takes to her. Besides horny obsession, there's no explanation for Steve's behavior. Steve never tries to befriend children his own age, so why her? There's certainly no explanation for Kyla's behavior. No context or history for Kyla is provided. There are hints dropped but it's not enough to indicate much of anything.

Then, Dolan throws things out there that literally come out of nowhere. One in particular is incest. Where does that come from? Steve kisses Diane. This teenage boy kisses his mother and in a way that feels highly inappropriate. Steve even acts as a jealous lover when adult men show interest in his mom. Yet, Dolan provides no arc to explain it. He clearly does it only to be shocking. He instead indulges in pointless montages than going into any depth, so I neither understand or care about these characters and their incestuous moment. Dolan might want to take a page from the TV series Bates Motel, if he wants to explore Oedipal complexes.

This film was the Canadian official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. It didn't get the nomination and I feel rightly so. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and it was nominated for the Palme d'Or, which makes me question what the other nominees were. It was also wrongly nominated for the Queer Palm because there are no gay characters or overtly gay themes explored here. Oddly though, it won a Dorian Award, which I can guess is only because Xavier Dolan is himself gay, but this is his first feature totally absent anything LGBT.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for language throughout, sexual references and some violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 19 mins.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Movie Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

Just like the previous film to bear the name The Avengers, this follow-up and further, comic-book adaptation is only engaging when the super-powered heroes are fighting one another.

The chief antagonist in Age of Ultron is similar to the previous team-up in that the heroes have to fight an almost endless stream of mechanical enemies. Instead of mechanical enemies from outer space, it's mechanical enemies or advanced robots from right here on Earth.

Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Tony Stark aka Iron Man, a billionaire inventor who has built an army of robots based on his robotic suit, which gives him his powers. Iron Man has artificial intelligence called Jarvis, which assists him. Yet, he develops a separate artificial intelligence called Ultron, which he wants to use to protect the Earth from outer space enemies.

When he fuses that artificial intelligence with an alien power source, Ultron turns evil and comes up with a plan to destroy humanity. Ultron is created right under the noses of the Avengers, so it's no surprise when Ultron targets them first for destruction. Yet, if he were smarter, he would never have announced his presence to them at all. However, it's revealed that Ultron's personality comes from Iron Man's personality, which has an air of arrogance and braggadocio.

Written and directed by Joss Whedon, Ultron becomes a typical, arrogant and witty villain. If you've watched any of Whedon's TV shows, particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's clear how Whedon likes his bad guys. In ways, this villain is a mash-up of Mayor Wilkins from the third season of Buffy and Adam from the fourth season of Buffy, and no other person is perfect than James Spader to voice Ultron. Recent characters of Spader in Boston Legal or The Blacklist makes Spader more than perfect to convey that over-confidence, as well as color Whedon's quips with a proper amount of snark and with his nose slightly up most times.

The opening action scene has a shot that is similar to a shot in the first The Avengers toward the end, which is a long, continuous take that swings back-and-forth between all the heroes, giving them a moment to shine as fierce or efficient fighters. In the urban jungle of New York City, somehow it worked. Here, amid an actual jungle or snowy forest, the characters rendered look so cartoon-like and fake.

All the other action scenes don't seem to have that much weight. They're all just CGI smashes and explosions. The only action scene with any real gravitas is the fight between Iron Man and the Hulk. Downey's comedic lines of dialogue help, but again the movie is only interesting when the heroes are fighting one another.

Mark Ruffalo co-stars as Bruce Banner aka the Hulk, a biology and genetics scientist who experiments turned him into a super-sized, green monster fueled mostly by rage who is nearly unstoppable. He transforms back-and-forth between his handsome human form to the big, green form and often he can't control the green form's rage and destruction, so Bruce thinks himself a monster who will never have a normal life.

This is a theme that plays in heavily throughout the film over who are the true monsters and if humanity is itself a monster that's worth fighting to save, or if an extinction and evolution are required. The whole issue of worthiness runs through the film as well. A great joke with Thor's hammer exemplifies this.

In addition to Iron Man and the Hulk, there are the other members of the Avengers. Chris Evans plays Captain America, the field leader who has super-strength and an indestructible, circular shield. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the god of thunder who also has super-strength, the ability to fly and throw lightning with the help of a magical hammer. Scarlet Johansson plays Black Widow, a Russian spy with great agility and martial arts training, and Jeremy Renner plays Hawkeye, a fellow well-trained spy who is an advanced archer with a cache of specialty arrows.

However, a few new members are added this time around to the Avengers team. Like with a couple of the members in the previous film, the new members here all start out as villains. Elizabeth Olsen plays Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch, a Hydra experiment that gave her telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Pietro Maximoff aka Quicksilver, Wanda's twin brother and fellow Hydra experiment that gave him the ability to move faster than the speed of sound.

Funny enough, the character of Quicksilver appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) but was played by Evan Peters. That film was made memorable for the one scene in which Quicksilver uses his powers to great effect. Director Bryan Singer conceived and executed that scene to perfection and amazement, and it was a wonder if Whedon would be able to match or hopefully top it. Sadly, Whedon does not. Singer made Quicksilver clever and creative. Whedon makes Quicksilver just another cog, disposable and forgettable.

If there's any character getting much talk coming out of this film, it's Vision, played by Paul Bettany. Up until now, Bettany was the voice of Jarvis. Yet, what happens is that Ultron designs a super android combining Avengers and alien technology, specifically the power and technology of Thor, as well as living tissue, which can repair itself. Ultron wants to upload his consciousness into the super android but Iron Man is able to upload Jarvis into the super android instead. Being that it is Jarvis inside the super android, Whedon simply cast Bettany to play the human-incarnation of Vision.

Strangely though, Vision is sidelined from a lot of the action in the final battle sequence. The extent of his abilities and his powers are never really explained either. He seems to have various powers, which seem random and necessary for whatever situation. Unlike the other characters, we don't know his limits or boundaries. He's almost the exact opposite of Ultron but the two aren't pitted against each other to a satisfying degree.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action, violence, destruction, and some suggestive comments.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 21 mins.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Movie Review - Clouds of Sils Maria

Earlier this year, Birdman won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as several other Oscars. I was one of few critics that not only disagreed with those accolades but also with this idea that Birdman was some great movie. It was a gimmick that was very over-blown. Aside from the seemingly clever camerawork, there's nothing that isn't hammer-on-the-head or effective in a realistic way. Thanks to writer-director Olivier Assayas, I now have an example in almost every way why Birdman was bad and what a better version looks like. Both this film and Birdman are about an aging actor preparing for a return to form by taking to the stage in a major theater production, while also commenting on the industry and Hollywood, except this film is far more insightful, far more nuanced, far more intimate and sexy and with an ending that actually makes sense.

Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, the aging actor in question who is asked to do a revival of a play she did when she was younger. The play is about two women, an older woman named Helena and a younger woman named Sigrid who engage in a tortured romance. It's not simply about them being lesbians. It's more about a sensual and dynamic tug-of-war or tug-of-wills. The twist is that whereas Maria played the younger woman Sigrid the first time, now Maria is asked to play the older woman Helena. She resists at first but eventually agrees. Yet, as she prepares to do the play, it starts to bother her.

Kristen Stewart (Still Alice and Panic Room) co-stars as Valentine or Val, the personal assistant to Maria who travels with the actress to Switzerland in order to hold rehearsals for the play. Val helps Maria by running lines, while taking scenic hikes. They run lines, while having picnics. However, "lines" in more than one sense get blurred when the relationship between Maria and Val mirrors that between Helena and Sigrid.

Along the way, the two have discussions or debates about the play. They analyze the lines and the characters. Each gives her interpretation or her point-of-view. Through it, they provide a perfect template of film criticism and meaningful thought about life. Things get heated when the two start to disagree more strongly, increasing the tensions between the two women.

First and foremost, the writing is so spot-on and sharp, and the acting is so amazing that one forgets or often can't tell when the two women are simply running lines and when they're speaking about themselves. This might be a criticism for some, but these are moments that reinforce or satirize in a subtle way, as opposed to the blunt way in Birdman, of life imitating art imitating life.

When it comes to the other commentary on celebrity, Hollywood and the idea of blockbusters, again this film does so in better, more effective and subtler ways. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the actress hired to play Sigrid in the revival. Brady Corbet plays Piers Roaldson, a young filmmaker who wants to cast Maria in his next, sci-fi project.

Maria's interactions with these various people in the industry reveal more about what people face than in all of Birdman. Plus, there's more of an emotional honesty and truth on Maria's face and in her voice than any actor's face all year and possibly last year. Binoche is brilliant. She is absolutely fantastic and gives one of the best performances of 2015.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and brief graphic nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review - The Water Diviner: IMAX

The Water Diviner was released last year in Australia where it won several awards from Australia's version of the Oscars. It's only getting a limited release in the United States, arthouse theaters but mostly on IMAX screens. From what I gathered, the movie wasn't shot using IMAX cameras or on 70 mm film, which is the large format that is needed to fill the huge 5 to 7-story canvas. As such, the images of this movie didn't take up the entire IMAX screen of the theater I attended. Therefore, it isn't the total immersive experience that is the hallmark and promise of IMAX.

The last time I went to see a narrative feature in IMAX was Batman Begins (2005). British filmmaker Christopher Nolan directed that blockbuster and Nolan is the IMAX poster-boy because he actually shoots his films using IMAX cameras and in that large format. Therefore, Nolan achieves that immersive experience. It also helps if you watch an IMAX film on the side of a dome. I saw Batman Begins at the IMAX in King of Prussia, which was a mostly flat screen. There's some curvature but not as much as on the side of a dome. I've seen amazing nature documentaries at the IMAX in the Franklin Institute, which is a dome, large and curved, making it totally immersive and great.

I saw this movie at the IMAX in the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, which wasn't necessary at all. The booming speakers, which also help to immerse, only rattled and annoyed me initially. If it wasn't for the fact that the story and the performances both intrigued and moved me, then I might have walked out on this film early.

Oscar-winner Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator) stars as Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer who makes his living digging wells and providing people with water. The second scene of the movie, which introduces Joshua, is a scene where Joshua takes his dog out into what looks like a desert and he finds the perfect spot to start shoveling underground. As he digs, he constructs the mechanics of a well and without a single word shows us the basics of modern plumbing.

This movie is not about Joshua performing his job or exploring his profession. In fact, the movie begins not with Joshua but with the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. The history and context are never made explicit. We are simply thrust into the trenches with the Turkish forces under fire. It's not that long after we learn that the Turkish army was victorious in Gallipoli, but this is a war movie that isn't about the bullets and the bombs as they're being thrown. This is a war movie about the aftermath, cleaning up the carnage and facing the consequences.

Most films about war will show death and destruction, often leaving us with visuals of battlefields with scattered dead or mutilated bodies all over. Most films about war will have the cliche moment of a soldier risking his life to rescue an injured comrade in no man's land, but with the exception of certain films like Glory (1989) or even non-war movies like Sunshine Cleaning (2009), none or very few films have dealt with what happens to the battlefield after the fighting has finally stopped.

Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher and A Good Day to Die Hard) plays Lt. Colonel Hughes, an Australian military officer who is the head of the army unit that is responsible for identifying the dead bodies and then burying them or bringing them home to Australia from Gallipoli, the area in what is now the Republic of Turkey. He's a tough but very compassionate man handling something that is literally grave.

It's through Hughes we learn that Australian forces were a large part of the Battle of Gallipoli. In fact, the combined Australia and New Zealand Army Corps is referred to by the acronym, ANZAC, and those forces were so significant in that battle that the beach were those soldiers landed by boat is nicknamed "Anzac Cove."

The Oscar-winning cinematographer for this film was Andrew Lesnie who just died the Monday after this, his final film opened in the U.S. I wasn't too impressed with the visuals but there were some great images and camera-moves here. This might be a spoiler, but the first of which in the film is the reveal that Joshua had three adult sons whom all three went to fight in Gallipoli and neither three came back.

Lesnie starts with a close-up shot of Joshua's wife and mother of the three boys after she's told Joshua to read the boys a bed-time story and the camera dollies backward from the kitchen where Joshua's wife is sitting into the bedroom where Joshua is sitting reading the bed-time story Arabian Nights. As the camera dollies backward, it also slowly zooms out to a wide-shot showing that Joshua is reading to three empty beds. It's a great piece of cinematography.

There weren't any other visuals that really smacked me the way that bed-time story shot did. Most of the camerawork is pretty straight-forward, which is actually not a criticism in that the cinematography more allows focus to be maintained on the actors and their performances, especially during really emotional gut-punches. There is a sequence that stands out involving a sand storm. It's a better sequence than the one in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper but still not as good as the one in Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. The only other visual that I would consider outstanding are the shots inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, if only because western and especially American audiences rarely get awe-inspiring shots inside a Muslim place of worship.

And that is really why this movie shines. Joshua travels to Turkey to join Hughes' unit to find the bodies of his three lost sons. Through this journey, first-time feature director Russell Crowe also takes us into a mosque and also takes into Muslim country, not in celebration or condemnation but with honesty and respect. We're also led into Turkish culture. We experience deeply cultural things like family-honor and arranged marriages, as well as touchstones like Turkish baths, Turkish coffee and Whirling Dervishes.

Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace and Oblivion) co-stars as Ayshe, the Turkish wife and mother who runs a hotel in Istanbul where Joshua stays. Her husband and father of her child was also lost in Gallipoli. It's through her that Joshua is immersed in Ottoman culture and life in terms of the home or domestic side. Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) also co-stars as Major Hasan, a soldier and leader during the Battle of Gallipoli. It's through Hasan that Joshua is immersed in terms of the military side.

What makes this a great war movie is a line from Hughes about Hasan, which whether one is speaking about this World War I fight, exactly 100 years ago as of April 25, or whether one is speaking about conflicts currently occurring in 2015, it's totally applicable and relevant. What's remarkable is that Hughes and Hasan are even working together at all. Their two sides were just recently trying to kill each other and now the two are side-by-side doing the necessary chore of burying fallen soldiers. Instead of throwing blame or holding a grudge, or standing on some kind of moral high ground, Hughes says, "I don't know if I forgive any of us."

Intense and brutal war scenes are depicted in harrowing fashion. Crowe is mostly in the point-of-view of Joshua's three sons who fought together in Gallipoli. Of course, we're meant to feel for them and be on their sides. However, the film, written by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, never lets us forget that there were casualties on both sides. It also allows us to empathize with both sides and understand both sides without judgment. At least, by the end, Joshua realizes as all sides should realize is that we're all culpable and all bear some responsibility, and acknowledging that is important.

I'm aware that Andrew O'Heir, writing for Salon, recently criticized this film for its denial or ignorance of the Armenian genocide, which occurred in Turkey during this time, and I take his criticisms to heart. To me, the overall message of the film is one of overall empathy and compassion. It may have this glaring omission to those with more information about the historical specifics, but the spirit of that message is what saves it.

The film becomes a bit of an action film in its final third. Given the look of Crowe, how he's dressed, a lot of that action, especially a crazy sequence on board a train, makes it feel like Crowe's previous film, the western remake, 3:10 to Yuma (2007). I'm typically not a fan of remakes or westerns, but that film felt like an excellent exception to a lot of my rules. This film gave me that same feeling and more.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for war violence including some disturbing images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Movie Review - Brotherly Love (2015)

Eric D. Hill Jr. (left) and Romeo Miller
in 'Brotherly Love' (2015)
Written and directed by Jamal Hill, this movie is about a family of siblings in Philadelphia who get caught in the middle of a street-gang war. It focuses on a particular neighborhood and the divisions therein, as well as a murder mystery that agitates the divisions and further divides. Ultimately, the film becomes a riff of 1990's movies about inner-city, black youth like Boyz N The Hood (1991) or Juice (1992).

Keke Palmer stars as Jackie Taylor, the youngest of three siblings living in the Overbrook neighborhood in West Philadelphia. She's a cheerleader, but she spends a lot of time in the library reading all kinds of intelligent and intellectual books. She's not that different from Palmer's character in Akeelah and the Bee, except her pursuits here aren't strictly educational. Jackie is an aspiring singer, so she's also a mix of Palmer's character in Joyful Noise.

Cory Hardrict co-stars as June Taylor, the eldest of the three siblings. In lieu of his father not being in the picture, June is the father-figure to his brother and sister. He also does a lot to take care of his mother, played by Macy Gray (Training Day and Shadowboxer). The way he does take care of everyone is possibly through illegal means. June appears to be the leader of one of the two street-gangs.

Eric D. Hill Jr. (Hurricane Season and Orange is the New Black) also co-stars as Sergio Taylor, the middle child of the three siblings. He's also the tallest, as he is an aspiring basketball player who wants to go to the NBA. One of his friends name-checks the paraellel to Hoop Dreams (1994). He hopes to use basketball to get out of poverty and his difficult circumstances.

Sergio's friends are ultimately good people, but they threaten to pull Sergio into trouble through petty crime. His closest friend is Sean, played by Romeo Miller. Miller is a rapper, male model and basketball player on his own right. Sergio's other friend is Dez, played by Justin Martin, but it's Sean who gets more screen time and who is the more funny and charismatic.

Quincy Brown (We the Party) plays Chris Collins, the love interest for Jackie. From the moment he appears on screen, he's supposed to be the perfect guy. Chris is the son of a music producer who seduces Jackie with his knowledge of the books she's reading as well as with promises to push her hopes as a singer. Brown is the son of Kim Porter and Sean Combs, so his casting is almost art imitating life. Brown is also the biological son of R&B singer Al B. Sure!, so obviously he's gorgeous and absolute eye-candy. Yet, he's almost too good to be true.

A lot of the problems with the movie center on how Jamal Hill establishes things, or rather how he doesn't establish things. There's a lot of lacking in context. Through opening narration, he does set up the Overbrook neighborhood, particularly Overbrook High School as this castle on the hill. Jamal Hill lets us know that there are people of the hill who are one of the divisions and there are people at the bottom of the hill who are the other division.

Jackie and her brothers are part of the people at the bottom. Chris and some others are part of the people of the hill. Because Jackie and her brothers are the protagonists, we spend the most time with them, but we lose any sight of the people of the hill. Jackie's relationship with Chris is supposed to illuminate that, but the people of the hill aren't illuminated. It all remains in the dark. I'm not even sure of the geography. I was born and lived in Philadelphia for several years, but I got no sense of the landscape of this neighborhood.

One really problematic moment, which constitutes a spoiler, is a crime perpetrated by Sergio and his friends. Dez learns that there is a house with a lot of valuable items that they can rob. At first, Sergio doesn't want to go along, but eventually he does. They trip the alarm accidentally and the cops arrive. Sean and Dez are arrested. Sergio hides in the upstairs bedroom. One of the cops goes upstairs and finds Sergio, but that cop doesn't arrest him. The cop lets Sergio go.

Now, on one hand, this is a good thing. Obviously, if Sergio were arrested and put into jail for breaking-and-entering and theft, that would have ruined his chances for his basketball scholarship, which could have derailed his life. The cop saved him, and we learn that the reason the cop saves him is because the cop recognizes Sergio as the local basketball star that he is.

On the other hand, Hill doesn't establish or properly build things, so that this moment with the cop feels organic or likely. I'm writing this review in the wake of the Baltimore protests and riots following the Freddie Gray funeral. Freddie Gray like so many unarmed black men has died at the hands of police. For this cop not to arrest Sergio feels out of step as to what's been brought to light ever since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the Michael Brown death at the hands of police.

It could be wish-fulfillment or a kind of fantasia for Jamal Hill where he's envisioning how he wants things to end where a cop makes an evermore compassionate choice. Hill could also be commenting on the privileges of sports figures or potential sports stars. All of that would have been fine, but Hill doesn't do due diligence to lay down elements to make the moment wholly satisfying. For example, we should have seen more from that cop so that we learned his name and believe more why he would make that choice.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Movie Review - Blackbird (2015)

This is the fourth feature for black, gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk. It's remarkably different from his previous films because it is set in high school and concerns itself with a teenage African-American discovering his homosexuality. Polk's films have principally dealt with adults who are out of the closet and are in fact comfortable with being gay. Polk's films never have "being gay" as the key issue. It's often an important ancillary issue, but it's usually never the question at hand.

Julian Walker stars as Randy Rousseau, a black teenager living in Mississippi. His parents are separated. He lives with his mother. He dresses in the same uniform every day before he goes to school with his two best friends. Every weekend, he goes to church, like everyone, and sings in the choir. He is an amazing vocalist and he's also an amazing actor.

His acting ability is learned when his friends and a couple of classmates decide to do a play and the principal suggests Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In an attempt to be provocative, one of Randy's classmates says they should do a gay version of that 16th century romance. Randy is cast opposite the boy on whom he has a serious crush.

Torrey Laamar co-stars as Todd Waterson, the very handsome, very sexy and very sweet, straight guy who is Randy's literal wet dream. Unfortunately, Todd has a girlfriend. Yet, Todd has no problem with people thinking he's gay. He has no problem with kissing Randy for the play. All the young people regardless of sexuality have no problem with gay people. The only people who object are the adults.

Oscar-winner Mo'Nique (Precious and Shadowboxer) plays Claire Rousseau, the mother of Randy and chief among the adults who object to homosexuality. Yet, her son's preferences fly completely under her radar. Throughout the film, she is in an unstable mental state but mostly depressed. The reason she's so is because her daughter and Randy's younger sister Chrissie has gone missing.

If there's any failing in the screenplay, it's the telling and resolution of this story about Chrissie's disappearance. Much in the way that Randy's prayer about Chrissie is very much an after thought, Chrissie overall becomes a bit of an after thought. It provides Mo'Nique with sufficient material or fodder to turn in a heart-wrenching performance of a grieving mother. It also provides enough to understand tangentially the state of Randy's family, but Polk doesn't delve into it enough so that it doesn't feel ultimately hollow by the end.

Kevin Allesee plays Marshall MacNeil, a 21-year-old aspiring actor and filmmaker who meets Randy during an audition for a student film. Marshall does not hide the fact that he's gay and that he wants Randy as his boyfriend. Marshall is a very attractive young man but he is white. Aside from one, off-handed remark from Claire, Marshall's skin color is never made into an issue.

Based on the 1986 book by Larry Duplechan, one of the most important black gay writers post-Stonewall riots, the movie touches upon the idea of a gay exorcism. The 2009 video of a gay exorcism from Manifested Glory Ministries seems to be the most recent reference. Of course, there are plenty of examples in the ex-gay movement and of people who believe they can pray the gay away, which Randy tries. Yet, the ex-gay movement is mostly skipped over. In the news, a black ex-gay named Andrew Caldwell from the Church of God in Christ's 107th Holy Convocation was spotlighted in a viral video and stands as a perfect example of what young boys like Randy are facing, so this film could have benefited from a character like that.

Having not read Duplechan's book, I almost wish Pastor Crandall, played by Terrell Tilford (One Life to Live and The DL Chronicles), had been that character. In a heart-to-heart with Randy, I wished Pastor Crandall had admitted to being an ex-gay. It would have added an interesting layer to the storyline in which he deals with his daughter Leslie, played by D. Woods, handling her teenage pregnancy.

Isaiah Washington plays Lance Rousseau, the father of Randy who is a bit estranged but is trying to rebuild his bond with his son. Lance is the least unlike any of the other adults because he is the most gay-friendly. Despite the incident resulting in his departure from Grey's Anatomy, Washington has been a gay-friendly actor appearing in films with LGBT themes like Stonewall (1995) and Get on the Bus (1996) in which he himself played a gay man. The only oddity here is that Washington and Walker don't look like father and son.

Gary LeRoi Gray plays Efrem who is a fellow, gay African-American, but he doesn't have the same hang-ups as Randy and there's no explanation why. Most likely due to his lack of having parents like Claire. Efrem, otherwise, is the film's comic relief. It's odd that at no point the movie ever discusses the possibility of romance between Efrem and Randy, even if it's a quick mention about how Randy isn't Efrem's type. Gray was in Polk's second feature Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom (2008), a film that did address gay male friends exploring the potential of romance, so perhaps Polk didn't feel the need to broach that area again.

Walker gives a great performance as the highly conflicted and defensive teen. It's also difficult to be an actor playing an actor, but Walker proves that he can handle any material whether it's something as egregious as the "gay rapist" student film that Randy and Marshall do or it's the grand Shakespearean love that Randy and Todd do. Walker also brings the house down with his singing vocals. A song he sings in Marshall's car is powerful and soulful and dares anyone not to fall in love with him in that moment.

There are a few nitpicks. The movie seems to take place in the present. Yet, there seems to be an absence of social media. Marshall takes Randy to a cruising spot but makes no mention of Grindr or the myriad of easier and more effective ways that gay men hook-up online. Unlike with previous films, there isn't any visual flourishes that stood out to me. For example, both Punks and The Skinny had sex scenes that stood out in terms of the colors used to light those scenes and the way they were edited. Polk's sex scene here is hot but it's pretty straight-forward, or no film-making tricks were employed at all. The ending also perhaps wraps things up in too neat of a bow. Duplechan did write sequels but Polk might not be interested or able to pursue those sequels, so wrapping things up here probably seemed prudent.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug use - all involving teens.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.