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Belfast

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mostly shot in black and white (cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos does some award worthy work here) and written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” is the semi-autobiographical story of Branagh’s childhood set in Belfast, Ireland 1969 during a series of mounting attacks on Catholic families by Protestant gangs.

We see this through the eyes of a young boy named Buddy, played in memorable fashion by Jude Hill. Hill does for this movie what Roman Griffin Davis did for “Jojo Rabbit”. Buddy is a fairly happy child who enjoys spending time with his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). He also has a crush on a girl at school, goes to church and prays that God will make him a famous soccer player and loves to go to the cinema. In the background we see the unrest in this neighborhood and the pressure to pick a side that eventually forces Buddy’s parents to make a life altering decision regarding their future in Belfast.  

Other than the fantastically warm performances from the entire cast, “Belfast” is enjoyable due to its levity throughout. The story of a family who must choose whether or not to leave their home set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland riots, shockingly plays out as pretty standard. It’s the continuous moments of charm from the children’s coming of age conversations, to the grandparent’s playful banter and words of wisdom, making this film feel nostalgic, that creates a strong heartbeat for “Belfast”. This also seems to be a love letter to the American cinema, and the music of Van Morrison…for better or for worse.

Final Thought: “Belfast” is a film which has had a ton of Oscar buzz around it. And because of that, my expectations going in where set at a relatively high level. And while it’s extremely charming and had me caring about this particular family, I wouldn’t regard this as one of the best films of 2021. There really isn’t much more to say about this film, which sounds like a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily. It is simplistically enjoyable, just not wildly memorable.

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Spencer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beginning with a screen text which reads “A fable from a true tragedy”, visionary director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Princess Diana, as she attempts to break free from a world that at first glance could be mistaken for a fairytale.

During a three-day fictional Christmas gathering with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in England, we follow Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) during the final days of her marriage; though the film is much more a haunting foreshadowing of her death.

Kristen Stewart should be the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Let’s make that clear. She is made to look like Diana and as an American actress, her British accent is quite impressive. That said, after only a bit of time spent watching her, it begins to hardly matter how closely she embodies the princess. It’s almost irrelevant, as Stewart creates a character all her own, not so much doing an impression, but an interpretation, giving a very Meryl Streep level performance.

Alongside Stewart’s performance, “Spencer” as a film should very much be a part of the “best of” conversations, as it is clearly one of the best movies of 2021, due very much to Larrain’s direction, in conjunction with a solid script and an unsettling score.

“Spencer” portrays a woman at the end of a loveless marriage, surrounded by the most powerful family in the world, hopelessly marching towards the gallows, accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood orchestral score which swings back and forth between avant-garde jazz and classical, a decision which wonderfully complements a woman who famously stood in between two worlds.

The script written by Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) is simply marvelous. At one point Diana describes her situation as something akin to getting her limbs ripped off one by one, as those doing the ripping comment on how much she struggles. I can’t remember the last time I applauded a writer for being this on the nose with their dialogue, but it does work extremely well.

Final Thought: I remember coming out of “Jackie” and feeling more or less empty about the entire film. So, my fear going into “Spencer” was that it would be a movie made only for the monarchy obsessed. For those who had read every book, heard every podcast and binge-watched “The Crown”. But credit to Larrain’s vision, as he gives us something different, more surreal and far less narrative driven. The camera floats alongside Diana as she ventures outside on her own, almost getting lost amongst the seemingly never-ending world around her. And inside the estate Larrain creates a very claustrophobic feel, as the walls of opulence close in on the princess; establishing this as a fully immersive Diana experience. But also layered, because as much of a movie about Diana as “Spencer” is, it very much attempts to be a film about women trapped under the weight of the patriarchy. For as we root for Diana’s rejection of this life, Larrain quietly but consistently reminds us all about how these fairytales tend to end. 

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Dune

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Before I begin, if you don’t know already this film is a part one, meaning “Dune” ends on a transition point; notice how I didn’t say cliffhanger.

Writer/director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2024, Arrival) adapts Frank Herbert’s notoriously difficult to adapt (seriously, look up the history of attempts to adapt “Dune”) “greatest science fiction novel of all time”, which follows the youngest member of House Atreides, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). The beginning of this film sees House Atreides gain power over the planet Arrakis aka Dune; a desert planet filled with many dangers, including massive Godzilla-sized worms (sandworms); calling them worms may be selling these visually grandiose creatures short. This planet is also the home to an indigenous peoples called Fremen and a valuable mineral referred to as “spice”, which makes interstellar travel possible. The story soon finds Paul encountering conflict involving spice mining, double crossing, and the aforementioned big ass worms. But Paul is no ordinary duke. He may or may not be a messiah of sorts, whether he wants to be or not.       

For cinematic reference sake, I’ll describe the tone of this story as a darker “Star Wars”. Although within “Dune” fandom, I acknowledge how blasphemous a statement like this is. To those I have offended, I will add that there is definitely some “Game of Thrones” in this, with a tiny bit of “Mad Max”, just not as cranked up to eleven.

And now for the only question that matters: Do you have to have read the novel or even be aware of the novel to enjoy Villeneuve’s “Dune”? I am familiar with the history of “Dune”, including the novel. So going into this, my concern was that due to the sheer amount of material in the novel along with the lore attached to it, this is a world that would take a while to establish, and thus may bore audiences who are expecting “Star Wars” (there I go again). But I should’ve known better, as Villeneuve eased my concerns rather quickly.  

As expected, there is a ton of exposition which I saw and accepted as necessary in order to adapt a book like “Dune”; even again when you take into account that it’s a two hour and thirty-five-minute part one. Villeneuve handles the pre-action stuff by acknowledging the extensive exposition and (with the help of cinematographer Greg Fraser) establishes his brand of spectacular visual effects from minute one. This along with Hans Zimmer’s score, carry the first hour of this movie until everyone is up to speed.   

Final Thought: While there are many reasons why this film works, it’s greatest achievement will not be the film’s adaptation integrity; which Villeneuve does stay as loyal as possible to considering the time constraints. Sure, it can be picked apart by purest, but THERE IS NO WAY TO ADAPT EVERY ASPECT OF “DUNE” INTO A FILM THAT IS UNDER TEN HOURS LONG! So, as far as a film adaptation of a novel which touches on themes such as colonialism, 2021’s “Dune” (part one) does hold true to the spine of the source material. Anyway, the success of “Dune” will be because it works for the masses. I saw this film with my wife, who knows nothing of the novel. And as I sat there geeking out, I looked over and saw her enjoying this as the epic spectacle it was intended to be. And that is really the highest recommendation I can give.

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Candyman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This sequel/reboot sees a young Black painter (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) named Anthony, who is forced to explore the infamous, mostly abandoned Cabrini-Green public housing projects after his white boss asks him to create a new and preferably Black poverty porn inspired art piece for an upcoming gallery opening. Anthony soon finds that this housing project is rife with a history of Black tragedy, stemming from the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd); a Black boogeyman with a hook for a hand who kills those who say his name five times in front of a mirror. At first this journey simply changes Anthony’s art, as he moves from creating pieces which symbolize violence to pieces that actually depict violence. But after he says Candyman’s name, he finds that he has not only summoned a single entity, but something much more powerful.

In the 1992 original, a white grad student becomes obsessed with the legend of Candyman and decides to venture into the projects to see for herself. For how beloved it is, in retrospect the original is problematic, as it is a story about Black mythos told through the eyes of white people (a white main character, writer and director) who treat a segment of Black culture/trauma as something too terrifying to speak aloud. 2021’s Candyman takes the legend and not only removes the white main characters, but uses the original story as an allegory for gentrification and culture vultures; the white fascination with Black “ghetto” culture and the theft of Black art that is then repackaged into something which titillates white suburbanites. This version is based on the theory that white people are turned on by the history of Black poverty and trauma.

Executive produced by Jordan Peele, there was a standard I walked into this horror film expecting. A standard that had nothing to do with jump scares or gore, and everything to do with depth of story. No “Candyman” is not a “scary movie”. But in the same way learning about the real-life brutalities inflicted upon Black bodies throughout history would be, I would classify this as a terrifying watch. Also, the direction from director/co-writer Nia DaCosta is so poetically claustrophobic, it makes me eager to see what’s next for her fledgling career. As for the story itself, the few tangential scenes throughout that struggled to propel the story forward, didn’t take away from the impact of any underlying message.

Final Thought: As I alluded to earlier, the original depicts Candyman as basically a demon; a single man turned monster who punishes and kills and torments, relishing in indiscriminate violence. What DaCosta’s suggests with her version is that while violent, the Candyman is not evil for the sake of evil, but more so an accumulation of Black pain; an amalgamation of persecution towards the Black community throughout history, and thus, justifying the violence of Candyman. But she doesn’t stop there. In the end, DaCosta puts forth the argument that as terrifying as Candyman is, he very much is something liken to a Black superhero.  

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Luca

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Pixar movie about two boys who dream of riding a Vespa together, is only available on Disney Plus (a curious move, given that Pixar Animation Studios is one of the biggest money makers for Disney).

“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.  

This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. Hell, the entire first act is Luca’s parents attempting to shelter him from a world they feel wouldn’t accept him because of differences nobody (no human) can actually see. And to top it off, the movie was released during Pride month. While it’s not implicitly stated, “Luca” is very much a gay allegory.

And I want to root for a movie which sees Disney and Pixar’s first gay leads, when it’s just so obvious. And I will still do so. But to have the director Enrico Casorosa come out publicly and dismiss any homosexual themes, as Disney blames the fact that “Luca” didn’t get a theatrical release due to COVID, when “Cruella” a Disney release from a few weeks ago, is playing in theaters worldwide, is upsetting to say the least. But I’m also not shocked. This is Disney we are talking about. A corporation that will give the world a gay character, but in order to appease shareholders and conservatives, they’ll also downplay the significance of the character publicly. That said, is this still a beautiful movie that is one of the most important films Disney has ever produced? Most definitely. Two things can be true at the same time.

Final Thought: While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.      

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In the Heights

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

Adapted from the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical, by writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (who also wrote the musical stage play book) “In the Heights” is not just a love letter/song to Latin Caribbean culture, but also a look at a place where these cultures thrive as one; a place called Washington Heights in New York City.  

Told as a “tall tale” of sorts to a group of children, by a Dominican man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). He tells the story of his dream as a young man to move back to the Dominican Republic after living in Washington Heights since childhood. The musical also follows a handful of other characters. The two other prominent storylines feature Nina (Leslie Grace) a Puerto Rican student who recently dropped out of college and has come back home to the Heights to break the news to her father (Jimmy Smits) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) a young Latina with dreams of parleying her fashion design aspirations into a one-way trip out of Washington Heights.

These storylines spotlight some of the topical political issues and everyday situations many Latino/Latino immigrants living in the U.S. find themselves going through today. And these storylines are only amplified by a plethora of stand-out performances from the entire cast, but specifically Ramos, Smits and Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, an old Cuban woman with no children of her own, so instead she watches over the young people in this neighborhood. Merediz steals the show multiple times, injecting much needed life into this film’s lackluster initial hour. Her performance reaches its apex with her singing of “Paciencia Y Fe”, which is one of the most beautiful musical sequences put to film.  

Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Crazy Rich Asians) is seemingly a perfect match for this production. The choreography for most of the song and dance numbers are handled with tremendous care for the culture and implemented with a high caliber of cinematic flair.   

That said, with all of the love I have for this movie, I must say that it took me over an hour to get into it. OVER AN HOUR! This is a film of two halves. During the first hour plus, “In the Heights” is shockingly flat, there are pacing problems, a lack of stakes and songs which are tragically forgettable. Although, as I said prior, while the bones of the three main stories are a nice start, I found myself bored with Chu’s delivery. This is why it was so shocking when around the seventy-minute mark, “In the Heights” sees Chu wake up and flex on us all. Beginning with the blackout/” Paciencia Y Fe” sequence, Chu doesn’t look back, giving us musical perfection for the following hour. Why it took so long to get to that point is a mystery. But once it does, rising tides lift all boats, as the acting, the storylines, the dance sequences, even the songs all reach a level which rivals anything out of “West Side Story”.   

Final Thought: “In the Heights” is a story of acceptance, homecomings and suenitos, told in the hip hop cadence Miranda is known for. This is a love letter that eventually became something which exceeded my high expectations…just maybe fast forward a bit if you can.

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Two Distant Strangers

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Oscar nominated live-action short film starring rapper/actor Joey Badass, is now available on Netflix and is pretty much worth seeing on synopsis alone.

Written and co-directed by Travon Free, “Two Distant Strangers” follows a Black man who finds himself re-living the day he is murdered by a white cop.  Yes, this is a “time loop” movie, but it’s definitely elevated into something more profound and devastatingly current.

Free and co-director Martin Desmond Roe do a great job of transforming this “Groundhog Day” trope into something that feels brand new. They do this in part by removing the comedy element all together. Sure, there are funny moments, but this is no comedy.

The more interesting elevation technique used here stems from Free’s script, which refuses to stand solely on the traumatic visuals of a Black man repeatedly murdered by a cop for the thirty-two-minute runtime. As the brutality is happening, Free adds an additional debate element, attempting to engage with a segment of audiences who still foolishly argues that the problem of police brutality can be resolved through “healthy dialogue”. Risking that this particular debate element could take away from the film’s gut-wrenching visuals, Free moves forward with this juggling act. And though at first it comes off a bit melodramatic, as the final sequence unfolds and the credits roll, I have to say that his juggling act should and will be deemed a tremendous success.     

There is a turn a particular character makes near the end which really doesn’t work, only because the story suddenly becomes fully sci-fi. This segment (which only lasts about twenty seconds) comes off as a tad confusing, as the total genre shift seems a bit too big for the filmmakers to handle; if only for a moment. But much like 2019’s “See You Yesterday” (a sci-fi/social justice hybrid) the level of importance a story like this holds, told in this particular manner, supersedes any flaws this movie has.  

Final Thought: It works on multiple levels. The first being the face value nightmare of imagining what a Black man must feel like being trapped in a continuous loop where the end result is always death by cop. But it’s the second level, which in my opinion is the most biting; the one that will resonate the deepest. The idea that we (the audience) are watching the same Black man die in very similar ways over and over again, is the most aggressive parallel to what it’s actually like to wake up to the news of a Black person being slaughtered by the police seemingly every day. While it is a different day and a different Black body being snuffed out, the story we are watching is the same. And for me, this was the point. This is the reason, why it should not only win an Academy Award, but more importantly be mandatory viewing for every person fighting to end police brutality.    

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Feeling Through

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Available to watch on YouTube.

Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Live Action Short category, “Feeling Through” is a film about a chance encounter between two men in the middle of the night and the conversation which ensues. What makes this action noteworthy is that one of the men is both deaf and blind.

Yes, this synopsis may invoke “The Blind Side” or “The Help”; movies where a privileged person helps someone who is seen as having a disadvantage, and by the end is transformed into an enlightened privileged person, simply by assisting the “less fortunate”. In other words, “Feeling Through” might sound like it would be the type of story which exploits someone with disabilities in order to make non-disabled audiences feel better about themselves. But thankfully it never stoops down to that level. This is mainly due to an authenticity brought forth by the actor who plays the deaf-blind man; an actual deaf-blind actor named Robert Tarango.  This aspect creates a realness which overtakes the film as the two leads begin to communicate via alternative means. These scenes help “Feeling Through” become more about the idea of entering someone else’s universe for only a brief moment, in order to understand their world a bit better.   

As far as the Oscar nomination is concerned, this story based on an event from writer/director Doug Roland’s past, is nothing you haven’t seen before. In fact, next to the other nominees, it’s pretty vanilla. So, the focus of this film should and will be on the casting of Tarango and be seen as an important step towards normalizing the casting of deaf and blind actors in roles that are written as deaf and/or blind.

Final Thought: Executive producer Marlee Matlin has stated in recent interviews that during civil rights movements, those with disabilities are often left out. And that’s why this film is so important. While I would have loved a more creative story, witnessing a deaf-blind actor play a deaf-blind character in a film that is nominated for an Academy Award supersedes anything else about this film. This is a start. This is a move in the right direction.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Any movie chronicling aspects of the Black Panther Party is a welcome site to see, since even today all some people know about this organization stems from FBI propaganda. And while throughout the 1960’s and 70’s they had many prominent leaders, the best way to tell the story of the true potential of the Black Panthers is by telling the story of Chairman Fred Hampton. A man who sought to liberate all people, worldwide.

That said, this is not a Fred Hampton biopic, as you may be able to tell from the title.

Synopsis: We follow two Black men. Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) after the death of MLK, standing as the most notable rising revolutionary of the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement; the man J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed to be the Black Messiah. And then there’s Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a small-time crook who was apprehended for carjacking, blackmailed by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) and forced to infiltrate the Black Panther Party as an informant. 

Director and co-writer Shaka King takes a Martin Scorsese approach with his camerawork and directional style. Yet truthfully, the story of O’Neal and Hampton is so fascinating that it didn’t need the extra stylized push; although for the most part the film looks amazing. 

Unfortunately, there is an aspect of the direction which keeps “Judas and the Black Messiah” from being a great film. King doesn’t seem to know how to elevate a historical story past some well-choreographed camera movements. That is to say, while we learn about our two leads, going into the movie one might need to know a bit about the Black Panther Party and its major players during this time, to get the desired impact. This is not a movie that will give you much character backstory or historical context throughout, which is not a good look for a historical drama. Also, (I’ll just come right out and say it) the handling of the penultimate sequence was underwhelming, considering. Only lasting a couple of minutes (I’m sure this is accurate to true events) I feel that a more seasoned director would have lingered on said sequence, if only to give the climax the weight it deserved.  

The acting, on the other hand, is flawless. Kaluuya gives a performance that will go down in history as one of the best depictions of a Black revolutionary, alongside David Oyelowo as MLK and Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Stanfield is just as potent, making flesh and bone a character we are meant to despise for the entire film. And Plemons is forever great playing these baby-faced monster characters; and this role is no exception. 

Final Thought: Overall this film is an accomplishment, with historically important takeaways. In this we get to explore the Black Panthers as an organization, see a depiction of the Rainbow Coalition and understand the FBI’s historic role in carrying out assassinations; if you’ve been watching the news lately, you’d know that the FBI seemed to have played a huge role in the murders of our great Black leaders. And this all coming out of a major studio production, which is saying a lot.

Happy Black History Month.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Based on a play by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is quite a simple concept on the surface. Set in 1920’s Chicago, we follow Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”) and her band during a single recording session.  

But with any great piece of art, there are layers. These layers tell a generational tale of the Black experience in the United States. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is less a biopic or a snapshot of Black music, than it is a movie about trauma; Black trauma. Much like “A Raisin in the Sun” we are forced into a dingy claustrophobic environment and made to witness multiple generations of black people struggle to make sense of things, as the world around them continues to take and take.

With themes regarding a Black man’s place in society, the exploitation of Black people in general and how a black woman with power must conduct herself in order to survive, Wilson’s story (specifically the dialogue) is a symphony in and of itself. Sure, this was adapted to the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, but how could I not give all credit to Wilson, who is still the beating heart of this piece?

Most definitely the performances by Viola Davis (Widows) who plays the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) who plays a young trumpet player with big dreams and a whole lot of unresolved anger, are spectacular. They should not and will not be an afterthought in any credible critique.

Davis orders white men around, takes up space and contorts her body to play this imposing co-lead, having full control of the room as a black woman in the 1920’s. And Chadwick (RIP) gives an award worthy performance which rivals Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun”. It’s impossible for me to find a more accurate description of this, his final performance.

The direction from George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues) while not an afterthought, is the least spectacular aspect of this film. But it really doesn’t need to be anything more than a stage to showcase the talent on screen.   

Final Thought: While I praise the more recent display of “Black love” in Hollywood (showing Black affection and sex on screen) I do admire the display of Black rage showcased here. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives us something we only really get to see (en masse) in Spike Lee films. It validates and humanizes Black rage.

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