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Movie Review: Life

The movie, Life, is Dead on Arrival 

Six astronauts find a life form on an internationally staffed expedition to Mars. They bring the specimen on board their space ship and it finds the conditions on the craft very much to its liking – and grows to be a threat to the crew.

This Life is Dead on Arrival. It simply lacks any originality. First choosing Mars as the destination shows no creativity. That planet has been the focus of film space travel for over 50 years. Then the organism looks and behaves like the ones from Alien. And it thrives on food, water, and oxygen. It must have taken the screenwriters hours, even days to come up with that theory.

Life features a star-studded cast including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson. But their characters all look and sound like any other onscreen space shuttle crew.

The special effects are routine and unexceptional.

Life does boast a solidly diverse crew with a black actor (Ariyon Bakare) and a Japanese actor (Hiroyuki Sanada). Actor Samuel L. Jackson recently complained about Hollywood hiring black British performers to play black American characters. Bakare is British; but so is the person he plays in the film.

In the end, this Life doesn’t survive film critiquing scrutiny and gets our lowest rating, Dead on Arrival.

Life is rated R, for scary scenes and language and is 103 minutes.

MOVIE REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

Only the special effects make this island worth visiting

It’s the 70s. The Cold War burns hotly. Bill Randa (John Goodman), a researcher and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) use the, we have to do this before the Russian’s do argument to get the United States federal government to fund an expedition to a South Pacific island where strange images have been caught on camera. Not only do they receive the funding, they also get a military escort led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). To round out their team, they need a tracker and outdoors' man and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) fits the bill. When the expedition arrives at their destination via helicopters, they are created by a massive, towering ape who swats the whirlybirds away as if they were annoying mosquitos. The team quickly realizes that they are in for more than bargained for.

Kong: Skull Island is a weak story about boring characters, but it still gets a See It! rating because this film delivers the special effects viewers who are fans of this film genre want to see.

The plots are so anemic that you’ll just want another appearance by Kong or some other creature.

The characters all speak with the same tones and vocabulary. But what is a major failure of the screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein is the absence of the rich '70s dialogue. Language that young soldiers would have undoubtedly used. There was not a single: Right On!, Funky, Hip, Can you Dig it? or Say, What?

And if you’re a film buff, you’ll definitely see scenes reminiscent of Jurassic Park and Avatar.

Shot in six months in Hawaii, Australia's Gold Coast, and in Vietnam, Kong: Skull Island’s cinematography is a treat for the eyes.

When it comes to casting diversity, King: Skull Island, gets a solid “A”. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asian performers have both major and supporting roles.

Kong: Skull Island is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language. The film is 118 minutes in length. The special effects will not disappoint and that makes King: Skull Island a See It!

MOVIE REVIEW: Get Out this week and see Get Out!

They’re an attractive young couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams). She who is white, assures him as they plan a visit to meet her parents, that they won’t care that he’s black. She adds that her father would have voted for Obama for a third term. When they arrive at the Rose’s parents’ stately home in its picturesque, bucolic setting, her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) greet Chris and extend their best efforts to make him feel comfortable. Chris also hears it straight from Dean: he would have voted for Obama for a third term. But after his first night there, Chris begins to realize that there are some occurrences that go way beyond the expected awkwardness of his being in Rose’s family home.

As I left the theater after seeing Get Out, I found myself thinking of the title of the New Zealand group OMC’s hit song, How Bizarre. While the film’s genre is horror, and it contains all the elements of that genre, there is so much more to this story. That’s what makes this film exceptional is it takes a common format and intertwines issues of race in the form of stereotypes about black men and white women, and the physical attributes of black people, to create a truly unique film going experience. And that makes it a See It!

Written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele, who takes viewers on an entertaining journey giving them clues to the underlying mystery and then fits all of the pieces together in some expected and unexpected ways. Additionally, the cinematography effectively enriches so many of the scenes and is a key to telling this fascinating story.

Get Out has some familiar horror film flaws. Chris, like many protagonists in this type of film, is sometimes a little slow to figure things.

There are other defects as well. Chris shares his growing-up experience which is a key to some of his reactions. He never knew his father and lost his mother to a hit and run accident when he was 11-years-old. And at one point he tells Rose, she is all he has. The problem with that scenario is 11-year-olds don’t raise themselves. Further, he’s a fairly polished young man and an accomplished photographer, indicating that at least one if not more adults invested time and money in his development. It’s unlikely that those “investors” would have disappeared from Chris’ life now that he is an adult, resulting in Rose being all he has.

As I discussed in my review of Fences, it is troubling that the ubiquitous portrayal of black families as dysfunctional is a theme often perpetuated by black writers. Peele creates Chris’s story as one with an absentee father, even though Peele’s own father was in his life.

As to cast diversity, Get Out gets an “A-“. When it comes to black and white characters, you won’t find a more diverse film. However, there is only one Asian-American and one Hispanic, each with a small speaking role.

Get Out is Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and sexual references, and is 104 minutes in length. Get Out is a unique film you’ll think about and talk about. And it’s a See It!

Movie Review: A United Kingdom Combines Race, Love, and Politics

A United Kingdom merges the credibility of a true story with romance and international intrigue

In 1947, a young man meets a young woman at a social event. They talk and dance and enjoy each other’s company. He asks her out again. She accepts. Once more, they have fun together. It doesn’t take long for them to fall in love. This a common scenario, especially for that time period. But other factors make this match much, much more complicated.

He is Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the King of the African nation of Botswana. She is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a London office worker. He is black; she is white. Their proposed marriage is challenged not only by their families but by the British and South African governments.
South Africa has just introduced apartheid, a series of laws designed to keep blacks and whites separate in almost every aspect of life. And a highly visible interracial couple, especially a black man and white woman, in a neighboring country threatens the foundation of these new laws. The British, heavily reliant upon South Africa’s uranium and gold, doesn’t want to upset its trading partner. Further, there is also a risk of war if South Africa invades Botswana, a British protectorate.

A United Kingdom is a fascinating story that would almost be unbelievable if it weren’t true. And it’s a See It! The story moves quickly through the mutual attraction which overwhelms Ruth and Seretse. Each seems to believe that the other isn’t as serious about the relationship as he or she is. As the story develops, it’s clear that there is nothing political or Machiavellian about their love. It’s pure and natural as any bond between two people. Yet her father disowns her. His uncle who carefully molded his nephew to assume the mantel of power now views his mentee as unfit to serve as king.

A United Kingdom effectively depicts the political atmosphere at that is extremely hostile to a union that in today’s world would cause in many cases, no more than a minor stir. (However, there is a bit of a buzz over Prince Harry’s current, apparently, serious relationship with African-American actress, Megan Markle.)

The dialogue is used as a powerful device to capture the sentiment of each side. Ruth’s sister who supports the relationship nevertheless reminds Ruth of English facilities that post signs: No blacks. No Irish. No Dogs. And Seretse’s uncle delivers a powerful speech besieging his countrymen to reject his nephew as their leader pointing out that the British would have never allowed Princess Elizabeth’s ascendancy to the throne as queen, had she married a Negro.

But filmmaking is about basics. And, A United Kingdom is a love story and it doesn’t work unless Rosamund and David sizzle together - and they do. They worked together before and Oyelowo hand-picked Pike for the project. They create the on-screen bond which convinces audiences that they could withstand international manipulation and hostility.

The film is directed by Amma Asante, who is British, and whose directing credits include the film, Belle. She, a black woman married to a man of Scandinavian heritage said in a recent interview that all interracial marriages even today, are political - or at least viewed that way.

A United Kingdom is Rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality and is 111 minutes in length. It will educate, entertain and amaze you. And it’s a See It!

Movie Review: Say Hello to The Bye, Bye Man

It needs some work but it’s a nice house, large rooms, furniture comes with it, so the three college students who need a place to live decide to rent it. Elliott (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his friend from childhood John (Lucien Laviscount) move in. Immediately they start seeing things. A tall skeletal man in a hooded robe moves about. And of course, they hear noises. Kim, (Jenna Kanell) a friend of Sasha’s, conducts a séance and realizes that these occurrences are not Elliott’s, Sasha’s and John’s imagination. There’s really something going on in that house. Elliot goes to the college library to research some writings he found in the house and links a mass murder almost 50 years ago to the events going on where they live.

The Bye, Bye Man is a low budget film starring a group of relative unknowns but it just somehow comes together. And it gets our highest rating, See It! First and foremost it’s not predictable. It does have unlikely character responses, typical of horror films. But, The Bye, Bye Man isn’t full of “you’ve seen it all before” plotlines. The stress of living in the house creates some intriguing conflicts between Elliott, Sasha, and John.

I have written before about the importance of writers creating characters that viewers connect with. The screenwriters succeed here; because this is a group that you’ll root for. The Bye, Bye Man actors are relatively unknown but proffer solid performances. Cressida Bonas is not as well-known as an actress as she could be considering a few years ago she drew international attention as Prince Harry’s steady girlfriend.

Veteran actress Faye Dunaway has a small supporting role. (I have to admit I thought she was dead.)

The Bye, Bye Man gets a B+ for cast diversity. It’s very diverse in terms of black actors, including Lucien Laviscount in a leading role, but Hispanics and Asians are non-existent in this movie.

The Bye, Bye Man was shot in Cleveland in five weeks with a minuscule budget of $10 million. Also, it ends in a way that opens the door for a sequel.

The Bye, Bye Man is rated PG-13 (for terror, horror violence, bloody images, sexual content, thematic elements, partial nudity, some language and teen drinking) and perfectly timed at 96 minutes. And it’s a See It!

MOVIE REVIEW: Passengers – Don’t take this voyage.

Passengers is a moderately entertaining adventure starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, and Laurence Fishburne

Talk about a long nap, the 5000 passengers and crew on the Starship Avalon are on a 120-year voyage from earth to their new outer-space home. They are put into a state of hibernation for the super long journey. However, due to a malfunction, Jim Preston, (Chris Pratt) an engineer, wakes up after only 30 years. He panics when he realizes that he’s likely to die before the vessel reaches its destination in 90 years. He finds his way around the spacecraft, locating the food and exercise facilities. His only companion is Arthur (Michael Sheen), the robot bartender. After a year, loneliness overwhelms him. He walks among the other passengers deeply sleeping in their pods. After a lengthy emotional and moral internal debate, he decides to awaken another passenger, journalist Aurora Dunn (Jennifer Lawrence). Once awake, she panics just as Jim had done. Also, as he had done, she tries to figure out a way to get back to sleep. But again like him, she eventually accepts her fate. And as would be expected, they fall in love and all is well until Aurora learns that unlike with Jim, her waking up was no accident. It was an intentional act on his part.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence talking with a robotic bartender played by Michael Sheen at a bar on the Starship Avalon in the movie Passengers Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures 2Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) talking with Arthur, a robotic bartender, on the Starship Avalon. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures 

Passengers is a moderately entertaining adventure and viewers can’t be sure where it’s headed. However, it never reaches its entertainment destination. The writers start with an interesting premise: a young man and woman wake up 90 years too soon on an intergalactic voyage. After that, they just don’t seem to know where to go from there. Another one of the crew members, Chief Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne), wakes up and has a short, strange interaction with Jim and Aurora. The film deteriorates to the point where viewers laugh at scenes and dialogue not intended to be funny.

No complaints about Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. They serve their purposes: eye candy for viewers and are credible in their roles. The special effects are weak compared to the technological marvels Hollywood is capable of these days.

It’s difficult to give this film a Cast Diversity rating, with such a small cast. It would have received a D- accept for the short appearance by Laurence Fishburne with lifts it up to a C+. As Jim walks past the passengers in pods, very few of the inhabitants are people of color; this was an opportunity to add some color to the cast.

Leave these Passengers alone. Just at Jim and Aurora feared about their own plight; Passengers is Dead on Arrival! It’s 116 minutes and rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity, and action/peril.

MOVIE REVIEW: Fences - See It! . . . with a critical eye.

The movie Fences is built upon the strong foundation provided by a superlative cast of Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, and Mykelti Williamson

In playwright August Wilson’s Broadway play turned film, Fences, it is Pittsburgh, Pa in the 1950s. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged, former Negro League baseball player who now drives a garbage truck. He bears the scars of his career disappointments and the damage from being a black man in America during that time. His wife, Rose, (Viola Davis) conjures up an image of the line from the Spinners song Sadie “Sweeter than cotton candy, stronger than papa’s brandy.” She keeps the house as well as the peace between her and Troy’s son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who wants to play football. Troy opposes athletics for his son. Cory thinks his dad is afraid he’ll prove to be the better athlete. The truth is Troy believes his son will be denied a fair chance to compete and end up disappointed. Troy also deals with his WWII injured brother, Gabriel’s (Mykelti Williamson) permanent mental and physical limitations as well as guilt over how he handled his brother’s settlement payment from the federal government.

There’s a lot going on in Fences. The movie, Fences, is built upon the strong foundation provided by a superlative cast. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, to use a baseball analogy, knock the ball out of the park. Together they provide the forceful screen presence that this drama had to have. Denzel Washington also directed the film. Jovan Adepo is angry, intense, and confrontational which makes his character, Cory, absolutely credible. But the true unsung hero of Fences is Mykelti Williamson. As compelling as the other performances are, Williamson more than met the challenge of playing a severely handicapped individual.

This film also captures the essence of working class family disputes where mothers embrace their children’s career dreams, while fathers in their own loving way, want kids to be practical. While dreams are nice, dads think their kids should devote their energies to activities which will help them earn a living.

For these reasons, Fences is a See It!

On the other hand, the dialogue is very wordy, long sentences and soliloquies by the characters. Effective scriptwriting allows the viewers to understand past events from bits and pieces of discourse throughout the film. However, in a lengthy kitchen discussion, Troy and Rose lay out all the details surrounding Gabriel’s war injury. Then they go through the intervening developments before bringing the situation up to date. Viewers are now fully informed. However, in a real-world exchange, there would be no need to rehash facts well-known to both but instead they would address only the most recent issues and maybe cite the past to support a current point of view.

Additionally, as I began to digest this film, I wondered why August Wilson felt it necessary to write a story which encapsulates the worst stereotypes, criminal and immoral behavior for his characters. While I won’t discuss them all, two are worth mentioning.

At one point, when talking to a friend, Troy relates how as a young teen, his father catches him being intimate with a 13-year-old girl. His father begins beating him. Not for what he is doing but so that his father could have a turn with the girl! Is this really how a father would respond? Maybe in a small percentage of cases, but this is not the norm.

Rose shares with Troy how she grew up with siblings in which all are halves, no two with the same mother and father. That might be a tale a character could tell today but based upon the time period of this story, Rose would have been born in the early 1900s. Black families were much more intact then than today. Census figures from that time show that the vast majority of black babies born in the early 1900s were born to mothers and fathers who were married!

Then there’s the N word. It’s actually the first word Troy utters and there’s no shortage of the slur throughout the rest of movie.

August Wilson, an interracial African-American, his father was German, seemed to be willing to stretch credibility to taint these characters. Maybe he thought it made them more interesting. While I recommend Fences, we need more true stories like Hidden Figures and less made up ones like Fences.

Fences is 140 minutes and rated PG-13 for its thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references.

 

Hidden Figures Brings #BlackGirlMagic to the Big Screen!

Count on seeing Hidden Figures and definitely take your daughters to see these black women excelling in math, engineering, and computer operations

It’s the early sixties. Three black women traveling in a blue and white 1957 Chevrolet head to work. Few people would guess that Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) work at the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). One is a mathematician, one an engineer and the other a computer expert. Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of these three amazing women and the vital roles they play in getting America’s space program off the ground.

The story behind Hidden Figures is incredible on multiple levels. According to a People magazine article, numbers fascinated Katherine Johnson from her earliest days. She counts everything including the number of steps it takes to walk to school. She enters high school at 10 and then graduates from college at 18. Her highly supportive father moves their family as necessary to ensure that she takes full advantage of the educational opportunities offered to her. Dorothy Vaughan graduates from Wilberforce University in Ohio at an even younger age, 16.

Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson benefit from a NASA program which hired black women during War World II. The agency is so impressed by the mathematic talents of these women (who were called “computers”), it continues the program after the war ends opening the door for later arrivals.

Hidden Figures doesn’t just tell the stories of these three geniuses but provides a portrait of the racial dynamics of that time period. Including the segregated facilities and the closed minds attempting to undermine these women’s efforts and talents. Jim Parsons (of the Big Bang Theory) plays Paul Stafford who works along with Johnson at the Langley Research Center and who undercuts her by not supplying the necessary information to complete her projects. And he deeply resents her checking and sometimes finding errors in his calculations - which is her job.

Kevin Costner plays Johnson’s and Stafford’s boss and often has to referee their disputes and more times than not, sides with Johnson. He is a firm but fair supervisor who is forced to examine the prevailing segregationist policies and their effect on people like Johnson and her ability to do her job. And how she walks a half mile across the NASA campus to go to the segregated, colored women’s bathroom. Or how someone in his own department brings in a separate coffee pot for her rather than have her continue to use the one the rest of the group uses.

Recently deceased astronaut John Glenn reflects an uncommon acceptance and support of the women. When the NASA employees stand outside in a greeting line to meet the astronauts, the white employees are first. After shaking hands with them, a handler directs the astronauts back inside before reaching the black women. Glenn ignores the directive and walks over to speak and shake hands with the ladies. And before his first voyage, he makes clear that he won’t take off until Johnson reviews the computations of the NASA’s new IBM computer.

Overall the film is well done. One interesting scene is when Johnson who is a widow, rips into a man she meets at church (who later becomes her husband) because he’s surprised to find out that she’s a senior mathematician for NASA. The whole world would be surprised at her occupation! Why shouldn’t he? He later apologizes for his close-mindedness.

As to cast diversity Hidden Figures, gets an “A”. It represents the situation as it existed racially at that time.

See Hidden Figures because it has that rare combination of being both educational and entertaining. Also see it because if it’s a box office hit, Hollywood will make more films like it. And we need more films like it. Definitely take your daughters to see these women excelling in math, science, engineering, and computer operations (technology). One final point, in addition to being a member of the composing team to score the music for Hidden Figures, music producer, Pharrell Williams, is also one of the producers of the movie.

Hidden Figures is just over 2 hours at 126 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language. It gets our highest rating: See It!

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