Movie Reviews

  • First Love
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on June 27, 2022 at 3:13 PM

    "First Love" is an earnest but unremarkable romance wrapped around an intelligent and sometimes powerful story of the destruction that capitalism inflicts on middle-class American families.  "First Love" is written and directed by A.J. Edwards, a protege of visionary spiritualist Terrence Malick who has made two films in a Malickian vein ("The Better Angels" and "Age Out"), but this third effort is more of a straightforward ensemble drama. Set in the aftermath of the financial collapse of late 2008 during George Bush's second term, it follows one American family, the Albrights, as they try to survive and readjust to drastically reduced economic prospects. The father, Glenn, gets laid off from the financial sector and seems unable to accept that he might never again have a job as prominent as the one that was taken from him. His wife Kay ("Better Angels" costar Diane Kruger, who coproduced here) eventually offers to take a second job and runs headlong into the barrier of her husband's pride. The dialogue that articulates the Albright's tight situation is often bland and oversimplified, but it's still a (pleasant) shock to see an American feature film dealing with the financial collapse in something other then genre-based metaphors (as, for example, the excellent crime thriller "Killing Them Softly" did).  When Kay goes to the bank to try to get a loan, the bank officer looks at her application and wants to know if her husband is sick, and if not, why he isn't working. "Even a minimum-wage job would look better on the record than things are now," he says.  We later learn that friends and family members have largely abandoned the Albrights in their time of distress. There's a paranoid intimation that people have stopped answering their phone calls because they don't want to hear about their suffering or risk being asked for money. When the priest at their church says, "Where is the pleasure in life that is unmixed with sorrow?" it sounds less like a balm than a cop-out. "This place is a box," Glenn grouses after the family moves into a smaller place. The big problem with this movie is that it focuses more than half of its running time on a vanilla romance between Glenn and Kay's teenage son Jim (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, son of director Martha Fiennes and nephew of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) and his classmate Ann (Sydney Park). The film is at its most Malick-like when focusing on the young couple, but not in a good way. Edwards, cinematographer Jeff Bierman, and editor Alec Styborski serve up lyrical montages and dreamy, silent-with-music imagery as if hoping to capture some of the mysterious magic of the central love stories in Malick's "The New World" and "To the Wonder."  But there's no evident substance or complexity to either character, and the beats are all so familiar as to seem obligatory (including the mandatory breakup midway through, which not even the movie seems able to believe in). It often seems as if the filmmaking is trying to add a ballast. Jim and Ann vacuuming up the film's running time also means that the more grounded and complicated struggles of the parents and their adult relatives and colleagues don't get the treatment that they deserve.  And it doesn't do the movie any favors that the interracial/cross-cultural aspects of the relationship go largely unexplored, save for a brief exchange of Spanish in their first conversation in a school hallway. Nor does the film have much to say about the discrepancy between how the two families live, financial crash or no financial crash, and how the gap between haves and have-nots might be a part of the larger story that's being told.  The untapped potential here is considerable, though the cinematography and performances ensure that the film remains watchable. Kruger and Donovan are particularly effective in closeups where you get to see many different contradictory feelings play across their faces. (Glenn's smiling-through-the-pain expression as he's being laid off is perfect: he's still the model employee, trying to prove that the company was right to have hired him even as they discuss his severance package.) And Diane Venora is smashing in a small role as Kay's distressed and embittered aunt, who raised Kay after her mother abandoned her but now has to be put into a home because she's no longer capable of living by herself. This is a good movie with stirring passages that suffers mainly from a lack of self-knowledge. It concentrates on things we've seen a million times when it could have focused on things that American movies never have the guts to show us. Now on VOD.

  • A Look Back at Tribeca 2022: The Documentary Features
    by Peter Sobczynski on June 27, 2022 at 1:31 PM

    Considering how the format has exploded in popularity over the last few years, it's perhaps not surprising to discover that documentaries made up a significant chunk of the lineup at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. One of them, “Halftime,” even landed the coveted opening night slot (though the fact that the subject of the film, Jennifer Lopez, would be in attendance probably helped a little bit in regards to that decision). Over the course of the festival, there were films on subjects that included: New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel (Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt’s “Dreaming Walls,” an affecting look at some of the current residents as they meditate on the locale’s storied past and their uncertain place in its future after an extended renovation); the contemporary nudist colony experience (Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’ “Naked Gardens,” a fly-on-the-wall observation of the residents of a Florida colony going about their daily lives); and ecologically-minded fashion (Becky Hutner’s “Fashion Reimagined,” which offers an eye-opening look at rising British designer Amy Powney’s efforts to create a clothing line in which every aspect of the process is done in a sustainable manner). Hell, one documentary, Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera’s “Subject,” goes so far as to focus on people who have been the subjects of previous documentaries (including “Hoop Dreams,” “The Wolfpack,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” and, perhaps inevitably, “The Staircase”) in an occasionally provocative meditation on how ordinary lives can be affected once their personal stories have been presented to the world for consumption. "The Lost Weekend: A Love Story" Not surprisingly, a number of films focused on various elements of popular culture. On the musical end of things, Ethan Silverman’s “Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex” offered up a standard but entertaining look at the life and legacy of the glam rock legend via archival clips, talking head interviews with contemporaries of the late singer, and in-studio footage of artists ranging from U2 to Nick Cave to Maria McKee as they record a number of his songs for a 2020 tribute album of the same name. Ben Chace’s “Music Pictures: New Orleans” is the latest of a recent string of films focusing on the history of the city’s musical legacy and its attempts to return to its former glory in the face of both Hurricane Katrina and COVID, this time focusing on local legends Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and the Marsalis family through performance footage. Although not necessarily about music per se, “The Lost Weekend: A Love Story” does prominently feature an iconic musician John Lennon, by recounting the story of his 18-month-long romantic relationship with assistant May Pang (supposedly at the insistence of Yoko Ono), a much-discussed, if little-understood episode in his life that is, for once, told from the perspective of Pang herself. Although Pang does make for an engaging guide, the story never quite adds up to the grand romance it positions itself to be, though Beatlemaniacs will no doubt find it intriguing. Professional sports were represented by such films as “Unfinished Business,” Alison Klayman’s often-fascinating look at the legacy of the WNBA by studying both its past and its present, the latter via a look at the 2021 season of the New York Liberty; “McEnroe,” Barney Douglas’ surprisingly listless film featuring tennis legend John McEnroe offering up his side to the story of his often-controversial career; and “Kaepernick & America,” a stirring portrait from Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker about quarterback Colin Kaepernick and how his public decision to take a knee during the National Anthem as a way of protesting police brutality short-circuited his career but made him an icon of the contemporary social justice movement. Outside of the sports arena, children of the Eighties could enjoy the likes of “All Man: The International Male Story,” “Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids,” and “Butterfly in the Sky,” straightforward nostalgia bath treatments of their respective subjects: the “International Male” catalogue, the groundbreaking Cabbage Patch Kids toy fad and the PBS series “Reading Rainbow.”  On the literary side of things, Lizzie Gottlieb’s “Turn Every Page” examines the long working relationship between legendary author Robert Caro and the equally esteemed editor Robert Gottlieb (the filmmaker’s father) from their first collaboration, the groundbreaking work The Power Broker to their most celebrated work, a multi-volume biography on the life of Lyndon Johnson whose final volume is still being worked on. The film is a fascinating look at two literary giants, and is an absolute must for anyone remotely interested in the writing process, though some viewers may find themselves wishing that the two would stop talking to the cameras and get back to work. "Lynch/Oz" Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival without a few entries about the world of film itself. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s “Body Parts” is a somewhat scattershot look at how women in Hollywood on both sides of the camera have been historically exploited, objectified, and mistreated. The film tries to cover too much material in too little time (this is a subject crying out for a multi-part treatment) that only really comes alive when it looks at the ways in which the industry has attempted—or at least seems to have attempted—to change its past attitudes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, such as the development of so-called intimacy coordinators to help stage sex scenes in a less exploitative manner. “Lynch/Oz,” the latest cinematic essay from Alexandre Philippe, brings in a number of filmmakers and critics to examine the myriad ways in which David Lynch’s entire screen career has been touched by the influence of the all-time classic “The Wizard of Oz”—the most incisive commentary comes from Karyn Kusama, who offers up insightful observations about the ways in which the specter of “Oz” makes itself known in “Mulholland Drive.” Tessa-Louise Salome’s “The Wild One” presents viewers with a concise and fascinating look at the life and work of Jack Garfein, who managed to survive the Holocaust as a child and made his way to America. There, he became one of the founders of the influential Actor’s Studio and the director of plays and two feature films, including 1961’s “Something Wild,” a film that dealt with the then-taboo subject of sexual assault in a bold and forthright manner that remains as startling today as it must have been to the few who saw it back in the day. Crime stories were another popular subject for docs this year. Colin Barnicle’s “Carol & Johnny” recounts the alternately creepy and compelling story of Johnny and Carol Marie Willians, a married couple who racked up an enormous number of bank robberies until they were finally nabbed, via interviews with the two, who are still legally married but who have not actually seen one another for several decades, and the FBI agent who eventually brought them down. Now playing on Hulu, Irene Taylor’s “Leave No Trace” is an almost unbearably sad and angry film about how the Boy Scouts of America unwillingness to deal with sexual abusers in their midst led to countless numbers of victims among their ranks and the organization’s 2020 bankruptcy filing in the wake of $2.7 billion dollar settlement against them on the behalf of over 82,000 claimants.  Although the story that it tells is almost as devastating in terms of its ultimate impact, Darren Foster’s “American Pain” employs a breezier tone to recount its stranger-than-fiction saga of two brothers in Florida (surprise) who took advantage of lax laws to open up a franchise of pain clinics that doled out opioids like candy with predictably disastrous results. The film has many strange twists and bizarre characters that it feels at times like a real-life Carl Hiassen novel. And while it is not technically a crime story per say, Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground” is a dramatically restrained but ultimately enraging look at how abortion rights in America are being inexorably eroded by showing the various ways in which anti-choice activists have been playing a long and patient game in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade while pro-choice types seem too willing to rely on ideas of negotiation and bipartisanship that the other side rejected long ago. At the end, pro-choice activist Sam Blakely states that “We have to stop playing defense and start playing offense,” but as this film shows in painstaking and sometime horrifying detail, it may already be too late for that. The ongoing quest for social justice in the African-American community, past, present and future, was the focus of a number of films, including some of the stronger works in the entire festival. “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” from Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir, takes a look at the attempts to organize Black voters in a rural Alabama town in 1965 (a location that at the time was 80% Black but had no registered Black voters) through archival footage and interviews with members of the community back then. The film feels unfortunately timely and relevant nowadays in the face of current attempts to disenfranchise Black voters. “Katrina Babies” is a sometimes angry and sometimes hopeful work that looks at the lives of a number of children who survived the horror of Hurricane Katrina and the ways in which they have tried to process their experiences in the aftermath. Director Edward Buckles Jr. was himself a Katrina baby and he demonstrates a genuine empathy towards his subjects that simply could not have been accomplished in the hands of an outsider, resulting in a moving, intimate, and humane work that deserves to be put on the same shelf as Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Whitney Dow’s “The Big Payback” tackles the still-thorny topic of offering reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans by looking at how the town of Evanston, IL became the first major place to offer reparations—earmarking $10 million earned via a marijuana tax—and the unexpected difficulties and controversies that the seemingly straightforward gesture ends up inspiring amongst the townspeople.  "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" Astoundingly, Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen’s “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” is only the first comprehensive documentary on the icon of the Civil Rights movement. That is sad but the film proves to have been more than worth the wait as it takes a woman who is a part of our cultural memory for one particular act and reveals her often-fascinating life in fuller detail, especially in regards to her long history with the movement. The doc also focuses on her belief in the need to disrupt a racist and corrupt system by any and all means, and the ways in which she found herself too often marginalized by the civil rights movement on the basis of her age and gender, even as they would trot her out for symbolic value when it suited them.  Josh Alexander’s “Loudmouth” offers a similarly detailed look at the life and legacy of another often-misunderstood icon of the movement, Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who has gone from being a magnet for controversy (especially among those who dismissed him as little more than a huckster) into one of the more respected voices in the movement today without changing his singular approach. Although the film maybe pulls its punches a bit in certain aspects (especially in its handling of the still-controversial saga of Tawana Brawley, whose case he took up in 1988 when the then-15-year-old claimed that she had been held captive and raped for four days), it still gives a fuller and more nuanced look at a man who, for all his flaws, has proven to be one willing to fight the good fight for longer than most.  Although less well known than Parks or Sharpton, Nadia Hallgren’s “CIVIL: Ben Crump” (now playing on Netflix) looks at someone also dedicating their life to social change—in Crump’s case, by serving as the civil attorney for the families of Black men and women (including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor) whose approach to trying to protect the civil rights of African-Americans involves filing massive civil suits against police departments in the hopes of making such violations financially untenable. Of course, there are critics who suggest that he is only in it for the money and the publicity. But, as the film shows, those same critics seems less concerned about the actual victims as they are about the idea that someone might actually be held responsible for what happened to them in the first place.  "Liquor Store Dreams" In the end, my favorite of this year’s crop of documentaries was “Liquor Store Dreams” from So Yun Um, making her feature debut with an expansion of her 2018 short “Liquor Store Babies.” The film follows So and her friend, Danny Park, both of whom are the children of Korean parents who came to America in order to make a better life and ended up running liquor stores in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities in Los Angeles. "Liquor Store Dreams" covers everything from tensions between the Black and Korean communities that stretch back as far as the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins in a Korean convenience store (which helped spark the looting of Korean businesses during the riots surrounding the Rodney King verdict a year later), to the ways that both they and their parents grapple with the legacies of their stores—Danny ends up leaving his dream job in order to help his mother make their store survive while So’s father, although bemused and worried by her choice of a career in the arts, shows himself willing to go to great lengths to ensure she follows her own dream. Melding the personal and the anthropological in ways both entertaining and unexpectedly moving, "Liquor Store Dreams" is one of those quietly powerful films that may appear on the surface to be little more than an extended home movie, but should prove to have a devastating and emotional impact on all who are lucky to see it.

  • A Look Back at Tribeca 2022: The Narrative Features
    by Peter Sobczynski on June 27, 2022 at 1:31 PM

    Over the course of its 12-day run from June 8-19, the 2022 edition of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival screened over 110 feature films from 40 different countries, 88 of them world premieres. These are big numbers, to be sure, and that doesn’t include the vast array of short films that were screened, or the retrospective screenings of classic films that included “The Godfather,” “Heat,” and Abel Ferrara’s Fun City exploitation classic “Ms .45.” Not counting movies that I had already seen during earlier stops on the festival circuit, such as the lovely “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and the mostly inexcusable “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” I managed to view roughly 50 or so of this year's titles, an array of films from well-known names and newcomers alike covering virtually every imaginable screen genre and perhaps even creating a couple of new ones. Although the lineup may not quite as strong as last year’s—especially regarding the Narrative section, which last year included such knockouts as “The Novice” and “Catch the Fair One”—a good number of the selections still had qualities of note, and some proved to be good enough to make them worth seeking out when they are released.  "Good Girl Jane" On the awards side of things, the big winner in the U.S. Narrative Competition was Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s “Good Girl Jane,” a 2005-set drama about a lonely high school outcast named Jane (Rain Spencer) who falls under the spell of a young man (Patrick Gibson) and quickly falls into his world of sex, drugs and trouble. Although the film (an expansion of Mintz’s short film of the same name) is decently made and contains a good central performance from Spencer, the whole thing may strike viewers as reminiscent of many earlier movies, including “Thirteen” and this year’s controversial Sundance entry “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” Nevertheless, it won the prize for Best U.S. Narrative Film and Spencer received the Best Performance award.  Best Screenplay went to “Allswell,” a middling drama about a trio of Nuyorican sisters navigating a series of increasingly melodramatic hurdles involving family, motherhood, and careers. The Cinematography award went to Azuli Anderson for “Next Exit,” a futuristic road movie in which life after death has been conclusively proven to exist and two people travel cross-country to end their lives after learning this. A Special Jury Prize was also presented to newcomer actress Liz Carbel Sierra for her electrifying work in “God’s Time,” Daniel Artebi’s darkly comic tale of two friends in addiction recovery who try to prevent the fellow former addict they both are in love with from murdering her ex-boyfriend. The prize for Best International Narrative feature went to “January,” Viesturs Kairišs’ striking coming-of-age saga set amidst the backdrop of Latvia’s struggle for independence in the early '90s and focusing on a young film school student navigating everything from first love to political upheaval. The Screenplay award went to Martín Boulocq and Rodrigo Hasbun for “The Visitor,” a familiar but effective drama about an ex-convict who returns home after serving time in order to reconnect with his young daughter, only to face opposition from his in-laws, who are high-ranking members of the local Evangelical community. Dorota Pomykala won the prize for Best Performance for her performance in “Woman on a Roof” and Jan Mayntz won the Cinematography award for his work on the offbeat “We Might As Well Be Dead.”  Like a lot of film festivals, Tribeca is in many ways a celebrity-driven affair (it did, after all, kick off with a splashy premiere of the mediocre Jennifer Lopez documentary “Halftime,” with Lopez in attendance). Likewise, the presence of such familiar faces as Matt Dillon, Isabella Rossellini, and Anna Gunn no doubt lured some curious viewers into checking out Shoja Azari and Shirin Neshat’s “Land of Dreams.” The near-future-set political satire/drama, about an Iranian-American census department employee who grills citizens about their dreams as part of some mysterious government project, is a listless and largely incomprehensible mess that feels more like Wim Wenders’ last few narrative features rolled into one and without a killer soundtrack to help it seem more palatable. "Official Competition" On the other hand, one of the more notable star-driven projects, Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s “Official Competition,” proved to be one of the festival’s most unquestioned delights. In this deft satire, a wealthy businessman decides to finance a film in the hopes of bolstering his legacy and hires an acclaimed art-house filmmaker (Penelope Cruz) to adapt a Nobel Prize-winning novel about the fraught relationship between two brothers. The director hits upon the idea of hiring two wildly different actors—one a worldwide movie star (Antonio Banderas), the other an extremely self-serious Method type (Oscar Martínez)—in the hopes that their disparate attitudes towards acting will help inform their performances. A chaotic game of one-upmanship then develops between all three during the bizarre rehearsal period. Sure, pretentious actors and weirdo filmmakers are relatively easy targets but this film manages to score a lot of big laughs along the way, thanks in large part to the performances from the three leads—this is one of Cruz’s best performances (certainly her funniest), and Banderas is hilarious as he deftly mocks his own star persona. That said, there were a lot of new faces in this year’s lineup on both sides of the camera and their efforts were often ambitious, if not always successful. “88,” a conspiracy thriller from writer/director Eromose, starts off on an intriguing note as the financial consultant to a political super PAC discovers some strange anomalies related to donations, but eventually the film devolves into a confusing and confused mess. That was still preferable to the inexplicable, irritating mess that was “Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying,” a deeply annoying and unfunny comedy in which a pair of hapless filmmakers (Devin Das and Parker Seaman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Seaman also directing) learn that a friend they haven’t seen in years is dying of COVID and decide that making a film chronicling their journey to his presumed deathbed will be just the thing to jump-start their careers. Stupid and mean-spirited in equal measure, this was arguably the worst thing I saw at this year’s festival. Even at a relatively brief 78 minutes, it feels endless. “Three Headed Beast,” the debut feature from the duo of Fernando Andres and Tyler Rugh, is an ambitious drama that explores the ostensibly strong bond between a bisexual couple (Jacob Schatz and Dani Hurtado) and how it's affected by the presence of a third party (Cody Shook). The film is, with the exception of a key segment in the middle, told entirely without the use of dialogue, a stylistic gambit that may take some getting used to but proves to be fairly effective. The only problem is that when it switches to conventional dialogue for about 15 minutes, the characters and the film become far less interesting and when it shifts back into silent mode, it's hard to recapture the mood of those early scenes. Although the film is not entirely successful in the end, it's an undeniably unique work that makes me curious to see what the filmmakers will do next. I also liked “My Love Affair with Marriage,” a largely handmade, adult-oriented animated feature from Signe Baumane. The film follows a girl named Zelma over the course 23 years as she seeks out the kind of perfect love that she has been biologically driven to find since childhood, and discovers that real life has something different in store for her. Funny, moving, and visually stunning throughout, it's easily one of the most distinct animated films I've seen in quite a while and it serves as a needed reminder that animation is an art form that can be used for more than family-oriented narratives.  "Cherry" Another exciting discovery was “Cherry,” Sophie Galibert’s charmer about an aimless 25-year-old woman (Alexandria Trewhitt in a wonderful performance) who discovers in the opening moments that she is 11 weeks pregnant and has only a little more than a day to decide what she is going to do. As she visits a number of people in her life to feel out their opinions, without letting on as to what is happening with her (except for when she reveals the pregnancy to the father-to-be in a scene that goes hilariously awry), we also see someone who we first saw as little more than an overgrown kid finally begin to grow up in front of our eyes in ways that are both dramatically convincing and enormously entertaining. Those looking for blood, guts and/or horror also had plenty to choose from as well. The Austrian entry “Family Dinner” finds overweight 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) off to spend Easter week with her famous nutritionist aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) at the remote farm she shares with her overly friendly fitness freak boyfriend (Michael Pink) and her annoying teen son Filipp (Alexander Sladek). Although initially irritated by her presence, Claudia takes Simi under her wing and has her participate in a pre-Easter fast from which only Filipp is exempt. Although I liked the performances from Katlein and Hierzegger, the film suffers from the fact that it's pretty obvious where writer/director Peter Hengel is heading with the story. When "Family Dinner" finally arrives at its conclusion, the reaction is not so much shock as a general sense of “It’s about time.” Far more interesting are Alex Thompson’s “Rounding” and Travis Stevens’ “A Wounded Fawn,” two films from up-and-coming directors (Thompson did the lovely and quite different “Saint Frances” and Stevens directed the horror favorites “Girl on the Third Floor” and “Jakob’s Wife”) that prove that they are indeed the real deal. “Rounding” tells the story of James (Namir Smallwood), an ambitious medical resident who, following a tragedy, transfers to a rural hospital in the hopes of getting a fresh start and developing the kind of proper bedside manner he currently lacks. When a young woman (Sidney Flanigan) is repeatedly admitted for seemingly inexplicable lung issues, James becomes convinced that something else is going on and is determined to prove that his suspicions are not just in his head. Although I could have lived without the stuff involving a gradually worsening ankle wound as a physical symbol of James’ inner torment, this is a smartly written and strongly acted story that will keep you in its grip from start to finish. The far more visceral “A Wounded Fawn” is an oddball horror-comedy hybrid that at times feels like what “The Evil Dead” might have been like if “American Psycho” central character Patrick Bateman had been the one in the cabin instead of the amiable Ash. Josh Ruben stars as Bruce, a seemingly suave art collector who also happens to be a serial killer driven by an inner demon that manifests itself as a giant owl. After an opening sequence in which he slaughters a woman who had the temerity to outbid him for a particular piece, we then seen him heading up to his remote cabin in the woods with his unsuspecting latest victim, Meredith (Sarah Lind). They have hardly arrived when odd things begin to happen, and this is when the film springs a number of surprises I will leave for you to discover. While I was somewhat mixed on Stevens' previous movies, this one is an unqualified success. "A Wounded Fawn" is funny, audacious, and grisly—often at the same time—and culminates in what I assure you is the single most memorable closing credits sequence to come along in a while. "The Integrity of Joseph Chambers" However, of all the narrative films that I saw, my favorite was “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” the latest collaboration from writer/director Robert Machoian and actor Clayne Crawford. Their previous effort, “The Killing of Two Lovers,” was a bleak but memorable drama of an ordinary guy whose determination to live up to an outdated code of masculinity leads to potentially disastrous consequences. This new film is an expansion on that theme, in which unassuming family man Joseph (Crawford) is determined that the only way to prove himself as a husband, father, and provider is to go out into the nearby woods alone in the hopes of hunting a deer despite having never done so before. Perhaps not surprisingly, things go very wrong, and Joseph is left to deal with the physical, emotional, and ethical consequences of a situation that is entirely of his own doing. Utilizing a spare storytelling approach augmented by intriguing stylistic devices and bolstered by a strong performance by Crawford, the film is a quietly powerful indictment of how even the most benign forms of toxic masculinity can lead to awful results for all involved. As good as “The Killing of Two Lovers” was, this film is even better. It will leave viewers shaken, moved, and eager to see what Machoian and Crawford come up with next. 

  • Strength in Softness: Olivia DeJonge on Elvis
    by Matt Fagerholm on June 27, 2022 at 1:30 PM

    It was a mere eleven years ago that Olivia DeJonge made her remarkable film debut in Maziar Lahooti’s prize-winning short, “Good Pretender,” which is well worth a look on YouTube. Since then, she has built an impressive array of credits on screens both big and small, perhaps most notably in two horror comedies that paired her with the ever-unpredictable Ed Oxenbould: M. Night Shyamalan’s best film of the past two decades, “The Visit,” and Chris Peckover’s gleefully perverse “Better Watch Out.” Yet 2022 is proving to be a watershed year for DeJonge. She is among the flawless ensemble in Antonio Campos’ spellbinding HBO miniseries, “The Staircase,” where she plays the biological daughter of Kathleen (Toni Collette), whose sudden cause of death serves as the program’s central mystery.  Now DeJonge is tackling the role of a true icon, Priscilla Presley, in Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited biopic, “Elvis,” which earned a staggering twelve-minute ovation at Cannes last month. Austin Butler delivers Oscar-caliber work in the title role, and DeJonge is every bit his equal in their scenes together, charting their relationship from the bloom of infatuation to the years following their divorce, in which they remained fiercely devoted to one another. The musical performances recall the exhilaration of Luhrmann’s 2001 masterpiece, “Moulin Rouge!”, as the director illustrates how Elvis awakened the sexuality in his screaming fans, with the camera thrusting toward his swiveling hips just as it flew up the dresses of the can-can dancers.  Amidst the film’s eventful press days in Memphis, DeJonge took time to speak via Zoom with about what she learned from researching Priscilla, the definitive qualities of Luhrmann’s work and her experience of falling head over heels for the film itself. Growing up in Australia, what do you feel distinguishes the work of Baz Luhrmann, and what is his importance to you and your fellow actors? We look up to him. When we were in Australia, they actually referred to him as “Australia’s son.” I think we all respect and cherish his work. I actually studied his “Romeo + Juliet” in ninth grade in media class, so being in “Elvis” is a strange full circle moment. He’s really very special and the films he makes are equally just that. Both Caitlin Atwater in “The Staircase” and Priscilla Presley in “Elvis” are in danger of being pushed to the background of the narratives they inhabit, and you succeed in making them multi-dimensional and wholly compelling on their own terms. What is the added responsibility as an actor of portraying real people? Thank you! I think that is true oftentimes with women. The thing that I really worried about was Priscilla coming off as two-dimensional in some regard because her aesthetic was so much of what she has been an icon for, which is so special and interesting to investigate in itself. For me, it was important to strip away the visual element and show how Priscilla and Elvis were, at the end of the day, a girl and a boy who fell in love. The hair and the makeup and the clothing was all taken care of, so once you’ve focused on the accent, then it’s just about finding nuance.  Before I was aware of Priscilla Presley’s connection with Elvis, I knew her as a brilliant deadpan comedian in the “Naked Gun” films.  I loved watching “The Naked Gun.” Another of my favorite things to look at was her book, Elvis and Me, in which she talks about how there was some crazy fan waiting outside in front of her house. She was so sick of it that she went out and was ready to throw hands with this woman. There’s this sort of dynamic to her which I feel oftentimes is overlooked, and it gave me leniency when it came to certain scenes to sort of bring the energy up. I made it a little bit more heightened or a bit more playful or in those last scenes, I got a bit more aggressive with it as well.  What was it like working with four-time Oscar-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin? Oh my god, I walked away from that job with a whole new respect for fashion, just full stop. Her attention to detail and appreciation for fit and cut and style was incredible. I didn’t realize the intricacies of the process that results in bringing a beautiful garment to life like that.  You mentioned in Cannes that “Elvis” was one of the best films you had seen. How would you describe the particular special quality of Baz’s work? There are very few directors that within the first few frames of a film, without knowing who made it, you can tell exactly who it is, and I think that’s such an homage to his authenticity and his sort of unapologetic nature. It is so special, and this is truly one of the best films that I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched it and it finished, I had a panic attack out of excitement because of how much I loved it. The honor that I felt to be even a small part in this huge film was overwhelming. It’s one of my favorite films that I’ve seen in a very long time.  I told the publicist upon leaving the press screening that no one really knows how to viscerally stage a musical sequence quite like Baz. I completely agree. I think Baz is as talented of a filmmaker as he is a musician. I think he has an incredible ear and obviously with a story like this, you need to have that. I think that tied with the visual storytelling element of it, which Mandy Walker handled so beautifully. It is a visceral experience that you can taste and you can touch and you feel like you’re there. With the surround sound as well, you feel this film in your soul. Even the Warner logo at the beginning received an audible gasp from the audience. That’s what I mean! I remember the first time I watched it, I got the tingles. I was like, “[gasps] Here we go!” I get very passionate talking about the swooping shots and the vastness of the sort of stratosphere that he creates. His film really is a whole other world.  It builds a great argument for why the big screen experience should not be limited solely to superhero blockbusters. Yes, and I think that is also what is so special about this film. We haven’t had a film like this that is so viscerally made that isn’t a superhero film. The narrative of this project and its ability to move an audience is so strong. I remember at Cannes, everybody was crying by the end of the film. I haven’t watched a film with a group of people where everybody by the end of it is so moved together as a collective. Olivia DeJonge describes to me how she felt the first time she saw “Elvis.” What was the most rewarding feedback you received from Priscilla after she viewed the film? Priscilla is a notoriously private person, so I am letting her steer the ship in what she wants to say. It’s sort of a strange thing watching somebody play you in a film, but by the end of the screening, we were holding hands and crying and that is, in and of itself, all that I could hope for. She said some beautiful, beautiful things and I feel very, very relieved.  I completely didn’t recognize Dacre Montgomery, who is someone I’ve interviewed in person, as Steve Binder in the film. Isn’t that crazy? It’s funny, I’ve known Dacre for a very long time, and we actually worked on another movie together years ago, “Better Watch Out.” That was his debut movie, and it was pre-“Stranger Things” and pre-“Power Rangers,” We were like, “Maybe one day we’ll get a movie where we’ve got a proper scene together,” but it was really nice having him around. He’s so great and he’s wonderful in the film too. Steve directed Priscilla’s 1984 video tour of Graceland, which you watched as part of your research. In what ways did that help you prepare for the role? It helped me with getting used to the way that she speaks, or even just the softness in which she navigates the world. I wasn’t as accustomed to that way of moving, maybe because I’m Australian, so it was important for me to watch that, as well as listen to her as I was going to bed. I also worked a lot with Polly Bennett, our movement coach, to sort of physicalize that tone and vibe. To paraphrase one of Ava DuVernay’s favorite questions, what do you hope people see in your film in regards to Priscilla? I think that the grounding that she brought to Elvis’s life was paramount to his success early on. This film addresses the sort of male-dominated, very masculine and heavy sort of life that he was in, and Priscilla brought a softness and a femininity to him and his world, as well as the notion of family. After he lost his mother, that aspect of his life wasn’t there anymore. By birthing their child, she brought family home to him again, and I think that’s a really special aspect to their relationship as well. There is strength in softness. That is a huge thing that I, as a young woman, took away from the shooting experience and I hope that other people do too. "Elvis" is now playing in theaters.

  • Meet the Writers of Black Writers Week 2022
    by Chaz Ebert on June 24, 2022 at 8:22 PM

    The following article contains all of the bios and headshots for's inaugural Black Writers Week writers and participants, headed by our Editor-in-Chief, Chaz Ebert, and arranged alphabetically according to the following categories: guest editors, Profiles in Courage subjects, panelists and contributors.—The Editors EDITOR-In-CHIEF CHAZ EBERT   Chaz Ebert is the CEO of Ebert Digital LLC, which publishes the movie review site, She produces television and movies, and co-founded the Ebertfest Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, with her late husband, Pulitzer-prize winner, Roger Ebert. She awards The Golden Thumb and Ebert Humanitarian Awards at Ebertfest, and at the Toronto and Chicago International Film Festivals to filmmakers who exhibit an unusually compassionate view of the world. As president of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation her civic passions include programs to help break the glass ceiling for women and people of color, and to provide education and arts for women, children and families.  She also supports programs with a global interest in encouraging empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. She has provided grants to support films with strong social justice themes, and also encourages and supports emerging writers, filmmakers, and technologists with her endowment of scholarships, internships or awards at the Sundance Film Festival,  Film Independent Spirit Awards - Project Involve, the University of Illinois Ebert Fellowships,  the Hawaii International Film Festival-Young Critics Program, the Telluride Ebert/TFF University Seminars, the Chicago International Film Festival- Ebert Director Awards, and the Columbia College Links Journalism Awards in conjunction with the Chicago Urban League.  She is an executive producer of 3 recently acclaimed films: "Passing," directed by Rebecca Hall; "A Most Beautiful Thing," directed by Mary Mazzio; and "Mr. Soul!", directed by Melissa Haizlip. She is also an executive producer of the New Works Virtual Festival to assist in raising funds for The Actors Fund, a charitable organization supporting performers and behind-the-scenes workers in entertainment, helping over 17,000 people each year. Previously as an attorney she was named Lawyer of the Year by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. She was named the 2019 Beethoven Laureate for being "a humanist who promotes justice and a better world through the arts"; by the International Beethoven Project. She is a life trustee of the Art Institute and serves on the boards of the Lyric Opera, the Abraham Lincoln Library Foundation, After School Matters, the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, the Honorary Board of Family Focus, and the Advisory Board of Facets Multimedia. Some of her professional affiliations include the African American Film Critics Association,the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Intros: Meet the Guest Editors of Black Writers Week 2022, Preview: Black Writers Week 2022 Kicks off on Juneteenth, Runs Through Sunday, June 26th, An Introduction to Black Writers Week 2022 Features: 15 African-American Filmmakers and Roger Ebert's Birthday Retrospective Reviews, Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee on Race, Adoption and Identity Interview: His Life Mattered: Director Nadia Hallgren and Attorney Ben Crump on CIVIL Republished Feature: Jason and Yvonne Lee's Lagralane Spirits Podcast Welcomes Chaz Ebert and Brenda Robinson GUEST EDITORS DANIELLE SCRUGGS  Danielle A. Scruggs (she/her) is a photographer, photo editor, and writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She is also the founder and editor of Black Women Directors, an online digital library highlighting the work of Black women and non-binary filmmakers throughout the Diaspora. She has written about art, culture, and film for, The Triibe, Ebony, Essence, Teen Vogue, The Chicago Reader and Feature: Subscribe to the Black Women Directors Newsletter ROBERT DANIELS Robert Daniels is a freelance film critic based in Chicago with a MA in English.  He’s the founder of 812filmreviews, and had freelance bylines in The New York Times, in the Los Angeles Times, at, at Polygon, and at The Playlist. He has written widely  about Black American pop culture and issues of representation in film and television. Reviews: Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe, Elvis, Mind Over Murder Interview: I Have to Love My Characters: Peter Strickland on Flux Gourmet Republished Reviews: Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, Neptune Frost SERGIO MIMS  Sergio Mims is a film critic and journalist and is the host and producer of the weekly Bad Mutha’ Film Show WHPK-FM (88.5PM Chicago) a screenwriter and appears every week on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing Network. He is also the co-founder and co-programmer of the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago which is one of the largest black festivals in the world and which this year will be celebrating its 27th continuum year.  A former member of the Director's Guild of America as an assistant director both here in Chicago and Los Angeles and Mims is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and is also a commentator for Blu-ray DVDs for Vinegar Syndrome, Scorpion Releasing, Imprint Films, Kino Lorber and Arrow Films. Feature: Considering Easy To Get: World War II Army Training Films, Segregation, Black Uplift and VD CONTRIBUTORS MACK BATES At the ripe age of 12, award-winning writer and aspiring filmmaker Mack Bates announced that he wanted to be “the black Peter Jennings.” This followed his earlier desire to be an astronaut and a cowboy. He’s sat through SpaceCamp, more times than he cares to share, and thanks to his tenure as a boy scout, has lassoed a steer or two. Journalism indeed beckoned, and Mack has written for a variety of publications and outlets since high school, including JUMP, the Leader, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and ReelTalk Movie Reviews. Mack has won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club in both the collegiate and professional divisions dating back to 1999.  In 2013, he became the first writer to win the press club’s “best critical review” award in both competitive divisions. Also in 2013, Mack was among a group of adult mentors and teens who took part in the 2012 Milwaukee Summer Entertainment Camp to be honored by the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the group behind the Emmy Awards) with a Crystal Pillar Award for excellence in high school television production. Feature: Silver Screen Approved: The Top 5 Actors from Hip-Hop BIJAN BAYNE Born in Boston, Bijan C. Bayne is an award-winning Washington-based freelance columnist and critic, and author of Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, which was named to the Suggested Reading List of the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004. The book is also cited in “Booktalks Plus: Motivating Teens to Read” by Lucy Schall, and was named a Suggested Book of Interest by the organization Teachers Network, in 2010. He is also the author of the first biography of basketball hero Elgin Baylor. Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball, was named a Book That Inspires, by the Christian Science Monitor, and one of the Most 25 Inspiring Books of 2015, by Conversations Book Club.  His book Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race & Class, was named a Must Read, by BET. In 2016 he served as a grants panelist for the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. In October 2016, he will present on the panel, Black Humor: Reflections on an American Tradition at the University of New Hampshire’s annual Black New England Conference. At the BNEC 2015, Bayne participated on two panels, one contrasting the film 42 with 1949’s The Jackie Robinson Story, the other on early Black sports in New England. In July 2002, Bayne, who speaks Spanish, won the Robert Peterson Research Award for his presentation “The Struggle of the Latin American Ballplayer”, given at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. On April 14, 2011, The Jackie Robinson Society of The George Washington University honored Bayne with ”…a teaching award in appreciation of your many years of special contribution to GW students through your participation in the Jackie Robinson Lecture Series and the class, ‘Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, And The American Dream’. He served as public relations coordinator for the first Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Festival (August 2011). Bayne is a project adviser for a documentary film about Martha’s Vineyard (A Sense of Place). Feature: TV's Rural Craze & The Civil Rights Movement SHAWN EDWARDS Shawn Edwards is a journalist, TV and film producer and marketing and event consultant. As a nationally recognized film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City, Missouri he has won numerous national awards including Best TV Film Critic twice by the LA Press Club's National Entertainment Journalism Awards.  Edwards co-founded the African American Film Critics Association in 2003, and produces their annual award show that takes place annually in LA.  He is also on the Board of the Critics Choice Association. Edwards created and executive produces 'A Celebration of Black Cinema' in conjunction with the Critics Choice Association which premiered in 2014 in Los Angeles at the House of Blues Sunset and aired nationally in 2021. Edwards also created iloveblackmovies in 2008, the popular social media film community. He also published a digital book in 2019 celebrating 100 years of black filmmaking. Edwards has produced numerous TV shows and documentaries for FGW Productions and BlackTree TV, both based in Los Angeles. Edwards currently works at Hidden Empire Film Group (“Black and Blue,” “The Intruder” and “Fatale”), based in Los Angeles, as a Senior Marketing Specialist. He is a life-long lover of movies who began making his own films in the 7th grade. Feature: Tyler Perry Loves Black Women ANDRÉ HAMMEL, ESQ. André Hammel, Esq., has been a family lawyer for over a decade.  He created Biadvo to provide co-parents with information and cost-effective resources to independently develop or modify co-parenting plans and agreements.  Feature: The Great Adventure of Raising a Family in Another Country ODIE HENDERSON Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent over 33 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here. A lover of film noir, musicals, Blaxploitation, bad art and good trash, Odie has been a Far Flung Correspondent since 2011. He has written for Slant Magazine's The House Next Door blog since 2006. He is the troublemaker responsible for the Black History Mumf series at Big Media Vandalism. His work has also appeared in The Village Voice, Vulture, Cineaste Magazine, MovieMezzanine, Movies Without Pity, Salon, and of course, here at In 2013, Odie entered the world of film festival programming, presenting 9 movies at the Off Plus Film Festival in Krakow, Poland. Based in the NYC area, Odie enjoys writing code almost as much as he enjoys writing prose. Something is wrong with that guy. Review: Citizen Ashe, The Man from Toronto Republished Reviews: Attica, CIVIL, Lightyear, Passing JEWEL IFEGUNI Jewel Ifeguni is a Producer, Speaker, Writer, Director, and TV Host committed to building an inclusive world through media and tech. In 2021, she was named one of the 50 Women to Watch in Entrepreneurship - Women Doing it Big. Jewel was born in Nigeria and came to America at a very young age. Her specific experiences of racism, especially in the tech world, inspired her to create her own Media company, YouMatter Studios at the age of 19. She is currently a Technical PM at Microsoft, with former software engineering experience at Microsoft and Google. All while, leading her company that is responsible for award-wining content & driving key conversations. She is currently the Executive Producer of the upcoming DocuSeries How We Got Here.  Her other producing, directing, and writing credits include: The Drive, (A six-time festival award-winning VR film.) We Will Slay, (A short film on women's empowerment.) and The Story of Sandra Bland, (A VR short film, honoring Sandra Bland and her experience at the hands of injustice.) Feature: Black Representation in Youth Dramas - Degrassi Case Study CRAIG D. LINDSEY Craig D. Lindsey is a writer, critic and Dame Helen Mirren fan who has written for Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, The AV Club, Nashville Scene, Village Voice, Vulture, and other publications & outlets. He lives in Houston, Texas. Review: Flux Gourmet DAVID MOSES David Moses is a California based actor and writer who remains actively involved in the analysis of the performances of actors, the craft and technique of the character of film through blogs, vlogs and panel discussions.  An actor for 13 years, a writer all his life and even a stand up comic for 5, he extends a sense of humor and the actors perspective to each of his write-ups and commentary on film; from TV to the big/silver screen. In his spare time David continues to hone his skills in his other interest, as a sketch artist, or spends time with his close-knit brothers & family or friends.  Review: Loot Wastes the Talents of Maya Rudolph SHELLI NICOLE Shelli Nicole is a Detroit-born freelance writer currently living in Chicago, IL. Her work is often personal narratives on Blackness, queerness, and pop culture and has been featured in Vogue, Autostraddle, Thrillist, and many others.  She is terrified of mermaids & teenagers and you can find her on Twitter at @Hishelli screaming about both. Review: FX's The Bear Feels Like a New Chicago Classic SHERIN NICOLE Sherin Nicole is a writer, an author, and may also be a covert agent. There are whispers the CIA offered her a scholarship to college (but that's classified). After graduating from Howard University she worked in a variety of creative spheres, before returning to grow the radio upstart she helped to launch. By day, she's an agent provocateur as chief creative officer at idobi Network. By night, she writes for and produces content for geeks and nerds alike on the Geek Girl Riot radio show, as well as for publications like,, and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ). She is also a Black Reel Awards voter. Culturally, Sherin is half American, half British, and very southern; right down to the accent and love of grits. Government reports show a residence in DC but Sherin spends most of her time on the astral plane and hopes to meet you there.  Feature: Common Grounds and Various Teas IFE OLATUNJI Ife is a visual anthropologist, documentary filmmaker, and film critic. Born into a family of artist and activist she graduated from Syracuse University with a BA in Anthropology, (06) with a minor in photography and African American History. Ife completed her MA in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester, UK (10) after creating a short documentary on daily life for girls in Rajasthan India. Ife has since lived in Chicago, teaching documentary and film production to youth as young as 6 years old through college at community centers and The Art Institute of Wisconsin.  For the past four years she has been a Media Educator with Facets Multimedia, teaching media literacy, narrative editing, and documentary filmmaking. As a Diverse Voices in Documentary fellow with Kartemquin, Ife developed her own short observational film, and worked with others to produce and edit their projects. Ife has continued to work with The Community Film Workshop and Reel Black Filmmakers to host local screenings, and the Collected Voices, Chicago's Ethnographic Film Fest. Feature: How to Get Your Independent Film to a Wider Audience ERIC PIERSON  Expanding media literacy is philosophical glue that holds together Professor Pierson’s multiple strands of scholarly and creative work. He strives to create work which reflect academic rigor while also being accessible to those outside of the university setting. Professor Pierson’s work appears in a wide variety of venues as he strives to reach diverse audiences, some of the venues where you find his work are academic journals, edited book collections, film festival panels, and museum exhibits.  Feature: Film Festivals as High Impact Learning REGINALD PONDER Reggie Ponder, The Reel Critic, can be heard each Friday on WBEW 91.1 FM Chicago/ He is the resident film critic for The Garfield/Lawndale Voice in  Chicago and has several radio/internet segments designed to elevate Black voices in film.  His latest project is The Reel Critic Roundtable @, a weekly showcase featuring four African American critics discussing film, TV and industry news. His work can also be found at various publications - most recently Variety Magazine. Reggie is member of the African-American Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Awards. Review: Money Heist: Korea Pulls Off a Daring TV Caper TAJ RANI Taj Rani is a producer, content creator and host with a decade of experience in the digital media space having worked for brands such as BET, Essence and Red Table Talk, and with talent such as Danyel Smith, Janelle Monáe and Amanda Seales. She is currently the Producer for Smart Funny & Black Productions and one of Amanda Seales' co-hosts on Smart Funny & Black Radio on LOL Radio/SiriusXM. An alumna of Syracuse University’s  S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Taj is passionate about combining her love of pop culture, history and storytelling through the Black lens to ensure that Black stories never are lost or go untold. When Taj isn’t creating, she can be found getting her yoga and meditation on, spending quality time with her tribe, and enjoying old school music on her drives through L.A. Feature: Video: That's That On That Spotlights Moms Mabley and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds CARLA RENATA Carla Renata aka The Curvy Film Critic™ is a graduate of Howard University and named one of 2018’s Underrepresented Critics of Color by the Los Angeles Times. Her reviews, articles and/or op-ed's have been featured at,,, her own site The Curvy Film Critic, ET Live! Maltin on Movies,, as well as Shadow and Act, EUR Web, FOX 11-LA, Good Day LA and Variety. She is a highly sought after host/moderator who had the privilege to host an evening of The Black Experience on Film for Turner Classic Movies sponsored by AAFCA, Q&A's for Bentonville Film Festival, Netflix, SAG-AFTRA, American Cinematheque, Lionsgate, Film Independent and more. Being a proud member of AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association), (OAFFC) The Online Association of Female Film Critics, (AWFJ) Alliance of Female Journalists, Tomatometer approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of (CCA) Critics Choice Association. The Curvy Critic with Carla Renata streams LIVE every Sunday 5pm PST via YouTube featuring reviews, news and interviews with stars in front and behind the camera. Review: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On Feature: How Microaggressions Toward Black Journalists Continue to Hold Everyone Back PEYTON ROBINSON I'm a columnist and contributor for Film School Rejects, and was a staff writer an editor for Film Daze. I write essays and reviews on the relationship between film and the human condition. Review: The Black Phone NIANI SCOTT Niani Scott is a recent graduate with a degree in Journalism and a specialization in African Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.She served as the President of the NABJ Illinois Chapter and has fostered media production skills by Executive Producing a docu-series on the Black experience on her college campus and co-hosting a college-based podcast, "Get To Know Ni." As a journalism major, she aims to leverage a proven knowledge of media skills to tell authentic stories for and about underrepresented groups. She has traveled throughout South Africa, Ghana, and Eswatini, inspiring her to dig deeper and go further in her journalistic pursuits. Review: Beba Feature: How We Can Use Technology to Connect with the World JOURDAIN SEARLES  Jourdain Searles is a writer, film critic and performer who hails from Georgia and is currently living in New York City. She has written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Sight & Sound, Vulture and many other publications. Additionally, she is the co-host of Bad Romance, a weekly film podcast.  Review: Apples KAIYA SHUNYATA  Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance pop culture journalist based in Canada. They are currently the Creative Director at Obscur Media, and they have written for Next Best Picture, Adolescent, Screen Queens and more.  Feature: The Antagonism of Blackness in Netflix's Stranger Things ARAMIDE TINUBU Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire, and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide. Review: Rise Feature: A New Class Of Filmmakers: ABFF and HBO Short Film Award Finalists Bring Their Stories To Life Interview: The Work of Joy: Chanté Adams and Will Graham on A League of Their Own BRANDON TOWNS Brandon Towns is a multidisciplinary artist working in still photography, motion picture, and design. His work explores relevant themes within the black community such as cultural identity, gentrification, police brutality, and gun violence. He received his Bachelor of Science in advertising with a minor in photography in 2020 from Bradley University. He is the first Bradley University student to be the recipient of the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program Fellowship or MAIP in 2019. He was also one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism in 2018.  Review: Facing Nolan Feature: I Think I Made a Bad Movie BRANDON DAVID WILSON Brandon Wilson is a filmmaker and lecturer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he attended UCLA where he took a B.A. in African-American Studies and an M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Wilson has directed two micro-budget features: 2005’s The Man Who Couldn’t... which is on YouTube and Sepulveda from 2016 which is streaming for free on Vimeo.  Wilson has taught Film Analysis for Filmmakers and Introduction to Editing courses at UCLA. He also teaches at Columbia College Hollywood, Los Angeles Valley College, NYU’s Los Angeles Branch, and Long Beach City College where he teaches classes on auteur filmmakers, national cinemas, the essay film, and diversity in cinema.  Feature: The Legacy of Gen-X Black Filmmakers

  • Video: That's That On That Spotlights Moms Mabley and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds
    by Chaz Ebert on June 24, 2022 at 8:18 PM

    As part of Black Writers Week 2022, we are pleased to present two episodes of Taj Rani's web series, "That's That On That," which spotlight the legendary comedian Moms Mabley and singer/songwriter Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Rani is a producer, content creator and host with a decade of experience in the digital media space having worked for brands such as BET, Essence and Red Table Talk, and with talent such as Danyel Smith, Janelle Monáe and Amanda Seales. She is currently the Producer for Smart Funny & Black Productions and one of Amanda Seales' co-hosts on Smart Funny & Black Radio on LOL Radio/SiriusXM. Enjoy!—Chaz Ebert

  • The Man From Toronto
    by Odie Henderson on June 24, 2022 at 2:21 PM

    Teddy (Kevin Hart), the protagonist of Netflix’s “The Man From Toronto,” is an irritating, motormouthed, underachieving idiot. Anyone who can spend more than ten minutes with him deserves a medal for patience. Director Patrick Hughes’ latest is both 112 minutes, and a hodgepodge of so many other movies that it becomes the most obnoxious of cinematic collages. The signposts on this journey include the darkly comic hitman thriller, the goofy loser trying to prove himself underdog flick, the stand-up comedian vanity project, the mistaken identity plot and the violent actioner. It’s the kind of venture that only strengthens my conspiracy theory that many Netflix films are created solely to be played in the background while viewers fold laundry or vacuum the cat hair off their IKEA furniture. You could walk away from this movie every ten minutes and not miss anything when you returned. Baldheaded Woody Harrelson plays the titular Torontonian, a very effective hitman whose vicious reputation for torturing precedes him. We see him plying his trade in an early scene. Hired to extract information by any means necessary, The Man From Toronto (as he is credited) displays an impressive array of cutlery in front of his prey before monologuing his origin story. See, when he was a young boy being raised “on a frozen lake 500 miles from nowhere,” his grandfather was suddenly attacked by a grizzly bear. The bear made mincemeat of Grandpa while his grandson watched from afar. Pleading for mercy once the torture begins will have no effect; any empathy the hitman had died on that frozen lake. The story works—the guy confesses and is granted a much quicker death than his silence would have bought. The Man From Toronto takes orders from a woman his phone refers to as the “Handler.” The film initially plays coy with her identity, but her distinctive voice immediately identifies the actor who plays her. The Handler (as she is credited) has men in other locations: Miami, Tokyo, Moscow, and so on. She’ll eventually call on them when she thinks her man in Toronto has gone rogue. These guys have massive egos and apparently live in the shadow of their Canadian co-worker. The Miami guy (Pierson Fode), first seen beating a man to death with a golf club, seems to have a pre-existing beef that keeps him turning up every so often like a bad penny. So much for the darkly comic hitman thriller plot element. The underachiever story comes from Teddy. He is such a screwup that his patient, loving wife, Lori (Jasmine Mathews) tells him her firm uses his name to describe when someone botches something. “You’re a verb!” she says with glee. We see her husband repeatedly “teddying” in the sequence of YouTube workout videos that open “The Man From Toronto.” At least Hart is diesel enough to pull off playing a guy advertising weight training items like the “TeddyBand” (which pops and slaps him in the face) and the “TeddyBar,” a pull-up rack whose workout consists of its user being accidentally crushed under the falling equipment. Teddy’s latest pitch is to his boxing ring boss, Marty, who has kept him on despite the fact the marketing brochures Teddy made don’t mention the address of the gym. Lori thinks her man’s latest idea has merit, which makes me question her common sense. Teddy wants to promote “no-contact” boxing, a cardio workout where people throw punches but no one gets hit. Back in my amateur training days, we called it “shadow boxing,” but what do I know? I’m an old man and woefully out of touch with the ideas of today’s young whippersnappers. Marty is also old—he thinks it’s the dumbest idea he’s ever heard. Teddy is so incompetent he can’t even do a simple task like planning a special evening for his wife’s birthday. Of course, the high stakes on his current attempt will be made even higher. This brings us to the mistaken identity plot. Thanks to “low toner” in his printer, Teddy misidentifies the address of the cabin he has rented for Lori’s birthday excursion. People say “low toner” so many times in “The Man from Toronto” that a drinking game could be based on it. Unfortunately, Teddy’s mistake leads him to the one cabin in Onancock, Virginia that contains someone The Man From Toronto was supposed to torture. The guys think they hired Teddy. All Hell breaks loose, as expected, when the real deal shows up. You know what happens next. Through tenets of Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plot theory, TMFT is stuck with Teddy as he maneuvers his way through the hitman story. For reasons I don’t have enough word count to explain, the FBI is also pressuring Teddy to put himself in harm’s way. Meanwhile, the FBI is keeping Lori busy by having her dragged on shopping sprees and spa visits by a sexy male agent she believes is acting on Teddy’s behalf. None of this is remotely believable because the screenplay by Robbie Fox and Chris Bremner consistently has Teddy saying and doing things that no one in his position would be dumb enough to do. Hart is a master of talking his way out of situations, so this should have yielded comic benefits. But not even his stand-up skills can make this dialogue work. All this leads to the violent actioner section, where Hughes does that godawful speeding up technique that makes following everything virtually impossible. Along the way, Teddy and the Man from Toronto bond in macho yet sensitive fashion while the person who ordered this on Netflix discovers a hairball too big to vacuum up. You know a film’s in trouble when it can’t be saved by a rocket launcher-toting Ellen Barkin. Looking as great and powerful as ever, Barkin lays waste to numerous cars, incinerating them in impressive Joel Silver-worthy fireballs. Too bad she couldn’t have aimed that thing at this movie. On Netflix today. 

  • Tyler Perry Loves Black Women
    by Shawn Edwards on June 24, 2022 at 2:17 PM

    Tyler Perry is no stranger to criticism. Filmmaker and culture provocateur Spike Lee famously held a grievance toward Perry, saying that he reinforced racial stereotypes. Perry is also often accused of hating Black women, selling out Black women, and trafficking in tropes that mostly demean Black women. Most of these complaints center on his Madea character, which Perry bombastically plays in drag, a combination of his mother and favorite aunt–two women who had a huge impact on him. But all the criticism misses how much he has done in the continuing fight for representation.  Historically, Black men in drag have been problematic. In a world in which Black men are often emasculated, the practice of dressing in drag comes across as a self-induced wound. The practice wouldn’t be as detrimental if there were better representation of Black men in the movies and on TV. The fact that Perry has leaned so hard into the practice is seen at best as detrimental and at worst a betrayal. However, if you look beyond the fact that Perry has earned a billion dollars mostly from laughs generated by putting on a dress and pretending to be an overly loud and playfully obnoxious matriarch figure, you’ll see that he has very slyly and cleverly positioned himself on the front lines of the fight for diversity in Hollywood, and has centered and highlighted stories of Black women throughout his career. As the creator and producer of a different MCU (the Madea Cinematic Universe), Perry has produced a shocking amount of content in a relatively short amount of time celebrating stories that Hollywood often ignores.  The mogul who built his own production complex, on a former Confederate military base in Atlanta, just to add even more brazen context to the situation, has directed 23 feature films and created multiple scripted series. At the center of nearly every movie and TV show Perry cranks off of his assembly-line is a Black woman. Perry consistently hires Black women of all hues, ages, and sexual orientation. He invites cinematic legends, A-list movie stars, Oscar winners, R&B superstars, high-profile comedians, and up-and-coming social media influencers to his cinematic parties.  Hip hop mogul and sometime rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs famously once said, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” That pretty much sums up Perry who is constantly providing Black women not only with opportunities to shine on screen and on TV but a livelihood. Perry writes checks and lots of scripts. The script writing has also been a point of contention as Perry is often condemned for being a man who writes so many stories about the female experience. Perry always defends his tactic by stating how he was raised and heavily influenced by his mother and favorite aunt, allowing their voices to come through in his work. Perry is a hands-on filmmaker who tightly controls his cinematic empire. He works fast, mostly with moderate budgets. Yes, his films usually turn a profit, but Perry has demonstrated limited range with his storytelling abilities. When he has ventured off his usual path the results have been mixed at best.  For Perry’s audience, seeing themselves out weighs the quality of his productions, and that’s reflected in his critical reception. Perry's aesthetic isn’t crafted for white men who are mostly disconnected from the culture that Perry allows to shine on screen. Even the Black film critics that sharply attack usually do so from an intellectual perch that just doesn’t matter to his audience. It’s not about reviews and everything about the affirmation of seeing yourself represented. Black women are underrepresented when it comes to being cast in movies and on TV shows. Despite the huge sums of money spent on this research, effectively nothing has changed. The status quo has remained the same since the creation of Hollywood. Civil Rights organizations have pushed and gingerly fought for inclusion for decades with lackluster results. Even today’s tech savvy and social media dependent millennials tried, most famously with a hollow hashtag campaign (#OscarSoWhite) in 2015 that generated more notoriety for the creator of the hashtag than more roles for Black women. Even The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences led by then-president Cheryl Boone Isaacs pushed for more opportunities for Black women but their efforts mostly led to bloating its membership with new members. That’s good for selecting who potentially wins an Oscar. However, if roles aren’t written for Black women and if Black women aren’t cast, it doesn’t matter how diverse the Academy membership is at the end of the day.  Perry burst onto the scene in 2005 with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” a film that featured Kimberly Elise, Lisa Marcos, and Cicely Tyson. The movie was also an immediate "clap back" at the lack of representation in Hollywood stories that has long been a prevalent and ongoing issue. The formula used to produce “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” would become Perry’s template: Utilize his Madea character as the marketing conduit to lure audiences to the multiplex while letting the women characters, usually Black, carry the actual narrative across the finish line. Copy and paste–box office hit after box office hit.  This template was a slam dunk for every movie featuring the Madea character. In his movies not featuring Madea the formula of success was a bit more difficult but still successful. An example of this was “Why Did I Get Married?” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” Neither film benefitted from an appearance from the Madea character but both were moderately profitable and featured a cavalcade of Black women, including iconic pop star Janet Jackson. Perry reintroduced the world to the brilliance of legendary thespian Cicely Tyson, helped Angela Bassett get her groove back, provided refuge for Thandiwe Newton, pulled Keshia Knight Pulliam from the ashes of “The Cosby Show,” and gave Taraji P. Henson her first leading role. Perry also launched unknown Black actresses to Black household super stardom. R&B/Neo soul singer Jill Scott, gospel artist Tamela Mann and Tasha Scott all instantly became "Black famous." Black women have had a troubled and complicated relationship with Hollywood since day one. Perry burst on the scene with a non-traditional game plan that has benefited Black women primarily in front of the camera.  Representation is important in front and behind the camera. Nonetheless, we all know that it’s in front that matters most when shattering perceptions. The masses that watch movies and TV shows only know and care about what they see. Very few are interested in the behind-the-scenes mechanics.  The powers that have always controlled Hollywood made Black women irrelevant. Perry has done the opposite. Often cast as just domesticants, sex workers, and unfit mothers, Black women have not had the same opportunities because most stories aren’t written with their inclusion in mind. All of Perry’s movies, written mostly by him, are unapologetically female-centric and show Black women as professionals, lovers, and mothers. Should representation warrant a "free-pass?" No, it would admittedly be nice to see Perry show growth or at the very least provide an opportunity for other filmmakers and storytellers to tell his stories. But history should acknowledge that, Perry continues to fight for representation. The legendary Black actresses he has elevated and launched speak for themselves. In their faces, audience members find joy and adulation. It feels good to be seen.

  • Loot Wastes the Talents of Maya Rudolph
    by David Moses on June 24, 2022 at 2:17 PM

    As we open the new Maya Rudolph vehicle "Loot," premiering today on Apple TV+, we see her character whooshing down a lake in a speedboat with her husband (Adam Scott) to her new birthday present: a yacht. They exchange light banter in great clothes and the camera goes to great lengths to show the gawdiness of this ornate monstrosity through a jittery close up. It all sets the tone for "Loot," a combination of irony and satire looking for poignancy it never finds. “Loot” is distractingly indecisive in terms of representation and POV. Anything in the show approaching sharpness or honesty ends up fatigued by the storytelling version of people-pleasing. Like so many shows and films before it, “Loot” struggles with how to frame the rich without making them heroes. They also struggle with finding a way to show that luxury clearly exists around these people but not to make it a star. The boat in “Loot” doesn’t feel as ridiculous and superfluous as it should, and even a couple of throwaway lines about how they might use the smaller pool (“which is larger than our average pool”) for dogs doesn’t quite get to the heart of why these lavish expenditures are so disgusting. There are attempts at accountability, but they falter when the show is trying so hard to A.) Show us how much fun it is to have money, and B.) Reestablish Molly’s humanity, and C.) Tell it through the funnel of a show that feels in tone more like “Black-ish” than “Shameless.”  Molly Novak (Maya Rudolph) is a woman who has it all, until she doesn’t. As she spirals from finding out about her husband's side piece, it will be poor people that lift her spirits and teach her the meaning of life, of course, after Molly takes her wealth and starts a charitable foundation with it. Well, it’s not so much a spiral as a tumble. Nothing in this show is as drastic as a spiral.  Despite its use of profanity, “Loot” feels like a sitcom more than anything. Considering its subject matter, it feels surprisingly small in scale, paced in a similar fashion, and it wraps up very meaty subject matter with a very neat bow. Several of Molly's PR debacles are worth a season of reflection, discussion, and evolution, but they're magically resolved in less time than it takes the episode to finish. Backlash in this show is almost never explored in any meaningful fashion and it anchors the show down in its sugary safe confines, a place where Maya Rudolph can no more shine than Eddie Murphy in “Daddy Day Care.”  Maya Rudolph is one of the most agile entertainers working today. Her elastic face, saucer-sized eyes and boundless charm given the right material would make her every bit the equal of other expressionist like Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Robin Williams. But Hollywood continues to not take advantage of her talents. As for the ensemble: Joel Kim Booster, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, and character actor Caitlin Reilly show exactly why they've become hot commodities recently. Rodriguez has a particular ability with showing determination and the nature of being undeterred that works well with what is asked of her character. She is also in command of her facial expressions in a way that defies explanation at times. Joel Kim Booster's petulance is as delicious as I imagine some of those prepared meals are, and Caitlin Reilly does a lot with that faux smile perfected by so many "Real Housewives of Wherever." But these same actors are stifled and asphyxiated by the scripts' need to inundate us with Twitter jargon and the rather cutesy proportion of people around Rudolph's incredibly rich personality.  Every character is so finely tuned that there is no tension. In particular, Nat Faxon’s Arthur feels far too adjusted. There's been an uptick in these kinds of perfectly agreeable, understanding, deprecating white men who are "with us all the way" and understand exactly how to back up and let others take the lead while somehow still finding a way to be centered. Kathryn VanArendonk wrote a fantastic piece on the issue of TV’s struggle with what to do with white men and “Loot” is a continuation of that. Arthur is always saying exactly the right thing, he follows "The Squad," he makes fun of his own whiteness, and he's a patient listener—all of this is nice but not interesting. The problem with Faxon’s character is directly related to the overall problem of the show. It seems so hellbent on likability that it eschews actual growth.  The critical failing of “Loot” is that it wants to serve two masters, maybe even more. It wants us to empathize with literally everyone involved, and it wants you to know what money can do for you. It highlights its power to enact change, but it doesn't concern itself nowhere near enough with accountability for the hoarding of it, or for these people's complete lack of any connection to reality. When Molly wants to show up to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a community center in a fleet of luxury vehicles, it is merely played for its comedy rather than for the serious underpinnings of how grossly callous a decision it is.  What’s left gives us nothing of the things we might want from a show like this with this much talent. We don't get a show that incisively outlines the boundaries between race, class, gender, wealth or sexual orientation. And we don't get a show in which we get to marvel at all of the abilities any of us who've been watching Maya Rudolph since her days at “Saturday Night Live” know that she has. Regardless of all the horrible things that happened to Maya's character within the show, the greatest crime of “Loot” is how much it fails its leading lady. The first three episodes of "Loot" are now streaming on Apple TV+. 

  • Money Heist: Korea Pulls Off a Daring TV Caper
    by Reginald Ponder on June 24, 2022 at 2:16 PM

    The details matter and then, somehow, they really don’t in Netflix’s new upcoming series “Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area.” Similar to its predecessor, “Money Heist,” the team here relies on specific details for pulling off the heist and yet, somehow ignores the little things when it comes to team chemistry and cohesion. The combination can be alluring and somewhat off-putting at the same time, leading to a thrilling drama that keeps viewers guessing. For a heist story to captivate an audience there must be a team capable of pulling it off, a prize of mammoth proportions, a location almost impossible to penetrate, and a plan worth believing. “Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area” has all of this and more. In this Korean action drama series, the robbers take advantage of the unification of North and South Korea and the creation of a new currency. The plan is to break into the mint, feign a robbery, ensure that there are no fatalities, and buy enough time to print a ridiculous amount of money—enough to allow each robber to live the life of their dreams.   The team is led by a man only known as the Professor (Yoo Ji-tae). Most of the robbers are strangers to each other and each robber takes the name of a city to keep it that way. There is Belin (Park Hae-soo), Moscow (Lee Won-jong), Denver (Kim Ji-hun), Nairobi (Jang Yoon-ju), Rio (Lee Hyun-woo), Helsinki (Kim Ji-hoon), and Oslo (Lee Kyu-ho), each with specific skills and expertise. At the core of the story is Tokyo (Jun Jong-seo), a young lady who left North Korea with the hope and promise of what a unified country might bring. Unfortunately, she falls on hard times and is “rescued” by The Professor as a recruit for this caper. Having Tokyo as a narrator and central character is a smart way to invite the audience into the scheme as well as create some intrigue as to who she really is and her motives.  The storytellers do a great job of providing us with a detailed plan for stealing the money. They know who will be at the mint, how to hack the security, how to set up external communications, and the layout of the mint. In addition to being vital to the success of the project, details are a matter of life and death. So, it would seem as though the writers would have paid the same level of attention to the temperament and personalities of the crew. It is inconceivable that The Professor put skills over compatibility or saneness. Did he really think these people would be able to work together or is this volatility part of the plan? Somehow that uncertainty is what creates tension and kept me waiting for the next challenge. The stickiness of this series is found in its relationships. On-site, there is a struggle between Berlin and Tokyo as to who should lead. Alliances ebb and flow as the crew learns more about each other as challenge after challenge presents itself. And that promise of not killing anyone is in jeopardy at every stage, depending on who’s in charge. There is also drama among the hostages. One is the daughter of a U.S. diplomat making her a major bargaining chip in the negotiations. Another important hostage is the director of the mint who is having an affair with one of his subordinates. He is conniving and willing to sacrifice anyone if it means he can escape. Off-site, The Professor has devised a way to connect with and influence the hostage negotiator. Their relationship is daring and threatens to unravel the plan at its core. One might come for the caper but will stay for the characters. They are all interesting individually but dynamic collectively. “Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area” is ambitious for its plan, exciting for the twists and turns, inviting for its characters, and is just plain addictive. With only half of the first season screened for press, I can’t wait to see what happens to the crew and if they are able to pull it off. Six episodes screened for review.

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