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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A New York Christmas Wedding, or: It’s a Wonderful Alternate Life

With a year as difficult as 2020, we’ve decided to start Christmas early on the Collab. Will we regret this in a couple of weeks? Most likely. However, at the moment it’s a relief to consume stories with endings both incredibly predictable and overly sappy. This week’s pick is no exception.

The Film:

A New York Christmas Wedding

The Premise:

After a chance encounter with a disguised angel, a woman gets the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones she has lost, reconsidering what her New York Christmas wedding will be.

The Ramble:

In Queens, NY, Jenny Ortiz faces a familiar teen predicament: she’s in love with her best friend, who is dating a dirtbag. To make things a bit more interesting, Jenny’s bff is Gabi, an Italian-American girl with a conservative family. Uncertain about her own feelings for her bestie and feeling a bit smothered, Gabi blows off an evening of Christmas decorating with Jenny (which would have provided a convenient time to share true feelings) in favor of an evening with her boyfriend.

Jenny doesn’t handle things well–understandable considering she’s still hurting following the death of her mother. After writing off Gabi (literally), Jenny must live with regret when her bff dies a few months later. The holiday season is never the same again when, years later, Jenny’s father dies close to Christmas.

A man and woman embrace in a walk-in closet.

Unaware of Jenny’s aversion to the holiday, her future mother-in-law has made arrangements for a Christmas Eve wedding. While Jenny claims it’s the sense of loss she feels around the holidays that makes her dread the wedding, it’s clear early on that other issues are at play.

Following an awkward dinner with her in-laws, Jenny goes out for a late-night run, coming to the aid of a cyclist struck by a car. When Jenny notices the stranger, Azrael Gabeson, is unscathed–crisp white clothing not even a smidge dirty–he gives the kind of vague mystical advice that will surely lead to a memorable turn of events.

A man and woman walk along a New York City sidewalk at night.

When Jenny wakes up the next morning, she is astonished to find herself in an apartment she shares with Gabi and their dog. After some confusion, Jenny meets Azrael again, who explains that she has more or less entered a parallel dimension. She has 48 hours to enjoy an alternate timeline in which both Jenny’s father and Gabi are still alive (though apparently Jenny’s mother is SOL).

In this timeline, it’s Jenny and Gabi whose wedding is around the corner. However, this couple has the additional obstacle of struggling to get approval from the venue, the church where Gabi is the choir director. A meeting with Father Kelly (played by Mr. Big from Sex and the City) yields no answers, as the priest’s personal feelings conflict with church decree, which still doesn’t officially recognize same-sex marriages.

A family of two women and a middle-aged man sit at a dining table, eating a Christmas dinner.

After a Christmas Eve feast, Jenny uses the time with Gabi to resolve their fight from decades ago. Surprisingly (but also not surprisingly at all), there may be a Christmas wedding after all. But with Jenny rapidly running out of time, what will happen to her happy alternate timeline life when the 48 hours are up?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Okay, this film has a lot of problems. First, the sort of reverse It’s a Wonderful Life plot doesn’t work because of its own setup. Whereas the 1946 film encourages its protagonist to accept his life as it is, disappointments and all, this 2020 film emphasizes how much better the alternate timeline is than reality. How relatable that message feels at the moment…but it still doesn’t feel like a satisfying moral.

Also, the LGBTQ messages are certainly welcome but lacking subtlety. There are a LOT of scenes and lines of dialogue that feel pulled from an after-school special. What’s more is that these scenes give the audience no credit to connect the dots–always a pet peeve of mine.

And (spoiler/not really a spoiler), there’s a twist in which Azrael is revealed to be Gabi’s stillborn fetus, which I find extremely cringey. Perhaps it’s a consequence of watching too much horror, but the revelation made me immediately concerned Azrael may be seeking vengeance or otherwise up to no good. Being haunted by a fetus strikes me as unsettling at the very least.

Overall, there are way too elements here for a light holiday rom-com, and the amount of death here is much too heavy for the breezy happily-ever-after we get.

That being said, I appreciated watching a film that centers an LGBTQ couple and the experiences of people of color, especially in a genre that’s often painfully white and heteronormative.

Would my blog wife marry this one on Christmas or erase it from existence altogether? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Poetic Justice, or: I’m Sorry, Miss Jackson

It’s very possible we pinned too many hopes on this week’s film providing inspiration, or, at the very least, a compelling romance between two musical icons. Either way, this week’s pick–starring no less than Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur–was not quite the hit we expected. As a result, prepare yourself for us to bust open the emergency Christmas seal earlier than usual. We could really use something painfully upbeat and comfortingly predictable, which this film…is not.

The Film:

Poetic Justice

The Premise:

After witnessing the murder of her boyfriend, a young woman turns to poetry to cope, and begins to connect with an aspiring musician.

The Ramble:

In 1990s Los Angeles, hairdresser Justice looks forward to a night out at the drive-in with her boyfriend Markell. It’s not long before the evening takes a tragic turn when a couple of Markell’s rivals spot him, shooting him point-blank in the head. Following her boyfriend’s death, it’s clear that Justice is in mourning, keeping to herself, writing poetry, and wearing mostly black.

A Black woman in a hair salon reads from her notebook to another woman.

Inevitably, everyone in the world feels the need to give advice to Justice on getting out more, finding a man, smiling…all of the usual nonsense. This includes postal worker Lucky, whose interest in Justice is extremely unwanted, creating immediate tension between the two.

Justice has found an escape in writing poetry, while Lucky aspires to a career in music. However, he must also find a way to provide a safe home environment for his daughter, whose mother is an addict.

A Black man in a White Sox baseball cap sits in an apartment, his daughter on his lap.

Whenever possible, Lucky heads up to Oakland with his fellow postal worker, Chicago. Oakland is home to Lucky’s cousin, a talented musician and collaborator. Justice’s bff Iesha happens to be dating Chicago, and brings her pal along for the ride…unaware of the tense history between Justice and Lucky.

The trip is off to a rocky start that escalates to name-calling, and the crew isn’t on the road for long before an enraged Justice decides to get out and walk. After finally managing to get Justice back in the truck, the group spots a family reunion that happens to waft the mouthwatering scent of perfectly cooked barbecue for miles.

A group of two men and two women stand outside in a park.

More or less blending in at the massive family reunion, where Maya Angelou is one of the aunts, things take a turn when a tipsy Iesha begins flirting with another man. After Chicago starts a fight with him, the group leaves the reunion, only for fights to break out all around between Chicago, Iesha, Lucky, and Justice.

As Justice and Lucky get to know each other better, Chicago and Iesha seem to be rapidly unraveling. Will the connection between Justice and Lucky survive when most of the group finally makes it to Oakland and tragedy strikes?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Agh, I don’t know where to begin with this one. With leads like Janet Jackson and Tupac, it feels impossible to go wrong…but there are so many problems with this film. First, Tupac’s character is incredibly problematic, referring to Janet Jackson as a bitch or a ho multiple times. I wouldn’t expect a film made in the early ’90s to age perfectly, but it happens so many times that it’s distracting.

In fact, Janet Jackson’s character as a whole doesn’t get a lot of respect (nobody’s calling her Miss Jackson here). After Justice’s boyfriend is shot in front of her, the people in her life are on her case to stop being depressed already and find a new man. No one offers her any particularly meaningful emotional support or even seems to recognize that she must be deeply traumatized. Her coping mechanism of writing poetry feels underdeveloped, and I expected Lucky to encourage her and/or recognize an opportunity to collaborate. In fact, Justice as a whole isn’t given enough character development, as what feels like her story initially becomes overshadowed by Lucky.

The plot itself is flimsy and doesn’t do much to distract from how flat our leading characters are. On top of all this, we don’t get any musical numbers whatsoever from either Janet or Tupac, which feels like a huge missed opportunity. Our incredible cast definitely deserved better.

Would my blog wife invite this one to a barbecue or ditch it along the side of the highway? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Imperial Dreams, or: 2020 Has Ruined Dramatic Film

Choose a film that somewhat connects to last week’s Menace II Society, they said. You can’t possibly fail to be inspired by John Boyega’s compelling performance, they said. Well, they were wrong. And by they, I of course mean me.

It’s been a difficult year made worse by a shitshow of an election, a grim holiday season around the corner, and no end in sight to a global pandemic. This week’s film will do nothing to lighten your mood–and may, in fact, merely serve as a reminder that, no matter your circumstances, systemic racism can and does make things even worse.

The Film:

Imperial Dreams

The Premise:

Recently released from prison in Los Angeles, a young man faces persistent obstacles as he attempts to change his life for the sake of his son.

The Ramble:

After serving time in prison (a familiar pattern since the age of 12), Bambi returns to the LA projects where he grew up. This time, he is determined to carve out a different life for himself and his young son, whose mother is currently incarcerated. Bambi’s son Daytone is so young that he doesn’t even remember his father.

Down a darkened alley, a young Black man leans down with concern, hands on the shoulders of a young boy.

With a father out of the picture and a mother addicted to drugs, Bambi was raised by his uncle Shrimp, who has been taking care of Daytone. It’s clear right away that Shrimp cares for his family…but he expects loyalty in return. When Bambi turns down a job driving a car full of Oxycontin across state lines, it creates tension that simmers throughout the remainder of the film.

A middle-aged man and a younger man face each other with tense expressions.

While incarcerated, Bambi had one silver lining to hold onto–he had a semi-autobiographical short story published in McSweeney’s. His brother Wayne is also planning to get away from the old neighborhood, though he will need a significant cash infusion to pay for expenses his scholarship at Howard won’t cover. To Wayne, working with Shrimp could provide the perfect opportunity…though jaded Bambi knows better.

As he tries to find a job and land his own place to raise Daytone, Bambi hopes to stay with his grandparents. Unfortunately, the apartments where they live won’t allow convicts. Needing to distance himself from Shrimp, Bambi opts for living in a car parked outside of his grandparents’ home as a compromise. At the same time, Child & Family Services needs to know that Daytone has a safe place to live…so, of course, Bambi lies.

Two young men look into the distance at dusk, the lights of a sprawling city behind them.

Meanwhile, Shrimp’s reckless son Gideon is busy dodging police and rival gangs alike. Since a shooting went wrong, Gideon is no longer welcome in the family home. It’s not long before his past catches up with him and tragedy strikes. Will Shrimp persuade Bambi to join up with him for the sake of family? Or will Bambi’s own understanding of family loyalty prevail?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Oooof, this week has brought us another difficult watch. There seems to be no hope for any of our characters, who are stuck inevitably in a cycle of violence, incarceration, and poverty. It’s frustrating and incredibly depressing to watch Bambi take every legal avenue possible to provide for his son only to get shut out by bureaucratic red tape.

Under normal circumstances, I think I would have enjoyed this film more, so I’m going to award PPHs based on that. Also John Boyega is ever-watchable here, which I will give this film massive credit for. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend watching this film right now, though, unless you are in a very different headspace currently. And if you are–tell me how you got there, won’t you?

Would my blog wife give this one a second chance or immediately lay down the law for its minor parole violations? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Menace II Society, or: Caine & LA

This may not be the most focused review for the Collab as I mentally process the past 5 or so days of the US election, which made everything feel like it was happening in slow motion. If you are at all familiar with this blog, you could likely guess with some accuracy that I am SO relieved with the Biden/Harris win, though I am still holding my breath until the orange man is physically out of the White House.

But let’s time travel back to a time when the current president was merely a horrible human discriminating against Black tenants in rental practices.

The Film:

Menace II Society

The Premise:

After a visit to a convenience store results in violence, recent high school graduate Caine’s future looks increasingly bleak.

The Ramble:

One fateful night, teens Caine and O-Dog enter an LA convenience store to buy beer. Everyone seems on edge, as the store owners immediately eye the two young Black men with suspicion, while the impulsive O-Dog drinks beer right from the bottle before paying and snaps out angry responses loaded with the f-bomb. It feels inevitable that a confrontation will break out. When the store owner makes an off-hand remark about O-Dog’s mother, the teen snaps, shooting both the man and his wife.

A young man in a convenience store drinks from a bottle of alcohol, while another man walks beside him.

Though O-Dog’s actions kick off the film’s main story, Caine is our main protagonist and narrator. He reveals his family is from the Watts neighborhood of south LA, an area known for one of the city’s most significant uprisings in the 1960s.

In the aftermath of the riots, Caine’s father (played by Samuel L. Jackson!) was a drug dealer, while his mother was a heroin addict. By the time Caine was 10, both of his parents were dead and he had gone to live with his grandparents.

In a room lit by a red light, a man sits across from another man at a card table, aiming a pistol sideways.

Despite the religious teachings of his grandparents, Caine follows in his father’s footsteps and is a drug dealer before he’s even graduated high school (in a scene that will remind viewers that this film is approaching 30 years old, Caine uses a pager to communicate about deals).

Though O-Dog is Caine’s best friend, there is tension between the two. O-Dog is reckless to a fault, going so far as to boastfully show the footage of the convenience store robbery to all of their buddies.

Two young men face each other as they hold an intense conversation.

As it turns out, this is the least of Caine’s problems, as he and his cousin are carjacked one night after a party. Though Caine is shot, he survives…unlike his cousin. And Caine makes it his mission to avenge his cousin’s murder.

Meanwhile, Caine has been growing closer to Ronnie, a single mother whose ex has been sentenced to life without parole. Even though she’s essentially a free agent, it goes against some sort of bro code for Caine to pursue Ronnie. Instead, Caine hooks up with a young woman he picks up at a park.

On a hospital bed, a man in a hospital gown sits next to a woman wearing a denim outfit.

At this point, Caine and O-Dog are arrested when they’re caught stealing a car. However, as this is Caine’s first arrest, and O-Dog is a minor, the two are released again soon, even after Caine’s prints match those found at the convenience store.

Throughout numerous violent encounters with the police and other young men, Caine has a chance to get out when Ronnie decides to take a job in Atlanta…and asks him to come along. But is Caine really ready to leave?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is a tough watch. The circumstances Caine inherits from his parents effectively demonstrate the difficulty of breaking destructive cycles and systems. This is a rare film about inequity that wisely pans out to give the audience context rather than focusing blame on individuals.

However, I couldn’t get Radha Blank’s song about poverty porn (featured in last week’s The Forty-Year-Old Version) out of my head throughout the film. The unceasing misery depicted here does verge on poverty porn. Focusing on systems rather than people makes it difficult to care about any of the characters…or to feel that they have any agency whatsoever. The near-constant threat of violence from the police and those around Caine helps the viewer understand the ways he is dehumanized, but it doesn’t make him particularly sympathetic. He treats a lot of the characters here pretty badly, actually–especially women.

Caine certainly doesn’t deserve his fate, but the film presents it as inevitable, which weighs very heavily indeed.

Would my blog wife have this one’s back or speed off towards Atlanta ASAP? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Forty-Year-Old Version, or: WMWBWB

In more ways than one, Horror Month fizzled out this year. Admittedly, our film choices were somewhat disappointing; however, the horror of our global situation is more at fault for overshadowing any and everything fictional. Especially as things look increasingly bleak heading towards winter and the holidays, my brain craves stories that have virtually no connection to the pandemic. Cue this week’s pick.

The Film:

The Forty-Year-Old Version

The Premise:

Approaching her 40th birthday, a Brooklyn playwright attempts to balance the pressure for traditional markers of success with the freedom to find and pursue new passions.

The Ramble:

Thirty-nine-year-old Radha is restless. A playwright who was honored with a “30 Under 30” award a decade ago, Radha has seemingly failed to live up to her potential. She doesn’t have a single play in production, and the bulk of her connection to theater is through a class she teaches for teens. Some of the teens are more interested in attending than others, and there is very often interpersonal rather than staged drama going down.

Along with bff Archie, who also represents her, Radha is hard at work getting her play Harlem Ave off the ground. After striking out with a visionary but underfunded Black theater director, Radha reluctantly turns to a white audience to back her work. The play, following the challenges of a Black grocery store owner and his wife in a gentrifying neighborhood, doesn’t ring of poverty porn enough to get immediate backing. Radha may be able to get the play produced…but there will be a lot of artistic compromises along the way.

Meanwhile, Radha has a growing interest in writing and performing rap, inspired by everything from her relationship with her mother to white men with especially full behinds (“WMWBWB”). After deciding to make a mixtape, Radha hits it off with music producer D. She even scores an invite to perform at an open mic night, but blows it when she attempts to soothe her nerves by getting high.

As Radha grows closer to D, they bond over the ongoing pain of losing their mothers. At the same time, Radha pushes him away as she increasingly feels that, rapidly approaching 40, she should stay in her lane.

A similar conflict threatens Radha’s relationship with Archie, who pushes her to mainstream success that makes her feel she has sold out. With an opening night for a play that no longer feels like her own work rapidly approaching, Radha can’t make peace with her life as a struggling artist…can she?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The script alone is incredible, but Radha Blank also directs, stars, and writes many of the songs for this film. As a Brooklyn filmmaker considering, among other themes, Blackness, gentrification, and the purpose of art, there’s a clear connection to some of Spike Lee’s works here. However, Radha approaches these ideas from a Black feminist perspective, highlighting aging, age differences, and body image.

Though Radha is very much the focus of the film, other characters have identities and agency, including bff Archie and the teens Radha works with. I love the relationships here; there is genuine tension over whether Archie and Radha have outgrown their friendship and working relationship. The dynamic Radha has with her students is quite sweet too, and feels real. It’s never an easy relationship as the teens push back, though they resist being reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes of a “tough” urban school.

The humor is so sharp (Harlem Ave‘s soy milk fixation gets me every time), but we also explore grief and existential angst with tenderness. As Radha herself tells us, “Don’t think just because you created something people will appreciate it.” The creation of art for her, her mother, and other makers, must come from the satisfaction of doing something for one’s self, not for the external markers of success–a deceptively difficult lesson to learn.

Would my blog wife honor this one with a heartfelt speech or freestyle some harsh truths about it? Find out in her review!