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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Vigilante, or: Happy Valentine’s Day(?)

CW: domestic violence, child abuse and death

It didn’t occur to me until sitting down to watch this week’s film that we’d post reviews for it on Valentine’s Day. I can’t say this news affects me much since V-Day has always struck me as a rather nonsense holiday (sorry, St. Valentine). However, it’s perhaps a bit too on the nose for the Blog Collab that our film to mark the holiday of love involves very dark themes of domestic violence, revenge, and toxic relationships.

The Film:

A Vigilante

The Premise:

A woman seeks justice for victims of abuse by taking matters into her own hands…while holding onto her own personal vendetta.

The Ramble:

After receiving a message from a married woman living with an abusive husband and fearful for her children, punching bag heavy hitter Sadie gets ready to take action. Applying color contacts, donning a wig, and watching a speedy liquid latex tutorial, she’s certainly got things checked off when it comes to covering her tracks.

When Sadie arrives at the home of the caller (at a time when the kids won’t be around), things take a violent turn pretty quickly. Using her fists to persuade the husband to leave and never return, she first forces him to sign the house over to his wife and transfer all of his money to her bank account. Should he ever return, Sadie assures him she’s very prepared to send him to an early grave.

Sadie, a woman dressed in dark clothes and wearing a frizzy wig, stands in a kitchen, facing a woman who is sitting on a counter.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a woman who takes on these kinds of endeavors is holding onto some dark secrets of her own. Though Sadie is meticulous about keeping things free of evidence and ready for a quick departure if needed, the scars on her back make it obvious there’s physical and emotional trauma in her past. She keeps a map of a wilderness area with her, marking off locations slowly but surely. When particular sounds begin to play on her phone, Sadie has a meltdown, soothed only by a coloring page that includes the letter C, tracing its pattern repeatedly.

Sadie looks into a mirror, smudging her dark makeup in streaks along her face with bandaged hands.

Ultimately, though, very little can distract Sadie from her mission to help those experiencing abuse. Sadie attends a support group for women who have left violent situations–is this for her own benefit or to connect with people she can help? Though she seems to have a soft spot for children, Sadie intervenes to help a young boy and his brother, yet leaves them to get further support from child services (which feels like a good call and the only choice that makes sense, honestly).

In an empty classroom, a group of women sit in a circle as part of a meeting for survivors of domestic violence.

If you’re guessing that all of these clues add up to an incredibly sad story for Sadie, you’re not wrong. Sadie’s ex was the sort of bonechilling doomsday prepper/wilderness survivalist dreaming of living off the grid who probably would’ve stormed the Capitol in January given the chance. When he finally sees a way to realize his dreams of shitting in the woods and filtering water through a cheesecloth with Sadie and their son, Sadie realizes she needs to get away now or she never will. Unfortunately, she makes a tragic error, and awful trash human attacks Sadie and kills their son. With her ex missing but not declared dead, Sadie gets very little money to survive on as she cannot claim any of the sizeable life insurance policy.

Soon after a woman from group therapy worries that Sadie is throwing her life away, Sadie finally manages to track down her ex. Or, rather, her ex tracks her down just before she does. Clearly Sadie won’t go down without a fight–but will this be her last one?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I oscillated between 3.5 and 4 for this one. First, credit where credit’s due: Olivia Wilde absolutely carries this film uphill in the snow, both ways. There’s a lot going for the film beyond her performance, but so much hangs on her ability to switch between intense emotions and to let those come through in her eyes and facial expressions. On a shallow note, she has some truly excellent wigs.

What’s more is the power of the themes addressed in the film and a semi-realistic approach to the toll that abuse and Sadie’s vigilante lifestyle take on her physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It’s a relief, honestly, to see someone who has made vengeance their mission have human feelings and reactions rather than sort of flip a switch to become an emotionless sociopath (sorry, sociopaths–I know this word gets tossed around unfairly whenever someone means heartless or evil).

However, there were a few things that did take me out of the film a bit. Structurally, there are some issues here. Even though it helped to build tension, the late reveal of Sadie’s past (around halfway through the film) made the story feel a bit disjointed and a little difficult to follow the timeline. Our understanding of why Sadie is helping survivors of abuse changes, as well as the financial motivation she has to track down her husband. I think a narrative that wove Sadie’s past with her present more effectively would have made things more impactful.

And here’s my typical problem with revenge films that A Vigilante falls into in some moments: there is a point in the film where the protagonist has to fulfill their mission of vengeance of the story will not be satisfying. It’s difficult to reconcile that with the idea that revenge is a destructive, all-consuming force, so that theme doesn’t come across quite as powerfully as it should. And the last act of the film was satisfying, but I also felt conflicted about the amount of violence Sadie suffered onscreen at the hands of her husband. Up to this point of the film, the abusive acts happened offscreen, and it felt somewhat voyeuristic to watch these happen. There’s an upsetting part of my brain that wonders if there’s someone jacking off to these scenes or using them to support some twisted conclusion that domestic violence isn’t really a problem because survivors could always just kill their abuser–problem solved.

At this point, I’m not willing to give humanity a whole lot of credit.

Would my blog wife back this one up in a fight or make sure it wound up on the side of the road in a less than alive condition? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or: Blues Christmas

In a move that will likely surprise no one, we managed to out-Christmas ourselves with some features we found less than heartwarming despite our best efforts. Since Christmas is over but we still feel the Blog Collab deserves a gift, this week’s pic is the less seasonally appropriate but no less magical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based on the August Wilson play, the film notably depicts Chadwick Boseman in his final role onscreen, surely a gift to us all.

The Film:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Premise:

Throughout the course of a day recording an album, tensions surface between blues legend Ma Rainey and the ambitious trumpeter in her band.

The Ramble:

After rising to the legendary status of Mother of the Blues in 1920s Georgia, Ma Rainey commands attention and respect, suffering no fools during the recording of her album in Chicago (for which she rolls in late with her lady lover and nephew). Even so, Ma Rainey is constantly pushing back against her white man manager and producer.

Dressed in a colorful flapper-style costume with shiny accents, a Black woman sings on an improvised stage, a band accompanying her.

Most of the members of Ma Rainey’s band are older gentlemen content to play music together, get the recording done as quickly as possible, and yield to Ma’s demands. Unhappy with this arrangement is young horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who dreams of starting out his own band. Levee is a dapper man, opting for stylish clothes and a new pair of bright yellow shoes for the day. Are the expensive new shoes key to the plot? More than you know.

As the band waits for Ma’s arrival, it becomes clear that they each have trauma and differences of opinion beneath their gentle teasing. Winner of most likely to wag a finger at a young Black man with baggy pants or lecture about respectability is Toledo, who frowns with disapproval about young people only interested in having a good time.

A young Black man gestures while speaking to an older man in a dimly lit room.

This doesn’t fly with Levee, who goes so far as to defy God to strike him down. He questions where God could possibly be in the world they live in, especially in light of a horrific trauma that occurred during his childhood. As a result, Levee always keeps a knife on him–another important detail.

Something of a diva, Ma Rainey’s eventual arrival creates more drama when she insists her nephew record the song intro that was Levee’s, and use a different arrangement than expected. A further complication? Ma Rainey’s nephew has a stutter, requiring many takes of his part. Creating a further rift between Ma and Levee is the latter’s interest in Dussie Mae, Ma’s current lover.

In a gold paisley dress, a Black woman in a recording studio sings into a microphone, members of her band playing in the background.

Sensing the end of his role as a member of Ma’s band, Levee confronts recording studio owner Sturdyvant about producing Levee’s record as promised on a prior occasion. However, Sturdyvant is no longer interested, willing only to buy Levee’s songs for $5 each and have another artist do the recording.

With tension at its peak, how will the members of the band respond to the pressure?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

What you will hear relentlessly about this film (if you haven’t already) is that the performances are astonishing–and there’s no doubt about that. Viola Davis is impeccable, though this is very much Chadwick Boseman’s film. While he portrays a character full of disappointment, pain, and rage, all of these emotions simmer underneath the surface with a brilliant subtlety. This yields an ending to the story that feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.

As for the film’s plot itself, it’s stretched a bit thin. Because this is an adaptation of an August Wilson play, there are a lot of monologues. And you’re either into that or you’re not. Personally, most of these merely served to remind me that we were in many ways watching the recording of a play. There’s quite a lot of talking and not a lot of action; for me, the balance was a bit off.

Additionally, we don’t get as much Ma Rainey as I anticipated. Despite being the titular character of the film, the male characters receive much more of the focus. I won’t complain too much about this, especially since one of these characters is portrayed by Boseman, but I could have happily enjoyed much more of Ma Rainey’s self-assured swagger.

However, the message feels just as relevant today as during the play’s run in the 1980s or even Ma Rainey’s time around 100 years ago. The anger, resignation, and deep sadness our Black characters feel in their everyday lives and within the music industry endures as much as the songs of a blues legend.

Would my blog wife harmonize with this one or break up the band? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Holiday Rush, or: (Gum)drop the Bass

You just can’t have a steampunk-inspired Christmas musical every week, can you? But you can have a holiday film about a radio station that at least talks about Christmas music and throws in a festive tune or two! This week’s pick may not enjoy quite the same amount of holiday magic or gorgeously realized fashions, though it does have an impressive number of customized matching footie pajamas.

The Film:

Holiday Rush

The Premise:

After losing their jobs, a radio DJ and his boss attempt to launch a new station, all while teaching spoiled children the true meaning of Christmas as the holidays approach.

The Ramble:

Successful local DJ Rush Williams becomes increasingly confident as his career grows. The part of his life that could most use improvement? His parenting style. More and more inclined to simply throw money at whatever problems arise for his children, Rush has unwittingly created spoiled little brats he can never say no to. This Christmas seems to be no exception as the kids demand outlandish gifts like miniature horses, cars, and designer clothes.

A family with four children ranging from elementary to high school gather around a living room, their father and older aunt observing them.

It’s not a coincidence that Rush feels the need to overcompensate where his kids are concerned. Since the death of his wife, Rush feels pressure to play the role of both parents while keeping his grief to himself. Luckily, Rush’s aunt spends a lot of time taking care of the children, accepting absolutely no nonsense. But is that really enough to replace quality time with their dad?

Perpetually late, Rush has boss and friend Roxy to keep him on track. The two share an ambition: to co-own the radio station where they work. For the time being, this means playing it safe, opting for pre-approved Christmas classics over Rush’s preferred “Christmas in Hollis.” That is, until the station is acquired by a much larger, more cut-throat company, which immediately cancels Rush and Roxy’s show and sends them home with not even a holiday bonus.

A Black man seated in the recording space of a radio station looks unenthusiastic as a Black woman leans over him, smiling and looking up into the distance.

Though he’s worried about the future of his dreams, family man Rush is most concerned about letting down the kids. Not only does Rush’s job loss mean a much more toned down Christmas than in years, past, but it also means the family will have to sell the house and move in with Auntie Jo. Their aunt now lives in the family’s former home, infused with the difficult memories of the children’s mother dying of cancer, and where her absence will feel most keen.

Gathered around a table in a restaurant, a group of four children look skeptically at their father, seated at the head of the table and speaking with intensity.

As chance would have it, selling the house would give Rush some much-needed funds for a promising new investment: the radio station where he and Roxy got their first start is now up for sale, giving the pair a chance to fulfill their dream. But their rival radio station is determined to see them fail, and Rush and Roxy have limited resources. Can the dynamic duo help their new station thrive, prove the naysayers wrong, and pay attention to the mistletoe in the air, all while helping Rush’s children learn the true meaning of Christmas? It’s a tall order…but if you’ve seen even one made-for-TV Christmas movie, you know the answer.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s nothing glaringly wrong here…I just didn’t find this a particularly interesting film. The story lines of Rush and Roxy trying to get their radio station off the ground and that of Rush trying to parent his children feel mostly separate until the end, which makes for a disjointed plot. Because the film has too much going on, neither of these stories, or the characters themselves, feel particularly fleshed out. As a result, a lot of the emotional moments don’t have the impact intended. There’s a rather cringey scene in which Rush talks to the ghost of his wife that failed to tug at my heart strings (and, honestly, verged on making me laugh).

Our leads are watchable (full disclosure: I adore Sonequa Martin-Green), though, and Auntie Jo is a fun addition to the family. However, they don’t get as much screen time as I would have liked, sharing the set with Rush’s four children. They’re honestly not the worst–though they are spoiled, it seems pretty clear that it’s the circumstances that have created bad behavior rather than that they are somehow “bad” kids. Even so, they get a bit more screen time than I would have liked, and very little personality development beyond being walking, talking Christmas wish lists.

However, it does check all of the boxes required of a made-for-TV Christmas film, and you could do worse while wrapping presents, trimming the tree, drinking mulled wine, and any other appropriately festive holiday activities you may choose.

Would my blog wife gift this one a pony for Christmas or leave it only with a lesson about the true meaning of the holidays? Find out in her review!

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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!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Ganja & Hess, or: Don’t Cross Me

In terms of tone, this week’s film is about as far from last week’s Tales from the Hood 2 as possible while staying (more or less) in the horror genre. An independent art house film from the 1970s, there was never any chance Ganja & Hess would be franchised (though Spike Lee did remake it in 2014). Let’s at least try to follow along, shall we?

The Film:

Ganja & Hess

The Premise:

After he is stabbed 3 times with a dagger, anthropologist Dr. Hess Green gets a second chance to live…as a vampire.

The Ramble:

Don’t expect our film’s theme song to give you any spoiler warnings: it tells us right off the bat that there have always been creatures addicted to blood who roam the Earth. Many enslaved people were victims of this addiction, condemned to experience the life of a vampire (though this word is never used) until Christianity–specifically the shadow of the Cross–drives them away.

A Black man walks down the aisle between crowded church pews, eyes closed.

One such modern vampire is Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist whose addiction to blood seems to be the only force that drives him. According to his driver, Reverend Luther Williams, Dr. Green is a victim. It was after Green’s former assistant Meda stabbed him three times with a ceremonial dagger that he became a vampire. Once Green rose from the dead, he craved Meda’s blood, spilled all over the bathroom floor after he killed himself.

Green’s new craving quickly escalates from hunger to need. Virtually everything Green does is to find and consume blood, whether that means absconding with bags of donated blood or bringing home strangers from bars.

A man pours himself a glass of water while seated in front of a fireplace. Across from him, another man speaks with intensity.

That is, until Meda’s wife Ganja arrives with many questions about her husband’s whereabouts. It’s not long before she forgets all about her husband as she becomes Hess’s lover. Confusingly, it seems to be a minor setback when Ganja discovers her husband’s decomposing body. Concluding that Hess is psychotic, Ganja makes the obvious next move of…marrying him?

Hess decides quickly that he doesn’t want to live without Ganja, turning her into a vampire on their wedding night. Soon after, they “have a guest for dinner,” which involves both sex and murder.

A Black man and woman sit at a small table outside. The man speaks with a servant standing in uniform, whose face cannot be seen.

Just as Ganja begins to embrace the vampire lifestyle, Hess starts to turn from it in favor of the church. Hmmmm…vampires and crucifixes. That can’t end well, right?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I must admit that overall…I don’t get it. The aesthetic is stunning, but the loose narrative structure makes for a confusing couple of hours. Apparently director Bill Gunn denounced the film as it was released because a new director was brought in to make major changes, including cutting it down to less than 80 minutes. And it’s difficult to blame the studio entirely; this is a challenging film to sell to an audience.

What is fascinating about the film is its commitment to its message. Gunn intentionally connects vampirism with slavery right from the start of the film so the themes of race and social justice frame everything that we experience as an audience. The film is in some ways a plea for unity within the Black community, as it’s one Black man’s attack on another that transforms Hess into a vampire. As Rev. Williams reminds us, Hess is a victim. Gunn doesn’t forget that problems related to drug abuse relate to larger social structures and racial inequity.

The importance of faith and community in healing is central to the plot as well. Thinking of the gaps in government agencies and social services, it’s no wonder the church has become such a vital institution in many Black communities. However, it’s unclear if Hess ultimately gains salvation through the church or merely an end to his life.

It’s similarly unclear if we’re rooting for any of our characters here. Ganja and Hess do obtain a sort of power through their vampirism, but this in itself isn’t necessarily empowering. There are a lot of scenes involving a servant bringing food to the couple and generally being a nameless, faceless employee. He does nothing onscreen but work, while Ganja and Hess do almost anything but work. These scenes are uncomfortable, but Gunn leaves things ambiguous in terms of what we as an audience are meant to think.

I’m glad we watched this film as it’s considered a classic of Black filmmaking. I can’t say I would have followed through with the entire run time if it hadn’t been “homework,” though.

Would my blog wife share a glass of warm blood with this one or stab it with a dagger too many times for it to resurrect? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Tales from the Hood 2, or: They Call Me Mr. Simms

Sometimes we dive right into the middle of a horror franchise with ease; we’ve reviewed a later installment of the Child’s Play franchise without religiously watching all prior volumes in order, and a number of Hellraiser sequels. A few have made us eager to watch more; several have made us consider how much more of our lives we’d like to lose to not-even-B-horror (though only briefly).

I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine which of these types of horror sequels our latest pick falls in; however, I will remind you that there’s perhaps a reason the franchise is currently only on film two of two. EDIT: as of October 2020, there are THREE films in the Tales from the Hood series.

The Film:

Tales from the Hood 2

The Premise:

A storyteller recounts four tales of terror for a police robot learning to identify criminal behavior.

The Ramble:

At Dumass Beach Securities, the CEO is the exact kind of sleaze you would imagine with a predictive policing robot prototype designed to arrest criminals before they can act. (Coincidentally, your level of amusement related to the name Dumass Beach sounding much like “dumbass bitch” can determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy to what extent you will enjoy this feature. In my case, this was not a whole lot.)

Little does Dumass Beach know that his visitor, one Mr. Simms, is a storyteller with an agenda. Hired to tell stories that will help the Robo Patriot learn to identify who may one day commit a crime, Mr. Simms clearly spots the ultimate goal is to racially profile people.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Simms uses this as an opportunity to tell stories that are more subversive than Dumass Beach realizes. Which, to be honest, isn’t particularly difficult as the thinly veiled stand-in for Trump is about as likely to pick up on subtext as…well, the real thing. Thus, four stories follow with extremely self-evident messages about race and racism.

In a hallway, a blonde white woman smiles ahead, while a Black woman next to her looks on with discomfort.

In “Good Golly” (whose reasonably clever title I will acknowledge), a group of college friends check out the eerie Museum of Negrosity, a collection of antiquated–and extremely racist–memorabilia. Besties Audrey and Zoe insist that the stereotypes on display here are a thing of the past, and their friendship (between a Black and white girl) is proof that racism is dead and gone. Despite some very college lecture-y explanations of why this is untrue from the museum curator, the girls learn absolutely nothing. Audrey holds fast to her conviction that the golliwog doll is a comforting symbol from her childhood and decides she absolutely must have it…even if it means stealing this racist figure.

Since this is a horror/comedy, be confident that this plan goes horribly awry in a way that manages to be simultaneously creative and boring.

Two Black men stare each other down while a third figure looms in the background, fists together.

“The Medium” is the requisite gangster story, featuring 3 gang members trying to track down $5 million from ex-pimp Cliff. Now a successful businessman, Cliff refuses to reveal the location of the money, which is intended for a foundation. This revelation earns such cartoonish dialogue as “Fuck the United Negro College Fund, and fuck the kids.” Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the gang loses patience, and Cliff ends up dead.

Since Cliff was the only person who knew the location of the money, the gang members are SOL…until one of them has the brilliant idea of using a psychic to connect with Cliff. What could possibly go wrong there?

Two women in lingerie hiss, exposing vampiric fangs.

Our next story, “Date Night,” purports to underscore the importance of bros before hos. Two friends, Ty and Kahad, look forward to meeting two women from Tinder, ostensibly for a date. The two men are actually predators, claiming to be an agent and casting director in a disgusting bro-y way. In fact, the two do have plans to see their dates on film…by drugging them and recording their rape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two women are not entirely who they appear to be, and the evening may take a nasty turn for Ty and Kahad.

A Black man and his mother look skeptically in the same direction that a white woman is staring.

Finally, “The Sacrifice” is…A LOT. The story alternates between the night of Emmett Till’s murder and the present day. In our contemporary story, pregnant Emily experiences nightmares about Till’s murder, becoming increasingly convinced that he has decided to live…and her baby must die. The baby’s father, Henry is a Black man and local politician who is a lifelong Republican. Ignoring his mother and wife alike, Henry disbelieves the signs that Emmett has a message for him from beyond. However, when it becomes clear that the life of Henry’s child is at stake, he has no choice but to listen to the spirit.

All of these stories are tied together by the Robo Patriot story, “Robo Hell.” What not-so-secret message might Mr. Simms reveal at last to Mr. Dumass Beach?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

I don’t know where to begin. First, let’s be clear that those 2 PPHs earned are purely for Keith David’s commitment to increasingly menacing grins and willingness to pull out all of the stops in his last few scenes.

However, the rest of the film is an absolute mess. Pulling off neither horror nor comedy particularly well, the stories mostly just make me cringe. Women are incredibly flat characters here, including the ONE Latina character, who is also depicted very stereotypically. The themes are about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and the dialogue is truly terrible. Even the Emmett Till story, which is the most genuine of the bunch, comes across as a clumsy after-school special.

If the Tales from the Hood franchise fails to fully launch, this film is the reason.

Would my blog wife channel this one’s spirit or condemn it to Robo Hell for eternity? Find out in her review!