A 2021 Film Journey: Day 48

Another late night of work, I didn’t log off for good until almost 9, so tonight will be another short one. On the bright side, it was a sunny day with the mountains in full view while I worked, and while I watched tonight’s movie, I had some kitties keeping me company. Their presence was quite welcome as my viewing tonight proved to be a rough one.

Little Woods (2019, Dir. Nia DaCosta)

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Little Woods is the true definition of a hidden gem. The film wasn’t even on my radar in 2019 (a year in which I saw 125 new releases), yet had I seen it, it would have easily made my year end list. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Ollie, a former drug dealer attempting to come clean and provider for her family. Her sister through adoption Deb (Lily James) is doing the same but finds herself in need of an abortion with no insurance to help. The two play off each other well approximating a sisterly relationship. They trade frustrations with between the two much like real sisters, but also are always there for one another.

Watching Little Woods, I kept thinking about 2010’s Winter’s Bone (Dir. Debra Granik). While not a perfect comp, Tessa Thompson was already a Marvel staring superstar compared to the unknown at the time Jennifer Lawrence, it’s still difficult to ignore the similarities. Both films put their gorgeous super stars in shapeless sweatshirts and grime from a hard day’s work. Devoid of the glitz and glam that both actresses experience in their tentpole blockbusters, these films allow the two to really flex their acting chops. This felt like a breakout role for Thompson. She may have been famous before this film, but in this low budget indie is the best she’s ever been. Watching her character risk her future to assure her sister’s stability was some of the best independent cinema of the past few years.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 47

It’s a late night tonight, so forgive me if today’s post is on the short side. We’re going live with large project at my day job next Monday, so I’m slammed with work as I attempt to get things done before our deadline. That’s left me working late and having to strain to sneak in movie watching and writing.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021, Dir. Shaka King)

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So far this month, I’ve already watch two films about Malcolm X, so another film about the Black Panthers was well in my wheelhouse, and the new film by Shaka King may well be the best of the bunch. Instead of focusing on Malcolm, Judas and the Black Messiah turns its attention to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) one of the leaders who took charge of a branch of the Black Panthers in X’s stead. Hampton’s legacy is told not through the eyes of the man himself but rather from a confidant and FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).

While Kingsley Ben-Adir and Denzel Washington portrayed Malcolm as a man who exudes a well-honed charismatic mystic in their respective films, One Night in Miami and Malcom X, Kaluuya gets to show the other side of an activist leader. Fred Hampton was incredibly young, no older than 21 throughout the film, but filled with passion. This combination leads to a sloppier but arguably more dangerous character. Kaluuya understands that he’s playing someone performing far out of his depths, but arrogant enough to not see that. Likewise, Stanfield plays O’Neal as someone too young to really grasp the sleaze of informing on a movement. He just want’s to deliver agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons in a great supporting role) enough dirt to avoid prison while not risking any danger. Great performances throughout mix with an excellent screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King as well as King’s direction result in a wonderful feature.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 46

Another weekend came and went far too quickly for me. I feel just as tired today as I did last week, but I’m hoping things will let up eventually so I can feel refreshed. In the meantime, I’m back to limited viewing and writing time during the week. On the bright side, I did find the time to plan my next week of Black director viewings, so finding an appropriate movie won’t be an additional stress. Speaking of which, tonight’s viewing is a classic blaxploitation flick.

Shaft (1971, Dir. Gordon Parks)

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Does this count as a blind spot movie? I know that everyone knows of Shaft and everyone knows the ‘Theme from Shaft’, but how many people who weren’t around when it came out have actually seen the film? Blind spot status aside, it was tonight’s viewing and a fun one at that. Richard Roundtree is a joy to watch as the brilliantly charismatic John Shaft. He exudes power and confidence all to a score that absolutely slaps.

Attempting to put Shaft in context 50 years after its creation is an interesting thought experiment. At the time, it was pretty clearly a power fantasy. Parks uses the character of Shaft, a Black man who both works with the cops and gets under their skin, as a sort of wish fulfillment. He possesses all the power of the white man, but with the soul and style of a Black man. 50 years later, Black people are just as oppressed by cops as they were in the 70s, but the power fantasy has changed. There’s an understanding that the power structure is broken; that even when a Black person attains the power of a cop, they just become a part of the problem. Shaft may have been a power fantasy in 1971, but in 2021 it’s more important to rebel against the system than to join it, even in one’s dreams.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 45

It was another snow day in the Pacific Northwest, and today also happened to be a holiday. Stuck in doors, I again embraced the excuse to sit down and watch a couple movies. In honor of Valentines Day, I chose to fill my day with romance films. I may be a lonely, single cat lady, but my heart can still be warmed by a good romance film.

Love & Basketball (2000, Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

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My first revisited director of Black History Month is Gina Prince-Bythewood for her debut feature Love & Basketball. The film also marks the second film of the month to star Regina Hall in her breakout role. And while I was somewhat ambivalent on The Old Guard and actively disliked Girls Trip, the combination of Prince-Bythewood and Hall brought the best out of each other. Love & Basketball was an absolute treasure.

What makes Love & Basketball work is Prince-Bythewood’s voice as a woman in the storytelling. The relationship between Lena (Hall) and Quincy (Omar Epps) falters while the two of them are in college because of a sexist double standard. Lena never once asked Quincy to put her before the game, but the second that Lena was unwilling to risk her spot on the team for him, his ego was bruised beyond repair and the relationship ended. Prince-Bythewood tells a story that’s brimming with romance but respects its female lead as more than a wife to be.

2046 (2004, Dir. Wong Kar-Wai)

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After Love & Basketball, I was in the mood to re-watch one of my all-time favorite romance films, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). I’m doing my best to keep this blog focused on new to me watches only, but let it be known that In the Mood for Love is an absolute masterpiece, and easily one of the five best films of the 21st century. After that viewing, I was still in Wong Kar-Wai film, so I put on one of his I hadn’t seen before: 2046.

I think I loved 2046, but I’m not actually sure yet. Wong Kar-Wai took a more experimental approach to the creation of this film, and it worked well with his style. His films frequently feel like they exist outside of time, each interaction between characters being too important to exist in reality. 2046 uses this heightened approach to intercut scenes from the protagonist’s short stories. The science fiction of these stories blends with the rest of the movie’s hopeless romance to create a film that is both perplexing and brilliant.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 44

There’s so much snow outside; I woke up to a window of nothing but white. The perfect setting for some extended movie watching. While wanting to stay toasty under the covers for all of the morning ate into my movie watching time, I still managed to make today my first multi film day of the month.

Timbuktu (2014, Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

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I started the snow day out with a film set entirely in the desert. Timbuktu was a film which managed to blend graphic and depressing imagery with absurdity in a way that enhances the message rather than distract. In the film, the city of Timbuktu has been occupied by extremist jihadists. The film has little respect for the occupiers, much of the film is made of scenes of Timbuktu citizens resisting the archaic sharia law. A dozen young men pantomiming a football game without the forbidden ball stands out as a farcical gag at the jihadist’s expense. Unfortunately, as is reflective of reality, rule by religious extremists often ends in tragedy, and Timbuktu is no different as many lose their lives to the strict laws.

While everything that I had watched up to this point this month has been by a Black filmmaker, I made the decision that movies after the first for a day I’d allow a little more flexibility to. In particular, the next film was one that I have been waiting for since the end of last year but just became available recently.

Saint Maud (2021, Dir. Rose Glass)

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From one film about religious extremists to another, Saint Maud is another excellent offering in the A24 horror film collection. Were it not for the opening image of a blood covered Maud (Morfydd Clark) and one flashback near the hour mark, the film’s last second horror turn would have been completely unexpected. That’s not to say that director Rose Glass failed at making a horror film, far from it. The film is immaculately paced. Hints that not all is right with Maud are sprinkled routinely enough that when the film takes a graphic turn it’s not surprising, but rather a poignant payoff to subtle story telling. While I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites of the A24 horror offerings, it’s still an excellent viewing.

I mentioned early in the year that I make a goal of watching every film nominated for an Oscar each year. This year’s Oscar nominations are still a way out, but the short lists were announced recently, so I set out to get a head start on the animated shorts.

Burrow (2020, Dir. Madeline Sharafian)

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This short was really cute. A relative minimalist bunny sets out to dig their home only to be greeted by many other animals make their underground homes in the same area. The increasingly elaborate housing systems of the animals underground remind me of the visuals from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and the teamwork between the animals is just as sweet. Most importantly, I now also share the bunny’s want for a disco bathroom.

Kapaemahu (2020, Dir. Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu)

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Kapaemahu is a beautifully animated story of Hawaiian folklore. While I mostly enjoyed it, I worry that the eight-minute short attempted to do a bit more than the very short runtime afforded. The short begins with it’s strength of telling the story of the legendary mahu who brought their healing arts to Hawaii. And while that story, told in the native Hawaiian language, was fascinating, with only a couple minutes remaining the film jumps to present time to lecture on lost heritage. While not necessarily a mistake to do so, the film ended up feeling rushed by attempting to staple that coda on the end.

Out (2020, Dir. Steven Clay Hunter)

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I know I should be happy that Disney finally made something so gay that it would be impossible for them to cut it in a way to get past the censors in China, but they relegated it to a short, and it falls into the same tired cliché of an adult afraid to come out to his parent. Just because Disney is only now accepting the existence of gay people doesn’t mean I’m ready to pretend it’s the 90s for them.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 42 and Day 43

Day 42 – It’s snowing today, and I lost power, so today will be the first day I don’t watch something. Making this quick post by phone and I’ll be back tomorrow with at least two movies to make up for today.

Day 43 – I woke up to some lovely snow outside, and lights that worked. I fought my way through the last day of work this week and was anxious to kick off my weekend. Like I mention yesterday, I was committing to watching two movies today to make up for a power outage requiring my first missed day yesterday. Since the second movie of the day is not a bonus movie but a catch-up movie, I’m making sure that both are directed by Black filmmakers.

Girls Trip (2017, Dir. Malcolm D. Lee)

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First film of the day was Girls Trip, a comedy from 2017 that I didn’t watch at the time, but that received enough praise that it had been lingering on my maybe to-watch list since then. I really enjoy Regina Hall as a comedic actress. She wonderfully blends dramatic acting with comedy to make scenes that are emotionally resonate and deeply funny at the same time. On the other hand, while I respect Tiffany Haddish, her comedy is not for me. I find it too brash and loud for my personal tastes.

Unfortunately, as I somewhat anticipated, Hall’s more quiet and nuanced comedic style was overpowered by Haddish’s loud and in your face persona. I don’t think the film was unfunny; rather I acknowledge that the film just wasn’t for me. I still really appreciated Hall’s performance, but it alone couldn’t keep me engaged. The film was a loud and generic comedy, not bad, but not something I tend to go out of my way to watch.

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1995, Dir. Isaac Julien)

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To follow up the comedy film that wasn’t for me, I returned to the Criterion Channel’s Black Voices collection to find something more my speed. Chosen at random was a Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Maska documentary playing with experimental tendencies about a man I had never heard of before pressing play.

In contrast to Girls Trip, this movie really worked for me. As a documentary, it is built primarily with talking head interviews and stock footage, but director Isaac Julien cast Colin Salmon to play Frantz in extremely stylized recreations. These recreations play with visual perspective and create a dreamlike setting for telling the life story of the psychoanalytic theorist. Being completely unaware of who Frantz Fanon was, the evolution of the man from psychiatrist to decolonization revolutionary was unexpected, but kept me intrigued throughout.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 41

This has been the week that will not end. Once again, I’m writing up my post on only one movie at 11pm when I really want to go to be, but thankfully I’m at least feeling a little better. And not only am I feeling better physically, but I can’t wait for it to be the weekend so I can binge a bunch of films each day. One day at a time until then though.

The Old Guard (2020, Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

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I know I’m six months behind the times on this one. When it came out, I was in the middle of my coronavirus-induced, no-movie-watching depression, so that combined with it not being the type of movie I gravitate to caused me to pass up on it. Fortunately, it fits neatly into my February viewing theme, so it became tonight’s film.

As I mentioned above (and when I watched John Woo’s The Killer (1989) earlier this year), action films are not my go-to genre. So, when I say that I thought The Old Guard was fine, that’s a good sign from me. The immortal warrior is a concept that I feel has a lot of potential if played correctly, and while the film didn’t delve into lore too much, it clearly baited a sequel that I have hope will explore that aspect more. Unfortunately for me, the film felt a little to generic action film for me to really embrace it. That said, there was one thing about the film that absolutely worked for me, the lead.

At this point, it seems that Charlize Theron has attained Keanu Reeves level of cool in action films. When up against unsurmountable odds she sells making the miraculous look effortless. And while Reeves’s dramatic chops have grown with time, Theron has genuine dramatic chops that play just as well in the quieter scenes as her physical presence does stabbing an unnamed soldier through the gut with a sword. This film wouldn’t work without Theron, but thankful she is the lead and elevated a rather routine action film.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 40

I feel like a broken record, but I spent most of today nursing a fever, so forgive me if today’s post is on the short side. Illness aside, I got out of bed this evening long enough to watch a film and write this post. And like every other day this month, I made sure to watch a film by a Black director for Black History Month.

Clemency (2019, Dir. Chinonye Chukwu)

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Well, that was bleak. Going into the viewing my only real knowledge of the film was that the film received some Indie Spirit nominations last year and what the word clemency means. While I was prepared for the film to be about death row, I wasn’t prepared for it to be that dark.

Director Chinonye Chukwu does something interesting with the subject in Clemency. When telling the story of a death row inmate hoping to be spared execution, the inmate would be the standard choice for a protagonist. This viewpoint decision forces the audience to grapple with sympathizing with a violent criminal inducing inner turmoil. Chukwu instead focuses on the warden, Bernadine (Alfre Woodard). While this should ostensibly be an easier character to support, it proves to be harder. By the time the film begins, Anthony (Aldis Hodge) has been in prison for 15 years. Whether he is guilty of murder or not is almost irrelevant from an audience point-of-view; what matters is that he is fighting to stay alive while Bernadine, our protagonist, is doing her job preparing to kill him. While she may be following the law and just doing her job, as the one doing the killing in the timeframe in which the film take place her internal struggles mimic our own upon viewing. An interesting take on the subject that I do not plan on visiting again. At least not for a long time.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 39

Still not feeling particularly good today, so after a full day of work followed by a much-needed nap, there was only time for one quick movie and a short post. Today’s movie was a 2020 film that was on my shortlist to watch before putting together a year end list. While it unfortunately fell through the cracks then, it thankfully fit in perfectly this month for Black History Month.

Miss Juneteenth (2020, Dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples)

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While Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) may be forcing her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into the same beauty contest she won as a girl, Turquoise is not a traditional pageant mom. First time director Channing Godfrey Peoples uses the Miss Juneteenth pageant less as a symbol of glitz and glam, but instead as an escape route away from a life of poverty. Unfortunately, in the words of her boss, “ain’t no American Dream for Black folks.”

While invariably, some of the past Miss Juneteenth winners have gone on to great things, even a full ride scholarship to a historically Black college doesn’t guarantee a flawless future. Turquoise never even finished high school, so her scholarship went unused. And yet Kai is pushed into attempting to follow in her mother’s footprints in hopes of finding the mythical escape from a working-class life.

Miss Juneteenth is by and large a solid if not remarkable low budget indie flick. The kind of film that tends to get lost on a streaming service, but if you find it and put it on you end up very pleasantly surprised. The film had a budget of less than $1 million, so while I think it’s merely good not great, it shows a lot of skill from Peoples, and I hope studios will agree and give her a nice budget increase for her second feature.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 38

Just another one movie weekend day. Like yesterday I slept in much later than I’m used to and today it all makes more sense: I’m getting sick. So even though it was the weekend, I spent most of the day in bed rather than watching a bunch of new movies. And while I did manage to watch one film, I’m still exhausted and am going to cut today’s entry short.

Boyz n the Hood (1991, Dir. John Singleton)

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Coming-of-age films are a giant soft spot for me, but far too many of them focus on the coming-of-age of white boys. I’m always looking for a film to tell that type of story but for different people, be they young women, or in the case of Boyz n the Hood, young Black men. The late John Singleton’s first feature works as a brilliant entry into the coming-of-age canon.

The film is broken into two time periods, the first taking up the opening third of the film shows the main characters as young boys. After steeling ends one of the children in jail, the film takes a seven-to-eight-year time skip where the now young men are preparing for their post high school futures and learn what it means to be a Black man in the US. By splitting the film in two, Singleton is able to tell a more complete story about what it means to grow up Black. The country is telling Black people that they are criminals from such a young age that it’s no wonder that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Laurence Fishburne plays Furious Styles, the father to Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and father figure to Ricky (Morris Chestnut) Fishburne provides the standout performance for the film, and the monologue against the terrors of gentrification resonate just as strongly today as it must have in 1991. Ricky is shot dead, it’s Fishburne’s acting that sells the potential that Tre may calm down and not seek revenge. And when Tre sneaks out to join the now out of jail Doughboy (Ice Cube) to go out for vengeance, it’s the reminder of Furious’s impassioned plea that see’s Tre return home before it’s too late.