Fantasia Fest 2020: ‘Clapboard Jungle’ Shows the Struggle for Independent Filmmakers

Fantasia Fest 2020: With the amount of content available to audiences, it can feel like everyone is in the process of making a movie. With the advent of iPhone films and endless platforms, it is possible to get content to more people than ever before. Yet with that influx of opportunity, the field is spread thinner than ever. Director Justin McConnell faced this uphill climb over the past decade. For much of his career as an indie filmmaker, he’s had to write and find alternative routes to get his work to the big screen. Along his journey to get another film greenlit, he found himself in limbo for more than 3 full years. Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business seeks to expose the difficulty inherent in making a film. For McConnell, his video film diary is a mixed bag, but one that carries a pathos worthy of your attention.

Clapboard Jungle begins in 2014 as McConnell finds himself pushing for a new path forward. His writing partner has passed away, and his latest documentary Skull World was met with good reception, but a limited audience. After devoting his life to the industry, he believes he can step forward to make a bigger film. Caught between taking small paycheck gigs that cover his bills, and working on his personal slate of films, McConnell finds himself running into brick walls. From 2014 to 2018, we follow McConnell as he goes to Cannes, TiFF, and other festivals in hopes of selling his slate of films to become a more successful filmmaker.

In constructing the documentary, McConnell takes a bare-bones approach to the footage. He packs the film with talking heads expressing their experiences and frustrations with the industry. He occasionally takes time to include behind-the-scenes footage, but for the most part, we see McConnell’s interviews with esteemed filmmakers. Icons, including Guillermo Del Toro, George A. Romero, and Dick Miller contribute to the discussions on independent film. The cavalcade of talking heads makes it clear how difficult making a single movie can be. It doing so, McConnell makes it clear that every film is a miracle in its own right.

McConnell has the self-awareness to understand his privilege as a white male, and seriously questions if he’s even a decent filmmaker. Like any career, rejection can create feelings of inferiority. Rather than blame others for his frustrations, McConnell points the finger at himself. McConnell tries to expand the conversation beyond his experience, asking some of the women filmmakers about their barrier to entry into the industry. He could go further but ultimately the focus of Clapboard Jungle is on McConnell’s journey. The limited scope of the film leaves some ideas on the table, but the big-budget, multipart version of this story would need many more hours of footage.

Unfortunately, the overall quality of the film hits some snags on the way. While McConnell is focused on putting every piece of information into the story, he is both subject and filmmaker in this circumstance. That leads to many moments of McConnell looking down into a camera and telling us his experience. In doing so, we cannot come to any conclusions of our own, and the documentary severely lacks the “show” elements that can create riveting dialogue. McConnell makes his point, but with so many interviews broken into small sound clips, the documentary often feels like someone channel surfing rather than creating a solid, focused argument. The lack of music or footage of actual films throughout Clapboard Jungle causes the film to drag at times.

Yet, these very issues get to McConnell’s issues within the film. Without the proper budget, crew, and support, is it possible to make a film that can be considered a quality venture? His big swing comes late in the film, and as he gains more resources, he creates something that could launch the next stage of his career. Without those resources for Clapboard Jungle, which relies mostly on his own footage and heart.

While Clapboard Jungle certainly has its flaws, the personal story on display helps the film tremendously. McConnell’s willingness to turn the camera on himself and provide a mostly unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness approach to the process provides authenticity many films severely lack. When you can tell a filmmaker is putting everything he can into his art, the work becomes all the more entertaining.

GRADE: (½)

What do you think of Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business? Let us hear your thoughts below! 

The 2020 Fantasia Film Festival is running virtually from August 20th through September 2nd, 2020. 

All images are courtesy of the Fantasia Film Festival and the filmmakers.

Fantasia Fest 2020: ‘Feels Good, Man’ Attempts to Save a Cartoon Frog from the Clutches of Facism

Fantasia Fest 2020: Many were confused when an image of a cute cartoon frog was retweeted by Donald Trump. For Trump’s followers from 4chan and the alt-right, this simple gesture was one of empowered. The meme/cartoon, known as Pepe the Frog, had been a viral sensation over the previous decade. In the months leading up to the election, Trump supporters co-opted him as a symbol of disruption. Despite the popularity of the meme, few know the story of artist and children’s author Matt Furie. He created Pepe as a character in his web-comic Boy’s Club, which gained an underground following. When memes of the character began to circulate the internet, he lost control of his own creation. Feels Good, Man chronicles Furie’s journey to save his creation. Through the use of animation, archival footage, and testimonials from a diverse collective, Feels Good, Man becomes an endlessly engaging and energetic documentary through the dark side of the internet.

To understand Pepe as both symbol and creation, Feels Good Man explores his linear evolution from creation to icon. Director Arthur Jones creates an empathetic portrait of Furie early in the film. Furie is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky, sensitive artist. As we discover more about Furie, we inherently learn more about Pepe. Exploring Furie’s state of mind and motivations when creating Pepe and his web comic, Boy’s Club lays a foundation for why Pepe became such a sensation.

On its face, Pepe is not an overly complex creation, which helped aid those who wished to repurpose the frog. On top of that, his aesthetic is both weird but calming for those feeling anxiety. A character that draws in an audience because of his inherent empathy quickly becomes dangerous when repurposed by those with ill-intent. Good-hearted internet uses found comfort in Pepe. However, so did some users who were angry with the world. Jones gains access to some of these users, who help to explain the psyche of the movement. Jones’ camera has its own empathy, never attempting to mock his interview subjects for how they live their lives. Instead, he effectively uses diverse voices on the internet to tell the story of Pepe from those who revere him.

As Pepe’s role as a symbol evolves, he becomes a prime example of Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” essay. In the essay, he argues that when a creator releases content to the world, he know longer owns its meaning. Watching Furie attempt to cope with this is difficult, especially as he reveals he just wanted to write books for kids. To add to his anguish, the Anti-Defamation League’s labels Furie’s creation as a hate symbol. Pepe may come from humble beginnings, but by the time conservative commentator Alex Jones put his face on a poster, Furie’s protests and all but ignored.

For Furie, you can see the anguish and frustration on his face. Jones captures Furie’s genuine optimism and belief in the good of people. It makes it all the harder to watch his family and friends struggle to keep his spirits up. Pepe created a genuine outlet for Furie, one that could have led to financial stability. Yet his decisions to prioritize good over hate make him all the more admirable figure. It’s easy to become skeptical of those who create solely for the purpose of money. Yet the portrait of Furie created by Jones makes him a sympathetic and tragic figure worthy of examination.

Juxtaposed against Furie’s legal battles to reclaim Pepe are some incredible interviews with some unusual voices. Jones ties in commentators from academia to explain memes to the layman, but also provide complex explanations for what has occurred. His greatest triumph is the interviews with those who own embrace NEET culture, 4chan, and PepeBucks. Each provides stunning testimonials that are jaw-dropping in their isolation but help color the digital world with a fine-tipped toothbrush. If you were to write a story about the internet, these subcultures are undeniably part of it but remain completely unknown to the general public.

At no point does Jones make the false claim that Pepe directly led to the rise of Trump, but he makes a strong case for why the cult figure of Trump mobilized a corner of the internet. Those rallying cries spilled out of 4chan into popular culture and eventually to Trump himself. It motivated a group of supporters that have become his most fervent supporters. Perhaps scariest of all, this relatively small group of commentators and posters have the resources and time to flood the internet with pro-Trump materials, which in turn strengthens the materials for conservative commentators and voters. The site, meant to give refuge for those alienated by society became a breeding ground for disillusionment and moral ambiguity. The effect that has had on society is a book we’re still writing, and Jones acknowledges as much.

Feels Good, Man certainly stretches the documentary art form. In addition to viral videos and talking heads, Jones blends in animation to add depth to Pepe himself. The adaptation of several Boys Clubs comics helps create tangible connections to Pepe and helps to isolate him from his internet persona. While the animation segments are often slower, this is necessary to help us take a breath from the breakneck and energetic tone from much of the film. Piecing together Pepe’s coverage from so many sources can create sensory overload at times, but Jones wisely builds to those moments when the story necessitates. He has total control over where the source material will take us at any minute, and it helps Feels Good, Man stand out amongst the documentary crowd.

One of the more savvy political and pop culture documents of the past few years, Feels Good, Man elegantly handles the rise of Pepe the meme. A frustrating, but a genuinely hopeful tale, Jones never lets the purpose of his doc out of sight. Ultimately, Furie is a principled artist, looking to create some good in the world. However Pepe has been used, there is a hope that he can be reclaimed by those who used him as a symbol of hope and empathy.

GRADE: (½)

What do you think of Feels Good, Man? Let us hear your thoughts below! 

The 2020 Fantasia Film Festival is running virtually from August 20th through September 2nd, 2020. 

All images are courtesy of the Fantasia Film Festival and the filmmakers.

Ranking ‘Star Wars’ – #5 – ‘The Force Awakens’ Sparked to Life a Dormant Franchise

It had only been a decade since Star Wars had graced the big screen. However, the perception of the franchise left the franchise in a perilous state. For many, George Lucas had run the ship aground. Longtime fans of the films had acknowledged the dwindling quality of the Prequel Trilogy. Then in 2012, Disney bought LucasFilm in one of the most shocking sell-offs in recent history. The House of Mouse immediately launched production on a new franchise and quickly handed the reigns over to J.J. Abrams. What would come in 2015 would restart the most exciting franchise in Sci-Fi history.

The Force Awakens opens on the planet Jakku. Decades after a battle raged over the planet, the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leads an assault on a Resistance village. He captures pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), but not before Dameron sends secret plans away inside of his trusted droid BB-8. BB comes across a young salvager named Rey (Daisy Ridley), who saves the droid in the desert. She later meets former First Order Trooper Finn (John Boyega) when BB recognizes his master’s jacket. The three escape on the Millenium Falcon only to find themselves on an adventure with the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew/Joonas Suotamo).

While The Force Awakens cribs from several previous incarnations of the franchise, the true power lies in the heart of the characters. Both Ridley and Boyega pop off the screen. They became instant superstars thanks to their movie star personas. The excitement that Ridley channels throughout the film makes her the perfect embodiment of the lifelong fans of the franchise. It’s easy to empathize with her, connect to her, and wish you were on your very own Star Wars adventure. Meanwhile, Boyega gets to show off his comedic chops throughout the film. While he refuses the call time and time again, his care for his new friend echoes throughout the story. His chemistry with Ridley is off the charts and the two usher the franchise in a new direction.

Ford’s return to the iconic character ties us to the adventure. Expertly utilized to create an emotional connection to the audience, he wears the weight on his life in every gesture. He brings the emotion and love that made us fall in love with Solo in the first place. He’s at his best when he gets to mentor Rey, but his secret weapon remains his humor and charm. Ford had not been this good since The Fugitive in the 1990s. Limited screentime for Carrie Fisher felt special, and the two rekindle their spark. Fisher employs her own quick wit to bring her presence back to the franchise. Watching the two actors feel right and their scenes together make it hard to not smile.

The real divisive figure in The Force Awakens remains Driver. The actor keys into the anger and selfish nature of the character. His performance of Kylo never feels out of place. The problem lies in the writing, which often forces him to lash out like an unpredictable animal. There is no doubt he is the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, but to bring those character traits back into the universe was not the smartest choice. While Driver elevates the material, the first run at Kylo does not totally work.

The direction from Abrams stands out for its jaw-dropping visuals. He perfectly keys into the aesthetics and practical effects that made the original films thrive. For the first time since the 1980s, the grandiose setpieces matched the seemingly infinite galaxies. Rey riding across a desert felt right. Prosthetic monsters roam in cantinas and fighters fly through the skies within a newfound dexterity. Few directors can create as much emotion in a shot, but The Force Awakens does just that.

For many, The Force Awakens popped off the screen. The links to the new characters brought the franchise back in full force. You cannot really critique the storyline, because frankly it had already been told before. Despite this, it’s tough to ignore the amazing performances at the heart of the film. The Force Awakens is so earnest that it charms your pants off. Abrams writes the ultimate love-letter to the franchise. With the technical advancements and brilliant casting, The Force Awakens overshadows several classics, but falls short of some of the ingenuity of other films in the franchise.

GRADE: (½)

What did you think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Let us know in the comments below! Check out the other Star War rankings here! 

Check out our other reviews from We Bought a Blog here! Check out AJ’s Letterboxd to keep up with what he’s watching

Review: ‘6 Underground’ Is Pure Michael Bay Id Running Wild…Which Is Surprisingly Great

The absurdist and self-aware action film has become a genre unto itself. The landmark franchise within the subgenre remains The Fast and the Furious, but these throwbacks to the 1980s classics continue to grow in popularity. Perhaps no director better embodies this better than Michael Bay. The director has often been a punchline to cinephiles, yet he continues to make massive hit after massive hit. While he’s languished in the Transformers franchise for the majority of the decade, his work has always found an audience. This weekend, he released his most interesting project since 2013, with 6 Underground dropping on Netflix. The resulting insanity creates the ultimate Michael Bay movie of his career. With more explosions and non-sensical plot points than any movie he’s ever made, 6 Underground is another fun action romp.

6 Underground follows Ryan Reynolds‘ Ghost Ops team as they murder their way through the bad guys of the world. Reynolds plays One, a former billionaire tech mogul that faked his death to form a libertarian death squad. Rather than worry about political alliances or diplomatic third rails, his team exterminates anyone they perceive as a monster. They work outside the law and answer to no one. Reynolds leads the group but has plenty of psychotic and funny specialists in tow. The group plans a coup in the fictional country Turgistan (a real province in Pakistan) after One observes human rights atrocities committed by its dictator.

 Bay directs the team with ease and remains the star of 6 Underground. Advancing his frenetic style, his latest feature looks like 13 Hours or Pain & Gain. However, Bay blends his usual aesthetic with late Tony Scott and Go-Pro wielding parkour runners. The adrenaline comes across in every scene, making it one of his most visceral films in years. The director known for absurdist action brings that to life and 6 Underground works as his most exciting film since Bad Boys II. His libertarian side comes out in full view, and while the militaristic worship he’s employed over the past decade remains problematic. Despite these problems, 6 Underground‘s technical merits make this a must-watch for action junkies.

Reynolds bets big on himself as a franchise star, and it pays off. The success of the film weighs on his turn and Bay’s direction. Reynolds gets to play in the movie star sandbox here, coasting on his charisma and comedic timing. It’s not a bad performance by Reynolds by any means, but he can perform this role in his sleep. Still, there are not many actors that could spew his non-sensical monologues (let alone a half-dozen).

The actual team features a combination of foreign all-stars and young up-and-comers to fill out the team. Mélanie Laurent gets a showcase character. She’s both a badass and simultaneously nonsensical. Why Laurent jumped into this role is beyond me. The Inglourious Basterds actress has paved a career as an arthouse performer and director, but her “one for them” will give her the flexibility to really get her passion projects off the ground. Corey Hawkins continues his upward trajectory, and he gets the opportunity to show off his movie star persona here. Hawkins can disappear into a role when asked, but he’s starting to earn credit as a good performer for tentpole fare.

The issues with most Bay films are present as well. He lets the camera objectify his characters, especially the women. Guns and kills are fetishized throughout. 6 Underground reaches new levels of gore for Bay. His movies rarely feature blood, and this one pours it on by the bucketload. Bodies and corpses litter the street, and each setpiece offers its own level of destruction porn. None of this should surprise you if you’ve ever seen a Bay film, but to be clear these issues remain problematic and lower his potential as a filmmaker.

GRADE: (½)

What did you think of 6 Underground? Let us know in the comments below! 

Check out our other reviews from We Bought a Blog here! Check out AJ’s Letterboxd to keep up with what he’s watching

Review: ‘Marriage Story’ Features Good, Not Great, Performances

For decades, the push and pull between New York and Los Angeles has folded itself into the fabric of cinema. The coastal cities have created near monopolies on cultural influence around the world, with distinct styles emerging from each city. With the proliferation of filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, the danger and gruffness of New York created a clear dichotomy against Hollywood filmmaking. The new, gritty style often cashed in on the emotion of its characters. At the same time, Hollywood advanced the technology of filmmaking, using backlots and controlled environments to create worlds unlike any in existence.

While this dichotomous relationship within the industry has been present for decades, only a few films have truly cashed in on the subtle civil war at the movies. With the release of Mariage Story, director Noah Baumbach has crafted a raw and emotional Annie Hall in contemporary times. Thanks to its performances, some will see this as one of the definitive films of 2019. However, the film falters when it overexposes its actors, creating a theatrical instead of a natural feel to the film.

Marriage Story follows the devolving relationship of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver). Nicole was a teen star looking to break back into Hollywood entertainment. Charlie directs a successful acting troupe in New York, which Nicole headlined for years. After Nicole receives a deal to star in a pilot for a new series, she moves to Los Angeles with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Once there, she officially files for divorce and the two begin a legal battle that intensifies as divorce attorneys lawyers (Laura DernAlan Alda, Ray Liotta) get involved.

Baumbach’s story of a dissolving marriage should ring true for anyone who has seen a marriage destroy itself from the inside. His exploration of the destruction we do to one another during these ugly moments come from a raw and emotional place. At the same time, it appears that Baumbach has combined his own relationships with renowned actresses Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Jason Leigh to create an extremely personal tale. Regardless of how much of each relationship gets put on the big screen, it’s clear that there are no heroes here. Instead, these are two people who once cared for each other more than anything else in the world. That means they can hurt each other in ways no one else can. Baumbach’s direction and script give you ample opportunities to side with either person, but at the end of the day, he never makes clear who is right or wrong. This gives Marriage Story a resonance that few other films focused on divorce get the benefit of having.

For Driver, Marriage Story gives him enough material to really showcase his talents. At times, he’s transportive. You can read every inch of pain across his face as he struggles to cope with the events. His physicality surprises at times, allowing Driver to reveal a side of his talent we have not seen in previous roles. Yet other times, it feels as if he pushes the material too hard. The anger and frustration work for most of the film, but some will find it tough to not laugh at a moment or two.

Meanwhile, Johansson fluctuates between theater kid and genuine performance. It feels more intentional from her, and when she finds the raw emotion it really hits home. Yet she blends in odd ticks, including speaking out of the side of her mouth, with little reason beyond making the character more dynamic than the page allows. However, this can come off as too much. The character of Nicole should be too good, but the small distractions make her character come off as inauthentic. Perhaps this was Baumbach’s point, but if so it disrupts the very purpose of telling the story the way he does.

Perhaps the most egregious overacting comes from Dern. The veteran actress continues to prove she’s one of the best in the business, but the character’s ego overtakes the screen. Dern plays her with far less subtlety than her Big Little Lies character, and ultimately there are too many similarities to ignore. It would not be so glaring if she did not already play a better version of a similar character mere months ago. Dern is not bad, but I was hoping for more from the roles that will likely give her an Oscar win in February.

The remaining cast rounds out the cast perfectly. Alda shines as an incompetent lawyer, but a wonderfully enjoyable man. You feel drawn into his stories and analysis, but it’s only when you begin to listen to his words that its clear he’s outmatched. He’s one of the few genuinely good people in this film, and that light feels precious. Both Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver utilize their comedic timing to perfection. They embody the awkwardness of divorce and you’ll miss them when they leave the screen. Liotta gets some great sparring scenes with Dern, and two show their true talent between the court appearances.

For the most part, Marriage Story has earned its reputation as a complicated look at divorce. Johansson earns the standout status, and Driver should continue to build on his strong body of work. However, Baumbach’s style creates opportunities for unauthentic moments in a film that needs authenticity to work. Yet Marriage Story works its best when Baumbach opens up. There’s beauty within this terrible process, and those will be the moments we’ll remember.


What did you think of Marriage Story? Let us know in the comments below! 

Check out our other reviews from We Bought a Blog here! Check out AJ’s Letterboxd to keep up with what he’s watching

Review: Love, Trauma and Rebirth Drive Trey Edward Shults’ ‘Waves’ To Greatness

There are moments in our lives that divide our psyches. Intense, unrelenting trauma can destroy a person and forever change them. There are dozens of examples across film and literature, from pop culture gods like Voldemort to quiet pages of Of Mouse and Men. More often than not, these hurricane moments pull others into the storm, and this destruction can be the most fertile ground for exploration. Trey Edward Shults brings this exploration to life in gorgeous and absurdly personal Waves. There are before and after moments throughout the film, but one thing is clear: Shults will be known as a very good director before Waves, and a master after.

Waves opens on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young man growing up in South Florida. He wrestles, parties with his friends, and has fallen in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). At home, he has a seemingly perfect life. His sister Emily (Taylor Russell) keeps to herself in her room, his step-mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) cares for him, and his father (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him to excel. Yet beneath the surface, Tyler feels the pressure building.

Shults brings Waves to life as a roaring statement of visual and audio splendor. Pumping out tunes from Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Radiohead, Shults appears to have a synesthesic ability to utilize his soundtrack for storytelling. The use of pop and rap became so integral to the film, it was misreported to be a musical early in its development. When “I Am a God” or “Backseat Freestyle” fade into the background, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor pick up the pieces with a haunting score. The film’s use of color further immerses you, and the stylistic cinematography from Drew Daniels recalls Malik’s best work. The bright pinks, blues, and reds lead to some of the best use of bright fluorescent colors since Her. Paired with the music, Waves combines the visual audacity of bright colors with the roaring soundtrack to create a Fantasia-like dream aesthetic.

Yet even more interesting, Waves’ two-part structure cannot be ignored as an impressively daring storytelling tactic. There are moments before trauma and after trauma. There’s a real chance that you’ll hate the film at some point. I must confess, I felt disconnected from the story for some time. Yet the crescendo of the film crashes down on you and sweeps you away. Shults showcases the broken pieces of the people in life and recontextualizes them into a harrowing tale of love.

The entire cast comes to play, and its nearly impossible to single out a performer from the cast. The closest must be Russell, who earns breakout status for the moving portrayal of Emily. Her quiet disposition gives way to an emotional avalanche, and you want to reach into the screen and hug her. Luckily, Brown’s intense and loving role as her father is there to try to pick up the pieces. Despite the jokes about Brown as a tear-jerking, emotional actor, Brown’s range comes out in full force. In limited screentime, you can read every emotion across his face, and his world-view intimately shapes the events in question.

At the same time, Goldsberry and Harrison soar to their own heights. Harrison will become a superstar in the vein of Michael B. Jordan. He channels rage and charisma in similar, but even that undersells his incredible performance. To go from the young and quiet boy in Shults’ It Comes at Night to this tornado of a young man in Waves, it’s clear we have a prodigy on our hands. Goldsberry nearly stole the movie for me in one confrontation, and when she’s on-screen it is impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s truly one of the best performances of Motherhood this decade, even with the baggage she carries. With each of our four performers operating at different frequencies, the combined power creates an undeniably rich text of emotion and love.

Waves will likely be overlooked this year as the most recent film in the A24 “Florida Series,” including the experimental and pretty films MoonlightSpring Breakers, and The Florida Project. Yet each of these films takes different approaches to their material, and somehow Waves might be the loudest of all. Shults announced himself as a must-watch director when Krisha turned heads in 2015. Waves is the most ambitious and emotional film of his young career. It’s one of 2019 best and earns strong consideration to be included in any best of the decade list currently under construction.

GRADE: (½)

What did you think of Waves? Let us know in the comments below! 

Check out our other reviews from We Bought a Blog here! Check out AJ’s Letterboxd to keep up with what he’s watching

Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Uses Gentrification to Haunt the City by the Bay

In 2019, the Golden State Warriors opened a new stadium. The Chase Center would be a state-of-the-art celebration of a team that revolutionized basketball. It would also signal the death of a fanbase. Despite decades of playing in Oakland, the Warriors and owner Joe Lacob moved the team to San Francisco. After all, tech moguls and angel investors did not want to go to Oakland anymore. The city could not gentrify quickly enough, and San Fransisco tapped into a new crowd. Despite the culture that had built the team up, Oakland was not white enough to keep its team.

The Bay area has long been changing, despite the cultural backlash that’s begun to unfold. San Francisco’s been gentrified, with many African-American and Black families moving across the bay as they were priced out of their own neighborhoods. Actor Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot wrote 2019 Indie darling The Last Black Man in San Francisco because of the home Fails’ family actually lost. Giving Fails a starring showcase, Talbot creates a dreamlike world that showcases the ways in which culture, individuality, and creativity can be destroyed as we gentrify areas. Ironically enough, this action of gentrification destroys the very heartbeat of unique communities that draw invading neighbors to the area in the first place.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows Jimmie (Fails) as he wanders the San Francisco area with his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors). The two young men live with Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover) and run into trouble with the local community. One day they pass the childhood home where Jimmie grew up, a house built by his grandfather. Jimmie continues to fix up the house despite the new owner’s objections and pleas for him to stop. However, when the family disappears from the house, Jimmie and Mont move-in. In the months that follow, the men try to keep their newfound dream despite pressure from those around them to abandon the house.

For Fails, his autobiographical performance should propel him to stardom. The emotionally raw style of his role, as well as his vulnerability on display, makes him a standout. He goes big and creates excitement when needed, channeling the talents of a carnival barker. Fails shines brightest when he takes a backseat to his fellow performers, playing off their strengths to elevate scenes. His use of negative space and subtle moments showcases his true range. Screen presence like this is rare to come by. This breakthrough role should put Fails on your map as a potential star in the making.

Fails’ performance is helped by the tremendous Majors. The young actor has shown up in several films in recent years, but this gives him the most material to work from. Majors gets the showier of the two roles, thanks to Mort’s one-man show. While he plays up the artsy side of the character, his journey draws you into the fold. He’s a believer and his undying hope makes him easy to latch onto. As a perfect audience surrogate, Majors creates empathy for our characters. Yet at the same time, his choices create the most devasting outbursts of emotion on screen.

Talbot will surely come away from the project with significant heat. The director creates a dreamlike atmosphere from the opening frames of the film. Every image feels poignant and full of symbolism, yet a straight forward narrative exists. There are almost no fatty parts of the film and Talbot creates real tension. While The Last Black Man From San Francisco feels like the perfect Sundance film, the images he creates leaves you with the impression you’re watching a future master at work.

Talbot gives Fails and Majors room to differentiate themselves from the talented cast, and there’s no doubt they’re the stars. However, the ensemble features a half-dozen incredible performances. Glover’s brilliant in the role, physically and vocally transforming into the blind grandfather. His relationship with Majors becomes a centerpiece of the film, and he sells the chemistry and care you’d expect. The same can be said for Rob Morgan, who once again functions as a scene-stealer in a larger story. Morgan’s quickly become one of the great character actors on film, and despite limited screentime, he effectively cuts his fellow characters to their core. The pessimistic vision he has for the character helps sell Fails as the dreamer we need.

There may not be an indie darling quite like The Last Black Man in San Francisco in 2019, and that’s because few films will feel as singular in their vision. Thanks to Fails and Talbot, this movie roars to life as a modern-day fairytale. Their eye for storytelling makes them an exciting duo to keep an eye on, and with any luck, we’ve seen the birth of another brilliant filmmaking team. Even if this is the only time they collaborate, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the most exciting debut of the year.

Review: ‘The Report’ Takes a Hard Look at American Violence During The War on Terror

For nearly twenty years, the United States has found itself in conflict with an entire religion and subsection of the world. The Sysiphus-like task that the US embarked upon after the events of 9/11 has stretched across the globe. It’s also hard to dispute that some American follies in the Middle East have not exacerbated many of the issues at play. The Report attempts to reveal the truths about these problematic choices we made as government, which far extended past the Bush-era White House. As a piece of political storytelling, the new film from Scott Z. Burns tries to play tell the story from a non-partisan perspective. Its protagonist is a man seeking the truth. Yet on the way, some of these truths become hard to swallow, forcing us to look internally as a nation and culture.

The Report follows Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a career bureaucrat who wishes to serve his country as an anti-terrorism expert. He becomes a Senate Staffer under the direction of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning) and finds his way into writing reports on the Bush White House. In a post-9/11 America, he’s asked to investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation programs, which handled the torture of enemy combatants. As Jones begins to run into resistance from those outside and within the Democratic party, it becomes questionable if his report will ever see the light of day.

Burns puts his cards on the table early, loading the dialogue with detailed and gruesome information from the program. The stories that find their way into the discourse are tough to hear, but even tougher to watch. As Jones dives deeper into the rabbit hole, it seems like the stories grow even more upsetting. Juxtaposing Jones’ reading of the documents with flashbacks to the conversations and actions that came to define the program, Burns paints an exact picture about a sin of American policy.

Yet Burns also gets real credit for humanizing people behind those decisions. More importantly, he paints the picture of terror and frustration that reaks through the government at the time. For every self-important idiot who comes to create these disgusting programs, you see the very real person who believed they were keeping the United States safe. These were not acts perpetrated by evil people, but the acts themselves are unquestionably so.

Visually, Burns allows the dark hallways of government buildings to feel intimidating and lonely. As Driver’s character moves through the story, it’s clear that the power structures of Washington are against him. Many of the scenes feel reminiscent of Traffic or Spotlight, and blending the two vibes makes this one far from boring. Burns learned a lot from working with Steven Soderberg, and at times it can be hard to ignore the influence of the famed indie director (who serves as a producer on the film).

For Driver, this performance proves his movie star chops as he carries the picture. Driver finds ways to imbue emotion and frustration into frankly dry material, and in lesser hands, the audience would check out quickly. Yet with Driver at the helm, you want to eat the vegetables of American foreign policy, and understand the repercussions. Driver’s ability to hold his composure or wordlessly eviscerate an intelligent foe with a mere glance makes use of his extraordinary talent. It’s subtle acting at its finest, and if you have any doubt about Driver as a star, he channels the stillness of Hoffman and Keaton in the best of ways.

 The ensemble cast brings lots of great performances into the fold, but everyone takes a backseat to Driver. Benning’s Feinstein comes across as a woman in control, playing the editor role to perfection for Driver’s emotional journey. As she pushes or pulls at the right moments, she can easily be compared to a Ben Bradlee-type, which serves its purpose well in the context of the narrative.

Jon Hamm and Ted Levine offer up interesting contrasts to Driver, especially because of who they work for. The monologues they deliver speak most to today’s political climate, but ultimately misunderstand what the future will hold for the system. Michael C. Hall and Maura Tierney also get limited screentime, but this gives background characters the ability to pop.

For Burns, The Report shows tremendous growth and talent that could be brought out with the right project. He harnasses the cast well, and Driver’s standout performance makes this an interesting watch. However, the subject matter will undeniably alienate some members of the audience. Weirdly, being apolitical has become political in today’s climate, but the search for truth feels more essential than ever. The Report surely succeeds on those grounds and earns must-watch status for political junkies.


What did you think of The Report? Let us know in the comments below! Stream it on Amazon Prime today!  

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Review: ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Showcases the Brilliant Side of Eddie Murphy

It might be hard for younger audience members to seperate Eddie Murphy from his vocal roles in Shrek and Mulan, but for a moment in the 1980s was the definitive performer in the world. Combining the zaniness of Pryor with the likability of Wilder, Murphy emerged as a never before seen talent. Coming to America cemented itself as one of the top films of the decade, while Trading Places showed he could even enhance the cast around him. Its no wonder why Murphy became the shining star of his generation, but for years now he’s been away from the industry.

Absence certainly makes the heart go strong, and Murphy’s reemergence with Dolemite Is My Name should quickly remind you why we fell in love with him in the first place. Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), a perfect storm of artistry and talent makes Dolemite one of the most enjoyable films of the year. For Murphy, it means so much more, reasserting his power and talent to a new generation.

Dolemite Is My Name follows the life story of Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy). The comedian and entertainer struggled to break through in any meaningful way until he adopted the persona of Dolemite. The character itself drew from oral storytelling traditions, but in Moore’s hands, it became a foul-mouthed but hilarious figure within the underground comedy scene. After years of getting knocked around, Moore chooses to capitalize on the character he’s created by bringing Dolemite to the big screen. The film he created, 1975’s Dolemite, would become one of the legendary Blaxploitation films.

Murphy shows hunger and desire throughout the film, but also brings out a darker side to comedy. As comedians pass on or leave the world, we often hear stories about the need to entertain or laugh. That drive and passion come through for Murphy, and it’s hard to divorce the actor from the real-life inspiration for the film. Both became mainstays in American comedy for their profanity-laden storytelling, but at the same time, each brilliantly wove layers of commentary into the work. Hearing Murphy brings these classic comedy bits to life brings an energy to the screen that we’ve missed. Beyond that, he communicates so effectively through his eyes and facial expressions, that you cannot help but bond to Moore. He represents the dreamer in all of us, and Murphy perfectly captures Moore’s persona for the big screen.

What makes Dolemite better than many films of its ilk is the writing from Alexander & Karaszewski. The screenwriting duo behind Ed Wood and The People Vs. O.J. Simpson knows that stories like Moore’s should rarely be focused on a singular person. Yes, Moore (and Murphy) create a gravitational pull to their exploits. But it’s those that get sucked into the story that enriches the texture of the film. Dolemite becomes a story about family, even as it champions its lead character. Having the ability to cheer for a group of people almost gives Dolemite a heist-vibe, and all you want to see are these people succeed.

Undeniably anchoring this supporting cast is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who instantly establishes herself as a star. Playing off Murphy and accepting her own zany character within the character, Randolph pulls your attention from the rest of the film. She’s funny and charming in ways we rarely see, and the role’s heart makes it an ideal foil for Moore. The stellar ensemble also includes Keegan Michael-KeyTitus BurgessCraig Robinson, and Mike Epps. Everyone gets their moments, but each works best within the greater context of the film.

Wesley Snipes reemerges as the iconic actor that we grew to love him for. Instantly rekindling his movie-star persona, Snipes embodies the eccentric D’Urville Martin. The weird tics that Snipes adds to the character makes him all the more compelling. There’s a heart in what Snipes reaches for as an artist looking for recognition, but his solo approach creates an obvious message at the heart of the film. You cannot do this alone.

The all-star support doesn’t end in front of the camera. Ruth E. Carter, last year’s Costume winner for Black Panther, creates visually lush and dynamic looks. The characters feel at home in the era, and the recreation of the film’s costumes only further adds to the skill on display. Clay A. Griffith and the set design team lavishly recreate the sets and hotel that Moore lived in during the production of the film. The makeup team nails the hairstyles and looks of each character, fitting each of the actors with A-plus looks.

Dolemite Is My Name functions as a love letter to an era in cinema history, and to the joys of teamwork. Alexander & Karaszewski wisely used their clout to get a passion project made. To make Murphy the subject of that passion project cannot be underemphasized. Murphy’s return to the big screen was long overdue. For the holidays, there are few films that better understand the importance of family and being together than this one.


What did you think of Dolemite Is My Name? Can Eddie Murphy break into the Oscar hunt? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Review: ‘Frozen II’ Is Not as Good As the Original, But Holds Its Own

Back in 2013, the phenomenon that was Frozen stormed into theaters. At the time, I worked at Disney and for a couple weeks, there were very few requests for anything outside of Olaf or Sven. However, the mood eventually changed, and as the ugly winter of 2013 continued, audiences became hooked. The Idina Menzel ballad “Let It Go” broke through on the pop music charts, and the rest was history.

Now, six years later, our favorite cold weather friends returned to the big screen. While they’ve made intermittent appearances in shorts, their second full-length adventure was one of the most anticipated films of the year. With a rather disappointing slew of contenders for the Animated Feature Oscar this year, the hype continued to build. Sadly, Frozen II does not live up to the original. However, Frozen II handles its business, crafting another solid chapter in the franchise.

The story picks up with Queen Elsa (Menzel) ruling over Arendelle with the help of her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Their little family includes a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad),  Anna’s boyfriend Christoph (Jonathan Groff), and Christoph’s reindeer Sven. Elsa continues to hear a song from the mountains and accidentally uses her magic to unlock an ancient threat. Using knowledge from their mother’s (Evan Rachel Wood) bedtime lullabies and their father’s stories, the group ventures into an enchanted forest.

The overall story gives us some good moments for character development. The majority of the film focuses on Anna and Elsa, and with good reason. Despite learning the power of sisterhood, their relationship needs further growth. While each can have a strong personality in their own right, they over-rely on each other, creating a bit of a co-dependent relationship. The film openly acknowledges its audience has grown up, using Olaf to tell the story of what it means to grow older, but it’s through Anna and Elsa that we see how growing up affects our relationships. Another interesting aspect of political dialogue weaves its way into the story. For the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free, I won’t dive in, but the discussion within the film is worthy of being held. Perhaps most surprising of all, Frozen II handles this subplot with grace, making it a clear high point of the film.

While Frozen had some spectacular musical numbers, that becomes one of the major defects of Frozen II. Less Broadway musical and more ballad filling, most of the songs are forgettable. However, Into the Unknown” quickly establishes itself as the song of the film, even it’s mostly in place to let Menzel blast away. The very weird “Lost in the Woods” should be fun for fans of 1980’s ballads and its fun to actually see Groff showcase his talent. Gad’s comedic talents are put to good use in this one, but his song greatly underwhelms. While Kristen Anderson-Lopez and husband Robert Lopez have become a mainstay at Disney, this feels like their weakest output to date. That said, “Into the Unknown” could easily be our Oscar winner come February, and it would be a deserving win.

The animation quality suffers a little bit this time around, but that’s not the animator’s fault. The use of water creates some beautiful shots, and even some of the fire pops off the screen. However, with How to Train Your Dragon returning this year as well, the environments feel dull by comparison. Creatures born out of these other elements help, but ultimately the dough-faced characters they used to launch the series cannot be advanced much from their original iterations. Without that opportunity, it feels like the first film was more ambitious in its animation, making this feel like an odd step back for Disney.

Frozen II will certainly appeal to hardcore fans of the first film, which seems like it was most people. However, this will be seen as a good but not great sequel to the first film. That said, there are important lessons in the film, and the ability to tell a female-centered story without turning the women on each other continues to feel like a breath of fresh air.


What did you think of Frozen II? Who is the favorite for the Animated Feature Oscar? Let us know in the comments below! 

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