Saturday, January 13, 2018

'Proud Mary," All Maternal Fluff And Little Action

Proud Mary film poster.

Proud Mary's purposely orchestrated trailer had audiences eager and excited, fists pumped and everything. At the start, slick designed credits had that black pulp aesthetic, like Foxy Brown meets Cleopatra was coming to town, the 1970's color scheme and bubbled letters flaring up the hype. Taraji P. Henson’s Mary dons on her deadly femme assassin’s gear complete with bobbed blond wig, enters an apartment, and shoots her shot with a silencer before the poor victim can speak a word. Mary then looks around and spies a child inside his bedroom, a boy that will suddenly become the center of her world, essentially center this whole entire film. 

The film flat lines for a long while before picking up a heartbeat.

Mary (Oscar nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Oscar robbed for Hidden Figures Taraji P. Henson) means business-- only of the motherly kind.
For a while, there are no wig disguises, no hit lists, no fights. That enticing opener had revealed sexy colored hair pieces (ugh, why didn't she wear that red one?) and an arsenal of high tech guns, but Mary is so focused on motherhood, on becoming a surrogate beacon of hope to poor, beaten Danny, the child she feels utterly responsible for. It becomes a pure drama with missing beats, with writing having no quality continuity, confusing dips between drama and action genre-- which isn't at all believably consistent.

Mary (Taraji P. Henson) and Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) have a good connection.
Despite the countless hiccups, two action scenes stood out. The first featured Mary and her ex, Tom sending out a “message” to a rival group not to mess with them. The dynamic twosome, dressed in black embodying Bonnie and Clyde, entered in quietly, battling and shooting their targets in "yippee ki yay" fashion, flipping each other around, exchanging fire power back to back and side to side. It was a gorgeous blend of black woman and black man in sweet satisfactory action, their sophisticated movements and agile bodies in sync, the sexual energy charged and wasted, the chemistry desperately needing to be more than what was scripted.

However, Mary is an awesome, badass lone woman. She has a great, tastefully decorated apartment with a giant TV and sectional furniture, a well stocked fridge in a clean, modern designed kitchen, and marvelous bedroom equipped with a dream girl walk in closet for her wardrobe. So guilty conscience and all, at least the assassin life pays well.

The other pivotal action sequence was the juicy, jaws dropping climax that had Mary doing the most epic slide shooting ever. It was outrageously wild, popcorn fun, watching her single-handedly demolish the patriarchy (so to speak), blasting them all the way to hell, injured and all. Again, it would have been far more enjoyable for it to be about her escaping the organization, taking the controlling reins of her own destiny, telling Benny and his boys to kiss her black buns, but it turned into a saintly play for motherhood, with her last bullet reserved for letting that fact be known, "I'm the mothering type!"

Oh hell naw.
Another star of the film was the guilt carried by Mary (Taraji P. Henson). This guilt smothered the story, this drama.  
Henson executive produced Proud Mary, a piece lacking in depth and details. Perhaps even she couldn’t possibly predict the outcome of viciously destroyed potential, the power of being more than what these writers put forth. For starters, they didn’t utilize the breadth of wondrous Margaret Avery, one of history’s greatest actresses, having her Minnie character serving as a wife and mother role, telling Mary that she couldn’t fathom abandoning a child is a cheap attempt at passing the Bechdel. They should have had these two beautiful, immensely talented black women discussing notorious crimes, fighting styles, great wig companies, or which African vendor sells the best authentic cocoa butter on the market. Hell, near the end, Minnie should have arrived with guns blazing, scorned and pissed. Alas, Minnie was lacking just as Mary, who needed more fight and fury than crying. The writers seemed to try balancing Mary's humanist emotions with that of an assassin, that her traumatic childhood, homelessness, and Benny taking her in and training her (among other unmentionable missing parts) were reasons for her behavior. One wonders how many hits has Mary made, how many of them had children, and why it took Danny for her maternal clock to tick tock.

Danny Glover portrays villainous Benny who could have also been much more than a yelling, furrowed brow old man. After all, Glover was a monster in The Color Purple (also starred Avery). It seemed Benny had performed grisly acts upon Mary, the incestuous vibes of a father/son were a wee bit strong. Still, it's part a weird fear in movies where filmmakers don't want to cross the bridge of black characters being too evil.

Proud Mary had eye candy for everyone, but neglected to let these desires manifest. So comes the pros and cons of Mary not having a love interest. The pros are that she is strong, valiant, graceful. She is comfortable in her own skin, seen in the tight, hugging outfits, the way she carries herself. She knows she's a gorgeous woman. Certainly, there are emotional issues within, a few pieces of the past that cannot be buried. Then again, maybe the past is why she is alone. It is so feminist, so contemporary, especially as she is the only woman in this all male organization. The cons of her lack of interest pertains to her being reduced to maternal instincts, to not being desired for the passionate woman she is. For starters, before Proud Mary, an awful Jennifer Lawrence trailer featuring her with a bad accent had her femme character kissing and grinding with men half her age (as usual). Mary doesn’t make out or touch a man's fine chiseled cheekbones. Sure, she gets felt up (uncomfortably over a slice of red velvet cake) and Tom wants things to be how they used to be. Tom has the silver spoon syndrome, his father spoiled him, probably "gave" him Mary as a gift or something around those disgusting lines, and Tom feels entitled to her.  

Tom (How to Get Away With Murder's Billy Brown) and Mary (Taraji P. Henson) on the set.
Proud Mary need not to be extra controversial, definitely needed a vital tale worthy of the revenge tagline, but enjoyable for Miss Henson kicking serious butt.

Everything else was clouded in a smoky enigma.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

'Mudbound' Is The Most Important Film Release of 2017

Mudbound film poster.

Some films are good. Some films are terrific. Only few will tug at a person's innermost emotions and grip them in its strong, riveting chokehold like a tough, combative wrestler by very end. And Mudbound is that nitty, gritty fighter film that ignites countless thought.
An intense American historical drama entailing egregious societal infrastructure set in stone for black and white residents of the deep South, Mudbound is a real solid game changer for a Netflix feature. Writer/director/producer, Dee Rees addresses-- with such vital clarity-- this racially fueled class system that has established a gross power imbalance since colonialism and slavery upset the natural selection of the whole entire world, leaving behind a great generational devastation.

For starters, raised by Pappy, a vulgar racist father, Jamie and Henry McAllan are brothers who couldn't be any more different from one another. While younger Jamie is bright, reckless, and charismatic, older Henry is a practical and spineless simpleton. Metaphorically throughout the film, the analogy is crystal clear-- Jamie represents dawning of a needed crucial change-- accepting others regardless of race, status, and creed whereas Henry holds on tightly to white privilege like a stern, stubborn mule, his father's son without crass indecency.

Henry marries a spoiled socialite, Laura and they have two children. Henry, who imposes his male dominance over Laura, makes the decision to waste their money on farmland down in Mississippi, and Laura, who absolutely detests the move, has no authority on the matter. Jamie is fighting on European soil, dropping bombs from the sky, bearing witness to the ugly, violent sides of war. The accumulation of medals and honors do not diminish mental and emotional trauma. Jamie returns to America scarred and hurting, using drinking as a consolatory outlet for his pain.

In Mississippi, the Jackson family are humble brood, led by Hap, a preacher with a passionate, authoritative voice in the church and Florence, a loving, devoted mother who would do anything to break the psychological cycle of a mother she barely knew. Ronsel, their eldest son, goes off to become a soldier, thrown into the same fiery ring as Jamie, but is treated like an equal.

The McAllan's and the Jackson's intersect on this gorgeous piece of muddy land with promises of becoming more than what anyone has ever dreamed. However, the power balance is established the moment Henry rudely interrupts the Jackson's dinner, forcing the master and slave relationship to take repulsive shape, eventually threatening to rupture the mesmerizing strength of Hap and Florence. It is quite fascinating to address the differences between how Henry treats Laura and how Hap sees Florence. Henry and Laura are a union of comfort, a product of society privilege. When it comes to Jamie, Laura comes to life, having bitten the taste of forbidden passion, that real intense ardor that of course, Pappy can see. In Hap and Florence's case, the love and tenderness is a sweet dosed prescription of strong, foundational black romance. Hap sees Florence as an equal, a queen and he respects her.

Under the wary, watchful eyes of town, Jamie and Ronsel return from war, changed, eventually forming an intriguing bond.  

Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) befriends Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) despite the turmoil of white and black mingling beyond silent acknowledgement.
"Have you ever been with a white woman?" Jamie asks Ronsel.

Ronsel smiles with pride, jogs around the answer before diving into the nitty gritty affirmative, then later adding:

"We had to show them who we were."

Ronsel's words about proving his humanity to white women (aka sexually) is a startling revelation about black people's desire to be on equal footing with their oppressor. Since his return, he wishes to make the white men see him as a man, especially considering that he fought on their side during war. European white women had freely dallied with Ronsel and his black cavalry, that is after these men proved their fetishist worth, why doesn't the white men show such appreciative kindness, respect even?

In another power trip, after learning what Florence (Mary J. Blige) can do, spoiled Laura (Carey Mulligan) demands the woman to work for her on a permanent basis.
This mirrors Laura's interpretation of Florence. When Henry fetches the woman to cure his daughters' whooping coughs, Laura doesn't warm up to the idea at first, until she realizes that Florence is indeed useful. Without asking Florence herself, Laura demands that the woman "help" her with the children. Reluctantly, Florence agrees, breaking her own inner promise, sadly repeating the life of her mother.

Henry (Jason Clarke) once again requesting help from Hap (Rob Morgan).
Mudbound is rich, concise, layered complexity. The cast operates like a well oiled machine, perfecting their individual parts with brilliant tenacity, grace, and harrowing conviction. Their gritty Southern twanged voice overs, like vital, melodic poems recited at the podium, are painful, dispirited, joyous stories of strife and happiness, of wanting and valuing change, of simple desires. The watchers must snap fingers and cheer collectively at these performances. Mary J. Blige is utterly wonderful as Florence, valiant, soft, and encouraging, with her expressive facial expressions, vocal ability to being a compassionate wife to a broken mother. Carey Mulligan also holds her own as a privileged woman torn by social duty and captivating passion for things that she cannot have. Jason Mitchell is great at portraying Ronsel's struggles with coming back to a town that doesn't deserve his allegiance-- the ending alone ensures a huge sob fest. Plus Kennedy Derosin plays Lilly May Jackson, the young daughter of Hap and Florence, aspiring to become a stenographer. In one scene, she stands her ground against her laughing brothers who don't believe black people can step out of their station. Florence sternly tells him that Lilly May can become anything she wants to be. That smile shared between mother and daughter as well as the scene of Lilly May reading stenography books are beautiful touches about chasing dreams and receiving the treasure of female support. On Film Comment, Rees explains why she choose this path as opposed to Hillary Jordan's original writing.  

"My grandmother grew up in the small town of Ferriday in Louisiana,” said Rees. “She was born in 1925, and she’d talk about riding on her mother’s cotton sack. They owned their land, but they farmed it, and her parents cultivated cotton. She decided early on that she didn’t want to do that, nor did she want to be a domestic. She said she wanted to be a stenographer, so that was a touch I added in the film, when the Jacksons’ daughter declares her career ambition. In [Hillary Jordan’s] book, she can sing, but I didn’t want it to be the typical ‘little black girl can sing’ thing. I found it more interesting that she had this other ambition.”

Dee Rees for The Undefeated. Photo by Khoolod Mid.
Everyone and their grandparents should watch Mudbound. Yes, it would have been epic to see this in theaters, to witness this resoundingly important piece be on the giant big screen. Still, it's humbling to be at home, to not pause this history, to let every bit of the McAllans and the Jacksons steal eyes and ears. Don't let the Netflix factor fool you or anyone else into believing that this isn't a worthy accomplishment of integrity nestled between the acting, the cinematography, music, and all.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Thank You, Christy Marx For 'Jem and the Holograms'

Jem and the Holograms debuted on October 6, 1985.
I don’t remember watching cult animated classic Jem and the Holograms during childhood, but my mom swears that it happened. Apparently, I sat in front of the television, fixated on the screen, drawn by these women pop rock musicians and their super sophisticated computer, Synergy. Perhaps, it is true, that my love for purple is deeper than imagined, that the purple haired afro fashionista Shana may have been the catalyst to my lifelong passion for the color.

Plus the theme song is catchy.

Shana Elmsford, the purple afro queen, is a drummer and fashion designer. She was voiced by Cindy McGee who also voiced Starlight Girls Chrissy and Lela.
A few years ago, The Hub Channel aired 1980's throwback cartoons: Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe with Jem and the Holograms capturing my utmost attention. Viscerally stunned by the stylish foursome (turned quintet in later seasons), I tuned into late night marathons, growing intrigued by the inherited Synergy machine, Jerrica Benton's her one-named alter ego, Jem, and the amazing band: songwriter/keyboardist, Kimbra Benton (Jerrica's younger red haired sister), blue-haired guitarist Aja Leith, and drummer/fashion designer/bassist, Shana Elmsford. Technical engineer and road manager, Rio Pacheco was an honorary member with drummer Carmen "Raya" Alonso coming on board much later to temporarily replace Shana, who wanted to pursue a fashion design career.

Jem and the Holograms' unique, pop art palette came alive with great colors and stellar patterns. Plus the frequent outfit changes were rare in a cartoon. The impressive 1980's fashion statements showcased top notch funky, sophistication, irresistible in the many sleek, fantasy fantastic music videos playing in every episode. From band members to the Starlight girls, almost every character sang a tune among magical segments about journey, love, family, and happiness.
The first words, Synergy ever recited were, "Jerrica Benton, I have come for you."
After the death of Emmett Benton whose Starlight Music Company conjoined with his foster children "The Starlight Girls," from her beloved father, Jerrica inherits red star shaped earrings, secret projectors that allow Jerrica and Synergy to communicate and create the Jem hologram.

Jem and the Holograms jamming out.
One of the biggest coops was the Jerrica/Rio/Jem love triangle. Complications went funnily overboard with Jem seducing Rio away from Jerrica. A truly, truly outrageous moment was the song, "Who Is He Kissing?" Rio is making out with a fake version of his girlfriend, which leads to the how. Holograms aren't real. Yet Jem is touchable and kissable. He can't distinguish the difference. Jerrica doesn't want to say anything. The obvious distrust leads to dispute central. Perhaps Jerrica didn't really trust her boyfriend. After all, she did make a third alter character just to test him.

Kind-hearted, thoughtful, and sincere, generous Gemini, Jerrica Benton is lead singer, Jem. She is voiced by Samantha Newark while Britta Phillips sings.

Rio loves Jerrica but......

he has a major thing for Jem.
The other girls had relationships. Boy hungry Kimber had various boyfriends of her own, Shana entered a relationship with film director Anthony Julian, and Aja fell for Stormer's brother, Craig Phillips, who was almost the new drummer for the band.

Kimber is the other wiizardress behind the curtain. Next to Synergy's incredible machine, Kimber's role has importance-- she wrote every Jem' song from the heart. She also says "Outrageous" the most.

Aja, the tomboy auto mechanic, is the most problematic one. She doesn't have a lot of episodes focused on her. Although she is an Asian-American character, her voice work is done by a white actress who also does Kimber, Princess Adriana (Kimber's doppelganger), and Starlight Girl, Ashley.  A real miss here.
Last addition Raya was a nice final addition. Late Asian American actress Linda Dangcil voiced her.

One of the several Shana centric episodes, "In Stitches," is delivers a sweet message about believing in your art and putting best foot forward even in the most desperate times.

The best thing about Jem and the Holograms aka Jem, Her Sister and Their Best Friends, however, is their sisterhood. They are always there for one another and support each other. They are a loving, beautiful family that extends to every Starlight Girl. It was especially tough for Kimber to befriend each girl that the Bentons adopted, but eventually she came to her senses. This illustrated an often tough reality in families, the brewing jealousy that comes with questioning if parental love can be divided equally-- biological verses adopted.

Attempted murderers Stormer, Pizazz, and Roxy.

The Misfits, an alternative girl band with feisty, pulp punk edge, were on the opposite spectrum of the Jem team's goody goody image. Rude, obnoxious rivals, who though talented and beautiful, allowed misplaced jealousy and ambition to corrupt their integrity. Led by rich, spoiled Phyillis "Pizazz" Gabor (lead singer and rhythm guitar), docile Mary "Stormer" Phillips (often reluctant to be full fledged evil, keytar and lyricist) and feisty Roxanne "Roxy" Pellegrini, the trio (who later turned quad with British saxophonist Jetta). Portion of blame rests on Eric Raymond, former associate at Starlight Music, a greedy, misogynistic crook stopping at nothing to win and takeover his former . Their schemes were horrific attempted murder plots that made this animated pop tart a bit hard to watch. Plus the stalking and bullying were not fun extremes. A lot of my friends consider The Misfits a pleasurable favorite, but their pettiness overwhelmed the bad girl dynamic. It seemed like two very different musically styled bands could not get along much less find a common ground (joy of music and fashion) to exist together. One had to be super positive while the other was borderline evil, except Stormer whose moral compass actually worked.

The many faces of Eric Raymond via Synergy's hologram of course.

Still, some memorable highlights were episodes that focused on Roxy's illiteracy (season two's Roxy) and Stormer's sweet side gig with Kimber when both songwriting/keyboardists momentarily quit their respective groups (season two's The Bands Break Up).

The awesome Aja, Shana, Jem, and Kimber telling Raya that she is one of them.
With the many animated reboots lately, it is such a shame that Jem and the Holograms (ignore that horrible trite that just stole its name) are left off revisit lists. For years, Christy Marx and devoted fans have wanted this to happen.

There are problematic issues. Every show, especially cartoons, have major flaws. With Jem and the Holograms, however, Marx showed a real investment in having every girl see herself in an inclusive pop band. Jerrica/Jem, Kimber, Shana, Aja, and Raya had individual style, a sense of uniqueness that was a huge crossing bridge in the 1980's decade.

To this day, Jem and the Holograms remains one of the most truly, truly outrageous cartoons that ever existed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

'Brown Girl Begins' Gives Us The Afrofuturist Heroine We've Been Waiting For

Brown Girl Begins film poster.
At the Urbanworld Film Festival, an extraordinary film debuted.

I never thought a day would come to see a heroine who looked like me, a family member, or a dear friend.

Yes, I had seen the fantastic trailer and drooled at beautiful visuals.

However, three minutes wasn't enough preparation for a splendidly grand feast.

For perhaps the first time, in Brown Girl Begins, with Ti-Jeanne, we witness compelling depth of black women complexity. Her dark brown skin, an embraced anomaly, screamed joyful sentiment. One didn’t need to have bi-racial genes to be a beautiful, fiery leader-- to be Hollywood's only version of black. Her giant, wiry curled hair, out and free or braided elegantly, tall, graceful curved figure was as powerful and strong as any typical long haired spry, tiny white vixen.

In most big budget post-apocalyptic science fictions, the world disposes brown and black people, leaving white to rule as they always have prior. To those filmmakers, it is as though in some strange sadistic way, colonialism has not only taken over and destroyed almost everything possessed throughout history, it survives the future whilst finding new area to thrive and conquer. The lead must be a white man or a white woman. Even though Book of Eli and I Am Legend showed black men as lone valiant protagonists, black women were invisible, unvoiced with the women (sidekick) roles filled by Alice Braga and Mila Kunis respectively.

The past haunts Ti-Jeanne to the point where she refuses forget about what happened to her mom, Mi-Jeanne (Keeka King, left). On the other hand, Mami (Shakura S'Aida, right)) wants Ti-Jeanne to accept her fate.
Brown Girl Begins changes the narrative.

In the year 2049, left behind in the gruesome ghetto conditions, in dystopian Toronto, the fate of desecrated world rests with one girl, a girl with a fearful past that could possibly change the future. Clairvoyant Ti-Jeanne is a skilled natural healer and herbalist who knows every plant's medicinal properties and uses them to make concoctions against the brutal scars inflicting poor, desperate addicts.
However, in order to become even greater, more powerful than ever, it is her destiny to allow Papa Legba to seep his ancient power inside of her own human body and take over.
Due to complicated memories of the past, she doesn't want this.
In a golden afro halo, exceptional makeup including little silver rhinestones on her lipstick, and floating ethereal lavender dress, Ovo (Measha Brueggergosman) is the equivalent of a fairy godmother/guardian angel, assigned to Ti-Jeanne, watching over her and singing in high suspenseful octaves. 
Handsome Tony enters the picture. Instantly, Ti-Jeanne is smitten, falling hard for Mami's new volunteer delivery man. Seeing their idyllic closeness and obvious attraction, with wary eyes and stern tongue, Mami forbids them to stay away from each other.

But alas, Ti-Jeanne listens to her heart. A beautiful montage happens between Ti-Jeanne and Tony: sharing tentative first kisses and brown eyed stares in woodsy abyss, collecting chopped tree branches, and stolen touches of budded love. When Ti-Jeanne and Tony come together, staying at his high towered place, dark brown skin meet over and around dark brown skin, colliding slowly, softly, passionately. These magical, tenderly placed scenes share divine love between these two characters. As it grows and deepens, the arousing, euphoric peace they blissfully experience becomes further tangled as outer threats become greater.

Still, black forbidden love, heartbreakingly poignant and sweetly sincere, is executed brilliantly.

Ti-Jeanne (Mouna Traoré) and Tony (Emmanuel Kabongo) have a bittersweet forbidden love story. 
In the midst of keeping foundational relationship together, however, is the problematic circumstances wrought by horrendous segregation, a glaring "history repeats itself" allegory, but with more technological warfare. The isolated suburbs, floating silver skyscrapers rising from endless rivers, are the dream, a metaphoric picket fence, so close, so in reach. Yet to obtain its valuable resources, protected by an impenetrable spherical fortress and isolated by poisonous waters, is a dangerous risk that has taken lives. Those left behind are barely hanging on, limited by resources, a slave to monstrous addictions.

Suddenly, this world of Ti-Jeanne's inner intimate circle feels contemporary, feels present.

It is adjacent to now-- the Flint water crisis, implanted drugs in poverty stricken  neighborhoods, the white supremacists in Congress sabotaging health insurance...

Ti-Jeanne (Mouna Traoré) and mute Gracie (Hannah Chantée) have a tenderly portrayed relationship of dear sisters and close friends.
Sharon Lewis's remarkable direction is a vivid combination of shaky camera angles, lingering stills, and colorful shots. Her refusal to snuff whittled campaign to give life to Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring is an inspiration to all filmmakers to not give up, to keep hold of vision, and believe that it will be seen. She had earned the book rights fifteen years ago and worked hard on obtaining a budget, revealing the hardships in finding money to fund this incredible pursuit-- a full-length feature science fiction film starring mostly black actors living in the future, in a winsome story channeling elements of mysticism, fantasy, romance, and drama. Background music choices, which bordered on independent, trip hop like sounds with melodic, serene voices, blended coherently with sensational visuals. And the lighting, which someone mentioned, highlighted brown and black hues beautifully in brightness and shadows.

Moreover, Mouna Traoré was an astounding fire starter, a gem to watch, playing each note of Ti-Jeanne's multi-faceted humanity. Her big doe eyes expressed love for her family, for friends, for her boyfriend, and for her community. To allow that love to transform into grief and sorrow as her balance falls apart, as that balance then manifests into fearlessness and strength, showed that this actress has phenomenal range. She had amazing chemistry with Emmanuel Kabongo, who too portrays a deeply layered character, a man wanting to be a good boyfriend while his honorable intentions are stripped away, peeling and peeling, putting him up to a test that is too difficult to pass.   

Ti-Jeanne (Mouna Traoré) reigns supreme.
Brown Girl Begins unveils profound beauty in a fragile, corruptive society, like an opening flower opening petals upon a barren, bleak landscape. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant she-ro, is brave, smart, and gifted, restoring balance and hope, bringing prosperous healing to not only her shattered, devastated community, but to an audience who often imagined themselves at the cusp of such a story, but rarely saw fruition, unsown seeds plowed into earth. Well, what seemed like forever is now. It is finally arrived. This wondrously rendered art can be the catalyst to expanding conversations about black women heroes, especially in the science fiction realm.

Thanks to Hopkinson and Lewis, a black girl can see herself in the future saving the world.

Friday, September 8, 2017

'The Hedgehog' Crawls Out of Its Cloister to Offer Refined Pleasure

The Hedgehog film poster.
Two seemingly different female protagonists center The Hedgehog-- Paloma, an intelligent, very gifted eleven-year-old planning suicide before her next birthday and Renée Michel, the fifty-year-old apartment super who when not cleaning up the mess of her aristocratic tenants devours chocolates and reads an illustrious world of classical books alongside a lazy fat cat.
According to Paloma, the richly shallow life is as boring as a water filled goldfish bowl. Her chaos includes an annoyed father who sweeps a secret cigarette habit under the rug, a neurotic mother who cries so often it's pathetic, and a wickedly snobbish sister, Columbe.

Paloma (Garance La Guillermic) is the unwanted director in this brilliant picture directed by a woman.
Both women are seeking refuge- Paloma makes it her business to hide anywhere in the apartment, filming every bit of the adults faults and criticizing every crumbling flaw. She is a precocious adolescent girl embracing her creative genius, being energetic, taking action, and having a grand scheme of ideas. The camera pans majestically towards her wall of marvelous squares, making some of her black stroked marks come to life in short animation. One of the most memorable scenes is a pen study of Ms. Michel, a woman closeted in a well-refined atmosphere, a haven that is a most inspiring place to Paloma. That in which is turned into a little pop up gift, that immensely delights Ms. Michel.
On the other side, Ms. Michel is a real life hermit, cloisters herself inside of an outer dowdy appearance of slacken clothes and unkempt hair, refusing to showcase an intellectually compelling mind. Behind closed doors, sequestered with books and a refrigerator of chocolate bars lined up together, Ms. Michel wants for nothing. She is comfortable in the life she has set, a quiet, peaceful choice that makes her happy.
Enter the new neighbor, Mr. Ezo, a Japanese gentleman takes the small community by storm, seeming to elevate the status of the apartment. Intelligent, cultured, and very successful, he takes an immediate shine to Ms. Michel, thinking her to be of worthy pursuit, especially since she quotes Tolstoy and has a cat named Leo. Infectiously charming schoolgirl shyness makes Ms. Michel appear youthful and beguiling as she starts to break out of a vulnerable shell, allowing herself albeit a bit hesitantly to fully emerge into the refined world that Mr. Ezo generously shares with her. He literally takes her outside of the written word and into places she never expected, to unexplored delights of companionship and the blossoming elements of a refreshing kind of love.
Though one could argue why would it take a man to show Ms. Michel the world? Couldn't she do that by herself? The answer is that she has already traveled far and wide, from coast to coast with the luxury of chocolate and Leo. In those volumes, rich in sophistication and cultivated gems, she has been everywhere and probably farther than most of her neighbors ever will.
And the sad thing is that only Paloma and Mr. Ezo know that truth.

Ms. Michel (Josiane Balasko) enjoys solitary pleasure with Leo, her Tolstoy named cat.
With an observant Paloma stating to Mr. Ezo that she finds Ms. Michel to be just like a hedgehog, that underneath the concierge's "prickly" exterior, there's a soft, refined elegance. The young girl couldn't have been any more poetic, more concrete in her honest critique. Rather touching and eloquent, the most wonderful aspect was that Ms. Michel didn't have to be in the scene to hear it.
Whenever they're together, it's relevant that Paloma and Ms. Michel have a very special relationship that is genuinely unique and rarely captured in cinema- one planning to die and the other starting to live vivaciously!
In turn, it is Mr. Ezo and Paloma that make matronly Ms. Michel smile, interact, and become cordially inviting.
Yet just on the brink of an amazing rebirth, a captivating transformation that transcends physical appearance, tragedy strikes unexpectedly rocking the lives of the three intertwined individuals.

Ms. Michel (Josiane Balasko) and Paloma (Garance La Guillermic) sharing a tender moment. 
While her sister, Columbe is hellbent on not being on camera, perhaps not too eager to reveal her destructive and spoiled sensibilities, Ms. Michel is much braver, expelling humility behind a grand façade, emptying the crevices of a barren heartbroken soul as Paloma records. The woman may have considered herself "fat, ugly, and lonely" but she enjoyed her modest seclusion- laughing and crying in between her rather blunt confessions.
Overall, though with humorous quips and warm hearted charm, the reality of the situation in Paloma's case is that the obsession with suicide is quite a serious topic, especially when she intentionally poisons her sister's goldfish, an important iconic element in the film. It's maddening to contemplate, much less put forth into action as she was taking one pill a week from her mother and one has to wonder what is her next phase after the audience exits. What will she continue recording? Will her creative spirit dissipate?
Such a wonderful film that raises pivotal questions about the deception of appearances, closely guarded enigmas, and the exteriors and interiors of the human psyche. Once the key to unlock the door is offered, would anyone even want to open that possibility or just walk away from curious intrigue and crush remarkable destiny?

Director Mona Achache.
The Hedgehog states that it is okay to let someone in, that one doesn't always have to relish in loneliness. Happening in the least expected of circumstances, sometimes companionship can be the most awe striking phenomenon. Josiane Balasko and Garance La Guillermic had a charismatic partnership that dazzled the screen. It is truly believeable that Ms. Michel and Paloma would strike up a unique relationship, for she provided the mentorship that Paloma desperately needed, a desire to live, and love life.

Kudos to Mona Achache for adapting Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Hopefully, Achache is not only crafting more films for future generations, that she is inspiring a new crop of other female directors and producers trying to carve out their place in this male dominated arena. She did a wonderful work, showing strengths, weaknesses, and vitality in these memorable characters, creating a beautiful, humorous, sweetly engaging picture.

It is one that I continue watching over and over again.

* Although edited this post first appeared here.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Coming to America: Hermione Granger Through A Black Woman Lens

Hermione Granger's Quarter Life Crisis.

In J. K. Rowling's epic magical world of men and mayhem, Hermione Granger was the smart, resourceful witch who outsmarted the most horrific baddies. She survived giant trolls, venomous snakes, and the menacing Bellatrix Lestrange (whom I'll never forgive for killing my beloved Sirius). Behind the infamous Boy Who Lived aka Harry Potter, it was Hermione who while embodying feminist principles, a champion with sharp wit, supreme intellect, and phenomenal courage.

So of course black fans, especially women loved imagining frizzy haired brilliance as a black queenly afro goddess. Often a huge look at comic cons and book fares, Hermione Granger fans chose to cosplay one of the finest Gryffindor students the house ever received.

It wasn't just those nerds bringing the idea to life. The Cursed Child, a play that debuted last summer in London set 19 years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, received a lot of flack for hiring a black woman Hermione, award winning actress Noma Dumezweni. I couldn't escape across the pond to see this. Despite the hoopla (racially based hate from the "I don't see color, but..." crowd), it sounded amazing.

Recently, a friend suggested Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis, this humorous YouTube web series that also introduces a similar concept, but set much earlier. In it, our curly coifed brainiac is a twenty-five-year old basket case, crashing her friend's pad in Los Angeles, bringing British sorcery into the states. Thus, the pond came to us in refreshing effervescence.

Plus, Hermione kicking back a few drinks? Never imagined that I could enjoy such a sight. She should be allowed to evolve beyond butter beer.

Hermione (Ashley Romans) is about to put a spell on the wrong one.
Now Hermione seems to have everything going for her-- a steady boyfriend, an extended family of red haired misfits and hand-me-downs, and a cushy new promotion at the Ministry of Magic. Her life is what a few twenty-five-year-olds would consider the idyllic dream.

She doesn't think so.

Instead of crashing with the famous Harry Potter, Hermione seeks solace with her out of country girlfriends, former roommate, Parvati Patil and cousin, Laquita Granger (who doesn't know about Hogwarts, magic, muggles, etc). I'm a huge fan of Rowling's work, but the girlfriends aspect was vastly missing. I never wanted to vouch for Hermione being "just one but of the guys" or truly appreciated that all eight film adaptations were directed by men.

In Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis, women form a circle around Hermione. Juniper Dias, Parvati's roommate, is a bit hesitant, but the sarcastic firecracker comes around. Heck, not everyone has it all together. While Hermione is suffering, Parvati is trying to be taken seriously in the wizardy newspaper business and Juniper is looking for a gig. Laquita appears to have her life together, but she is still a mystery. Maybe in that respect, she is a lot similar to Hermione. She too could be hiding something.

However, after the episode five cliffhanger, who knows what to expect....

Glammed up Hermione.
The terrific highlight about Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis is that this takes off the shimmering invisibility cloak off a wonderful character. She is very much present in the Harry Potter spectrum, but the books are mostly about him, his growth, and the people he surrounded himself with. This compelling web series explores Hermione, giving her mobile space, a real speaking voice in an overwhelmingly welcomed female environment produced by women. These episodes are painting intriguing relationships with her fellow female wizards and muggle cousin. Hermione gets to be herself—smart and cautious, still a bit awkward—no lightning bolt scars to keep her awake at night. There is no nonsensical tug of war triangle between friends, the complications that suddenly emerged in her later teen years with her, Harry, and Ron. The latter was in Ron’s mind, but it still sucked the air from the trio, that the threat of jealousy would have torn them apart.

At last, Hermione is just Hermione.

Eliyannah Amarah Yisrael leads a female production team of writers, producers, and manager.

Eliyannah Amirah Yisrael, series creator/director has put an innovative spin by telling Hermione’s story at a relatable stage. The late twenties seem to be this faulty, implausible time where people feel life should be near put together, nicely constructed, white picket fence and all. It is a myth. In truth, things take longer. Immediately, offscreen Ron wants to get married, have children, and everything. He is beyond ready. But Hermione, who rarely had opportunity to breathe away from London air and her male best friends, needs the time and space to think, to figure her tangled web outside of them. She’ll always love Harry and Ron, but it has been wonderful seeing her around other individuals. Olive Hernandez and Jessica Jenks are taking turns writing thought provoking scripts, letting viewers know that it takes longer than a few nights on a friend’s sofa to find the answers.

The cast is well put together, especially fist bumping the choice of Ashley Romans as Hermione. She has been a pleasure to watch grow and interpret Hermione. Romans chemistry with Tamara French (Laquita), Sinead Pursuad (Pavarti) and Stephanie Ezeklel (Juniper) is sweet and comforting, a real genuineness. There are enough scenes with trios and quartets of these women that begging for more would be unnecessary.

Hopefully, next season promises stronger story direction, a new path for Hermione, her friends, and that five dollars she spent. Still, unclear on where Draco Malfoy would fit into this equation, in L.A., in Hermione's life, but biting my nails.

Thus, in other words, happily looking forward to round two of mischief, fun, tough love, and afro envy.

Do the Hermione dance.
Finally, it is great to see a black woman in Harry Potter land, having more than a few lines, not going the bloody Dean Thomas route.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Revisiting 'Pariah,' A Must See That Transcends Time

Pariah film poster.
Still, some years later, I find myself returning to something amazingly profound, a work that comes back, hugging close like an old friend.

Pariah is an astounding, vibrant piece of finely weaved storytelling with thoughtfully spoken artistry. This independent film centers on Brooklyn high school teen, Alike (pronounced ah-lik-e) an exceptionally good student and aspiring poet from a hard working middle class family. In her underground world, the shy girl hangs out with bold, outspoken, Laura, who has already proudly come out and lives with her sister.

Alike, however, is much too afraid of such honesty and chooses to entrap herself with dual identities- switching from hood gear to chic fashion, she is trying to do right by parents, Arthur and Audrey, but it's her little sister, Sharonda that begins suspecting the truth first.

Laura (Pernell Walker) and Alike (Adepero Oduye) test out a certain kind of package.

Filled with hilarity, wit, and compassion, viewers follow Alike’s course of adolescence as she tries unsuccessfully talking to women, tests out her first strap on with Laurie’s aide, writes poetry in a colorful composition notebook, and privately shares her talents with the encouraging English teacher.

All the while Audrey is desperate to make Alike appear more feminine and attractive to boys and wishing Alike to stop hanging around Laura, someone she clearly detests. Yet Arthur turns a blind eye, seeming not to give a care about his overbearing wife’s feelings and accepts Alike "flaws" and all.

Mother and daughter Aubrey (Kim Wayans) and Alike (Adepero Oduye) don't see eye to eye.
Fed up with Laura, an interfering Audrey wants Alike to be friends with "normal" girl, Bina. But unbeknownst to Audrey, Bina shows the kind of interest in Alike that would have had her head spinning. A smart, intelligent, and worldly artistic individual, she shares a lot of compelling ideas and music with Alike, striking up a friendship that soon blossoms into a refreshing first love.

Spending time at clubs and critiquing each others writings, things were so blissful.

However, her immediate discarding of their relationship the morning after was quite detrimental and heartbreaking.

Alike breaks down, guttural and hurt by the strange 180, but sadly has no one to tell and transforms that anguish into poetry.
Bina (Aasha Davis) shows Alike (Adepero Oduye) mixed signals.

Once Alike finally confesses to her parents, hell breaks loose tenfold.

In the very turbulent scene, Sharonda pleas with Alike not to get in between the battle of their parents who are loudly arguing about her sexual orientation, but valiant Alike bravely wages on and puts up with an emotionally distressed Audrey who then verbally attacks and violently beats her revulsion into Alike.

After that climatic horror, things change.

With a condoning mother seeing lesbianism as a treacherous disease deemed unlovable, Arthur is the exact opposite. A man harboring his own secrets, he seemed to have always known that Alike was a unique case. Not due to her escalating intelligence and her disdain for pretty clothing. Their relationship is much closer and because of this, it makes his understanding of Alike’s lifestyle believable.

In Laura’s own story, she also has a mother disgusted by her choices. Looking disgusted, she makes no move to be affectionate and slams the door in Laura’s face even as Laura expresses joy over passing the GED. This makes her friendship to Alike all the more genuine. Their mothers' intolerance for their lifestyle is another common factor.

Though she is an active flirt and very popular with the ladies, it’s perfectly clear that Laurie needs constant companionship and love and once she sees Alike having fun with Bina, her jealousy comes clawing out. 

A worthy note of mention, Dee Rees has done an exceptional job of not only showcasing strong female relationships, but also revealing the blunt shift that occurs when weakened and severed, especially the natural bond of a mother and daughter.

Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows the world is her oyster.

Adepero Oduye’s portrayal is touching, riveting, and beautiful as she plays a character struggling with the great divide, breaks free from timidity, and falls in love. Breathing sophisticated complexion into Alike, Oduye is divine poetry in motion, expelling words articulately and with tenderly, perfected bravado. From the moment she tearfully tells her mother she loves her and that end scene on the bus, Oduye showcases Alike’s proud acceptance into a promising future that only she can control.

Now this is the kind of African American role that the Academy is deadest against honoring. A woman who doesn’t allow herself to repressed by negativity and has the strength to move forward to better opportunities with talent driving her. To the conservative viewer- it’s crucial. Not only is this young African American woman smart and gifted, she happens to be gay.

Definitely robbed of an Oscar nod, here's hoping that Oduye nabs another pivotal role that garners attention from the snubbing Hollywood elite.

The rest of the cast played their parts commendably, especially the incredible Kim Wayans, a famed comedian utterly unrecognizable in a very dramatic role. The polar opposite of Monique's character in Precious, Wayans was marvelous as the cruelly ashamed, Bible clinging mother.

In terms of story holes, Pariah does have its little flaws.

Alike delivers two powerful poems like a heavenly prophet. Thirsting for more, especially with Bina making suggestions to open mic nights and poetry clubs, there was an expectancy to seeing Alike come further out of her shell and share her gifts to an audience that actually wants to hear fresh talent onstage.

Alas no such scenes came into play.

What of Laura and Alike's relationship?

Do they come together as a couple and bond even further?

What secrets was Arthur keeping under tabs?

A scene of him on the phone and then changing into a silk black shirt while chatting to Alike seemed oddly questionable. With them being so close, one imagined that he would voice his affair to Alike.

Now if it were with another man, Audrey would never be the same...

Pariah's writer/director Dee Rees with stars Kim Wayans and Adepero Oduye.

I greatly appreciate the woman’s voice and their courage to tell such a profound story. Hoping that Dee Rees continues on the path of enlightening women and minorities to come forth and share their creative vision, bring their enriching narratives to independent screens and beyond. Let the age old statistics of white men being sole judge and victor be a thing of the past.

It's been high time for segregation in the film honor system to be buried. 

Women have more than breasts to bare, they have vocal hearts and fervent souls to unleash and set free.

Pariah passionately illustrates that though the uncertain future can be filled with failures, heartbreak, and disappointments, there are rewards despite the ugly, gritty turmoil that comes and goes.

That wherein lies life's bittersweet poetry.

*This post, although edited, first appeared here and was cross posted here.