Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Race (dir by Stephen Hopkins)


race

Do you remember Race?

It came out in February of this year and it was kind of a big deal for a week.  I think everyone was expecting it to be a big hit, just because there’s never much competition in February.  Race is a biopic of Jesse Owens, the African-American runner who sets world records and won gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating a legion of Aryan athletes while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.  Not only is that a compelling story but 2016 was also an Olympic year.  Eddie The Eagle had already been a success due to the Olympic connection.  Add to that, Focus Features promoted the Hell out of this film.  In they weeks leading up to its release, I saw commercials for it on a nearly hourly basis.  The reviews, when the came, were mixed but generally positive.

I’m not really sure how Race did at the box office.  According to Wikipedia, on its opening weekend, it was sixth at the box office.  Apparently, the film only had a budget of five million and ultimately made a profit of $20,000,0000.  I guess that would make it a success.  All I know is that it seems like, for all the hype, Race just kind of came and went.

In fact, I didn’t see Race until about two months ago.  It’s one of those films that’s not really great but it’s certainly not bad.  It’s pretty much the epitome of being adequate.  It was well-made and generally well-acted.  Director Stephen Hopkins occasionally struggled to maintain a consistent pace (Race is over 2 hours long and feels longer) but he still did a good job filming the scenes of Owens of running and competing.  In the role of Jesse Owens, Stephan James was well-cast.  You not only believed him in the dramatic scenes but he was also believable as a record-setting athlete.  He had some great scenes with Jason Sudekis, who was surprisingly believable in the role of Jesse’s coach.

With all that in mind, why didn’t Race make more of an impression?  I think that, too often, Hopkins allowed the film’s focus to wander away from Jesse and the inner conflict he felt as he won medals for a country where he was treated like a second-class citizen.  There were too many random scenes of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, playing Olympic officials and debating whether or not to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.  During the second half of the film, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) showed up and we got a few scenes of her trying to film Jesse’s triumph at the Olympics despite the interference of Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat).  All of these extra scenes are supposed to set Jesse’s struggle in a historic context but they’re unnecessary and distracting.  All the context that the film needs can be found in the fact that Jesse was a black man living in America in the 1930s.

For the most part, Race is uneven but occasionally the film delivers a powerful scene or two.  One of the most powerful parts of the film comes when Jesse, after setting world records and being proclaimed as a hero across the world, is informed that he still can’t enter a New York club through the front door.  As well, the scenes depicting Jesse’s friendship with German jump Luz Long (David Kross) are poignant.  In fact, they’re so poignant that I initially assumed that they were fictionalized for the film but actually, Jesse and Luz Long did become good friends during the 1936 Olympics.

Race is uneven but it’s not bad.  Stephan James gives a good performance as Jesse and, if nothing else, the film provides a worthy history lesson.

And here are the NAACP Image Award Nominations!


Dear White People

And continuing our awards wrap-up, here are the 2014 NAACP Image Award nominations!

(h/t to awardswatch)

MOTION PICTURE
Outstanding Motion Picture
• “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
• Chadwick Boseman – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• David Oyelowo – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Denzel Washington – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)
• Idris Elba – “No Good Deed” (Screen Gems)
• Nate Parker – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)

Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
• Gugu Mbatha-Raw – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Quvenzhané Wallis – “Annie” (Columbia Pictures)
• Taraji P. Henson – “No Good Deed” (Screen Gems)
• Tessa Thompson – “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• Viola Davis – “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (The Weinstein Company)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
• André Holland – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Cedric the Entertainer – “Top Five” (Paramount Pictures)
• Common – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Danny Glover – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• Wendell Pierce – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
• Carmen Ejogo – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Jill Scott – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• Octavia Spencer – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• Oprah Winfrey – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Viola Davis – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)

Outstanding Independent Motion Picture
• “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• “Half of a Yellow Sun” (monterey media inc.)
• “JIMI: All Is By My Side” (XLrator Media)
• “Life of a King” (Animus Films/Serena Films)

Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture
• Chris Rock – “Top Five” (Paramount Pictures)
• Justin Simien – “Dear White People” (Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate)
• Margaret Nagle – “The Good Lie” (Alcon Entertainment)
• Misan Sagay – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Richard Wenk – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)

Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture
• Amma Asante – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Antoine Fuqua – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)
• Ava DuVernay – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Gina Prince-Bythewood – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• John Ridley – “JIMI: All Is By My Side” (XLrator Media)

TELEVISION
Outstanding Comedy Series
• “Black-ish” (ABC)
• “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• “Key & Peele” (Comedy Central)
• “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series
• Andre Braugher – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (FOX)
• Anthony Anderson – “‘Black-ish” (ABC)
• Don Cheadle – “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• Keegan-Michael Key – “Key & Peele” (Comedy Central)
• Kevin Hart – “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
• Mindy Kaling – “The Mindy Project” (FOX)
• Niecy Nash – “The Soul Man” (TV Land)
• Tracee Ellis Ross – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Uzo Aduba – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Wendy Raquel Robinson – “The Game” (BET)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
• Boris Kodjoe – “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)
• Glynn Turman – “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• Laurence Fishburne – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Marcus Scribner – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Terry Crews – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (FOX)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
• Adrienne C. Moore – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Laverne Cox – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Lorraine Toussaint – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Sofia Vergara – “Modern Family” (ABC)
• Yara Shahidi – “black-ish” (ABC)

Outstanding Drama Series
• “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)
• “House of Cards” (Netflix)
• “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
• LL Cool J – “NCIS: LA” (CBS)
• Omar Epps – “Resurrection” (ABC)
• Omari Hardwick – “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• Shemar Moore – “Criminal Minds” (CBS)
• Taye Diggs – “Murder in the First” (TNT)

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
• Gabrielle Union – “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• Kerry Washington – “Scandal” (ABC)
• Nicole Beharie – “Sleepy Hollow” (FOX)
• Octavia Spencer – “Red Band Society” (FOX)
• Viola Davis – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
• Alfred Enoch – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• Courtney B. Vance – “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
• Guillermo Diaz – “Scandal” (ABC)
• Jeffrey Wright – “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
• Joe Morton – “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
• Aja Naomi King – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• Alfre Woodard – “State of Affairs” (NBC)
• Chandra Wilson – “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)
• Jada Pinkett Smith – “Gotham” (FOX)
• Khandi Alexander – “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series
• Aisha Muharrar – “Parks and Recreation” – Ann & Chris (NBC)
• Brigette Munoz-Liebowitz – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – Road Trip (FOX)
• Mindy Kaling – “The Mindy Project” – Danny and Mindy (FOX)
• Regina Hicks – “Instant Mom” – A Kids’s Choice (Nickelodeon and Nick@Nite)
• Sara Hess – “Orange is the New Black” – It Was the Change (Netflix)

Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series
• Erika Green Swafford – “How to Get Away with Murder” – Let’s Get To Scooping
(ABC)
• Mara Brock Akil – “Being Mary Jane” – Uber Love (BET)
• Warren Leight, Julie Martin – “Law & Order: SVU” – American Disgrace (NBC)
• Zahir McGhee – “Scandal” – Mama Said Knock You Out (ABC)
• Zoanne Clack – “Grey’s Anatomy” – You Be Illin’ (ABC)

Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)
• “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
• “Drumline: A New Beat” (VH1)
• “The Gabby Douglas Story” (Lifetime Networks)
• “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)

Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• Blair Underwood – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Charles S. Dutton – “Comeback Dad” (UP Entertainment)
• Larenz Tate – “Gun Hill” (BET)
• Mekhi Phifer – “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)
• Ving Rhames – “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)

Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• Angela Bassett – “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
• Cicely Tyson – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Keke Palmer – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Regina King – “The Gabby Douglas Story” (Lifetime Networks)
• Vanessa Williams – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)

Key & Peele

Back to School #17: Cooley High (dir by Michael Schultz)


For our next entry in Back to School, we take a look at a film that is often referred to as being a “black American Graffiti,” 1975’s Cooley High.

Cooley High follows the adventures of two lifelong friends who are both seniors at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago, Illinois.  The charismatic Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is a popular and friendly basketball star.  Meanwhile, Preach (Glynn Turman) is an aspiring writer who, despite his obvious intelligence, is also one of the worst students at the school.  Preach divides his time between skipping school, gambling, and writing poetry.  Alone among their friends, Cochise and Preach both seem to have a chance to escape from life in the projects.  At the start of the film, Cochise has just received a scholarship to play basketball in college.  As for Preach, he’s the eternal optimist.  He knows he’s going to make it, even if he doesn’t seem to be quite sure how he’s going to do it.

For the first half of the film, Cooley High is largely a plotless collection of vignettes featuring Cochise, Preach, and their friends skipping school, chasing girls, getting into minor trouble, and trying to avoid major trouble.  The emphasis is on comedy but, unlike a lot of high school comedies from the 70s and 80s, the humor grows organically from the characters.  Facing a future that’s likely to be dominated by prejudice, poverty, and limited opportunity, what can the students of Cooley High do other than laugh?  The second half of the film takes a far more dramatic turn, with Preach and Cochise accused of both stealing a car and snitching on the actual thieves in order to get out of jail.  The film’s downbeat conclusion may be predictable but it’s effective all the same.

One reason why I wanted to review Cooley High is because a few months ago, while I was trying to find something to watch on TV, I came across an episode of a show called Unsung Hollywood.  The title of the episode was “The Story of Cooley High” and it told the story of how and why this film was made.  It was actually pretty interesting to watch, as it featured interviews with screenwriter Eric Monte (who based the character of Preach on himself), director Michael Schultz (who directed a lot of memorable films in the 70s — including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — but has never quite gotten the recognition that he deserves), and the film’s two stars.  Even more interesting, however, were the interviews with the local Chicago residents who essentially played themselves during the filming of Cooley High.  Some of them had fond memories of appearing in the film while others were upset that the film’s box office success didn’t open up any new opportunities for them.  Most haunting of all was the fate of an amateur local named Norman Gibson.  After giving a genuinely good performance as a petty criminal who comes to a violent end in Cooley High, Gibson was murdered a year after the film was released.

As I mentioned before, Cooley High is often compared to American Graffiti and the two films do have some things in common, like the period setting and a great soundtrack.  Ultimately, though, Cooley High can stand on its own.

cooley

Review: Super 8 (dir. by J.J. Abrams)


The 1980’s was a special time in my life. It was another phase in my development in loving film. That decade saw many films starring kids and teens in coming-of-age tales both comedic, thrilling, dramatic and poignant. While there were many filmmakers who delved into this genre it was Steve Spielberg who mined it to great effect culminating in his classic boy-meets-alien film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s been almost 30 years since the release of that film and now comes a filmmaker who seem to have grown up idolizing and loving Spielberg films of that era. The year is now 2011 and J.J. Abrams is that filmmaker who dared to pay homage to those very same coming-of-age Spielberg films of the 80’s with his very own simply titled Super 8.

From the very moment the film begins there’s a sense of wonderment as we, the audience, meet young kids who become the central characters of Super 8. The film takes place in the early days of 1979 in the town of Lillian, Ohio as Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) tries to cope with the death of his mother. His friends keep him busy and dwelling on this tragedy through the Super 8 film they’re making in their spare time after school. These early scenes we begin to see the dynamics of the group as Joe acts as the calming influence on the group’s filmmaker, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the neurotic actor in Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the group’s stuntman/special effects tech in Carey (Ryan Lee). They all meet up at an old train depot where they plan to shoot scenes for their Super 8 zombie film. Into this eclectic group of kids comes in Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife to Martin’s detective character in their film.

It’s the scenes between the kids which lifts Super 8 from just being a nostalgic film to one that’s charming and magical. These scenes captures the creativity and youthful energy kids have always had no matter the era and place. These kids don’t act like stereotypes of what Hollywood thinks kids in films should act. There’s still little of the cynical teen dialogue that films nowadays give kids to say to make them seem more mature and worldly. There’s a sense of innocence in how these kids interact with each other. Some have called these scenes as being too on-the-nose nostalgic of Spielberg films of the 80’s. What some might call nostalgic I prefer to call as timeless. I still remember myself behaving with my childhood friends the way these kids did in this film

If Super 8 had just been about these group of kids trying to finish their Super 8 zombie film I conjunction with the dysfunction in the two main leads in Joe and Alice’s home life then Abrams film would’ve been the instant classic some have dubbed it. There’s only one problem with this and that’s the last half hour of the film and the scenes leading up to that involving the train derailment and the arrival of the U.S. Air Force to clean things up. The film begins to take on a split personality as these new elements get introduce to what has been a great coming-of-age story.

It’s these new elements and the final half hour which shows Abrams trying to combine a sweet story of kids and their lives growing up in small-town with an otherworldy and conspiracy tale that seem to come out of left field. By the time the final act of Super 8 arrives it becomes a different film altogether and the transition doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers might have hoped it would. Sure, this final reel has the thrills, explosions and danger, but the tonal shift in the story became so jarring that I had wished that Abrams just made two films instead of one. One film being the coming-of-age story and the other a thrilling sci-fi film.

Despite this I still enjoyed the film and I definitely loved the first two-thirds. The performances by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Joe and Alice became the focal point for the story’s emotional foundation. Elle Fanning’s performance as Alice was one of the best things about Super 8. She nails every scene where she has to show extreme ranges of emotions but at the same time not try to oversell them. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where she begins to recount a personal detail as Joe sits behind her listening. Emotions begin to overwhelm her, but as kids moving towards teenhood are wont to do she tries to hold back the tears just waiting to flow freely and the sobs wanting to escapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene alone had more than a couple people in the audience remembering similar events in their lives and just sobbing along with Alice.

Super 8 has been advertised as this mysterious film that may or may not have aliens but does pay homage to Spielberg and kid films of the 80’s. Abrams’ film definitely delivers on the thrills in the end, but it could’ve been so much more if it just stayed on course with just being about the kids and their magical time together making an amateur Super 8 zombie film in 1979. That would’ve been a film that deserved labels of instant classic.

All in all, Super 8 comes across as one of the more entertaining and magical films of the summer of 2011 if not the entire year. Make sure to stick around as the end credits roll to see the fruits of the kids labor titled simply as “The Case”.