Thursday, April 23, 2020


The first pleasant surprise of The Photograph is to find it a major Hollywood studio’s attempt to give us a romantic drama about believable people in real situations. How infrequently these days are we confronted with movies at this level of gloss and polish that purport to be about recognizable human emotion. The second pleasant surprise is that it works all the old genre tropes and trappings while allowing its characters space to breathe. Here’s a movie about grownups falling in love, a process that’s halting and takes its own shape, allowing the contours of their interests and careers to take them on a circuitous path back to each other. Is there a happy ending? Surprisingly, whether it’s destined for weepy, triumphant, or somewhere bittersweet between remains uncertain right up until the final moments before the credits roll. What a likable spot to find yourself, in a wide release movie where the lives of the characters dictate the development of the plot instead of the other way around. In the leads are two fine young talents who brew up good chemistry together. Issa Rae plays a precise professional in mourning; her photographer mother has recently passed away, leaving the young woman to curate a retrospective. Lakeith Stanfield is the aspiring journalist who finds his way to the story and hopes to woo her into an interview. One electric look between the two of them, and it’s clear there more wooing to do. And yet because they each have their professional concerns, the attraction and the dating has to find its way shyly into tender spaces and stolen moments. They’re full lives looking to make room for one more.

Writer-director Stella Meghie gives the movie a gentle sensuousness. It is tactile — a box of negatives, a dusty record, a simple radiant yellow dress, a dappling of raindrops, a wineglass coyly sipped — and smooth, layering in a languorous jazzy score as the frames are drinking in a soft smile, a lingering glance, a gentle brush. Is this coupling meant to be, or meant to be fleeting? Their story is set against flashbacks of the photographer mother’s own early struggles with love. As a young woman (Chanté Adams) she too tried balancing the needs of the flesh and the needs of the artist, the desire to be with by her small town lover (Y’lan Noel) and the impulse to move to a big city and create. Placing the generations side by side, Meghie’s screenplay, recalling the best of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s heartfelt relationship dramas,  develops its themes patiently, in well-drawn comparisons and contrasts. The movie is warm and melancholic, allowing its characters to be people — warmly funny, guarded and cautious, flirtatious and alive — with thoughts and ambitions that may not fit the cliched movie romance moments. But isn’t it pretty they might think so?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Bring It On: CHEER

Cheer is a rousing sports story that sees sharply, and with complexity, its appealing cast of characters. For a six-part documentary miniseries streaming on Netflix, its patient compassion and well-judged depth gathers up cinematic quality. (A great deal of the service’s own Original Movies can’t manage that.) It takes as its subject competitive cheerleading, which could lend itself to surface level television tabloid trash — think the risible true crime freak show Tiger King streaming one click over — but at every moment it resists. Like Steve James’ classic Hoop Dreams — a three-hour documentary following two young basketball players over years in early-90’s Chicago — it takes a sport seriously as a means of understanding not just a subculture, but as synecdoche for race and class, and here gender and sexuality as well. In Cheer it means seeing the incredible performers of Navarro College in small-town Texas as they’re tumbling and stunting, flipping and flopping, pushing their bodies in a hybrid of dance and acrobatics. But it also means seeing the diversity of lives drawn together in this common pursuit; cumulatively, the team is a portrait of modern young lives yearning for purpose and belonging, aching to actualize potential and coexist in fulfilling relationships as a larger community is built up around their pursuit of excellence.

The project is inspiring without being sentimental, clear-eyed without growing unsympathetic, deeply invested in these lives without putting them on rubbernecking display. As we learn about the cheerleaders’ home lives and pasts, we see this group of young people as a cross section of America today. In their stories are abuse and inequality, prejudice and dysfunction. And yet here they are, pushing on, ready to pull together and become a team. Competitive cheerleading is a feat of bodies in motion, muscles straining in the best moments, bones battered and broken when it goes wrong. The filmmaking sets the record straight, resisting the cutesy triviality of cheerleader stereotype. They’re high-level athletes, and the constant looming deadline of national competition tightens the vice on the stakes surrounding the character studies. With detailed specificity, digging into the specifics of this sport and these team members, the filmmaking gathers incredible force: a picture of memorable personalities in perilous pursuit of perfection. Like all the best sports movies, it’s about the thrill of a team pushing past emotional and physical damage to build a makeshift family that’ll last longer than the outcome of the big game.

The documentary succeeds with the good fortune of finding captivating characters — personalities that read on screen and develop with all the patience and care of a well-told story— and serving them well. The filmmakers expertly edit the footage in a coherent narrative of criss-crossing individual storylines, compelling and deeply invested in each individual’s outcome as much as the team’s. Because the project cares deeply about their lives — their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and challenges — the film gathers tremendous empathetic suspense. These cheerleaders come from all over the country, drawn to what we’re told is the best cheerleading program in the country, under the perfectionist eye of hard-driving coach Monica Aldama, a tough taskmaster and caring den mother. We hear stories of the cheerleaders’ lives up to this point. Some have spent time homeless; others are wounded from tense family situations; still others are social media influencers — cheerlebrities, if you didn’t know. Some suffer from lack of parental influence; others have dominating stage parents. They all find something they need in this sport, and this coach.

Under the watchful camera of the talented documentary team — directed primarily by Greg Whiteley, whose sensitivity here matches his 2013 campaign film Mitt; he has an eye for drawing out human drama with compassion in the face of unflinching reality — the subjects and their stories are as rich as a well-wrought narrative’s. The more we learn about the players, the more we can grok the pain and promise behind glances in rehearsal footage, track the dynamics between them, and recognize voices as they rise above the shouts in the din of the echoing gym. They become not just stock figures in a doc that expertly uses a sport’s season structure to build narrative momentum. (Each title card announcing the number of days to the championship is a fresh twist of suspense as injuries pile up and excitement grows.) The subjects are real people, after all, throwing themselves body and soul into the one thing they enjoy most, developing themselves as young people in flux, pushing themselves to the limit for something bruising and beautiful — and all too brief. (There's also a key aesthetic choice in the last hour -- forced by permit issues -- that becomes a good conceit, letting the team itself take charge of the framing at its climax, a last burst of immediacy for a project so attuned to their stories.) There is no professional cheerleading of this sort. This is the end of the line. This is it. The final moments are poignant, not merely for the outcome of the competition and where the individuals hope to go from there, but for the release, and the vivid sense of loss. It consumed their whole lives. Now what? And so in the heat of the build up, they go all out. They compete and they collide; they struggle and they grow; they work together, and, for fleeting, terrifying, perfect moments, they fly.

Friday, April 3, 2020


I know a bad movie is the least of anyone’s problems these days. It’s even less of a problem, in fact, now that new releases are confined to streaming where ending your misery in a bad choice of a movie is as easy as clicking away or smashing that fast forward button. This weekend, Netflix has served up Coffee & Kareem, a truly execrable cop action comedy. That it’s directed by Michael Dowse, whose similar mismatched buddy actioner Stuber flopped hard in wide release last summer, makes it an even more apt reflection of the state of current cinema. At least Stuber was filled with charming personalities, sending Kumail Nanjiani as a hapless Uber driver criss-crossing town with Dave Bautista as a growling cop who must desperately catch a criminal despite just having laser eye surgery. It’s not great, but it has all the good bones of a Hollywood action comedy: decent action sequences, fine bantering chemistry, and agreeable supporting turns by fun character actors. It gets the job done, and fit the big screen well. Even though it was a good time at the movies, exactly what was advertised on the tin, it’s apparently the kind of movie audiences don’t really see anymore, at least not in the numbers that justify a full theatrical release. So here we are, firing up the latest Netflix Original and finding once again that they’re just not up to par. The good original movies they produce or purchase — from the auteur efforts to the rare enjoyable B-pictures — are the outliers.

This new one is just dire. At first I was willing to give Coffee & Kareem points for a punny title. It introduces a mild-mannered Detroit police officer (Ed Helms) whose girlfriend (Taraji P. Henson) has a profane, standoffish tween son named Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh). So it’s like a cop comedy. So: cops like donuts. Donuts and coffee. Coffee and cream. Coffee and Kareem. Ha. Kinda cute. But then we see the badge. He’s officer Coffee. That’s his name. Okay. We’re pushing it. So the movie’s a bit full of its own tricks. But then the cavalcade of nastiness begins, with thinly sketched caricatures and cliches veering quickly into a loud shuffle of stereotypes across every scene. There are motormouthed precocious vulgar inner city school kids, swaggeringly stupid gangsters, a mother who is as often a prop as not, and a gruff chief with transparently maniacal crooked cops. There are cluttered action scenes and flippant gun violence interspersed with constant references to police shootings and irreverent joshing about race (or, failing that, child abuse) that spins back in retrograde essentialism. It never transcends the tropes and assumptions baked into something so stumblebum about its content. Some of the performers are doing what they can with this material. Betty Gilpin, for one, is spinning something like interesting out of a mediocre script for the second time in just a few weeks — it makes The Hunt look better by comparison. The picture is badly calibrated from the first scenes, like an early one in which Kareem talks about his member while eating candy on the toilet in a public restroom, then a scene later he describes which acts he’d like to perform. The whole thing’s just sad when it's not unpleasant. It’s pitched at a high level of annoyance, with grating performances and the kind of flop sweat second hand embarrassment that settles in as you see actors flailing in a movie that’s giving them less than nothing for their efforts. It may be a throwback to 80’s action comedies, though it can’t muster their aesthetic or narrative or comedic appeal, and only has the ugly attitudes down pat. It’s not entertaining; it’s depressing. Rent Stuber instead.