Movie Review ~ Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During the same summer as Woodstock, over 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The footage from the festival sat in a basement, unseen for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost—until now.

Stars: Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Tony Lawrence, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln, Mavis Staples, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, John V. Lindsay, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria

Director: Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t normally say this, but the time it’s taking you to read this review is time you are wasting that could be watching Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a fantastic new documentary from Hulu, Onyx Collective and Searchlight Pictures.  If you’ve already seen the documentary, welcome.  If you haven’t, come back when you’re finished. 

OK…now that we’re all caught up…wasn’t that amazing?

I was a true lunatic and didn’t think I would be as enthralled with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s filmmaking debut, a documentary on The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 that took place in Mount Morris Park.  While Woodstock wound up getting most of the attention as the music festival of that summer and though a man landed on the moon during while the world watched, the amount of legendary talent that found its way onto the stage over six weeks was simply unparalleled.  And, until now, it’s gone unseen.  In my mind, I was thinking Thompson’s film was going to be more a music documentary that focused on the festival itself, but he’s opened it up to be so very much more than that. 

Along with watching the footage from the concert that has been skillfully edited with interviews in the present with the people and performers that were there, audiences get a history lesson on Black culture and deeper insight into why this festival in Harlem was of such importance at the time.  This speaks not just to the time and tone of the happenings of that period of history, but it helps in our understanding of how unearthing it now for modern audiences to discover is that much more significant.  Cultural experts tie performers to history-making events or demonstrations, people from the crowd speak to what it was like seeing their favorite artist live in person, and several artists watch the footage and react live with their remembrances of their contributions to the festival.

Aside from the fact that the footage has been restored to crystalline glory and the sound is clear as a bell, the performances captured often represent these legends in either their peak prime or breakthrough best.  You have Stevie Wonder transitioning to a new and more adult kind of music, daring at the time but now instantly recognizable as his sound.  The Staples Singers appear, blowing the heavenly roof off the roofless space.  Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is there, sending the spirit out into the crowd.  David Ruffin, recently separated from The Temptations, crooning ‘My Girl’ as a solo act and still making it shine.  The Fifth Dimension, in gaudy costumes that former members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo have no choice but to laugh at, appearing not just to represent their music but to prove something to themselves.  The striking Nina Simone gets an extended segment…and with good reason.  The list goes on…

Winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival bodes well for Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and you can bet that with it being widely available on Hulu its Oscar chances are high…and well deserved.  That it even exists is reason to celebrate and be grateful, hearing what happened to the film after all the footage was shot is frustrating but not unexpected considering the era in which it occurred.  It may have taken over fifty years for it to make its way to the public at large but the wait was absolutely worth it.  Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in music.

Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part 1: 1994

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A circle of teenage friends accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have plagued their town for over 300 years.

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Charlene Amoia, Noah Bain Garret, Ashley Zuckerman, Maya Hawke

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you suffer from severe bouts of nostalgia that only a well-worn VHS copy of The Breakfast Club or a dog-eared first edition of your favorite Christopher Pike paperback can cure, you’re the target audience for a rad new trilogy of films Netflix has cooked up to make this sweltering summer just a wee bit cooler.  Inspired by the Fear Street series of novels written by R.L. Stine, the three films would each take place in a different time period, were shot back-to-back, and will be released one week apart starting with Part One, set in 1994.  Timing-wise, I’ve seen the first two but will only be reviewing Fear Street Part One: 1994 here.  Come back next week for my thoughts on Part Two and the week after that for Part Three.  If the first two chapters are any indication, this is a trilogy where the suspense builds as you go along.

The fifth Scream film is due out in 2022 but those who can’t wait quite that long will get a fun little amuse-bouche in a pre-credit sequence set in the after-hours Shadyside Mall where one B. Dalton employee has a terrifying encounter with a masked killer.  Sadly, it’s not the first such incident for Shadyside, which has a bloody history dating all the way back to 1666 when the townspeople killed Sarah Fier, believed to have been a witch.  Every few years, seemingly normal people snap and go on a rampage, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

While the killing doesn’t go unnoticed, it hardly registers for teen Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her friends Simon (Fred Hechninger, The Woman in the Window) and Kate (Julia Rehwald).  They’ve got their own problems to deal with.  Deena is feeling the sting of a break-up after her love interest moved to neighboring town Sunnyvale while Simon and Kate’s side-business of selling prescription drugs is constantly being threatened by exposure.   Coming face to face with her former flame, the still in the closet Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), at a sports event between the two towns leads to a prank that goes awry and stirs an evil curse from its slumber.  With the help of Deena’s brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and more of the town’s history under their belt, the teens bond together to stop an unrelenting force and a barrage of Shadyside’s most infamous killers from finding them.

Part One is a bit of a strange beast and I think it’s almost helpful to know there are two more chapters that come after it.  Often I found myself wondering what purpose the other two movies would serve seeing that we already know what happens and even having footage of those two movies spliced in to prove it.  It’s like watching Friday the 13th and having clips from Parts II – IV cut in throughout – if we know where it’s all headed then why continue to watch?  Ah…but that’s where director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriters Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen have some tricks waiting for you and, without any spoilers for this film or what’s to come, I’ll just say…keep watching. 

While that bodes well for the trilogy as a whole, it does leave Part One feeling very much as the introduction it firmly is.  I’d almost suggest waiting until Part Two is available so you can watch those back-to-back…or if you can wait then take in all three at once.  I like that Netflix is doling these out one at a time and hope they do this with future movies with similar themes but for me personally, Part One didn’t feel fully complete to me without having something to compliment it fairly quickly.  It also strains to make it past 90 minutes, with a number of conversations between Deena and Sam being stated and restated a number of times.  I know, I know.  Teen problems and all, but…there’s only so many times you can hear “I love you, but you moved.”  “I moved, but I still love you.” and not want to scream “Geography!  Get over it!”

These are also extraordinarily well-made films, with striking production values that don’t bop you over the head with period details (heck, they don’t even display any B. Dalton signage so the budget couldn’t have been THAT big) but instead focus on making things crisp and clean.  The gore is gruesome (and often unexpected) and people you may not think will get sliced get diced just when you’ve gotten comfortable.  The performances are good and, best of all, by the time it ends you’ll want to hop right into the next part…a sure sign that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is worth making a trip to.

Movie Review ~ The Tomorrow War

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ordinary family man is recruited by time travelers from 30 years in the future to fight in a deadly war against aliens.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Theo Von, Jasmine Mathews, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Director: Chris McKay

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s still been sort of a weird summer, hasn’t it?  While things felt like they were heading back on track with theaters re-opening, the business hasn’t exactly been booming.  Sure, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and F9: The Fast Saga unsurprisingly attracted devoted fans into seats based on their name recognition alone, the disappointing showing of the much anticipated musical In the Heights knocked the wind out of many sails just as things were getting going.  Approaching the traditionally jam-packed July 4th weekend, there’s not a smorgasbord to choose from in cinemas and definitely no major blockbuster release that historically debuted just ahead of the holiday weekend.

Instead, that action mega-ton popcorn film is making its premiere on Amazon Prime and while The Tomorrow War gets the job done as a frenzied, effects-heavy epic that just keeps going and going, it’s missing a few key elements that were magic ingredients to previous success in years past.  We’ll get into what those components are in a bit, but I want to say from the start that you absolutely should watch The Tomorrow War and not be deterred by a trailer and synopsis that suggests a bland sameness or Pratt’s waning promise as a capable lead in motion pictures.  Stumbling terribly at first, the film positively jolts to life about forty minutes in and hooked me for the remainder.

Several years in the future, Dan Forester (Pratt, Jurassic World) is a ordinary guy with a wife and daughter trying to get a better job after his military service.  Then, during a holiday party at their house when everyone is watching a soccer game on TV (at Christmas? I know…), the world changes when out of a center-field nebula armed visitors from the future appear and announce the need for volunteers to come and fight a war going on decades from now.  Over the next year, armies across the globe go forth and are decimated by alien creatures so terrifying the future visitors dare not share pictures for fear that they will have trouble recruiting present day citizens from traveling through time to battle them.  Eventually Dan is called up through a national draft and finds himself facing down these beasts along with others that have had no training in combat or evasive measures. 

These first forty or so minutes of The Tomorrow War that deals with all the exposition needed to inform the audience of a lot of plot details is pretty bad.  It’s awkward and gangly, sort of like Pratt’s weirdly uncomfortable look stuffed into a shirt/sweater combo during the holiday party.  The writing is poor, the acting is not much better, and all signs were pointing to 140 minutes of iffy effects to go along with the bad plot mechanics.  Then, something sort of amazing happens.  Director Chris McKay (The LEGO Movie) and writer Zach Dean put Dan and his untrained bunch face to face with an enemy that might just be one of the most terrifying creations seen in these alien beasts on Earth films yet.  I’m not kidding when I say that when we get our first look at the White Spikes I sat up rigid in my seat, jaw agape, and said “Oh no, I do not appreciate that.”  Much of this has to go to the effects folks who created this monster, seamlessly blending it (for the most part) with the live-action actors…but it’s a formidable foe that is nightmarishly ruthless.  That McKay keeps it hidden for an extended period of time also adds to its overall scariness when we finally do see it.

In time-travel movies, the filmmakers can play fast and loose with their rules, and they do so here as well, to some extent.  I won’t go too far into who Yvonne Strahovski (All I See Is You) is playing or how she figures into Forester’s life but the two join forces in the future which winds up having a major impact on the past.  Just when you think the movie is reaching its climax, you look at your watch and realize it’s only halfway done.  Then the next time you think it’s over, your watch tells you there’s a half hour left.  This happens two or three more times before the film actually wraps up and the multiple endings give The Tomorrow War an overall breathless pace but also contributes to a weariness after a time.  That extra time gives way for some slow dips in the action and dramatic scenes between Dan and his estranged father (J.K. Simmons, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) as well as a few fun sequences of Indiana Jones-style adventure.  It’s a big package to digest and while it wouldn’t have worked on the big screen because you’d have to take it a bit more seriously, on the small screen some of these quirkier asides tend to play easier.

What is harder to take is Pratt’s clunker performance, a disappointing sign the actor isn’t delivering on some early promise that he had leading man potential.  An executive producer of the film, Pratt should have been even more on the ball as someone with a grander stake in the movie’s prospects but alas, he’s just missing that magical “it” factor that could have given all of his scenes more weight.  His jokes don’t land, his dramatic thrust isn’t felt, it’s just a vacant, mannequin type of performance that goes through the motions but doesn’t bring anything new.  That’s especially apparent as the film draws to a conclusion and becomes a one-man Pratt showcase even though he’s sharing the screen with likable actors like Sam Richardson (Werewolves Within) who outcharms him without even trying.

This is a big, big, big movie and not one you should be watching on a tiny computer screen or your phone.  You will want to check this one out and make The Tomorrow War an event if you can, trying your best to ignore it’s bad opening and enjoy when it shows what our heroes are up against.

Movie Review ~ The Forever Purge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: All the rules are broken as a sect of lawless marauders decides that the annual Purge does not stop at daybreak and instead should never end.

Stars: Josh Lucas, Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, Will Patton, Leven Rambin, Cassidy Freeman, Susie Abromeit, Will Brittain

Director: Everado Gout

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  At first, I was going to take a pass on The Forever Purge, having skipped The First Purge back in 2018.  Back then, I felt like the franchise had run its course and going back to the beginning (origin-exploring being popular at the time) felt like an easy trip to the bank for the filmmakers and the studio.  Released to a surprising amount of success in 2013, The Purge made back its budget and a heck of a lot more, quickly spawning The Purge: Anarchy a year later.  2016’s The Purge: Election Year wasn’t the worst election related bit of theatrics we saw that year but despite the presence of stars Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell it signaled creative energy waning.  All easy reasons why the fourth film was such an easy skip. 

So, why pick up with #5, another half-hearted titled affair originally intended for release in the summer of 2020 and arriving a year later?  I think it was honest curiosity after seeing the spooky poster and some suggestion it would be abandoning its long-standing urban setting for a playing field that’s more of a western vibe.  Could a change of scenery be the thing The Purge saga needed to stay relevant or re-energized?  Or would it just be another retelling of the same story, just with characters sporting cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats?

Well, it’s a little bit of both.  While The Forever Purge isn’t any big revelation as far as horror action films go, it makes a decent attempt to get something extra from its near the border location and (gruesomely) hammer home not just a message about how the U.S. treats immigrants and minorities but what it would be like if the tables were turned.  It can’t quite meet its goal on an issues-based level thanks to its primary mission of for-the-masses entertainment and it grandstands heartily, but in the end, it swings back to familiar territory so no Purge fan will leave a viewing wholly unfulfilled.

Illegally crossing the border to escape their troubled past, Mexican couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera, Army of the Dead) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta, Tigers Are Not Afraid) soon find work in a small Texas town.  She works in a local processing plant and he’s a ranch hand on the Tucker farm where they both live.  While Juan is friendly with most of the Tucker family, head of the clan Dylan (Josh Lucas, The Secret: Dare to Dream) doesn’t warm to him and it isn’t hard to guess why thanks to screenwriter and Purge-creator James DeMonaco’s blunt dialogue.  There isn’t much time to decode the differences between the two men because the annual Purge has been reinstated after being dormant for a number of years and tonight everyone is going their own separate ways to stay safe.  The Tucker family, including Dylan’s pregnant wife, his father, and sister are staying in their ranch fortress while Adela and Juan travel with their fellow immigrants to a safe space where they can avoid any trouble from marauders seeking to “cleanse” the town of their “illegals”.

After the night of government-sanctioned bloodshed, everyone emerges and begins to pick up the pieces from the grisly night…only to find that a rogue group of underground Purge-ers have decided one night isn’t enough.  Now, the Ever After Purge is on and no one is safe in the day or night.  As you can guess in the boiled down simplicity of this fifth entry, the two families will have to put aside their differences if they are to survive as Adela and Juan lead the Tuckers back over the border into Mexico where they would be safe.

The concept of Americans being desperate to cross over borders into Canada and Mexico and become basically illegal immigrants is novel, I’ll give DeMonaco that, but it feels like a “what if” scenario that’s years too late to be revelatory.  Yes, we can look at the irony of it and chuckle at how strange it would be for all these Republican longhorns that were formerly desperate to keep illegal Mexican people out of their town now pleading with their cooks and maids to help them cross over, but is it honestly all that funny?  The night before these same people were likely out hunting these people down.  That’s the problem with these films in the first place:  The Purge was designed to address lawlessness by allowing an anything goes one night a year free for all but all it does is make all that rage grow stronger during the year, so it doesn’t address the inherent rot in society that’s the real crime.

Director Everardo Gout seems to have been handed a guidebook to creating a Purge film and occasionally drops in something familiar to fans of the franchise.  Thankfully, there seems to be more of an emphasis on finding and developing some interesting characters in this one and that what sets it in some small way apart from the others.  I sparked to de la Reguera much like I did in Army of the Dead earlier this year.  She brings a strength to the role that is unexpected but believable when she is called on to take action.  Partnered well with the equally valued Huerta, they outshine Lucas who is completely on autopilot as the twang-y ranch owner thrust into the thick of it and learning about his own personal failings along the way.  The other thing I don’t care for in these movies is that there is never one sole villain, just a series of human roadblocks that have to be dealt with.  There’s no one that is memorable here serving in this space, so I won’t even bother mentioning them.

It’s rumored this was to be the final Purge film, but I wouldn’t count out that DeMonaco has one or two more of these left in him and I’d be interested to see how he could work himself out of the corner the finale painted him into.   The Forever Purge has good moments and probably would play nicely if doing a binge-watch of the entire series…but I’d want one more film to truly cap things off.