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Trailer: The Boys in the Band

Posted on September 2, 2020 at 10:04 am

Playwright Matt Crowley responded to critics of “The Boys in the Band” who said his award-winning play unfairly depicted gay men as miserable and self-loathing by saying that there were plenty of happy gay people; they just weren’t at this party. “The Boys in the Band” was ground-breaking in 1968 for its frank depiction of a range of gay characters, gathered for a birthday party that devolves into angry confrontations and confessions. The 1970 movie was a part of a new generation of films at the end of the claustrophobic Hayes Code era, when even the duration of (heterosexual) kisses was strictly monitored.

This new version, with the cast that brought the play to Broadway for the first time, is a look back, before Pride, before AIDS, and it looks like a sobering reminder of the pain of not being allowed to be who you are.

Tenet

Posted on August 31, 2020 at 8:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, weapons of mass and total destruction, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is like a three-dimensional chess game. The storyline is mind-bendingly intricate, with thought-provoking fantasy and juicy twists. But the characters are never more than one-dimensional, like the pawns, rooks, and bishops on the chess board, their sole defining characteristics are the way they look and move. The brilliantly-staged action sequences punctuate a muddled story-line with under-written characters and — its biggest failing, a boring bad guy.

The story’s leading man does not have a name. In the most eye-rolling cognomen since M. Night Shyamalan dubbed his muse-like character in “Lady in the Water” “Story,” our hero is known only as Protagonist. He even insists, “I am the protagonist!” a couple of times, so it seems to be more than a name. Fortunately for the movie and the audience, Protagonist is played by the infinitely engaging John David Washington (“BlackKklansman”) who brings so much grace and charm to the role we forget how under-written his character is. He conveys with a gleam in his eye and a shift of his shoulders more than any line of dialogue in the script.

The opening scene is a stunner. We are brought into the most civilized of environments, a concert hall, with an audience rustling in anticipation of a symphony orchestra performance. And then suddenly, it turns into the most uncivilized of situations, with terrorists breaking in to, well, we do not know exactly what, except that they are clearly combat-trained and equipped and ruthless. They carry an assortment of international law enforcement patches so they can select whichever one is right for the moment. Nolan expertly conveys the contrast between the control of the terrorists and the chaos they create.

Protagonist is one of the guys in combat gear, and he seems to be, maybe, a good guy? There to extract some dignitary? Anyway, he is soon put in a position where he must decide whether to allow himself to be tortured into giving up information or commit suicide with a cyanide capsule. He chooses the capsule, and wakes up in a hospital room. It was a test of whether he was all in. He passed.

And now he has a new assignment, the darkest of dark ops, and the direst of end-of-times consequences if he does not succeed. Even if I wanted to spoil it, I really couldn’t, as it is pretty murky, but basically someone has figured out how to make time go backward and that is very, very bad, especially if — say it with me — it gets into the wrong hands. He gets some help from Michael Caine, with one brief scene keeping his record of appearing in Christopher Nolan films going. And he gets some more from a charmingly raffish guy named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who always seems to be smiling about some delicious secret. (SPOILER ALERT: He is.) Note: compliments to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland for gorgeous suits, in the words of Dorothy L. Sayers, “tailored to the swooning point.”

Enter the bad guy, who seems to be a character from another movie, like a shlocky Bond rip-off. Kenneth Branagh plays Andrei Sator, an expat Russian oligarch, international arms dealer, and all-around sadist. His estranged wife is the elegant art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And if that isn’t an overused enough character sketch, there’s this: he enjoys blackmailing and manipulating her by threatening to keep her away from their young son. Protagonist is just the kind of cowboy to want to save the day for her while he’s saving the world.

There’s a highway chase with some vehicles going forward in time and some backward that is a wow and a half. But it is a combination of too much (nearly 2 1/2 hours long, with so many McGuffins to retrieve I thought I was back with Harry Potter and the horcruxes), too little (I’m not sure the backwards time thing all fits together — maybe there will be some charts online from fans who are willing to sit through it four or five times to figure it out), and the complete mess that is the Sator character, who not only is an under-imagined cliche but on top of everything else not only suffers from explaining bad guy syndrome but actually is so committed to going into detail about what he is doing that he actually gets on the phone to make sure he provides even more. Murky as it all is, it gets even murkier because of some muffled sound when people are speaking, especially when part of the whole backwards time thing for some reason have to have oxygen masks over their faces.

“Don’t try to understand it,” one character tells another. The best way to enjoy this movie is to follow that advice.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and occasionally graphic peril and violence with international arms dealers, guns, bombs, explosions, chases, torture, and terrorism. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why does the main character insist that he is the protagonist? Which twist surprised you most? Were there clues you missed?

If you like this, try: “Edge of Tomorrow”

Tribute: Chadwick Boseman

Posted on August 30, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Copyright 2018 Disney
The devastating loss of Chadwick Boseman, who has died of colon cancer at just 43 years old, is almost incomprehensible. The tributes to him from his colleagues and fans struggle to capture his grace, his talent, and his dedication. May his memory be a blessing.

I appeared on KUSI to talk about my two interviews with Boseman and what his legacy will be.

And I shared more about those memories on rogerebert.com, a supplement to the beautiful commentary from Odie Henderson.

My interview with Boseman about “Marshall.” My interview with him about “42.”

The tribute from “Black Panther” writer/director Ryan Coogler is deeply moving:

I inherited Marvel and the Russo Brothers’ casting choice of T’Challa. It is something that I will forever be grateful for. The first time I saw Chad’s performance as T’Challa, it was in an unfinished cut of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. I was deciding whether or not directing BLACK PANTHER was the right choice for me. I’ll never forget, sitting in an editorial suite on the Disney Lot and watching his scenes. His first with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, then, with the South African cinema titan, John Kani as T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to make this movie. After Scarlett’s character leaves them, Chad and John began conversing in a language I had never heard before. It sounded familiar, full of the same clicks and smacks that young black children would make in the States. The same clicks that we would often be chided for being disrespectful or improper. But, it had a musicality to it that felt ancient, powerful, and African.

In my meeting after watching the film, I asked Nate Moore, one of the producers of the film, about the language. “Did you guys make it up?” Nate replied, “that’s Xhosa, John Kani’s native language. He and Chad decided to do the scene like that on set, and we rolled with it.” I thought to myself. “He just learned lines in another language, that day?” I couldn’t conceive how difficult that must have been, and even though I hadn’t met Chad, I was already in awe of his capacity as actor.

I learned later that there was much conversation over how T’Challa would sound in the film. The decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Chad, a native of South Carolina, because he was able to learn his lines in Xhosa, there on the spot. He also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T’Challa to audiences as an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.

I finally met Chad in person in early 2016, once I signed onto the film. He snuck past journalists that were congregated for a press junket I was doing for CREED, and met with me in the green room. We talked about our lives, my time playing football in college, and his time at Howard studying to be a director, about our collective vision for T’Challa and Wakanda. We spoke about the irony of how his former Howard classmate Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing T’Challa’s current arc with Marvel Comics. And how Chad knew Howard student Prince Jones, who’s murder by a police officer inspired Coates’ memoir Between The World and Me.

I noticed then that Chad was an anomaly. He was calm. Assured. Constantly studying. But also kind, comforting, had the warmest laugh in the world, and eyes that seen much beyond his years, but could still sparkle like a child seeing something for the first time.

That was the first of many conversations. He was a special person. We would often speak about heritage and what it means to be African. When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate. “They not ready for this, what we are doing…” “This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!” He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did.

He would come to auditions for supporting roles, which is not common for lead actors in big budget movies. He was there for several M’Baku auditions. In Winston Duke’s, he turned a chemistry read into a wrestling match. Winston broke his bracelet. In Letitia Wright’s audition for Shuri, she pierced his royal poise with her signature humor, and would bring about a smile to T’Challa’s face that was 100% Chad.

While filming the movie, we would meet at the office or at my rental home in Atlanta, to discuss lines and different ways to add depth to each scene. We talked costumes, military practices. He said to me “Wakandans have to dance during the coronations. If they just stand there with spears, what separates them from Romans?” In early drafts of the script. Eric Killmonger’s character would ask T’Challa to be buried in Wakanda. Chad challenged that and asked, what if Killmonger asked to be buried somewhere else?

Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.

I haven’t grieved a loss this acute before. I spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say, that we weren’t destined to see. It leaves me broken knowing that I won’t be able to watch another close-up of him in the monitor again or walk up to him and ask for another take.

It hurts more to know that we can’t have another conversation, or facetime, or text message exchange. He would send vegetarian recipes and eating regimens for my family and me to follow during the pandemic. He would check in on me and my loved ones, even as he dealt with the scourge of cancer.

In African cultures we often refer to loved ones that have passed on as ancestors. Sometimes you are genetically related. Sometimes you are not. I had the privilege of directing scenes of Chad’s character, T’Challa, communicating with the ancestors of Wakanda. We were in Atlanta, in an abandoned warehouse, with bluescreens, and massive movie lights, but Chad’s performance made it feel real. I think it was because from the time that I met him, the ancestors spoke through him. It’s no secret to me now how he was able to skillfully portray some of our most notable ones. I had no doubt that he would live on and continue to bless us with more. But it is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.

New From Disney: Raya and the Last Dragon Starring Awkwafina

Posted on August 29, 2020 at 8:00 am

Coming next spring from Disney: Raya and the Last Dragon, with Awkwafina providing the voice of the dragon and “Star Wars'” Kelly Marie Tran as Raya.

Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the last dragon in order to finally stop the Druun for good. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than dragon magic to save the world—it’s going to take trust as well. From directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, producers Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” opens in U.S. theaters on March 12, 2021.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – As an evil force threatens the kingdom of Kumandra, it is up to warrior Raya, and her trusty steed Tuk Tuk, to leave their Heart Lands home and track down the last dragon to help stop the villainous Druun. © 2020 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Behind the Scenes: Tenet

Posted on August 28, 2020 at 8:00 am

“Tenet,” probably the most highly anticipated film of the summer, is a trippy time-travel crime drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan and stars John David Washington, Robert Pattison, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh.