Tag Archives: Common

A Different Looking Glass


by Hope Madden

Long after slavery was abolished, Black families were still held against their will in the rural American south, and through lies and isolation were convinced that they belonged — like slaves — to the white families whose land they worked for free.

It was incredibly uncommon, but it was Mae Louise Wall Miller’s life until 1960.


Miller’s story inspired first-time writer/director Krystin Ver Linden to make Alice, a testament to knowledge, representation, and the power of Pam Grier.

Alice (Keke Palmer, who also produces) has lived her entire life on an isolated Georgia plantation as a “domestic” (code for slave) to Paul Bennett (Johnny Lee Miller). Cruelty, rage and fear finally spur her to run, and she winds up on a highway with no context for the world of 1973.

1973 has very little context to understand Alice, either.

There’s no avoiding comparisons to Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s 2020 film Antebellum. Where that uneven Janelle Monáe-led vehicle raged with modern horror, Ver Linden’s film takes a decidedly blaxploitation direction.

Bennet had taught Alice to read, but only so she could read to him for his enjoyment. This one gift is enough to fuel a passion for knowledge. Pair that with the inspiration of Pam Grier in Coffy, plus the encouragement of truck driver and one-time activist Frank (Common) – who nearly ran her down as she escaped to the highway – and Alice is ready to return for her family and some tasty revenge.

Palmer finds a true north for her character, and she never leaves that course. Alice’s grief, pain, confusion, fear, and finally righteous rage are never showy, always authentic. Frank’s arc is a little more superficially drawn, but Common gives the character tenderness that brightens the film.

No psychotic plantation owner will ever live up to the unfathomable evil of Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. Still, Miller’s brand of cowardly, narcissistic villainy is chilling.

Period detail and visual storytelling are both strengths for Ver Linden and her cinematographer, Alex Disenhof. But the film — this year’s Sundance winner for dramatic feature — has some pacing problems it can’t entirely overcome.

Alice falls into three very distinct acts, none of which move. The story itself is very deliberately built, but the way scenes are stacked offers no sense of momentum or urgency. This meandering quality robs the film’s climax of some of its power. But Alice mainly overcomes this weakness by telling the truth about the power in knowing who you are.

A Woman’s Place

The Kitchen

by George Wolf

Looking for trouble? You’ll find plenty in The Kitchen. Looking for nuance? Fresh out, suckas.

It’s a 70s crime drama stripped of style and subtext, yet able to squeeze considerable fun out of the exploitation vibe it revels in.

Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) are left with dwindling options when their Irish mob husbands are sent to prison for a botched robbery. It’s 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, and the ladies realize the meager allowance from their hubbies’ crew ain’t gonna cut it.

Time for these sisters to start doing it for themselves!

And if that song was from the 70s, you’d hear it loud and proud alongside all the other strategically placed picks from that groovy decade. It’s not a Scorsese soundtrack strategy, really, but rather one that makes sure we hear the lyric that can most literally comment on what we’re seeing.

Call it a Berloff maneuver.

The Kitchen marks the directing debut of veteran writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), and from the start, her tone is as unapologetic as her main characters.

Their takeover of the Hells Kitchen action is too easy and their character development too broadly drawn. But just as you’re starting to wonder what this much talent (also including Margo Martindale, Domhnall Gleason, James Badge Dale and of course, Common) saw in this material, the sheer audacity of its often clumsily edited approach feels almost right.

Berloff’s script makes it clear that this is less about the shots and more about who calls them, with some surprises in store by act 3 and a committed cast won over by the comic book source material or Berloff’s vision for it. Or probably both.

Moss, as a meek victim pushed around too long, and Gleason, as the smitten psycho who gently schools her in dismembering a body, elevate the film with every scene they share. Haddish delivers the underestimated street smarts with McCarthy – the two time Oscar nominee whose range should no longer be in doubt – bringing an anchor of authenticity.

There’s an allegory here of strong women fed up with fragile masculinity. There’s also a bloody mess of retro schlocky mob noir tropes (patent pending).

I love it when a plan has some awkward missteps but still kinda sorta comes together.

No Time Like the Present

Here and Now

by Rachel Willis

What would you do upon receiving the worst news of your life? How would you spend the next 24 hours?

These are the questions that plague Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) upon learning she has a tumor. More tests are required to diagnose the nature of the tumor, but if it’s cancerous, she can expect to live another 14 months with aggressive treatment.

It’s telling that Vivienne is alone when she receives this information. From the beginning, director Fabien Constant creates a sense of loneliness around her. After receiving the devastating news, her next stop is a rehearsal for her upcoming 25th anniversary show. A number of band members have clearly been waiting, but Vivienne mollifies their annoyance with banal pleasantries. She doesn’t mention to any of them, including her manager Ben (Common), that she is sick.

Vivienne spends the next 24 hours wandering from place the place. The New York City backdrop perfectly captures the theme of isolation despite being surrounded by millions. Though Vivienne has friends, a concerned mother, a lover, and a daughter, it’s clear from the dialogue she has always maintained an aloofness around those who care for her.

Writer Laura Eason gives us just enough to understand Vivienne’s relationships without giving away too much. Her relationship with the father of her daughter, Nick (Simon Baker) is cordial, but it’s clear from his tone when speaking about their daughter, Vivienne hasn’t been the most engaged mother. She’s been too busy with her career.

Though the first act of the film manages to convey a lot of information in brief exchanges, and Sarah Jessica Parker aptly conveys the emotional anguish of Vivienne, the second half falls quickly into melodrama. The idea that Vivienne is desperate for a connection is conveyed by a number of trite interactions with a Lyft driver who happens to make repeat appearances in her life. The naturalness of the dialogue in the first half is replaced with brief, forced conversations about profound subjects, mainly the power of music.

It’s unfortunate that Hollywood has adopted the policy of casting actors in singing roles when they can’t sing. Gone are the days of overdubbing actors with quality singers. Instead, we’re forced to listen to Parker muddle her way through a cheesy song. And not once, but twice.

With a title like Here and Now, it’s not a surprise that the film takes a melodramatic turn, but it’s a shame since it had a promising start.

Gerard Has the Con

Hunter Killer

by Hope Madden

On a scale from Gerard Butler to 10, how bad is Hunter Killer?

It’s not London Has Fallen bad. Or Gods of Egypt bad. It’s not Geostorm bad, but what is, really?

But is it any good?

Well, no. Don’t get loony. I’m just saying, it could be worse. You know, because Gerard Butler stars.

That doesn’t make him the worst actor in history. It’s just that he’s not especially talented and he makes impressively awful films. And yet, the king of January inexplicably gets a prime October release with this one, playing Captain Joe Glass.

He’s not an Annapolis guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t successfully lead his first crew through Arctic waters to save the President of Russia from a botched coups attempt.

If you’re worried about subtitles—well, you’re clearly not familiar with the work of Mr. Butler. No, fortunately the Russians only speak Russian when it doesn’t matter if we understand what they say. The moment the dialog is important they switch (sometimes mid-scene) to English. How lucky is that?

I’m sure we’d never be able to follow this plot otherwise. It’s not like every scene is telegraphed in advanced.

Director Donovan Marsh’s film is not unwatchable. It’s shallowly packaged derivative entertainment, boasting passable water scenes and hand-to-hand action choreography that’s entirely adequate. It’s the drama that will make you wince.

There are three primary focal points. Firstly, the drama back in DC, where level heads try to outmaneuver war mongers. Gary Oldman plays a monger.

Everybody follows up their Oscar with garbage. Don’t fret for Gary.

Common plays one of those level heads. This is literally Common’s third film in three weeks. The prior two—The Hate U Give and All About Nina—were both very good. Nobody bats 1000.

The second dramatic focus takes place on the ground—thank God, because honestly, without the small military unit landing covertly on Russian soil with their drones, swagger and witty banter, this movie would never leave a confined area and you would feel even more trapped by it.

The highest drama is, of course, hundreds of feet underwater with noble everyman Cap. Glass. You know what he has? A level head.

Just not, you know, a ton of talent.

No Weapon, No Weakness

The Hate U Give

by George Wolf

The Hate U Give becomes one of the year’s better films not because it elevates an oft-maligned genre (though that fresh air blast certainly doesn’t hurt), but instead for how it wraps troubling, vital societal issues around an absorbing family drama.

Adapted from the best selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, the film slaps you with reality right from the opening, when a commanding father (Russell Hornsby) is giving his young children “the talk” – not about sex, but about how to survive when they are pulled over by the police. You may see this as either familiar or eyebrow-raising, and that is precisely the point.

Like so many YA dramas, THUG is anchored by a special young girl. Here, she’s Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), but Starr’s specialness isn’t a device that panders, it’s one that is intelligently used to illustrate two very different Americas.

She lives in a Georgia “hood” with her family, but attends a private Catholic school in the ‘burbs, and not, as her mother (Regina Hall) says, “because she needs to learn how to pray.”

On the ride home after a weekend party in her neighborhood, Starr becomes the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Detroit‘s Algee Smith). She’s reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons (all logical), and as the pressure builds from different sides, reactions to the killing bring the contrasts between Starr’s two worlds into clear, illuminating focus.

Director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away just weeks ago) craft a thoughtful balance as the narrative progresses, cutting deeper via an impressive restraint that holds until the final few minutes hit a more tidy, didactic vein.

But when this film works, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully. Through Starr’s eyes (and yes, narration) we navigate heady terrain: white privilege, systemic oppression, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, victim blaming, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and liberal guilt. And Stenberg, leading a strong ensemble which also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae and Common, rises to the material after some cookie-cutter YA fare (The Darkest Minds, Everything, Everything) with her best performance to date, moving Starr believably through grief, confusion, anger, defiance and hard decisions.

It’s character development that respects both the character and the audience. And in trusting that YA audience with some bitter pills, The Hate U Give becomes a required dose for the rest of us.

Laugh til It Hurts

All About Nina

by George Wolf

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that lets you see a very funny impression of Werner Herzog ordering a smoothie.

All About Nina is that movie, and a good bit more. A confident, impressive feature debut from writer/director Eva Vives, it rides a sensational lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a character study with a timely and tenacious bite.

Winstead is Nina, a standup comic in New York whose edgy routines about dating shed light on her tumultuous personal life. She prefers one night stands over boyfriends, but still can’t totally free herself from a dysfunctional relationship with a married man (Chace Crawford).

Needing a shakeup, Nina moves to L.A. to pursue a spot on Comedy Prime, the late nite brass ring for up and coming comics. As she fine tunes her audition material, a stop/start romance with the easygoing Rafe (Common) pushes Nina to reconsider her aversion to commitment.

Winstead’s fearless performance, one that should be remembered this awards season, hooks you from the start, bringing a sympathetic charm to Nina’s defensive, anxiety-ridden persona. An impressive Common crafts Rafe as Nina’s cool, collected opposite attraction, and the actors’ natural chemistry leads to a fear that the film will be content to chase the type of romantic fantasy Nina rails about onstage.

Vives has more than that on her mind.

The standup comic who uses laughter to mask pain is a well-worn path, but Vives uses the very comfort in that cliche to point out, as we’ve been so clearly reminded of the last few weeks, how casually some trauma is dismissed.

Vives is juggling some important themes, and the few moments where the film’s uncertainty breeds heavy-handedness can’t diminish her exciting potential as a writer and director.

On its surface a look at giving yourself without losing yourself, All About Nina isn’t just about Nina, and that’s what makes it truly resonant. It reminds us of the courage it takes for women to speak up, and the shame that comes with not listening.


Meet Me at the Crossroads

Two Trains Runnin’

by George Wolf

Why would two different sets of white college boys head into the deep South in the summer of 1964 and go searching for long lost bluesmen?

“We were either brave, stupid, or uninformed.”

Two Trains Runnin’, director Samuel D. Pollard’s engrossing documentary on the convergence of separate journeys, shows them to be all three.

In June of ’64, the boys were privileged enough to be unaware of the Mississippi Summer Project, which aimed to bring voter registration to as many African-American Mississippians as possible. Like historical embodiments of Steve Buscemi’s music nerd in Ghost World, they were all obsessed with Delta blues, and most specifically, with two legends of the genre who had all but disappeared.

A group from California set out in search of Skip James (though no known photographs of James even existed), while “three Jews in a VW Bug with New York plates” went south to follow clues that might lead them to Eddie “Son” House (someone maybe saw him leave a theater). Maps are laid out like dueling ascents on Everest, and Pollard utilizes first-person interviews, stylized graphics, animated re-creations and, of course, stirring blues music to unite the paths of the “two trains” headed to Mississippi.

The boys were drawn to these performers through powerful expressions of both the “source and cure” of a torment light years away from their postwar suburbia. Outside the comforts of home, they found the raging racial torment of beatings, bombings, and murder, with a view that they themselves were just more outsiders coming to “give the vote to the blacks.” It is on this point that Pollard makes his subtle pivot, and the film strengthens the current of shared humanity running through it.

Featuring graceful narration from Common and contemporary Delta blues performances by Valerie June, Gary Clark, Jr., Lucinda Williams and others, Pollard has crafted a rousing bookend to Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s 2009 documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution. The music is the message and the message is the music, and Two Trains Runnin’ becomes both a sober reminder that the fight continues, and an uplifting ode to fight on.