Tag Archives: Gabrielle Union

Semper Fi

The Inspection

by Hope Madden

We’ve seen it so many times, often very effectively. A sloppy recruit, someone with nothing to lose but himself, does just that during boot camp. Maybe it ends in ambivalence and horror (Full Metal Jacket), maybe it ends in heroism and an unwitting invasion of Czechoslovakia (Stripes), maybe it ends in romance (An Officer and a Gentleman).

While the story that writer/director Elegance Bratton (Pier Kids) tells with The Inspection follows those familiar beats, it’s messier, more frustrating, more honest and more human than all the others together. As it should be, since it is his own story.

Jeremy Pope delivers an astonishing, raw performance as Ellis French, a 25-year-old homeless gay Black man. His mother Inez (Gabrielle Union in the finest performance of her career) cast him out at 16. We meet Ellis on the day he enlists in the Marines.

And you thought Bill Murray was going to have a tough time.

While the steps in the screenplay are familiar – the recruit has much to escape in his day-to-day; he joins and gets to know a group of men of different backgrounds, each of whom will be tested alongside him; he comes out the other side a different man. But Ellis French’s stakes are higher, his difficulties are more dangerous, and the lessons learned along the way probably affect those around him more profoundly than they affect him.

Bratton also pulls away from audience expectation by avoiding the cliché of one-dimensional recruit characters. There’s good and bad, heroism and cowardice, in everyone on the screen. In this way Bratton allows a certain moral ambiguity to seep into the film. That gray area becomes the space for forgiveness to take shape.

What Bratton brings to this well-worn story is an idea perfectly realized by Pope. The Inspection is a showcase for the idea that resilience comes from a balance of strength and forgiveness. French finds ways to forgive what to most would be unforgivable. This is how he perseveres. It’s a beautiful, difficult lesson to learn, even for a viewer. But thanks to that resilience, we have this exceptional film.

Over the Hills And Far Way

Strange World

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

So, one of the main characters here looks exactly like John Krasinski, but is voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal?

Strange World, indeed, but that’s just an amusing footnote in Disney’s latest animated feature, an enjoyable family adventure with a straightforward message and commitment to inclusion.

Jake is the voice of Searcher Clade, a contented farmer still dealing with the ghost of his famous father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Twenty-five years ago, Jaeger vanished during the family’s quest to discover what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia. But while Jaeger was lost on the expedition, Searcher brought back a vital new resource for his homeland: the Pando plant.

Pando now provides the energy that drives almost everything in Avalonia, which is all fine until the crops show signs of a serious infection. Putting aside a vow not to follow his father’s adventuring path, Searcher, his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and their three-legged dog join President Mal (Lucy Liu) on a mission to cure the Pando plant and preserve their comfortable way of life.

Writer Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) joins his co-director Don Hall (Raya, Moana, Big Hero 6) to craft an ecological allegory seemingly inspired by the union of a role-playing board game and one of those cute posters you pass while waiting in the lines at Disney World.

The animation itself is stunning, whether snowy peaks, verdant village or trippy, drippy otherworld. Strange World lives up to its title, delivering a visual feast.

But there’s more on Nguyen’s mind than eye candy. His story offers a world where generations do not have to be defined by what they always believed was right, where masculinity has no concrete quality but is a term owned by the individual. More importantly, this Strange World is one where creature comfort is not more important than survival.

Often the film feels like it’s trying too hard to correct the stereotypes nourished by generations of children’s entertainment. But there’s a kindness and a sense of forgiveness throughout the movie that does make you yearn for a world like this one.

The Baker Bunch

Cheaper by the Dozen

by George Wolf

By now, you’re probably pretty familiar with the premise of Cheaper by the Dozen. But really, the best way for adults to enjoy this new Disney version is by using it as a way to gently introduce small children to more grown up issues.

Otherwise, it’s pretty insufferable.

This time, the heads of the blended brood are Zoey and Paul Baker (Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff), who first meet cute at the L.A. breakfast joint he owns. Their marriage and eventual offspring create a blended family full of diverse and seriously precocious siblings, step-siblings, and later a wayward cousin in need of some guidance. Throw in two ex-spouses (Erika Christensen and Timon Kyle Durrett) who are never far from the shenanigans, and that’s the way they become the Baker bunch.

Director Gail Lerner and the writing team of Kenya Barris, Jenifer Rice-Genzuk and Craig Titley all have extensive credits in series television, which would be a good reason why everything about this film screams “TV sitcom.”

Plot points are hastily introduced and heavily contrived, while any conflicts are soft-peddled and quickly worked through with barely a bad mood or sass mouth in sight. One thing you will see is some surprisingly modest set design (especially for those high school basketball games, yikes) that too often seems fit for an afterschool special.

The Bakers get a corporate offer to franchise the diner and market Paul’s special cooking sauce, so the gang moves on up to a sprawling house in Calabasas that requires just one afternoon to completely move into.

But settling into a new home brings some challenges for everyone. There’s bullying, peer pressure, and dating drama for the kids, while the parents face bless-your-heart prejudices and questions about mixed-race parenting.

Union and Braff are both likable actors, and that’s all they are asked to be, because no one in the film comes anywhere close to resembling a real person. And much like these characters, all the worthy issues raised are treated with a “we got 23 minutes minus commercials” mindset and wedged in between telegraphed attempts at humor and constant mugging.

The PG rating is a bit surprising, because despite the warning of “thematic elements, suggestive material, and language,” everything here is as sanitized as a freshly minted urinal cake.

Cheaper by the Dozen, yes. And you get what you pay for.

The Grapes of Something Something

The Public

by George Wolf

Emilio Estevez just does not do nuance.

The Public marks his fifth feature as writer/director, and it sports the conviction of his best work while also suffering from his familliar lack of restraint.

Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a dedicated, stoic manager at the Cincinnati Public Library. While Stuart and his staff deal daily with an array of homeless citizens using the library, he finds himself a “good son” under fire when complaints about body odor lead to one vagrant’s eviction – and a lawsuit.

And then things get complicated.

Beyond the free computer use, the library also offers respite from the bitter winter cold, and when a deadly deep freeze grips Ohio, Stuart sits at the center of an armed standoff between the city and homeless folks needing shelter.

And it’s not just the homeless question The Public is addressing. From addiction and recovery to tabloid journalism, political cowardice and civic (ii.e. “the public”) responsibility, Estevez has plenty of heart available for numerous sleeves, getting admirable support from a solid ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Taylor Schilling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gabrielle Union and the ever-ageless Jena Malone.

Characters and subplots converge through dialog that’s too often desperate for authenticity, and a film that decries “intellectual vanity” seems overly proud of its own moments of clumsy enlightenment.

Case in point: a callous TV reporter (Union) is pumped at the social media traction she’s getting for her live reports from the library conflict. While her cameraman points out the plight of people at the heart of the story, she stays glued to her phone.

Point made, but Estevez can’t leave it there.

“Huh? What?” she answers, then a cut to the cameraman rolling his eyes. Second that.

Similarly, the stunt Estevez engineers for the big resolve gets a bystander explanation that is not only unnecessary, but factually dubious at best.

It’s just a culmination of the slow slide from good intentions to self-satisfied finger-wagging. The film has a respect for books and libraries that is indeed admirable, but by the time Goodson starts reading from Steinbeck on live TV, it becomes painfully evident what The Public wants to be when it grows up.


One Bad Mutha

Breaking In

by Hope Madden

Breaking In—the latest in a line of Liam Neeson movies—sees a desperate parent doing whatever it takes to save their tender offspring.

This time around Gabrielle Union plays Liam Neeson. Well, she plays Shaun, a woman who’s brought her two children with her to her recently-deceased father’s wooded property to get the place ready to sell. Problem is, somebody’s already there.

Shaun suddenly finds herself in the situation of trying to save her children from the men who’ve come to rob her late father’s safe.

The film was penned by Ryan Engle, who’s written two of Neeson’s own Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop, The Commuter). The man likes a formula.

Union convinces as the family’s level-headed, savvy matriarch.

She’s locked out of her dead father’s tech-dense fortress while her kids are locked in with baddies. The clock is ticking until the cut phone cable brings the cops. Shaun’s indeterminate experiences at her shady father’s secluded property have apparently better prepared her for this event than the villains would have expected.

There could be something here.

Though little more than a mishmash of domestic thriller clichés, still, with a bit of style and a little creativity, it could make for a tense and brisk 90 minutes.

If only the bad guys moved quickly, as if they were working against a timer. Show a little urgency, fellas.

Or if all that tech—the cameras, the motion-sensor lights, the door locks—worked consistently rather than conveniently.

Or if director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) brought any style to the project. Any at all.

Home invasion movies can become pressure cookers of tension and diabolical possibility. Too bad McTeigue has no idea how to exploit any of the tenser elements Engle gives him, nor does he have the skill to draw your attention away from any of the gaping holes littered throughout this plot.

Union’s fighting against more than seedy criminals.

The Rising

The Birth of a Nation

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Selma delivered a graceful reminder of one man’s courageous commitment to a civil rights movement rooted in non-violence.

Now, The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.

Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.

Reportedly kicking in over one hundred grand of his own to ensure more creative control, Parker’s use of poetic license is understandable even when it is questionable. Here, Turner’s motives for turning from an obedience-teaching plantation preacher to a vengeful killer are rooted in retaliation for brutal rapes rather than a spiritual calling. This doesn’t help the definition of the film’s female characters (a criticism smartly addressed by co-star Gabrielle Union in recent interviews) but it does allow Parker space for a more dimensional religious undercurrent.

He shows us how faith can be both a source of comfort and an instrument of oppression. Samuel Turner (a terrific Armie Hammer) finds fellow plantation owners will pay handsomely for his “preacher” to come help them quiet unruly slaves. After multiple trips to preach salvation through obedience, Nat Turner decries that for every Bible passage the slaveholders cite to support their actions, he can find another “damning them to Hell.”

Parker’s debut as a director, while often short on nuance, is remarkably assured, displaying a sharp eye for framing, a nicely controlled pace and a confidence in the effect of his visuals. Using Nina Simone’s haunting version of “Strange Fruit” could have been jarringly anachronistic, but Parker lays it over a montage so striking the combination proves undeniably powerful.

The story of Nat Tuner’s rebellion absolutely deserves a big screen treatment like this, and Parker presents a brilliant irony right up front. The title rebuts one of the most notoriously racist films in history while it serves as a stark reminder that much of this country was built with slave labor. The Birth of a Nation is a truly raw and moving experience that finds humanity in the horrors of history.

Shouldn’t it be even more than that?

As unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, as non-violent protests are labeled anti-American and as overt racism stains a Presidential campaign, shouldn’t this film embrace its chance to be the generational bellwether we need right now?

Those are grandiose and mainly unfair expectations, as it’s not Parker’s responsibility to give us something to post about on social media to prove our “woke”-ness. This is an important film, due less to the climate in which it arrives than to the fact that it heralds an important new creative voice, and moves us one step closer to the day when this diversity in cinema is more commonplace.