Pretty as a Picture

The Photograph

by Hope Madden

Tis the season, and as Valentine’s-aimed romantic dramedies go, the blandly titled The Photograph could be worse.

Issa Rae (Insecure) leads the cross-generational love story as Mae, NYC museum curator trying to process her grief and an incredibly long letter, both hers now because of her estranged mother Christina’s recent death.

Christina (a solid Chanté Adams), mainly unveiled via flashback, broke from her own difficult mother as well as the love of her life back in Louisiana years ago to follow a career as a photographer in New York.

As Mae learns some painfully obvious truths by way of Christina’s letter, writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) weaves two romances together across time to look at the wages of a woman’s ambition and the ways we relive our parents’ mistakes.

There’s plenty to like here, and Meghie’s film certainly looks like a dreamy romance waiting to happen. Scenes are beautifully lit, gorgeously filmed and romantically scored. You can’t fault the casting, either.

LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) has an easy chemistry with Rae as the journalist interested in Christina’s life, and Meghie surrounds her leads with vibrant supporting characters. Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance and an underused Kelvin Harrison Jr. all round out the ensemble, adding much needed life.

Rob Morgan (Mudbound, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Just Mercy), wonderful as always, steals his few scenes with a restrained, mournful presence that enriches an insubstantial story. There’s a ragged weariness to his character, one that’s all the more poignant when offset by the buoyancy of Y’lan Noel’s turn as the younger version of the same character.

Meghie has assembled a fine cast, she just doesn’t give them enough to do. Neither love story gets enough room to grow and Mae’s arc feels forced and rushed. Because Christina is gone before the cameras role, Meghie handles Mae’s conflict with her mother exclusively through clunky dialog, and the usually reliable Rae has trouble conveying any convincing inner turmoil.

For a low stakes romance, The Photograph is a very pretty picture.

Great Again

The First Purge

by Hope Madden

Is it me, or does Independence Day feel a little tough to celebrate this year? Is there a downward spiral going on that seems like the backstory of a dystopian SciFi novel? One where the Supreme Court finally crumbles to an administration that embraces white supremacy, gun violence and toxic masculinity?

Oh, it’s not just me, then?

You want to see a movie?

Five years ago, writer/director James DeMonaco spun a tale of a government-sanctioned, pseudo-religious night of violence meant to purge us of our evil. The Purge turned out to be a cautionary tale: if we’re not careful, this could happen.

Three films later, allegories are cast aside. From tiki torches to pussy grabbers, this is Trump’s America.

The First Purge takes us back to the experiment that set off the once-annual night of mayhem. A test, funded by the NRA and backed by the far-right government, is carried out on Staten Island.

DeMonaco returns to write the latest installment, but for the first time he hands off directing duties. Gerard McMurray makes his feature directing debut with a film that does not mix messages.

The African American director and his primarily African American cast take us inside a film that, if it’s not America today, it’s America of like three weeks from now.

DeMonaco didn’t have to work too hard for his script. From robed Klansmen to unrepentant, officially-sanctioned police officers with badges and billy clubs, to doughy white political mouthpieces altering facts to further their agenda, DeMonaco pulls nightmares from reality and pastes them together in a world that’s almost more comforting in that it’s supposed to be fantasy.

McMurray struggles a bit with action sequences, although, as he follows one misguided young man, he does manage a funhouse atmosphere that creates a giddy tension.

His cast, including Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel and Marisa Tomei, offer entirely solid performances in fairly underwritten roles. Meanwhile, Rotimi Paul cuts an impressive figure as Skeletor, one of the few citizens of Staten Island genuinely interested in participating in the experiment.

McMurray and DeMonaco are not all gloom and doom. Mercifully, they root their story in a realistic optimism that we, the citizens of the United States—potential voters, all—are not as easily manipulated as the powerful may think. We are not sheep. Not one of us is expendable and we outnumber them.

God bless America.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25yzf1V9cTY