Critics’ Connection: Beasts of No Nation

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Beasts of No Nation is the fictional first-hand account of Agu, a creative, intelligent figure who, following a brutal separation from his family, ends up fighting for a squadron of child soldiers as civil war and genocide rage in the unnamed nation around them.
Starring Abraham Attah (Agu), Idris Elba (The Commandant).  Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga (screenplay), Uzodinma Iweala (novel).  Source/Photo Source:  The Film Stage.

What the critics are saying about Beasts of No Nation:

The Verge:  With powerful performances from its cast and surpassingly brilliant direction from Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation makes art out of the kind of real-world brutality Western audiences are accustomed to ignoring.  Beasts, based on author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, was very much a labor of love for Fukunaga, whose decisions in writing and shooting the film are a testament to the time and care that went into its production. The end result is a film that gives an intimate look into life in a part of the world where thousands of children serve as armed fighters every day. The cast is mainly composed of local actors, and Attah is far from the white lead most Hollywood films would rely on. That authenticity gives Agu’s fall and eventual salvation an immediacy that’s heartbreaking and powerful all at once.

Agu was a young boy living on the border of a war zone in his unnamed home country before his world fell apart. His narration guides the story, and Attah — an actor with no film experience before this role — imbues Agu with undeniable charisma and goodness. We feel his horror when his father and older brother are killed in front of him. And we feel his thirst for vengeance when, after escaping into the bush, he’s transformed into a child soldier by the Commandant (Idris Elba), the leader of the battalion that becomes Agu’s new family.  Elba’s Commandant comes onto the scene as the most fearsome of warlords, but is more a cypher than the commanding presence his title implies. The character — whose real name we never learn — is a mercenary prophet, leading his band of child warriors into battle in the name of reclaiming what they lost. Elba’s performance is understated here, and unlike his followers, he’s never fully consumed by rage. It’s a powerful contrast that creates a constant feeling of tension around the character.

With its beautiful cinematography and a towering performance from Attah, Beasts of No Nation is a movie that demands attention and consideration — whether it gets any from awards voters remains to be seen.  See full review at The Verge.

Roger Ebert:  The movie immediately puts us in the shoes (and sometimes bare feet) of its hero, eight year old Agu (Abraham Attah) in a country turned upside-down by revolution.  The main story finds Agu being protected and trained by a man known only as The Commandant (Idris Elba).  The Commandant is an unholy combination of a battlefield commander, a drill sergeant, a football coach, a decadent older brother, and the patriarch that a lot of these boys either never had or recently lost to.  The boys adore The Commandant because they think he’s teaching them to be men, specifically warrior-men, but he’s really teaching them to be murderers, thieves, rapists and torturers who wrap their bloodlust and greed in ideology that seems half-understood when it’s comprehensible at all.

The final section of the film, which sees Agu witnessing the limits of The Commandant’s power and starting to see through him, is probably the strongest; Elba, who has a magnificent glowering magnetism throughout “Beasts” but never relies on it exclusively, is never more fascinating than when The Commandant’s seeming omnipotence is whisked away like the curtain which reveals that the great and powerful Oz is just a man.

And from start to finish, the movie is imaginatively made.  The filmmaker makes bold choices.  He thinks about where to put people in the frame, how to light them, and how to move the camera, not merely to tell the story and showcase the dialogue and performances, but to boil a moment down to a single image.  While nobody should expect a film on this topic to be bloodless, there are moments when the movie seems to lose its grip on sense, and shade away from carefully-calibrated violence into imagery that feels less horrific than horror-movie-like—such as the way a child soldier’s machete blade splits an innocent man’s skull open in a close-up as he screams.  Too much of this kind of thing, and you might start to wonder if the filmmaker’s virtuoso inventiveness is overwhelming his commitment to realism.  Once you’ve gone down this skeptical road you keep noticing more and more things about “Beasts” that feel somehow untrustworthy, or at least not immediately defensible. And it’s a short hop from there to the realization that this is the second recent, highly acclaimed film about dark-skinned people not directed by an African or an African-American that has the word “Beasts” in the title. After that, you might realize that the Western commercial cinema almost never tells stories of Africa, except to sentimentalize European colonialism or show the depths of depravity of which Africans are capable.  See the full review at Robert Ebert.

The Atlantic:  Fukunaga’s script follows a West African boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who’s torn from his family by militants and eventually inducted into a mercenary unit by a charismatic, unnamed Commandant (Idris Elba). This is a film much more concerned with the business of indoctrination than the details of whatever conflict Agu is involved in. That’s where Beasts of No Nation both succeeds and fails: The ambiguity of the plot allows it to tell a more universal story, but the powerful vagueness hurts the film’s ability to do more than straightforwardly depict the brutal life of a child soldier.

Attah is incredible in his film debut, never quite losing Agu’s childish gait but visibly dulling the light in his eyes as he sinks deeper into his new world. Elba exudes his typical magnetism in the film’s first half, playing the Commandant as not a psychotic general barking orders, but a charming, often frightening father figure who sometimes taps Agu on the head, reminding him that he spared his life. As the civil war continues and the Commandant’s grasp on authority slips, that’s where Elba truly comes into form, looking vulnerable and sad without quite shedding his natural charisma.

Fukunaga is a brilliant visual stylist who has always managed to maintain a story’s humanism through the most bravura sequences, and that’s one of the biggest strengths of Beasts of No Nation.  But coupled with that is a frustrating lack of detail on what’s happening or why, placing the audience in the same indoctrinated state as Agu. Beasts tells a broadly traumatic story and tells it well, but lacks the kinds of specifics that could make it a truly memorable film.  See the full review at The Atlantic.

Critics’ Connection: Unsullied

Unsullied stillWhen car trouble strands track star Reagan Farrow in the Florida boondocks, she accepts an offer of help from a pair of charming strangers only to find herself trapped in a brutal backwoods nightmare. Held captive in an isolated cabin, Reagan manages to escape and take refuge in the forest. Relentlessly pursued by the savage sociopaths who kidnapped her, Reagan will need all of her inner strength and resourcefulness in order to survive. Source: Rotten Tomatoes.  Photo Source:  The Source.

Starring: Murray Gray (Reagan Farrow), Rusty Joiner (Noah Evans), James Gaudioso (Mason Hicks), Erin Boyes (Zoe Case), Nicole Paris Williams (Kim Farrow). Director: Simeon Rice; Sscreenplay: John Nodilo.  Rating:  R; Runtime:  93 mins.

What the critics are saying about Unsullied:

The Hollywood Reporter:  The Bottom Line…A solid B-movie effort.  This B-movie, reminiscent of ’70s era grindhouse fare, is a reasonably proficient and professional debut that fulfills its modest aspirations.  Murray Gray plays comely track star Reagan, who makes the mistake of having car trouble while driving through the swampy Florida boondocks. Not long after, a pair of friendly strangers (Rusty Joiner, James Gaudioso) volunteer to give her a ride. After being rendered unconscious with chloroform, she wakes up to find herself tied up in a shack with another female victim. But Reagan proves far more resourceful than her hapless fellow sufferer, quickly managing to make an escape and outrunning the psychotic duo’s chasing Dobermans thanks to her spectacular athletic skills. The rest of the film is essentially a long cat-and-mouse game in which the intrepid heroine overcomes a series of obstacles, including a perilous leap off “Hangman’s Cliff” into the waters below.  It’s all strictly formulaic stuff, including the brutally violent climactic sequence in which Reagan has the opportunity to take revenge on her chief tormentor. But none of that is likely to matter to the film’s target audience who may simply be jazzed at watching a film directed by one of their past gridiron heroes. See full review at The Hollywood Reporter.

The L. A. Times:  Unsullied screenwriter John Nodilo ameliorates an otherwise generic cat-and-mouse thriller with unusually thoughtful expositions. Reagan is grieving the loss of the older sister, Kim and Flashbacks to Kim’s motivating words help Reagan push through her desperate hours.  Her abductors, Noah and Mason, prove equally complex. These Southerners aren’t your stereotypical rednecks. Having struck it rich as wolves of Wall Street, these American psychos are beloved patrons and generous tippers in the desolate town they regularly visit on “hunting” trips. Although Noah and Mason seem indiscriminate when it comes to picking their female prey, the fact that Reagan is black and hounded by their dogs conjures the South’s troubled legacy.

It’s almost inconceivable that this effective, nerve-racking thriller is the first feature from former NFL defensive end Simeon Rice. It requires the usual suspension of disbelief, and pacing problems are a sign of Rice’s directorial inexperience. But the tension he creates is unrelenting.  See full review at L. A. Times.

The New York Times:  Unsullied? Unrelenting is more like it. This nasty low-budget thriller, the first feature directed by the former NFL defensive end Simeon Rice, tells a story rife with implausibilities. But it does have a few redeeming aspects, including a hardy newcomer, the actress Murray Gray, as Reagan, a competitive runner with the misfortune of having her car break down in a remote Florida backwater. It’s Reagan’s further bad luck to encounter two wealthy, hunky, smooth-talking brothers with a big estate and a penchant for kidnapping and rape.  The movie flirts with 1970s exploitation revenge pictures, complete with a 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport, but comes up short on the attendant payoffs. The actors, try to infuse their characters with depth, and the cinematographer, Scott Winig, lends the proceedings a professional gloss, especially in nighttime scenes. But their efforts cannot lift the story beyond its thin, lurid premise.  See full review at The New York Times.

Cut Print Film:  NFL player Simeon Rice makes his feature directorial debut with Unsullied. It’s not often that someone goes from football player to filmmaker, so the first question one might wonder is: How does Rice do? Surprisingly well.  Rice has a firm enough grasp on framing and evoking mode to suggest he might have a promising career making movies if he keeps at it.

One thing is clear: he certainly likes watching movies. Unsullied is a sleazy B-movie that firmly remains true to its B-movie roots, while also referencing several other films at once. There’s a little bit of the TV adaptation of Dean Koontz’s Intensity in here, mixed with the backwoods hell of Deliverance, crossed with the slick Michael Bay-produced remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the lurid, exploitative-ness of I Spit on Your Grave tossed in for good measure.

What hurts Unsullied most though is that the film is just far too derivative for its own good. While Unsullied moves at a clipped pace, too much of the film feels like a greatest hits compilation, with Rice and co-writer John Nodilo cherry picking scenes from other, similar films.  Unsullied doesn’t stumble nearly as much as other films from first time directors with first time stars might, and is quick and simple enough that you’ll probably be able to get a few cheap thrills out of it if you’re looking for deliberately B-movie entertainment.  See full review at Cut Print Film.

Critics’ Connection: War Room

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Tony and Elizabeth Jordan have it all-great jobs, a beautiful daughter, and their dream house. But appearances can be deceiving. Tony and Elizabeth Jordan’s world is actually crumbling under the strain of a failing marriage. While Tony basks in his professional success and flirts with temptation, Elizabeth resigns herself to increasing bitterness. But their lives take an unexpected turn when Elizabeth meets her newest client, Miss Clara, and is challenged to establish a “war room” and a battle plan of prayer for her family. As Elizabeth tries to fight for her family, Tony’s hidden struggles come to light. Tony must decide if he will make amends to his family and prove Miss Clara’s wisdom that victories don’t come by accident. Source: Rotten Tomatoes. Photo Source:  The Guardian.

Starring:  Priscilla C. Shirer (Elizabeth Jordan), T.C. Stallings (Tony Jordan), Karen Abercrombie (Miss Clara), Tenae Downing (Veronica Drake), Alena Pitts (Danielle Jordan). Directed By: Alex Kendrick. Written By: Alex Kendrick, Stephen Kendrick. Rating: PG; Runtime: 120 mins.

What the critics are saying about War Room:

Variety:  Outside of evangelical circles, the names Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick are likely to be met with blank stares. But thanks to low-budget hits like Fireproof and Courageous, the brothers have transformed themselves into Steven Spielbergs of Christian cinema. This drawing power was firmly on display when War Room, a celebration of the purpose-driven life, stunned box office watchers by nearly dethroning Straight Outta Compton as the weekend’s highest-grossing domestic release with its $11 million debut. That’s particularly impressive given that the religious drama was playing on a third of the number of screens as the N.W.A biopic.

Don’t count reviewers among the fans. War Room has a woeful 18% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Rechtshaffen dismissing the film as “mighty long-winded and wincingly overwrought.”

Alex Kendrick, a former pastor who handles directing duties on the brothers’ films, said “Critics in Hollywood are rough with us. They don’t understand why we make our movies or our worldview. But our target audience gets them and that’s who we want to draw closer to a walk with God.”  See full article at Variety.

The Wrap:  War Room may have crushed Zac Efron‘s We Are Your Friends at the box office… but critics were decidedly less friendly than audiences. Here are some of the harshest reviews about War Room:

Vadim Rizov from A.V. Club: “It’s innocuous enough fare, though it’s creepy to encourage women to believe the true source of their husbandly woes is Satan rather than an issue that probably needs to be discussed.”

Jim Judy from Screen It!: “The flick has a potentially dangerous ‘remedy’ to domestic abuse … it’s not up to Elizabeth to change or judge her husband, regardless of his behavior. Instead, she should respect, love, forgive, and pray for him, and let God do the rest. That’s all fine and dandy, but there are plenty of religious wives (and children) who’ve eventually been beaten and even killed by abusive husbands/fathers despite all of the prayers in the world.”

Kimberley Jones from Austin Chronicle: “I lodge no complaint against the film’s emphasis on prayer, even if, dramatically, it’s not scintillating stuff to watch. […] The filmmakers are upfront about their religious intent, and it follows that their audience is a targeted one. But the Kendricks have further limited that audience by presenting an emphatically anti-feminist picture of faith, repeatedly underscoring the idea that a woman must be submissive to her husband…”

See full review at The Wrap.

The Guardian:  War Room, is, unfortunately, nowhere near as entertaining as some other of the recent low budget evangelical Christian films. The performers are professional and, while it’s set in dull interiors with flat TV lighting, it cuts together okay. The plot is an uninteresting melodrama with a tortoise’s pace, but this does allow the viewer plenty of time to scrutinize its odd logic. Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer, a successful Christian minister in her first film role) is a hard-working real estate agent aware that her marriage is almost at its breaking point. Her no-nonsense new client Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie) wants to talk less about selling her house and more about Elizabeth’s relationship with Jesus. Miss Clara explains how she found happiness. She turned her walk-in closet into a war room, and there she sat and prayed and prayed. After a lengthy period of consideration, Elizabeth follows suit.  It was good timing, too, as her no-good husband Tony (T.C. Stallings) was just about to shack up with a work associate.

Shirer and Stallings do the best they can with the material, and while Miss Clara is about as subtle as Tyler Perry’s Madea, Karen Abercrombie’s furniture-chomping performance does sneak a laugh or two.  See full review at The Guardian.

The Christian Broadcasting Network:  War Room is a movie that serves as a powerful reminder of the impact that prayer can have on our everyday lives. It is a poignant example of God’s willingness to extend grace and mercy to us even when we feel like we don’t deserve it. Faith, family, and the power of prayer on the big screen … well worth the price of admission. See full review at CBN.com.

Critics’ Connection: Bessie

BessieBessie offers an intimate look at the determined woman whose immense talent and love for music took her from anonymity in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville to the 1920s blues scene and international fame. Capturing Bessie’s professional highs and personal lows, the film paints a portrait of a tenacious spirit who, despite her own demons, became a celebrated legend.  Source:  poptower.com.  Photo Source:  rogerebert.com.

Starring Queen Latifah (Bessie Smith), Michael K. Williams (Jack Gee), Tika Sumpter (Lucille), Khandi Alexander (Viola), Mike Epps (Richard), Mo’Nique (Ma Rainey), Charles S. Dutton (William “Pa” Rainey), Bryan Greenberg (John Hammond), Oliver Platt (Carl Van Vechten).  Directed by Dee Rees. Screenplay by Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois and story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote.

What the critics are saying about Bessie:

Variety:  A star vehicle and then some, Bessie casts Queen Latifah as blues singer Bessie Smith, in a big, bold movie that’s as vibrant, raw and musical as it is unfocused and messy. Dispensing with the customary closing note about Smith’s life, director Dee Rees’ long-simmering biopic is somewhat episodic in charting Smith’s rise and fall, but it’s sprinkled with wonderful supporting performances to augment a central tour de force that seems destined to drown out the rest of the longform field come awards time.

Smith is introduced at the peak of her 1920s stardom, before flashing back to the point at which she breaks in, by befriending blues legend Ma Rainey. After performing as an opening act, she strikes out on her own, with her career receiving a turbo-boost when the brash Jack (Michael Kenneth Williams) walks into her life and announces that he intends to be her man.  The performances are splendid throughout, starting with Latifah, whose gutsy embrace of the role requires laying herself bare in every way imaginable. In addition to standout turns by Williams and Mo’Nique, the supporting roster includes Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s estranged sister and Tory Kittles as her doting brother.  See full review at Variety.com.

Robert Ebert:  HBO’s Bessie, is a flawed drama that nonetheless warrants a look simply because of the bright spotlight it gives the underrated talents of star Queen Latifah, who does quite easily the best work of her career here. This sexually-charged, intense look at Blues icon Bessie Smith often feels defiantly episodic, as if co-writer/director Dee Rees is purposefully trying to sketch a portrait of a life in incomplete brush strokes, but Latifah, who is in nearly every scene, never falters in her portrayal of a woman who was too edgy, too real, and too tough to be famous before the world came crashing down around her.

Reportedly in the making for 22 years from a script by Horton Foote, it’s easy to see why Bessie was a film inevitability. This is a great story of a relatively unheralded talent. And everyone involved should be grateful that Queen Latifah agreed to take on this challenging role, one that she had reportedly been circling for over a decade. She is powerful, fearless, and, when needed, vulnerable in a role that could easily win her an Emmy and a Golden Globe.  Bessie is best appreciated as a character/performance piece. Like you would if you went to an actual Blues concert, just enjoy the star in the spotlight, sharing some of herself and some of the visions of her songwriters in every note.  See the full review at rogerebert.com.

Billboard:  For nearly two hours, Bessie transports the viewer to the ­cultural heart of the 1920s and ’30s, rich with luxurious ­adornments: fur shawls, pearls, boas, fringe and bowl hats with jeweled brims. The music puts you there too — the groans of blues songs like Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues” convey the type of misery that rattles bones, and Latifah sings them ­convincingly. Though the film is alluring visually and aurally, any deeper historical context — the Great Depression, KKK attacks, Prohibition — gets swallowed up by Smith’s oversize presence. By primarily depicting the singer’s big and brash side (vulnerable moments are rare), Bessie opts for a narrow focus rather than sweeping strokes, but this is more of a missed ­opportunity than a major flaw.

Essentially, Bessie is an educational tribute centered around a legend’s refusal to sell out. In one feverish scene, after Smith is stabbed in the street, she leaps from her hospital bed and says the show must go on — and even with the film’s minor cracks, it’s a riveting one.  See the full review at billboard.com.

Note:  The content of this post is adapted from the primary sources as referenced above.  Click on the links to read the original reviews in their entirety.

Critics’ Connection: Blackbird

Blackbird

Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Randy tries very hard to be a good person. Since his father left, Randy takes care of his emotionally disturbed mother, and he’s the kind of friend all of his classmates can depend on. As strong as he seems on the outside, Randy is hiding a secret inner struggle and denial of his true self. It’s not until he opens himself up to love that he discovers that becoming a man means accepting who you really are.

Starring: Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington, Kevin Allesee, Gary L. Gray, Nikki Jane, Torrey Laamar, Terrell Tilford, D. Woods and introducing Julian Walker. Director: Patrik-Ian Polk. Writers: Rikki Beadle Blair, Patrik-Ian Polk.  Source:  Official site, blackbirdthemovie.com.

What the critics are saying about Blackbird:

The Washington Post:  Randy is a Southern choirboy who turns to a portrait of Jesus on his bedroom wall when times get tough. His friends make the distinction between a real sin and a “Randy sin,” because the teen — a virgin who doesn’t curse, drink or stir up trouble — sets such a high bar for appropriate behavior. There’s just one thing. Randy has been having erotic dreams about one of his male classmates. And, despite his prayers, Jesus isn’t making them go away. That’s the tricky dilemma at the center of Blackbird, Randy’s religion is at odds with his nature.

But that essential and important struggle is hardly the movie’s only conundrum — and that’s the melodrama’s biggest flaw. Anything that can go wrong, will — often in spectacular fashion.  Regardless, the heart of the movie is in the right place. And although some of the acting from the younger stars comes across as amateurish, a few performances truly shine, especially those of Oscar winner Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington, who play Randy’s mother and father. Mo’Nique, who also produced the movie with her husband, Sidney Hicks, proves her talent here, turning in a powerful performance as a heartbroken woman who has lost one child and emotionally abandoned the other.

But Washington is even stronger in his more understated role. He comes across as a macho guy, but in one sweet moment, he vows to love his son no matter what. It’s such a quiet, simple moment in a movie full of more overwrought ones, but it makes a lasting impression. Blackbird would have benefited from using that approach more, rather than saddling a compelling drama with so much extra baggage. Read the full review at The Washington Post.

Ion Cinema: The blatant underrepresentation of black gay characters in film, whatever letter they’re placed into on the inclusive LGBT spectrum, is simply not reason enough to appreciate the elemental contrivances of Patrik-Ian Polk’s Blackbird.

The title has been inadvertently thrown into a higher caliber pop culture zeitgeist thanks to its distinction as Mo’Nique’s first post-Oscar role since her 2009 win for Best Supporting Actress in Precious. Kudos to Mo’Nique’s portrayal of religious fanaticism as the mental illness it looks and sounds like, but unfortunately her Claire Rousseau devolves into the wrong kind of camp, another wacky, weird, abusive matriarchal figure. Isaiah Washington strikes a more appropriate figure as Randy’s liberal minded father. This portrait of southern, familial angst could have been more successful had we left behind several tangents, notably the kidnapping of Randy’s younger sister, which his mother cites is God’s punishment of the family for his gayness.

Some very talented younger performers struggle to overcome contrivance, such as actors playing Randy’s friends like Nicole Lovince and Gary LeRoi Gray (who might have made a better Randy). Newcomer Julian Walker’s performance often feels like we’re watching high school theater, and isn’t up to the task of portraying the subtleties needed for a conflicted character such as Randy.

The familiar floridness of Blackbird renders it both inarticulate and flimsy, especially if compared to recent fare like Dee Rees’ beautiful Pariah (2011).   Read the full review at ioncinema.com.

One Room With A View:  It would be difficult to find a more earnest film than Blackbird, which is forthright, incisive and often heart-meltingly sweet. It is precisely this earnestness that holds our interest during the thematically bloated story. Blackbird implements a melodramatic style – perhaps more appropriate to the stage – which maximizes the dramatic effects. Unfortunately the theatricality also strains the plausibility and, ultimately, impact of the tale.  Despite the various inconsistencies, this is a well-made, emotionally engaging and entertaining watch. Read the full review at oneroomwithaview.com.

Critics’ Connection: Brotherly Love

Brotherly Love Still

Photo Source: Blackfilm.com

Story:  Set in West Philadelphia, born-and-raised basketball star Sergio Taylor (Eric D. Hill, Jr.) deals with the early pressures of fame.  Alongside older brother June (Cory Hardrict), who lost his own hoop dreams to the streets to provide for the family after their father’s death, and sister Jackie (KeKe Palmer), whose own musical ambitions are sidetracked by love, Sergio faces life-altering decisions on the streets of Philly.  Starring:  Keke Palmer, Cory Hardrict, Romeo Miller, Eric D. Hill, Jr., Macy Gray, Quincy Brown, Faison Love, Malik Yoba.  Director:  Jamal Hill.  Writer:  Jamal Hill.  Source:  Official Facebook page.

What the critics are saying about Brotherly Love:

Black Film: In Jamal Hill’s coming-of-age urban drama, Brotherly Love, themes of love, family, and trust are executed in a well-mannered way that could have easily been dismissed as a hodgepodge of melodrama storylines.

With a cast that includes familiar faces and newcomers from Cory Hardrict, Keke Palmer, Eric D. Hill, Jr., Julito McCullum, Romeo Miller, Logan Browning, Quincy Brown, Faizon Love, Macy Gray, Justin Martin, Marc John Jefferies, Little JJ, Teyana Taylor and Malik Yoba, this ensemble film brings in enough elements from comedy to drama that it becomes a moving, enjoyable treat highlighted by surprising performances.

Set in West Philadelphia, there are two sides of the streets, “The Top” and “The Bottom.” Over at the Bottom, we’re introduced to the Taylor family, where big brother June (Hardrict) has been providing for the family, since the loss of their father, through illegal gains so that his younger brother and basketball star Sergio (Hill Jr.) can be the one that gets out the hood and be the star he was meant to be. Not only does he have to stay loyal to his brother, but he’s also facing pressure with from boys at school, on and off the court.

There’s also younger Jackie (Palmer) who’s going through that teenage adolescence when she meets up with Chris Collins (Brown), who’s has the looks and a car, and is the son of a record executive. He’s seems like the perfect guy, especially when he can arrange to help out with her music career, but there’s one issue. He’s from The Top, where there’s already beef with June and his crew from The Bottom.

With an alcoholic mom (Macy Gray) who may or may not be conscious half the time, Sergio has to find a way to survive in a community littered by pressure from him succeed, drugs and violence.

Produced and starring an African American cast and crew, Brotherly Love brings in similar themes that folks can relate to but at the same time has a universal appeal that many will appreciate. See the full review at Black Film.

Hello Beautiful: Word on the “Black cinema” streets is that Brotherly Love is the new Juice or Boyz N The Hood. Based on the trailer, the homage is clear with its cute homegirls, shady drug dealers and a dollar and a dream prototypes. The elements are there to make Brotherly Love a potential successor. But as much as you’ll want to laud Jamal Hill‘s passion project, it will not be iconic as the films before it. With hopes of a dual fanbase from the Instagram generation and original movie-goers of Menace II Society, the film transpires more as a tribute than a true slice of life as a Black youth in 2015.

Generally speaking, the acting is standard in Brotherly Love. There are minor heartfelt moments and one particular twist and shocker that will make any suspense screenwriter nod with approval. There isn’t much to criticize the script for aside from its familiar territory.

What Brotherly Love lacks, however, is that documentary-style sensibility that dominated those 90s classic. Films like Juice and Menace II Society effortlessly connected to the current events of its day and even the local lifestyle and jargon of New York City or South Central L.A. were included as supporting characteristics. John Singleton‘s Boyz N The Hood, an impressively-layered take on Black-on-Black crime and police brutality in South Central, arrived just four months after Rodney King was viciously beaten by four White policemen on an L.A. highway in 1991. Singleton wasn’t merely imitating life in his art. His film further analyzed it. And the timing was remarkable. Brotherly Love barely contributes anything new to the storytelling of inner-city life. To target this movie as the new generation’s Boyz, Juice, or Menace is unfair and places it in a space that’s already been so culturally and significantly defined.

Brotherly Love attempted to be the film of our current time frame of “Black Lives Matters.” But we are still in search or waiting for that one film so honest and unique to the life as a Black girl or boy in the 21st century. See the full review at Hello Beautiful.

Note: The content of this post is adapted from the primary sources as referenced above. Click on the links to read the original reviews in their entirety.

Critics’ Connection: Dope

Dope photoStory:  Malcolm is a high school geek with a high-top fade, carefully navigating life in The Bottoms, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Inglewood, California. He and his fellow outcasts share a voracious appreciation for all things ’90s hip-hop, opting to sport Cross-Colours and Z. Cavariccis at the risk of being clowned at school. He dreams of attending Harvard, but first he has to make it home every day. When a drug dealer takes a shine to Malcolm and invites him to his birthday party, Malcolm’s crew is swirled into a hilarious blender of offbeat characters and bad choices where redemption can only be found in Bitcoin. Source: Sundance.org.

What the critics are saying about Dope:

The Hollywood Reporter:  It’s not every film that can turn the concept of a slippery slope into a repeatedly used and hilarious punch line, and [Rick] Famuyiwa’s dialogues are often not only funny but also sharp and smart. A notable exception is the way race plays a role in two scenes, the first a discussion of why white people can’t use the N-word — which the black characters here use more often than articles and verbs — which is so drawn out (terminating in a weak and literal punch line) that it starts to feel like sermonizing, while the second is the way race factors in to Malcolm’s Harvard application essay, which is certainly truthful but lacks any kind of argument around it that would demonstrate his innate intelligence.

The decision to also make the protags play in their own music group feels a little too much like a movie conceit and their songs, written by Pharrell Williams, will no doubt help market the film but don’t feel like they could’ve been written by these three kids, however brainy.  That said, the film’s overall energy, and performances are spunky enough to almost always temporarily suspend disbelief when required.  See the full review at hollywoodreporter.com.

/Film:  The film has a lot to say about growing up black in a bad neighborhood with bigger dreams than can be afforded. It’s about subverting expectations and staying true to yourself in the most impossible no win situation. The film provides an interesting portrait of “The Bottoms” area of Inglewood California, filled with gangsters and drug dealers.  Dope is much deeper than its pop culture throwback shell, featuring high school characters with complexity and authenticity. While the story is linear for the most part, the screenplay offers us a few flashbacks which sometimes further connect the characters and stories like a well constructed puzzle.  Dope is charming and poignant — an incredibly relatable urban dramedy that works on almost every level.  See the full review at slashfilm.com.

Mashable:  Dope is exactly what the title says it is.  Funky fresh, funny, complex and uncompromising, Dope — which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival — is going to be one of those Sundance movies that, if it finds a good home, will be watched, rewatched, quoted, referenced and beloved for years to come.

Existing somewhere between Juice, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Spring Breakers, get ready for three main characters to unapologetically root for through a series of outlandish twists and turns that are somehow utterly plausible.  With a mid ’90s hip-hop color palette and soundtrack to match, Dope is a wild bike ride through the streets of Inglewood, California, seen mostly through the eyes of high school senior Malcolm that bombards the screen with vivid characters and crazy choices.  See the full review at mashable.com.

Note:  The content of this post is adapted from the primary sources as referenced above.  Click on the links to read the original reviews in their entirety.