Saturday, November 29, 2014


Written & Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. November 17. 2014  8:45PM

"Beyond The Lights" tells the overly familiar story of a young woman desperately seeking fame and fortune as a performer and discovering after achieving this success how much of your personal life must be sacrificed. However, in the hands of Gina Prince-Bythewood, the writer/director best known for the cult film, "Love & Basketball", she offers a modern and fresher approach to this oft-told tale. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who impressed earlier this year with her corseted role in the sleeper-hit, "Belle", plays the woman in question and dazzles once again as a Brit on the verge of breaking out in to pop super-stardom.

As a young child, Noni is given a life lesson from her ambitiously driven, single mother, Macy (Minnie Driver) after placing runner-up in a local talent contest. She tells her daughter to chuck the prize as she should never settle for that if she wants to become a winner. This advice seems to pay off later with Noni (Mbatha-Raw) as she eventually becomes a rising pop star. Following the lead of current popular female singers like Rihanna and Katy Perry, Noni performs scantily clad with a calculated image that is overtly sexual.

After winning a Billboard Award for the collaboration with her publicity-generating boyfriend, hip-hop artist, Kid Culprit (played by real-life rapper, Richard "MGK" Baker), Noni should be on top of the world. But after an alcohol-fueled limo ride to her hotel, she's in no mood to celebrate. For some unclear reason, Noni is suddenly ready to end her life as she dangles off the ledge of her balcony. Luckily, a handsome police officer, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) guarding her room is there to save her before she falls to a tragic end. There is a connection between these two in that brief instant but they quickly must return to their own lives. The media gets wind of this attempted suicide and Macy, now her manager, whips together a press conference to claim an accident with Officer Nicol reluctantly there to back the story up.

These two are now linked due to this deception and find themselves drawn even closer to each other. Noni and Kaz sneak away from the glaring eyes of the world, attempting to share some private time together but due to their hectic jobs, these moments tend to be not nearly long enough. Not everyone is happy about this burgeoning romance. Macy sees this police officer as an extraneous distraction to her daughter's career and an unpleasant reminder of the incident. Kaz's father, Captain David Nicol (Danny Glover) thinks his son should take advantage of this attention and pursue their future plan of a political career right now. But a girl like Noni would be completely unsuitable to have by his side.

Ms Mbatha-Raw has all the right moves that makes her quite convincing as a pop singer and it's actually her voice you hear during the performances. She is one to watch and this role should certainly help her breakout. Mr. Parker is very appealing and has a nice, easy vibe with his co-star but his noble character is just little too good to be true. Ms Driver, a fine, underrated actress who many might forget received an Oscar nod for one of her early roles in "Good Will Hunting", is terrific as a mother whose better judgement is clouded by her relentless pursuit of stardom, seemingly for her child.

What Mrs. Prince-Bythewood has done with the highly entertaining "Beyond The Lights" is quite surprising. For what could have easily been a by-the numbers melodrama is elevated by her supple, well-crafted screenplay. While the script doesn't completely shake all of the camp loose (which is actually a good thing), it does succeed with a focus on rich emotions and an intimate love story. Prince-Bythewood displays such a steady, masterful hand as a filmmaker that it's utterly shameful that this is only her third feature in fourteen years. Sadly, it's quite clear that gender and choice of material made it very difficult for the director to get a project off the ground

"Beyond The Lights" is fizzy and fun, delighting with a glittering parable regarding the present-day  music industry. What makes this stand apart from other show-business yarns are persuasive characters and at the heart of the film, a credible romance despite the incredible circumstance that brings these two disparate individuals together.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Written & Directed by Justin Simien

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 26, 2014 8:25PM

Way back in 1986, "She's Gotta Have It", a charming, low-budget comedy about an African-American woman not feeling compelled to settle with just one man, ushered in a fresh new voice in cinema; Spike Lee. Brash, incendiary and fearless, Lee created introspective films about the African-American experience while loudly criticizing the Hollywood establishment for continuing to ignore this audience. After one of the director's biggest critical and commercial triumph-to-date, the Oscar-nominated, "Do The Right Thing" in 1989, it was expected that many other film makers of color would be given opportunities to work in the industry. Sadly but not surprisingly, this has not really come to pass.

"Dear White People", the excellent first feature from another fresh voice, writer/director Justin Simien, takes a satirical look at the lives of black students at Winchester, a fictional, predominately white college. Far less volatile than Mr. Lee's work, Simien still deals with the complex subject of race and identity with thoughtful perspective, edgy humor and brutal honesty.

We meet some of the African-American students attending the university including Troy (Brandon P. Bell), bright, handsome and popular, is under extreme pressure to excel, no matter the cost. It doesn't help that his father happens to be the school's Dean (Dennis Haysbert) which means he must always be beyond reproach. Attempting to put some distance from a rough past, Colandrea (Teyonah Parris) reinvents herself as "Coco". With a long weave and pricey outfits to create the proper image, Coco uses her video blog in an attempt to express herself and generate much-desired attention. And we have freshman, Lionel (Tyler James Williams, best known as the lead in the sitcom, "Everybody Hates Chris") who is a true outsider. Gay, socially-inept and sporting an out-of-control afro, he doesn't seem to fit in with any group nor does anybody want to claim him either.

Then there's Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a bi-racial student, who takes a militant stand with the radio program she hosts called "Dear White People". While offering rhetorical advice to this group, Sam not only wants to make a point but also clearly provoke. She runs for Head of House of their all-black dorm on a lark and surprisingly defeats the perceived winner, Troy. This sets off a chain of events beginning with Sam, wielding her new power, kicking out some white students dining in their dorm during lunch. One of them is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the obnoxious son of the school President. This doesn't sit well with him and vows retaliation. The tough-talking Sam is not all she appears to be, desperately trying to keep another part of her life on the down-low.

Being small fish in a big pond, the black students eventually turn on each other to gain or maintain whatever small amount of power they can achieve. When Coco fails to be properly noticed, she resorts to more desperate measures. This all leads to a campus party where the theme is African-American with white students arriving dressed in offensive, stereotypical depictions. Thanks to hip-hop and films, many of these young white kids seem to admire African-American culture but are clueless to the ugly history of such representations. Once the black students catch wind of this event, the already tense environment explodes in to raging violence.

It's difficult enough simply mentioning the subject, let alone mining actual humor regarding contemporary race relations however, Mr. Simien is game and manages with great success. The director doesn't hold back, making for some uncomfortably funny moments. And when the students drop their guard, revealing their fears and frustrations, the film is equally effective. The young, largely unknown cast is quite impressive with Ms Thompson (who you may have seen on TV's "Veronica Mars' and will see in the upcoming MLK bio-pic, "Selma") quite riveting as the angry but conflicted Sam.

"Dear White People" displays that while much has improved for African-Americans in this color-blind age of Obama, many issues regarding race relations have evolved very little. We, as a society, should finally be ready for a serious, meaningful discussion of this topic yet the question remains; is anybody able to really listen to each other? Anybody?