by Linda Holmes, Kiana Fitzgerald, and E. Alex Jung
In 2018, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Beforewas a breakout hit for Netflix. Based on Jenny Han’s novel, it followed Lara Jean Covey through the adventure of falling in love with one Peter Kavinsky. A sequel followed in 2020 and now, it’s time for the finale, which finds Lara Jean and Peter dealing with the complication of graduating and heading off to college.
The audio was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy.
As the current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, Fred Hampton, Jr. was guarded when he heard a studio wanted to make a movie about his late father, Fred Hampton. With good reason, too. The elder Hampton was the fiery and charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The FBI had its eye on him through a program called COINTELPRO, where they would infiltrate groups like the Black Panthers and use information to launch disinformation smear campaigns.
Hampton was in the midst of corralling disparate, multi-racial groups under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. The idea was to organize these groups to fight poverty and police brutality. Then, Chicago police shot and killed Hampton and another member of the Black Panther Party in an early morning raid. In an interview, Hampton, Jr. pointed out others have tried to make this movie without coming correct — no knowledge or respect for the legacy of Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther party. “Legacy,” he said, “is more important than our life.”
This is what director Shaka King was thinking about when he signed on to make Judas and the Black Messiah, the new movie about the life of Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O’Neal — the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI. The pitch he got from the movie’s co-writers, Kenny and Keith Lucas, was a movie about Hampton and O’Neal that was like Martin Scorsese’s gangster film, The Departed, but set inside the world of COINTELPRO. It didn’t take much beyond that. “I was like, I see it. I’m done. I’m in,” said King.
The result is a tense, thrilling movie that draws as much from The Talented Mr. Ripleyas it does The Departed, packaging Hampton’s radical politics beneath a sheen of high budget movie making. Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), says she trusted King with Hampton’s legacy. “His confidence and ability to make an authentic story, but not at the cost of somebody’s life,” she said helped her feel more comfortable to make the acting choices she made.
This big, complex movie with stakes bigger than any one person’s life is a big jump from King’s first movie, 2013’s Newlyweeds. That movie tells the story of a young couple in Brooklyn who smoke a lot of weed. It’s tender and funny, hitting the same notes as movies from other indie darling directors such as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. And it got decent buzz when it went around the festival circuit. The Film Independent Spirit Awards gave King the Someone to Watch Award, which came with a $25,000 grant.
But after that initial fanfare, King struggled to find buyers for the movie. “I was so depressed after making Newlyweeds,” he said. It was a movie starring two Black actors who no one knew. “And at that time, that was deemed worthless,” said King.
2013 wasn’t that long ago. But it was before what a friend of King’s ironically dubbed the Black Excellence Industrial Complex, when movie studios realized you could make a lot of money releasing films by and starring Black people — Selma, Moonlight,Black Panther and so on. The experience with Newlyweeds burnt King out on the idea of making another feature film. “I stopped caring,” he said.
Judas and the Black Messiah producer, Charles D. King (no relation), didn’t know that about director Shaka King. As the head of Macro, which produces movies and TV shows by people of color including Judas, Charles King is possibly one of the biggest names in the Black Excellence Industrial Complex. From his perch as producer, he’s seen young directors struggle with getting the momentum going for a second movie — particularly women and people of color. So he wasn’t surprised King felt the same way.
“It was before the #Oscarssowhite moment of 2015,” said King. “A lot’s happened since then. There’s much more of an openness and I think an understanding of the business opportunity there.”
After Newlyweeds, what tethered director King to the idea of moviemaking was a kind of silly, kind of outrageous idea he had rolling around in his head for a short satire, titled Mulignans, after the Italian slur for Black people that used to be heard frequently on the streets of Brooklyn. In it, King and two other actors play three Black guys who talk like they’re out of the Italian mobster movies King has such a fondness for. It was slightly inspired by his time growing up in a mostly Black part of Brooklyn, before going to school in South Brooklyn. There, he noticed that everyone — the Irish kids, the Greek kids, the Jewish kids, the Asian kids — all talked like the Italian kids.
“And those kids were hilarious,” said King. “They were profane, they were quick witted — we weren’t friends — but I could appreciate their sense of humor.”
The movie has the spirit and feel of hanging out with your friends while it concisely makes points about gender politics, race and gentrification. It reminded King of the sheer fun of making something just to see if you can. “That movie saved me,” he said. “It saved me.”
King brought that energy to the challenge of making Judas and the Black Messiah, a movie about a Black radical anti-capitalist, within the very capitalist world of Hollywood. “I’m completely aware of the myriad of contradictions that exist not only to try and make a movie like this, but me just wanting to have the kind of career I want to have, and the politics that I have and all of those co-existing,” he said.
Fred Hampton, Jr. was a consultant for the movie and on set during production. When I spoke with him, he said he was only just now able to watch the movie through the eyes of a regular audience member. He liked it well enough, though he wished they could’ve gotten some more of the politics in there. Then he smiled and said, “a revolutionary is never satisfied.”
In the new film Palmer, Justin Timberlake plays Eddie, a former high school football star who comes back to his Louisiana hometown after more than a decade in prison. As he pieces together his new life, Eddie moves in with his grandmother and befriends her young neighbor, a boy named Sam.
Sam is funny and spirited, and is confident in his love of dolls and tea parties. When Sam’s mom disappears — as she often does — Eddie steps up.
“I grew up in the rural South as a young boy,” says Timberlake. “And I found myself relating to both of our lead characters — you know, being a young boy and being interested in the arts. And on the other hand, I found myself really relating to a guy like Eddie. … I knew guys like that growing up that were football gods or basketball gods in our hometown and then school ends and there’s this transition and they kind of don’t know exactly what to do with themselves.”
On casting Ryder Allen, the child who plays Sam
Believe it or not, this is Ryder’s first film. … Sometimes the naivete to a situation can give moments of genius, because there was something completely untrained about him, but also he just had an intuition. In the chemistry reads, we would play certain scenes out … and then I would just keep talking. I would just keep going. Coming from stage and having experience on shows like SNL and things like that, you know, you develop a level of improvisation that we wanted to try out on all the kids and Ryder … would just literally stay in character and keep playing. …
When you get an exchange like that between two actors … you start to feel like you’re just watching people; you’re not watching actors, you’re watching people. And that’s essentially what you want out of anything you’re doing on film.
On the message he hopes people take away from the film
We have to have open eyes, and open ears, and open hearts. … I don’t feel like I have an authority to tell people what to think or feel, but I guess I hope that the theme of acceptance comes shining through in this movie. … This boy is 8 years old and he likes what he likes and he shouldn’t be bullied for that, he should be accepted … supported and uplifted for that. … Really loving yourself and being able to see people in the world … for who they are and accept that, and love that — it has to come from within. Hopefully that’s what we accomplished with with my character, with Eddie. That finding that self-love can kind of lead you in that direction, it can be your compass.
On the criticism that he has appropriated black music
To be honest, I don’t know that I have an authority to respond to that. I can only tell you that where I grew up outside of Memphis, Tenn., … my mother introduced me to … so much beautiful art. She was that type of mother. I grew up listening to all types of music and, you know, the music that I write comes from an honest place of my favorite influences — and it’s as simple as that for me. …
All I can do is be true to my influence, because I think any musician, or artist, or actor, or director will tell you that we are a product of our influences, you know? I’ve met directors who say … “When I saw that movie in a theater, I wanted to make a movie like that.” And I felt that way. … I’ve responded in my childhood to certain songs like that, “Gosh, I want to write a song like that one day.” … I think you have to be true to your influence and then make your music your own — or your performance your own, or your movies your own.
Sophia Boyd and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
During the Cold War, the movies we saw from the Eastern bloc were steeped in politics. They critiqued, more or less obliquely, life under communism. More than 30 years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone, but the films from Eastern Europe haven’t lost their political edge. These days, they’re critical of post-communist societies that remain harsh and oppressive.
This criticism takes audaciously radical form in Spoor, a fiercely offbeat Polish thriller whose heroine is unlike any woman you typically see onscreen. Based on the terrific novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the 2018 Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, it was directed by the celebrated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland along with her daughter, Kasia Adamik. The result is a film that’s strange, darkly funny and powerful. Imagine a pulpy murder story that’s also a utopian fable about feminism, social justice and ecology.
Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka stars as Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer who lives in the mountainous countryside of southwest Poland along with her two dogs. Devoted to astrology and the poetry of William Blake, Janina is an instinctive defender of the weak who is especially tormented by the suffering of animals.
Janina despises the culture that leads men to abuse women and to gleefully shoot deer, wild boar, pheasants and rabbits. When she complains about poachers killing game out of season, the police treat her like a crazy old bat. When she complains about it to the village priest, he tells her it’s blasphemy to care so much about animals.
Soon mysterious things start happening. Janina’s dogs disappear. Then she and a loner named Matoga discover the murdered body of the loathsome neighbor she calls Big Foot. As the police investigation proceeds, Janina spends her time with a small community of outsiders — including a police cyber-guy who has seizures, an innocent young woman forced to work at a brothel, and a visiting Czech entomologist who’s studying one of the local beetles. Meanwhile, more corpses start appearing, but there are no human footsteps surrounding the dead bodies, only animal footprints. Could these wild creatures possibly have done it?
If all of this sounds a tad delirious, it is — deliberately so. Rather like Taxi Driver, which showed us an infernal New York City that reflected Travis Bickle’s psyche, Spoor gives us rural Poland as it feels to Janina. Working with more stylistic panache than ever before, Holland does a superb job of heightening everything — the majesty of the mist-swaddled countryside, the thrillingly magical visitation of wild animals, the spiritual corruption of those in power.
And in Mandat-Grabka’s riveting performance, Janina dives deep into her own volcanic nature. Fueled by visions and moral rage, she lives with fearless intensity, whether teaching English to schoolchildren, yelling at the cops, flirting with the entomologist, or sobbing over a wild boar that’s been shot and simply left to die. In an earlier time, her weirdness might’ve gotten her thought of as a witch.
Janina’s rebelliousness is clearly understood by Tokarczuk and Holland, who both know what it is to refuse to go along with those in power. Now 72, Holland left Poland 40 years ago after her films were harshly censored by the Communist Party, beginning a remarkable career in the West that includes everything from Holocaust films to Henry James adaptations to episodes of The Wire. Despite her Nobel, Tokarczuk is hugely controversial in her home country for speaking out against the current Polish government run by the nativist, overtly authoritarian Law and Justice Party.
Although Spoor has one foot in classic noir, it steers clear of that genre’s attraction to defeat and destruction. Even as she plunges into the darkness, Janina won’t let herself be trapped there. Living her politics, she risks her life to fight what she thinks is a culture of death. Building to an ending worthy of a fairy tale, Spoor makes you feel just how monstrous human beings can be, yet it also suggests that fighting against cruelty can bring you back into the light.
by Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Aisha Harris and Glen Weldon
In Disney and Pixar’s Soul, a jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx falls down a manhole and finds himself teetering between life and the afterlife. He winds up on a New York adventure with a wandering soul, voiced by Tina Fey, who needs help getting ready to be reborn on Earth.
The audio was produced by Will Jarvis and edited by Jessica Reedy.
Whimsical, larger-than-life movie protagonists — Ebenezer Scrooge, Caractacus Potts, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka — kindled filmmaker David E. Talbert’s imagination as a kid.
Now, Talbert wants to add to what he calls the cinematic “Mount Rushmore” of eccentric characters. His new Netflix Christmas musical Jingle Jangle tells the story of Jeronicus Jangle, a brilliant inventor and toymaker played by Forest Whitaker.
“It’s really a love letter to my childhood,” Talbert said of his movie in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. “All the joy and the most fun times were all wrapped up in my childhood, so why wouldn’t I want to revisit it?”
Full of bright colors, a snowball fight set to Afrobeat music, and original songs by John Legend and Philip Lawrence, Jingle Jangle brims with joy, despite the film’s unhappy backstory.
Jeronicus is down on his luck after his betrayal by a once-trusted apprentice. But when his granddaughter visits, the two join forces to right past wrongs, and — in true holiday film form — find real meaning in family and relationship.
“I could have never expected that as much would be going on in the world,” said Talbert, “but I think it came at a time when the world just needed a collective opportunity to exhale, and be given permission to sing again and love again and heal again.”
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
On the visual aesthetic of Jingle Jangle he’s described as “Afro-Victorian”
The costume designer, Michael Wilkinson, put these amazing Victorian patterns together. And my wife, who’s a producer, said, “Well, there’s something missing,” and came up with the idea of mixing African patterns with Victorian style. So Michael Wilkinson then flew to Ghana, flew to Nigeria, and got authentic patterns and it was so wonderful.
The lady who plays Joanne Jangle, Jeronicus’ wife, she is from Ghana. And when they brought her her wardrobe, she started crying. … She says, “David, these are the patterns from my country.”
On getting emotional when Forest Whitaker’s character takes flight in the movie
When Forest Whitaker was flying, it was very emotional for me because I had never seen a Black man flying in a film before. You know, there were superheroes and all those things, yes, but a kind of person that I said, Well, I could be that person. And when I saw him flying, it was like me seeing myself. It was like me seeing this idea, taking flight.
You want it to be received critically as a filmmaker, but as a father, I want to be able to inspire my son. And then as a grown man myself, I want to be inspired. And that’s what the whole idea of flight in this film did for me.
On casting Forest Whitaker in the singing role of Jeronicus Jangle
Forest is of course, this towering man, this bigger-than-life actor who steps in and takes on these roles with such grounding and gravitas and power. But I also know Forest is a father, and there are nuances and things that no one has yet tapped into or even asked him to tap into in this treasure trove of being a daddy.
I didn’t know he went to school to train as an opera singer — that’s what he trained in college. So he just had to dust off that training and rediscover that instrument, and he did. And it was masterful.
On his approach to creating the film
What entertains me, what brings a smile to my face and what may break my heart, what may warm my heart — I put all of that DNA into the script and I allow myself to go on this rollercoaster ride of emotion. And then if that ride is a joyful or eventful enough ride for me as a writer and reading it, then I say, OK, well, then maybe it will be that same kind of experience for the viewer.
Janaya Williams and William Troop produced and edited the audio version of this interview. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
by Glen Weldon, Aisha Harris, Mark Blankenship and Margaret H. Willison
Based on a sudsy, splashy 2018 Broadway musical, The Prom has been adapted for Netflix with big stars like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Keegan Michael-Key and James Corden. But will the theater-people in-jokes land in your living room the way they did on Broadway?
by Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Mallory Yu, and Kathy Tu
The biggest movie so far to be bumped from theaters to home viewing during the pandemic is Disney’s Mulan. The live-action reimagining of the 1998 animated musical doesn’t have songs or a cartoon dragon. But the story still finds young Mulan disguising herself as a man so she can fight in her father’s place.
It’s always been about timing with Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated action thriller stars John David Washington as a secret agent who inverts time to try to save the world from an impending World War III.
His character apparently doesn’t so much time travel as bend time. The actor has told reporters he had to run and do stunts backwards for his scenes. “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” he said to ET Canada, about the film’s complicated story line. “Just enjoy being in a theater and looking at an event. It’s such wonder and spectacle and location and scale, beautiful scenery … And then on the second and third viewing, try to deconstruct it and break it down.”
To open Tenet in theaters, Warner Brothers also had to bend time. The studio originally slated it to open in July, but repeatedly rescheduled the film’s release while the coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas around the globe. Now that theaters have reopened, Tenet has already premiered in Australia, and opens Wednesday in Canada, South Korea, and much of Europe. Next week, it opens in select American cities, though not Los Angeles or New York. Following that will be Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico and Japan.
“They wanted enough available theaters to make it worth their while, that over the long term they can make their money back,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore. “This was not an inexpensive movie.” He says the $200 million plus movie is not the first big film to open overseas before it does domestically: The Avengers and the Fast and Furious franchise also opened globally first. But Dergarabedian says Tenet is seen as the big American studio film that might lure people back to theaters around the world.
“This is an industry that’s been blind-sided by the pandemic,” Dergarabedian says. “A lot of people are saying it’s over, people are going to just stream movies now at home. That’s not true. People are going back to the movie theater, and they want to feel safe and secure doing that. And Tenet is the big ticket, the movie that everyone has been waiting for.”
Christopher Nolan, who shot Tenet on 70 millimeter and IMAX, has long championed the cinematic experience. He made a direct pitch to China, where the film is set to open on Sept. 4. “I like nothing more than escaping to another world through the power of movies,” he said in a video for Chinese audience.”And Tenet is our attempt to make as big a film as possible, with as immersive action as possible for the big screen.”As for U.S. audiences, there are sneak previews Aug. 30. It opens wider Sept. 3. So if you want to go back to the movies, set your timers.
Since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week-long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program’s famous alums.
The film, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, focuses on the Texas Boys State event that took place in June 2018. We see the roughly 1,200 participants arriving in Austin, where they are randomly divided into two political parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry no agenda: It’s up to both parties to hammer out a platform, choose their leaders and then run against each other in a week-long election campaign.
McBaine and Moss throw us into this mock government exercise without much preamble or explanation of the rules of the game. Like politics itself, the action can be a little confusing; unlike politics, it’s never boring, mainly because the movie wisely focuses on a select few participants. Either the filmmakers were extremely lucky in their choice of subjects, or they shot so much footage that they were able to isolate the most compelling personalities. In any event, the four young men we spend the most time with all end up playing key roles in the experiment’s nerve-wracking outcome.
The most ambitious of the bunch of is Ben, the Federalists’ party chair, who’s willing to do anything to win votes, including smearing the Nationalists on social media. Ben is politically conservative — he has a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it — and he despises what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability. Ben speaks from some personal perspective: He lost both his legs to meningitis when he was 3.
The chair of the Nationalists’ party hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A progressive Black teenager originally from Chicago, René knows he stands out in this mostly white, conservative Texas field. He also stands out on merit: He has a seasoned politician’s command of rhetoric and can deftly out-argue any opponent. But he’s also capable of calling for party unity, as he does in an early speech.
If René has the sharpest mind and tongue in Boys State, its heart and soul belong to Steven, a fellow Nationalist Party member. Steven becomes an underdog in the race for Governor, the highest elected office. Like René, Steven stands out: He’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and he counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes. His humility on the campaign trail and his stirring honesty in front of a microphone prove irresistible to the crowd. Again and again, he invites his fellow party members to tell him what issues are most important to them, so that he can be a better, truer representative for their concerns.
We see these young men debating a lot of issues, especially gun control. There’s a lot of talk about protecting the Second Amendment, but there are also counterarguments from students, like Steven, who have clearly been shaken by the sheer number of school shootings. Another much-discussed issue is abortion, which leads to one of the film’s most revealing moments. A Nationalist gubernatorial candidate named Robert, who’s running on a strict pro-life platform, admits on camera that he’s secretly pro-choice. “Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win,” he says. “That’s politics.”
Indeed it is. And while the filmmakers are working from a mostly neutral fly-on-the-wall perspective, their attitude toward the Boys State program feels ambivalent at best. Deliberately or not, the experiment seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America’s political system itself: personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It’s undeniably inspiring to see so many young men with bright, engaged minds, and the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments. But it’s also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible — as a game to be won by any means necessary.