Review: ‘Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,’ starring Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Madalen Mills, Phylicia Rashad and Ricky Martin

December 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Forest Whitaker and Madalen Mills in “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Netflix)

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”

Directed by David E. Talbert

Culture Representation: Set in an unnamed city during the 1860s to 1890s, the musical film “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After being betrayed by a former apprentice, an inventor-turned-pawnbroker has his cynicism and disillusionment challenged by his precocious and optimistic 10-year-old granddaughter.

Culture Audience: “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” will appeal primarily to people interested in family-friendly musicals that celebrate hope and resilience.

Keegan-Michael Key in “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Netflix)

The movie musical “Jingle Jangle: Christmas Journey” conveys unabashed sentimentality in such an earnest, charming and entertaining way that its predictable story will be easier to take if people expect nothing more than what this movie is: an inoffensive Christmas-themed story that can appeal to various generations. “Jingle Jangle” has got a little something for everyone to enjoy, unless someone really hates musicals or mostly cheerful family entertainment. Written and directed by David E. Talbert, “Jingle Jangle” is a vibrant homage to old-school musicals while managing to have timeless, not outdated, qualities.

The acting, costume design, choreography, production design, visual effects and original music all elevate the story, which at times drags a little in its pace in the middle of the movie. There’s a flying robot named Buddy 3000 in the movie that looks like a combination of the two main robot characters in Pixar’s 2008 animated film “WALL-E.” The sci-fi aspect of “Jingle Jangle” seems recycled from much-better movies. But the rest of “Jingle Jangle” showcases more originality when it comes to the unique and believable chemistry of the cast members in this well-cast film.

The story is narrated by a grandmother (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is shown reading this tale to her two grandchildren (played by Ria Calvin and Kenyah Sandy) during the Christmas holiday season. “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is essentially the saga of a family damaged by broken dreams and learning to heal from these emotional wounds. The clan at the center of the story is the Jangle Family, whose patriarch is a brilliant inventor named Jeronicus (played by Justin Cornwell as a young man and by Forest Whitaker as a senior citizen).

In his youth, Jeronicus had a charmed life, with a successful shop called Jangles & Things, where he and his family lived; a loving wife named Joanna (played by Sharon Rose); and a smart and friendly daughter named Jessica (played by Diaana Babnicova as a child and Anika Noni Rose as an adult), who aspired to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an inventor.

Jeronicus has an apprentice named Gustafson (played by Miles Burrow as a young man and by Keegan-Michael Key in middle-age), who idolizes Jeronicus. Gustafson wants to show Jeronicus a special invention he’s been working on, but Jeronicus keeps telling Gustfason that he’s too busy. One of Jeronicus’ inventions is a doll dressed like a matador named Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin) that mysteriously comes to life. Don Juan Diego is flashy, flamboyant and loves to call attention to himself.

But this isn’t a harmless toy. Don Juan Diego is also a corrupt-minded doll that convinces Gustafson to steal Jeronicus’ book of invention ideas. (Don Juan Diego’s solo musical number is aptly called “Borrow Indefinitely.”) Gustafson commits this theft because he feels unappreciated as Jeronicus’ employee. And over time, Gustafson uses the ideas in the book to become the richest and most powerful inventor in the world.

After this betrayal, Jeronicus’ life takes a turn for the worse. His beloved wife Joanna dies. And Jeronicus’ fortunes begins to wane as Gustafson’s fortunes begin to rise. Jeronicus feels broken and defeated. And so, he sends his daughter Jessica away because she thinks that she’s better off not living with him. Jeronicus becomes very reclusive and vows never to invent anything again.

The story then fast-forwards to Jessica as a single mother to a bright and inquisitive 10-year-old daughter named Journey (played by Madalen Mills), who has inherited her mother’s love of science and interest in becoming an inventor. Jessica has not seen or spoke to her father for years. There are lingering hard feelings because Jessica believes that Jeronicus abandoned her.

However, Jessica doesn’t want Jeronicus to be deprived of knowing his granddaughter, so she sends Journey to visit Jeronicus as a surprise. When Journey arrives at the Jangles & Things shop, where Jeronicus still lives, she finds out that the shop no longer sells his inventions but instead is now a pawn shop. Jeronicus is a grumpy old man who at first doesn’t believe that Journey when she tells him that she’s his granddaughter.

However, he’s convinced that Journey is telling the truth after Journey tells Jeronicus many things about Jessica that only a close family member would know. Jeronicus reluctantly agrees to let Journey stay with him and makes her sign a contract where she agrees to do the cleaning and other chores. Jeronicus also forbids Journey to look at or touch any of his old inventions that are stored in an attic. But since Journey is a very curious child, you just know that she’ll break this rule.

Other supporting characters in the story include an orphan named Edison (played by Kieron L. Dyer), who befriends Journey; Mr. Delacroix (played by Hugh Bonneville), a banker whose friendship with Jeronicus helps Jeronicus get extensions on his unpaid loans; and Ms. Johnston (played by Lisa Davina Phillip), a postal service delivery person who is very attracted to Jeronicus and not shy about showing it, even though Jeronicus is often oblivious to her romantic interest in him.

Even though Gustafson is the chief villain in the movie, “Jingle Jangle” doesn’t get too dark or disturbing with his storyline. Key brings his talent as a comedian to his portrayal of Gustafson, by making this character more like a cartoonish fraudster who is his own worst enemy when it comes to his greed, rather than someone who’s a truly deranged and violent criminal. Gustfason’s big musical number “Magic Man G” is one of the highlights of the movie.

Another show-stopping number is “Make It Work,” a soaring anthem performed by Anika Noni Rose and Whitaker. Journey’s musical showpiece is “Square Root of Possible,” which perfectly demonstrates why Mills is multitalented performer to watch. “Jingle Jangle” features several original songs written by Philip Lawrence, Michael Diskint, Davy Nathan and John Stephens (better known as John Legend), who is one of the producers of the movie. The songs can best be described as a mixture of light R&B with traditional stylings of a stage musical.

The heart of the story and what that works the best in “Jingle Jangle” is the relationship between Jeronicus and is granddaughter Journey, because they both learn things from each other that help make them better people. There’s a part of “Jingle Jangle” that veers into a sci-fi adventure story, with the expected “race against time” chase scene. But “Jingle Jangle” is mostly a sweet-natured tale of how love can rekindle faith and can sustain families through the hardest times.

Netflix premiered “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” on November 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Soul,’ starring the voices of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Soul”

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Culture Representation: The animated film “Soul” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white, with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring jazz musician has a purgatory-like experience where he fights to save his life while encountering a cynical soul that doesn’t want to be born in any body.

Culture Audience: “Soul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in philosophical stories about the meaning of life that are wrapped in a bright and shiny package of a Disney/Pixar animated movie.

Counselor Jerry (voiced by Richard Ayoade), Counselor Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga), 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Terry (voiced by Rachel House) and Counselor Jerry (voiced by Fortune Feimster) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar Animation Studios has long been the gold standard for groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing movie animation, with several Oscars and blockbuster films to prove it. Pixar launched in 1986, and was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Pixar released its first movie with an African American as the lead character. That movie is “Soul,” which does what Pixar does best: blend stunning visuals with sentimental, family-friendly messages. However, the movie isn’t quite the innovative cultural breakthrough that it’s hyped up to be.

“Soul” (directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers) follows a lot of the same thematic tropes that are in a lot of Pixar movies: Someone has to cope with death and/or find a way back home. In order to reach that goal, the protagonist encounters someone who usually has an opposite personality. For any variety of reasons, the two opposite personalities are stuck together on a journey. And they spend most of the story bickering and/or trying to learn how to work together.

In “Soul,” the main protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, aspiring jazz pianist in New York City who hasn’t been able to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional musician. Instead, to pay his bills, Joe has become a teacher of band music at a public middle school called M.S. 70, where almost all of the students in his class are less-than-talented at playing music. Joe isn’t particularly happy with how his life has turned out, but he hasn’t lost his passion for playing jazz. It’s a passion that almost no one else shares in his life.

Joe tells his students about the life-changing experience he had as a boy when his father took him to a nightclub to see jazz performed live for the first time. It was the first time that Joe understood the joy of turning a passion into something that can be shared with others. Joe describes to his students how he felt when he saw the jazz musicians expressing themselves in their performance: “I wanted to learn how to talk like that. That’s when I knew I was born to play.”

Joe then says to a student, “Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?” Connie (voiced by Cora Champommier) deadpans in response: “I’m 12.” This won’t be the last time Connie will be in the movie, since she represents whether or not Joe has made an impact on any of his students.

Joe, who is an only child, is somewhat of a disappointment to his widowed mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who owns a custom tailor shop. Libba has grown tired of seeing Joe in a series of dead-end, part-time jobs that don’t pay very well. Joe’s father was also an aspiring musician, but he gave up his music dreams because of the financial obligations of raising a family. Joe is a bachelor with no children, so it’s been easier for him to not feel as much pressure to get a full-time job that pays well.

One day, M.S. 70’s Principal Arroyo (voiced by Jeannie Tirado) tells Joe that the school would like to offer him a full-time job as the band teacher. However, Joe isn’t all that excited about the offer, because it means that he’ll have less time to pursue what he really wants to be: a professional musician playing in a real band. Privately, he thinks about whether or not he should accept the offer.

When Joe tells Libba about this job offer, she thinks he’s crazy not to take the offer right away. Libba reminds Joe that a full-time job comes with insurance benefits and a retirement plan, which are things that she thinks Joe needs to have now that he’s reached a certain age. Joe reluctantly agrees to take the school’s full-time job offer.

But then, something unexpected happens that changes his life when he gets a chance to become a professional musician. A former student of his named Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove) calls Joe and tells him that he’s now a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a famous group that is in the city for a tour performance. Curley thanks Joe for his mentorship and excitedly mentions to Joe that the band’s regular pianist suddenly “skipped town” and can’t be found.

Curley says that Joe would be the perfect replacement for this pianist for the band’s show that will take place that evening at the Half Note, a popular jazz nightclub. Curley invites Joe to go to the nightclub for an audition. Curley says that if Dorothea Williams likes what she hears from Joe, then Joe could become the permanent pianist for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Needless to say, Joe is ecstatic but also nervous.

Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) is a hard-to-please taskmaster. And she’s not impressed that Joe has been working as a school teacher, because she thinks it means he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. But once Dorothea hears Joe play, she changes her mind and says he can perform with the band that night. She keeps cool about it and doesn’t want to lavish too much praise on Joe.

Joe is so excited about this big break that he calls people on his phone to tell them the good news, while he’s walking down various streets. Joe is so distracted that he doesn’t notice several things that could get him injured. He narrowly misses getting hit by a car when he walks into traffic. He avoids getting hurt by construction work happening on a street where he walks.

But a misfortune that Joe literally falls into is a deep and open manhole that he doesn’t notice while he’s talking on the phone. Joe wakes up in a purgatory-like environment where he finds out that he “died” from this fall. His soul and other souls (which look like ghostly blue blobs) are headed to a place called the Great Beyond, which is implied to be heaven.

However, Joe doesn’t want to accept this fate, and he runs away and tries to hide. What he really wants to do is go back to Earth, have his soul reunited with his body, and recover from his injuries in time to make it to the Dorothea Williams Quartet performance. He believes that this performance is his only shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Joe tries to hide in the purgatory, but he’s quickly discovered by spirit-like entities called counselors that look like two-dimensional, bisected figures. Several of the counselors (with male and female voices) are named Counselor Jerry. Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade voice the two Counselor Jerry characters that have the most interaction with Joe. Braga’s Counselor Jerry character is empathetic and patient. Ayoade’s Counselor Jerry character is wisecracking and neurotic. Other actors who are the voices of Counselor Jerry characters include Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi and Zenobia Shroff.

Joe finds out that he hasn’t died yet, but his body is in a “holding pattern,” and he’s in a place called the Great Before, also known as the You Seminar. It’s a place where each soul is numbered and assigned a unique personality before being sent to Earth to inhabit a body. In addition to personality traits, each soul must have a “spark,” in order to be ready to be sent to Earth. In the You Seminar, each soul is assigned a mentor to inspire that spark. (The word “spark” in the movie is another way of saying a person’s biggest passion in life.)

Joe already knows what his spark is (playing music), but through a series of events, he ends up becoming the mentor for a soul whose name/number is 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is an especially difficult soul because she doesn’t want to be live in anybody on Earth and she wants to stay where she is. She’s very stubborn and likes to cause a lot of mischief. (Technically, 22 could be interpreted as having no gender, but since a woman was chosen to voice the character, 22 will be referred to as “she” and “her” in this review.)

Joe finds out that 22 has had several mentors who tried and failed to help 22 find her spark. The mentors include Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, Nicolaus Copernicus and Muhammad Ali. There’s a brief montage sequence that shows how 22 aggravated and disappointed all of her famous mentors. And 22 is so insufferable, cynical and bratty that even Mother Teresa ran out of patience with her.

And so, the rest of the movie is about these two souls who have different agendas and have to find a way to work together. One soul desperately wants to go back to Earth to reunite with his body, while the other soul desperately does not want to go to Earth to avoid inhabiting any body. There’s also a running joke in the film about a very nitpicky, uptight spirit named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who works as an accountant in the purgatory and notices that a soul (Joe) is missing from the expected Great Beyond population. Terry goes on the hunt to find this missing soul.

“Soul” has a lot of metaphors not just about life after death but also about life on Earth. There’s a subplot about “lost souls” on Earth. And during Joe and 22’s time together, they encounter a soul who’s an aging hippie type named Moonwind (played by Graham Norton), who is the captain of a ship of souls.

What works very well in “Soul,” as is the case of almost every Pixar film, is how the film looks overall. When Joe describes the elation he felt the first time he discovered his passion for music, the screen lights up with an engaging vibrancy of sights and sounds. There are also some almost-psychedelic representations of what the You Seminar looks like that give “Soul” an immersive quality. The human characters look very lifelike. And it all adds up to a very memorable animated film.

“Soul” is not without flaws, however. The movie has a few plot holes that aren’t really explained. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where 22 tells Joe that souls without a body do not have the use of human senses, which is why 22 doesn’t know what it’s like to smell, taste or touch. However, it’s never explained why 22 (and other souls without bodies) have the senses of sight and hearing. Why bother saying that souls in this story cannot have human senses, when the souls can obviously see and hear?

Docter won an Oscar for the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out,” another existential movie with a plot revolving around the concept that people are unique because of personalities and interests. “Soul” has lot of philosophies about what makes someone human and what a human being’s purpose is in life. Both movies can be enjoyed by people of different generations. However, the storyline of “Soul” is riskier and potentially more alienating.

“Soul” is not a religious movie, but it’s literally a spiritual movie. Its plot and characters are based on spiritual beliefs that when people die, their souls go to another place that can’t be seen by living humans, or souls could be stuck on Earth as “ghosts.” Therefore, what happens in “Soul” won’t have as much of an emotional impact on atheists or other people who believe that death is final and who think that there is no such thing as a soul that can leave a body.

There’s a reincarnation subplot to the “Soul” that isn’t as funny as it could have been, mainly because one of the characters is reincarnated as a cat. There have already been plenty of movies that have over-used the gimmick of a non-human animal that can talk and think like a human. The world has more than enough “talking animals” movies.

As for “Soul” being touted as a racial breakthrough in Pixar animation, the movie falls short of many expectations that Joe’s life as an African American musician would be in the movie more than it actually is. This part of Joe’s identity is only shown as “bookends,” in service of a story that’s really about how Joe can help redeem 22, so that she will want to become a fully formed person with a “spark.”

In fact, Joe’s quest to go back to becoming a living, breathing human being often takes a back seat to 22 and her shenanigans. Joe doesn’t become completely sidelined, since he’s still the main character who’s in almost every scene of the movie. But there are many moments in “Soul” where it feels like the filmmakers deliberately made 22 the scene stealer, while Joe passively reacts to whatever 22 does or wants.

These creative decisions are a bit problematic when Disney and Pixar seem to have a self-congratulatory attitude in promoting “Soul” as the first Pixar movie to celebrate African American culture. Well, it’s not exactly a celebration. It’s more of a polite acknowledgement, because for most of the movie, Joe isn’t even in his own body.

It should be noted that “Soul” was written by Docter (who is white), Powers (who is African American) and Mike Jones (who is white). The vast majority of people on the “Soul” creative team are also white, including producer Dana Murray and chief composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jonathan “Jon” Batiste,” who is African American, did the jazz compositions for “Soul,” but not the overall music score. The music of “Soul” is perfectly fine, but it just seems a bit “off” that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to hire any of the numerous qualified African Americans to be the chief composers for this movie about an African American musician. Make of that what you will, but that’s why people say that representation matters.

And it seems like such a waste for “Soul” to not feature the singing talents of Foxx, who plays a musician but not a singer in this movie. (Foxx is a piano player in real life too.) He does a very good job in the role, as do the other “Soul” cast members. However, Joe is at times written as a sidekick to 22, when 22 should be the sidekick throughout the entire time that Joe and 22 are together. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of “Soul” that the Joe character reclaims the spot as the central focus of the story.

“Soul” certainly meets Pixar’s high standards of a visually compelling film that tackles heavy emotional issues in an entertaining way. The movie has a lot of musing about the meaning of life and positive messages about self-acceptance. These themes in “Soul” are, for the most part, handled well for a movie whose target audience includes a lot of kids who are too young to have deep, philosophical debates. Just don’t expect “Soul” to have major representation of African American culture in the way that Pixar’s “Coco” celebrated Mexican culture.

Disney+ premiered “Soul” on December 25, 2020. The movies was released in cinemas in countries where Disney+ is not available.

Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.

Review: ‘A Fall From Grace,’ starring Crystal Fox, Phylicia Rashad, Bresha Webb, Mehcad Brooks and Cicely Tyson

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Donovan Christie Jr., Tyler Perry, Bresha Webb and Crystal Fox in "A Fall From Grace"
Donovan Christie Jr., Tyler Perry, Bresha Webb and Crystal Fox in “A Fall From Grace” (Photo by Charles Bergmann/Netflix)

“A Fall From Grace”

Directed by Tyler Perry

Culture Representation: Set in the fictional American city of Holloway, “A Fall From Grace” has predominantly black middle-class characters who are connected in some way to a murder mystery case.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over the guilt or innocence of a woman accused of murder.

Culture Audience: “A Fall From Grace” will appeal primarily to fans of Tyler Perry and low-budget, melodramatic “women in peril” movies.

Crystal Fox and Mehcad Brooks in “A Fall From Grace” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you’re watching a Tyler Perry drama, here are three things you can expect to happen:

(1) A husband or boyfriend will cheat on his wife or girlfriend.
(2) The woman will find out about the infidelity.
(3) She not only gets mad, she also gets even.

The legal mystery “A Fall From Grace” (written and directed by Perry) falls right in line with this formula, with plenty of melodramatic and implausible moments, as well as a few touches of humor. (“A Fall From Grace” is definitely for mature audiences, since there’s partial nudity, adult language and very bloody violence.) Perry’s dramas overall are much more interesting than his comedies, but there’s such a similarity to the narratives of Perry’s dramas that they’re very much like passing by a car wreck: You know what you’re probably going to see is messy and tragic, but sometimes you’re compelled to take a look anyway.

To his credit, Perry gives a lot of work to black actors and actresses, since his movies and TV shows have predominantly black casts. It’s just too bad that he can’t come up with more original scripts that don’t have the same, tired concept that the central character (who’s usually an African American woman) is stressed-out and unhappy because of a man. She’s either dealing with a lying cheater, or she’s having problems finding a good man who won’t cheat on her, because she was treated badly by a cheater in her previous relationship.

In “A Fall From Grace,” the troubled woman is Grace Waters (played by Crystal Fox), a mid-level bank employee in her 50s who’s confessed to bludgeoning to death her much-younger second husband, Shannon DeLong (played by Mehcad Brooks), who was married to Grace for less than a year. The crime is shocking to people who know Grace, because she has a mild-mannered and passive personality. Grace’s 26-year-old attorney is public defender Jasmine Bryant (played by Bresha Webb), who’s reluctant to take the case because she’s eager to have her first experience going to trial. Her demanding boss Roy (played by Perry) thinks a trial isn’t necessary, since Grace has confessed to first-degree murder and wants to plead guilty.

As Roy explains to Jasmine, he put her on the case because Jasmine is an excellent negotiator of plea bargains, and he’s training her to do what public defenders usually do: make plea deals for almost all of their clients. But there’s another reason why Jasmine doesn’t want to take the case: As she privately tells her loyal and supportive husband, Jordan (played by Matthew Law), who’s a police officer for the city, she’s become disillusioned by representing so many people she thinks are guilty. Jasmine is seriously thinking about leaving her budding law career to start over in a new profession, but Jordan encourages her not to give up so easily.

Because Grace’s case is very high-profile in the local news, Jasmine is also feeling the pressure of getting the right deal for Grace. The maximum penalty for pleading guilty will be life without parole, but Jasmine is hoping that Grace (who has no previous arrest record) will get a plea bargain of 15 years with the possibility of parole. If Grace goes to trial, she risks getting the death penalty if she’s found guilty. Jasmine meets with a disheveled and dejected Grace in jail, and something about their meeting seems “off” to Jasmine—Grace’s only request for the deal is that she’s sent to a prison that’s near where her grandchildren live. Jasmine begins to wonder if Grace is really not guilty and possibly covering up for someone else.

Jasmine’s doubt about Grace’s guilt grows even more when she looks at the crime-scene photos, and sees that the blood patterns don’t match the patterns of someone who’s supposedly lost blood from a blow to the head. She shows the evidence to Roy, who orders her to make a plea deal and not bring the case to trial. Jasmine decides to investigate further anyway, knowing that she could end up getting fired for insubordination.

Jasmine finds herself meeting with one of Grace’s close friends named Sarah (played by Phylicia Rashad), who runs a boarding house for retired women. (Cicely Tyson has a cameo as one of the residents. She’s literally in the movie for less than 10 minutes.) Sarah tells Jasmine that she’s been friends with Grace for about six years.

In a flashback, viewers see Sarah and Grace talking after attending the wedding of Grace’s ex-husband, who left her for his much-younger secretary, whom he ended up marrying. Grace and her ex-husband (who have a married adult son together) had a divorce where Grace was willing to give up their house to him because she wanted to avoid any nasty legal battles. Grace has convinced herself that she’ll never fall in love again, but Sarah encourages her to get out of the house more and start dating again. Sarah suggests that Grace meet new people by going to an upcoming gallery event that will be the opening of a new photo exhibit.

While Grace is at the gallery exhibit, which features Ethiopian tribe photos taken by Shannon DeLong, she is approached by a hunky man who’s about 20 years younger than Grace. He strikes up a conversation with Grace and asks her what she thinks of the photos. Grace says that she’s very impressed with the photos.

She also tells the man that she thinks Shannon is probably an African woman, because the people in the photos look like they trusted the photographer. While they’re talking and as the man openly flirts with her, the gallery owner makes a speech to introduce Shannon DeLong. And lo and behold, to Grace’s surprise (but not to anyone else watching this who could easily guess who this mystery man is), the charming man whom she was talking to is none other than Shannon DeLong.

The next day, Shannon sends Grace some roses and one of his photos. Grace is curious and a little taken aback at his attempts to romance her because she doesn’t think she’s attractive enough for a man as good-looking and young as Shannon is. At first, she plays hard to get, but she eventually agrees to go out on a date with him.

While on the date, she asks him point-blank: “Why me?” Shannon replies, “Shouldn’t the question be, ‘Why not you?'” They end up having a whirlwind, chaste romance (Grace is religious and won’t sleep with him as long as they’re not married) that leads to Shannon proposing, and then they get married.

But how well does Grace really know her new husband? He starts to show a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that can flip on a moment’s notice. When Grace overhears him talking on the phone to someone she doesn’t know, and she asks him who he’s talking to, he sneers at her in a menacing tone: “Grace, there are two things I don’t like: (1) being checked up on and (2) being questioned.” Grace finds out the hard way how much of a mistake it was to marry Shannon.

Grace catches him in their bedroom having sex with another woman. Grace also gets fired for embezzlement, and she finds out that Shannon committed the crime by stealing her identity. (This isn’t a spoiler, since it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

When they’re alone together, Shannon openly mocks Grace because he’s sure he can get away with what he did. Things get very ugly and bloody, with Grace whacking him repeatedly with a baseball bat, like someone fighting zombies in “The Walking Dead,” and it’s all resulted in Grace facing prison time for Shannon’s murder.

But wait. This wouldn’t be a Tyler Perry movie without something ludicrous about the plot. It turns out that Shannon’s body was never found. (This detail is also revealed in the movie’s trailer.) Presumably, the district attorney felt there was enough blood evidence to suggest that Shannon is dead, but even that’s a stretch of the imagination.

In real life, prosecution of a murder case, even with a confession, rarely happens without a body (or vital body parts, such as a skull or torso), in order for a medical examiner to determine the cause of death. In the rare instances when someone is charged with murder without a body being found, several years have passed after the allegedly murdered person has been declared missing. Perry is assuming that most people watching this movie won’t know all of that, because the point of having a missing body in this murder mystery is to make viewers wonder if Shannon is really dead.

But that opens up a whole other set of questions: Why did Grace confess in the first place if there was no body found? If Shannon isn’t dead, shouldn’t Grace still be in trouble for attempted murder? And who got rid of the body if he’s dead? Viewers won’t necessarily get the answers to these questions during the course of the movie, as Grace changes her mind about pleading guilty, and the case goes to trial.

The courtroom scenes are predictably over-the-top, but at least they’re more realistic than the bumbling cop scenes with Jasmine’s husband Jordan. In one scene, Jordan is handcuffing someone in an arrest on the street, and then when Jordan suddenly gets important information about Grace’s case, he drives off and leaves the suspect (still handcuffed) out on the street. Would it have been so hard to put the suspect in the back of the squad car instead of leaving him out on the street so he could run away? And in another scene that happens in the beginning of the movie, Jordan unsuccessfully tries to prevent a suicidal elderly woman from jumping off the roof of her house. Apparently, this city must be seriously lacking in police officers, since Jordan doesn’t have any other cop to back him up in this emergency scene.

The suicide scene at the beginning of the movie is explained at the end of the movie, which has a twist that’s kind of crazy. But people should know by now that Perry loves to churn out these soapy, pulpy dramas where people can soak up his brand of cheap thrills. Dive right on in, if that’s your thing.

Netflix premiered “A Fall From Grace” on January 17, 2020.