Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 10:54 pm 
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A Valentine's Day movie about reluctance to commit

LaKeith Stanfield is the thing. Around him cool and hipness dwell. He plays the pivotally witty Darius in Donald Glover’s profound and funny show "Atlanta." He is the Oakland everyman telemarketer in Boots Riley's bold mainstream leftist (!?) comedy Sorry to Bother You. Oh yes, he was in Get Out. Was in Selma. Was Snoop in Straight Outta Compton. Before that Oliver Stone used him in his Snowden. Recently he was the lieutenant in Knives Out and he's Howard's black liaison-enabler in Uncut Gems. Nowadays seems if it's cool and kind of great, he's there.

So why not take a break and do something uncool? And voilà, he has - in Stella Meghie's swoony, teasing African American romance The Photograph. In it, Stanfield's Michael Block, a reporter who gets involved with Mae (Issa Rae, of "Insecure" and the upcoming action comedy The Lovebirds). Mae's the daughter of the late photographer he's assigned to do an article about who is, coincidentally, herself a curator at the Queens Museum where there's a show coming in the photographer's honor.

The Photograph is occasionally far-fetched. It's never unambitious or dumb; but it's in some ways unashamedly square. Its very charm may be in how sincere and sometimes even naive it allows itself to be. But it gets to consider artistic and feminine issues that haven't gotten treated in a mainstream African American feature much before. Though mainly it comes down to a consideration of how to reconcile individuality and commitment in a sphere where someone has intelligence and artistic talent they just have to explore. For LaKeith, this is a chance to stretch out in a movie that draws in a different kind of audience.

The Photograph indeed dwells for a while on photographs, on the joy of shooting them in the Eighties with a Nikon 35mm film camera and watching the images come up jiggling the paper in the tray of a darkroom. Near the end, there is a memorial exhibition of the late Christina (Chanté Adams) in the museum's vast galleries blown up to giant size. That's a movie version of how this might happen and rings false. We also learn little about what kind of photographs Christina becomes known for, other than ones of her boyfriend (which are small and black and white). Nor do we learn the particulars of the background story Michael is doing for his online magazine, The Republic, about Christina. This is a movie version of work. Movies don't really "do" work. What it's interested in is intertwining two love stories, one failed, one perhaps. . . All we know about the perhaps one is that at the end (spoiler alert!) Mae comes to visit Michael in London, where he's moved for a new job with a local paper. And there, in London, during her visit, at last they commit - to being committed.

Before that it has all gotten plenty romantic between them - romantic in an Al Green on vinyl in a dark room with whiskey glasses way. The lovemaking is soft and intense, limbs gently heaving. If this sounds silly, let me assure you it's serious and sensuous, done with care and attention during a great storm and it's very satisfying. This movie is awash in music, by the way, an intense, thumping, jazzy score by Robert Glasper that swings with every scene.

Over this movie hover the stories of two generations of lovers wrestling with the issue of emotional commitment - complicated by commitment to a career. Christina too, back decades earlier in rural Louisiana, as we are meanwhile also learning, becomes deeply involved with Isaac (the excellent Rob Morgan), who builds her a darkroom in the back yard. But she wants to do something with her photographs and that requires her to go to New York, where Isaac, a bearded fisherman, can't possibly follow her: his life is rooted here. Later someone says she's not good at goodbyes. That's for sure. She takes the bus to the Big Apple one morning without even saying she's going. She doesn't communicate. When she comes back, everything has changed. She has lost her old life. But she has the new one - and a little girl. This prepares us to learn that Mae gets a rather weird upbringing, by a mother who was good at work, not love.

Michael has the same ailment. Is it parallelism or is Stella Meghie using the same trope over and over? It may not matter. Though The Photograph meanders a bit, it also has an interesting meditative quality. It treats people and lives in an intelligent fashion. The four principals shine. Stanfield has his irresistible laid back charm. Issa Rae's beauty is sharp as a knife. Chanté Adams radiates intensity and seriousness. So does Rob Morgan as Isaac. He can say two words and they contain the emotional complexity of a whole speech. Yet with all this emotional extremism, the story of Christina and Isaac, clipped short and secondary, is as taut and succinct as something in a Victorian novel, or D.H. Lawrence. Some see this flashbacking as a cliché. Surely it works too well as a correlative for Mae's inner self and the revelations she's pondering in a posthumous letter from her dead mother for it to be that. But the back-and-forth of the two stories does hamstring the foreground one.

Michael and Mae are both sophisticates, who've had their experiences of love. He admits he had a long affair with a much older women when he was in his early twenties and he let her "feed off my youth" - a wise and telling phrase. That's why it must be something special when Mae keeps wanting to know if Michael's truly moved on from his ex and how long anything has ever lasted. That's even partly funny when she's left alone with the two young kids of Michael's married older brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery) and they think she's the ex-. Kyle and his wife (Teyonah Parris) introduce a welcome light note. You wonder why, with LaKeith at the center, things aren't funnier. But he's playing it straight this time, in his liquid, suave way (though he may lack the toughness his reportorial role would require). This is not, repeat not, a romantic comedy - and never meant to be.

Nor does it confront the issue of long distance love affairs Michael's move to London gives rise to as does the Anton Yelchin film Like Crazy, about a young Anglo-American couple separated by visa problems. Really, The Photograph is only dabbling in romance. But with dabblers like these, it held my attention with no trouble at all.

The Photograph, 106 mins., opens in theaters in half a dozen countries Feb. 14, 2020, and in another five countries in subsequent months. Metascore 64%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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