We Summon The Darkness

Picture it: a road trip circa 1998. The car is fully stocked with ding dongs, and there’s some snack cakes in there too (ba dum tss). Friends Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth) are a trio of metalheads on their way to a concert. The newspaper and radio warn that satanic ritual killings now number 18 in the area but so far the biggest threat on the road seems to be from a van full of rowdy boys splashing chocolate milkshake across their windshield. It’s super awkward when they all meet up in the parking lot of the show later, but nothing a little light-hearted mutual pranking won’t fix.

The boys can’t believe their luck, really. Bandmates as well as vanmates, Ivan (Austin Swift) and Kovacs (Logan Miller) are just a touch resentful of Mark (Keean Johnson) who will soon be leaving them to pursue fame and fortune in California. But with the drugs and the rock and roll already taken care of and the promise of sex in the air, they’re feeling generally pretty stoked. Gathered around a fire, playing the classic drinking game Never Have I Ever, none of them can yet take a shot for ‘been stalked by a murderer,’ nor would they even think to name it, but by the night’s end, things will have changed.

The film’s score features televangelist Pastor Butler (Johnny Knoxville) telling American that rock music is to blame, corrupting the youth and all. It’s clear director Marc Meyers is a fan of horror movies and his production is pretty slick. I was, however, a little disappointed by the 80s backdrop. If anyone has an excuse to really camp it up, it’s a horror movie, but this one takes such a subtle approach it comes off as inauthentic. If it hadn’t blatantly stated that it was set in 1988, I likely wouldn’t have noticed until people failed to pull out cell phones in an emergency (and even that’s not a dead giveaway since these dildos had access to a landline they also chose not to use). We Summon The Darkness is a bit of subversive send up to slasher flicks but while there’s plenty of blood, there’s absolutely no tension. I get scared by horror movies about as easily as cats get surprised by zucchinis (translation: very, very easily, if you somehow missed this trend, look it up), but this one was so easy peasy it felt more like an unfunny parody. Are you into those, perchance?

The Lost Husband

If you were hoping for a mystery based on the title, allow me to deflate your expectations: the husband is not lost. In fact, he’s the most definitively located husband you can get, ie, buried 6 feet under. His widow, Libby (Leslie Bibb), is the one who is lost. And their home too, lost to the bank thanks to him leaving them destitute. So Libby’s been rootless ever since, and has just bopped from her mother’s house to her estranged aunt’s, with her two kids in tow.

But aunt Jean (Nora Dunn!) isn’t so much welcoming house guests as exploiting free labour for her little farm. Farmhand James (Josh Duhamel) sure could use the help since he does sing to each goat individually. But don’t thinking he looks like a rugged, gruff romantic interest for our newly single Libby. He’s got his own wife to contend with, only she doesn’t have the decency to die. Oooh, yeah, okay, I heard that. It sounds a little crass. But she had a stroke and is either comatose or incapacitated, in any case hospitalized for life, and he’s her devoted caretaker even though we’ve already been given moral permission to hate and dismiss her.

This is a romantic movie with a subtle western flavour. It’s got B-list stars, a Hallmark script, and a truly Texan pace (picture a bow-legged cowboy sauntering unhurriedly in the heat, with a piece of straw hanging from his mouth, a squint in his eye, his thumb hooked behind that oversized belt buckle). Sean calls it slow and boring. A more generous soul might call it unrushed and indulgently lengthy. No matter how you separate the wheat from the chaff, writer-director Vicky Wight delivers an old-fashioned romance, the kind with little heat, chemistry, or passion, but plenty of milk glass, burlap chivalry, and rustic charm.

Nothing in this movie is going to wow you, nothing elevates the material or pushes the genre forward. It’s a very standard, safe entry into the romance genre and should please people already predisposed and win over absolutely no one.

[Confidential to Popular fans: keep your eyes peeled for a Carly Pope cameo.]

Upside Down

The only thing I can be sure about is that I WILL get this movie review wrong.

I’m of two very distinct minds:

  1. What the hell???????
  2. What THE hell!!!!!!!!!

So you see how I’m conflicted. For the first 10 minutes, you’re holding on for dear life, frankly surprised they didn’t supply a pencil and paper just to jot down notes, though the movie’s prologue moves a little too fast for accuracy and I repeatedly asked Sean to pause the movie just to see if we were understanding the same basic things.

Which are: Where Adam lives, there are twin planets with opposite gravity. If you climbed to the highest peak of your planet, you could nearly touch the outstretched hand of a person on the highest peak of theirs. But you can’t hop over because your gravity is keeping you on your planet and their gravity is keeping them on theirs.

They are twin planets but not equally prosperous; Adam’s planet is known as the “down below” and the other as the “up top,” which describes their relative wealth more than their actual cosmic positions since the other planet is always technically looming over whichever one your feet are planted on. Contact between worlds is dangerous, and forbidden. The only authorized contact is through Transworld, a big business that the Up Top uses to take cheap resources from Down Below and then sell it back to them at prices they can’t afford. A Transworld oil refinery explosion killed Adam’s parents and destroyed most of their city when he was young. He grew up in foster care and visited his Great Aunt Becky on weekends, who makes her famous flying pancakes for him using pollen sourced from pink bees which feed off flowers from both worlds. It’s a closely guarded family secret, and Aunt Becky vanishes before she can fully pass it on to Adam. He’ll spend the rest of his life trying to perfect the recipe.

When Adam (Jim Sturgess) is a kid, he meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a girl from the Up Top as they’re both perched on respective peaks. They’re crafty and they find ways to see each other even though it’s very much not allowed. But you know teenagers, especially star-crossed teenagers: forbidden love makes them extra horny. They have to get extra creative when it comes to makeout sessions, and you may find that it reminds you a bit of Dunst’s former life as Mary Jane Watson.

Anyway, the two are inevitably pulled apart but Adam never gives up hope that some day they will be reunited. So what we end up with is a drama / action / adventure / fantasy / sci-fi romance. Did I leave anything out? Actually, the problem is writer director Juan Solanas didn’t leave anything out. He has this rich, fecund concept, some pretty dazzling CGI, and a wonderfully bizarre and original premise, but…he fails to correctly identify the film’s core. Solanas believes it to be gravity but it’s actually weight. I know the two are related, but gravity is basically directly unobservable. It’s the magic that makes things work, but it’s weight that lends the story heft. This movie had incredible bubbles of creativity but there’s no character development and little emotional investment. Solanas went to some great trouble with his world-building, but it’s like if you took the instantly forgettable 1999 rom-com Drive Me Crazy but made it look like The Matrix. Not only is it a missed opportunity, it kind of makes you resent it for luring you in with a false promise in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Full Measure

Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.

Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.

Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.

Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.

Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.

Work It

Netflix has been delivering a steady stream of movies for young adults, and for the most part they can be sorted into two broad categories: dance, and the insanely high standards of college admissions. Every generation has a teenage dance movie. My mom had Footloose and Dirty Dancing; I grew up with Save The Last Dance and Bring It On, and Netflix has recently served the likes of Feel The Beat, which failed to get my toes tapping. Am I simply getting too old? I’m definitely feeling sorry for young people who have spawned the second teenage trope: the pressure to be perfect. And as Quinn discovers in Work It, sometimes being perfect isn’t enough. In fact, her dream school seems on the verge of rejecting her for being too good. First we exchange childhood for resume-building, time-sucking extra-curriculars, and now we fault them for it?

Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter) really wants to go to Duke. Or her mom really wants her to go to Duke. Or her dead dad really wants her to go to Duke. She’s assembled the perfect college admissions application, and now it’s both not enough but also too much and in any case, she doesn’t get early acceptance. The admissions officer isn’t impressed with all the perfectly checked boxes. She wants to see fire and passion and a willingness to disrupt. Rule following, Quinn is clearly not inclined to any of those things but she is surprisingly good at thinking on her feet and comes up with this juicy little lie: she claims to be on her high school’s nationally ranked dance squad, the Thunderbirds (as seen on Ellen!) (clearly this script was written before Ellen’s big fall from grace). Now all she has to do is make her lie the truth. Fool proof, right?

In fact, Quinn’s best friend Jasmine (Liza Koshy) is on that very dance team, aiming to be a professional dancer. She quite selflessly devotes hours to turning rhythmless Quinn into someone worthy of a Thunderbirds audition. There’s only one open spot on the dance team, and no matter how much dance-cramming Quinn does in the next 2 weeks, she’s never going to earn it even if captain Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) didn’t harbour a huge grudge against her, which he totally does. So wannabe disrupter Quinn forms her own dance team, claiming Jasmine as its captain and a bunch of other single-skilled classmates as filler on an already extremely lean team. Jasmine is obviously the world’s bestest friend ever and also incredibly stupid. She has single-mindedly pursued dance, has no fall-back whatsoever, and has now left the team that will guarantee the right scouts see her. Luckily Quinn is resourceful. She tracks down an old champ with something left to prove – Jake (Jordan Fisher) will make an excellent choreographer if only she can coax him out of hiding.

I feel like this movie should have annoyed the shit out of me like so many of its recent predecessors, but the truth is, it’s got some very likable leads in roles that feel grounded and more fully-realized than many similar movies have bothered with. I am not its target demographic but I suspect Work It is about to enjoy a wider audience because it gets the basics right and has personality even though it’s fairly predictable. Dance isn’t going to magically save anyone’s patootie but Work It does make a case for making a little time in all that parent-driven future-planning to just enjoy something for enjoyment’s sake. This generation are perhaps the least rebellious teenagers the world has ever seen. Their youth is micro-managed and filled to the point of bursting with activities and carefully curated recreation but no real leisure. If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it’s that maybe slowing down a bit is not such a bad thing. It’s not going to be dance for everyone – maybe it’s even watching a dance movie on Netflix – but taking time out and time off are so important for well-being, and the pursuit of true passions is what replenishes us when the grind has been too much.

Malibu Rescue: The Next Wave

So apparently Malibu Rescue is a show that people watch and is popular (cheap) enough to have already spawned a “movie.” This is its second, but we’re just jumping in here totally blind, literally never having heard of it before and yet somehow trusting that we’ll “get it.”

We didn’t get it. I mean, we followed the plot, such as it was. It’s basically Cool Runnings meets Baywatch where not only do you wish you were watching Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson instead, you’d even take Doug E. Doug and be grateful for it.

First, we’re going to need to swallow our pride for a minute and realize we’re not getting the Malibu Rescue team but the Junior Malibu Rescue team. The real team is busy competing in an apparently very serious international beach obstacle course that they treat with the reverence of the lifeguard Olympics.

But oh no! Tyler (Ricardo Hurtado) accidentally/on purpose poisons the A team so the Junior squad has to sub in. Luckily Gina (Breanna Yde) has a natural drill sergeant inclination but she’s got just 3 days to whip her team into shape. Dylan (Jackie R. Jacobson) and Lizzie (Abby Donnelly) break poor Eric (Alkoya Brunson) out of summer school (resorting to animal abuse and an uninspired not to mention insultingly bad mannequin ruse to get the job done). Cue up the obligatory training montage featuring a lot of sand eating and nobody’s washboard abs glistening in the sunshine (Zac!).

This is the kind of kid show that has such over-the-top acting that you start to feel bad for the adult actors. It can’t have been anyone’s dream to play a bus driver named Vooch who routinely gets overshadowed by diarrhea pranks. It really makes Pamela Anderson’s slow-mo running look dignified by comparison.

Is this a good movie? Not remotely. But I suspect if you like the show, you’ll like the movie. I mean, not only does the movie play like an extended episode of the show, it’s a barely extended episode at just 68 minutes, which sounds like a light commitment but I assure you it does feel like a hard 5 hours. However, if you’re in the market for some Malibu rescue with very little actual rescue and a side of obnoxious American patriotism and just a smidge of G-rated flirtation, wow, that’s an oddly specific fetish, but you’re in luck! And I’ll be relieved not to be alone on the watch list this movie is obviously bait for. Trust me: nothing can be unintentionally this bad.

Almost Love

IMDB describes this film as ‘An ensemble comedy about romance in the smartphone era’ which, if you read my review of Jexi, you’ll know made me want to find the nearest toilet and throw my phone right in, but since that thing knows my contacts AND my passwords, I just punched myself in the face instead. But I still watched the movie, through two swollen black eyes.

And I’m glad I did. Had you not read this description, you never would have paid much attention to the phones. They are, as in most people’s experience, simply an accessory to our daily lives. This is how we live now; they are as omnipresent as Ubers and pumpkin spice lattes and Donald Trump’s nonsensical tweets.

A group of grown-up friends in NYC is figuring shit out in life and love. It’s like Friends, if Rachel fell in love with a minor, Monica fucked a homeless dude, and Chandler made counterfeit paintings. Roughly speaking.

Haley (Zoe Chao) is trying to disentangle herself from a dependency situation of her own making; Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is realizing that the dating pool is so dire her deal breakers are surprisingly few; Marklin (Augustus Prew) is too busy carefully curating his Instagram posts to notice his actual life is a whole lot messier; Adam (Scott Evans) has so much suppressed rage it’s manifesting in physical blows; and Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) has for so long been the mascot for love in her circle of friends she’s having a hard time telling them she’s getting a divorce. When life isn’t perfect, do you lower your standards? Your expectations?

Mike Doyle writes and directs this low-key comedy, which works about as often as it doesn’t. Well, “doesn’t” is unfair. It’s more like: moments of thoughtful introspection, moments of surprisingly zany comedy, and moments that are achingly predictable. All elevated by a talented cast, the stand-out being Buteau, who I’ve seen stealing scenes in several Netflix movies now, and was glad to finally hold on to for more than just a few minutes at a time.

This movie kind of snuck up on me. I was enjoying it in a modest sort of way but then the end was somehow more than the sum of its parts. Love is hard. Life is hard. Everyone just wants to be seen, and when a film can reflect back your neuroses, your insecurities, your pettiest resentments without making you feel small or unfit, when it knows that finding true love, be they friends or be they lovers, means finding someone who sees the good and the bad and loves the whole package, then I think that movie has done its job.

Jexi

Phil is a cliche who probably doesn’t exist in real life: he’s obsessed with his phone, he writes listicles for a living, he’s incapable of human interaction and would rather spend the night watching videos online than spending time with (or heck even making) friends.

Do Phils really exist? I suppose there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere: some people are overly attached to their phones, and overly desperate for likes on social media. But most people manage to have phones AND human friends. Our phones give us directions to where we want to go, they tell us who’s celebrating a birthday, and what bill needs to be paid. They help us call a car, and order lunch, and share a recipe. They remind us how to spell ‘accommodate’ and when our period is due, or overdue. They connect us to our adorable nephews who haven’t stopped growing just because they’re in quarantine. They keep us entertained on planes, they keep us up to date on elections, and they provide a near infinite supply of puppy pictures. All on one pocket sized device! So yeah, I’m not down on phones, or on young people for using them. I’m not sure who benefits for perpetuating the myth that only young people are obnoxious about their phones, but it’s patently untrue. Moms were the first to adopt cell phones, so they could stay in constant contact with their children. Moms are basically the only people who still use phones for calling people (ew!). Dads invented the belt holster so you could show off your love of wearable electronics (before they were technically wearable) while also accidentally broadcasting what a huge douche you are. When someone is blocking your view of the Mona Lisa by taking pictures with their iPad, 9 out of 10 times it’s a baby boomer. Elbowed in the eye by someone ineptly using a selfie stick? Boomer. Someone talking on their cell in the public bathroom stall next to yours? Most likely a boomer. Cell phone ringing during a Broadway performance? Definitely a boomer. And yet: Phil. Phil (Adam Devine) just can’t be separated from his phone. So yeah, he’s totally panicked when he literally runs into Cate (Alexandra Shipp) one day, destroying his phone in the process. Without a thought for the woman who may also be injured, he races his broken phone to the nearest ER cell phone store where employee Denice (Wanda Sykes) breaks the bad news: it’s not going to make it. You’d think that by the speed with which he rushed the thing to urgent care he’d be quite upset, but not only are cell phones replaceable, constant upgrades are a way to signal status. Behold the new phone!

This phone is unlike other phones. Its operating system is feisty. Call her Jexi. She sounds suspiciously like Rose Byrne, and she knows everything there is to know about Phil, since he’s documented it obsessively in the cloud. Not only does Jexi know everything, she has opinions about it. And she starts steering his life in the direction she believes is best.

Imagine if HAL from  2001: A Space Odyssey and Sam (Scarlett Johansson) from Her had an AI baby and named her Jexi. Jexi is strangely alluring for someone who doesn’t have a body. She’s no Ava (Alicia Vikander) from Ex Machina. She’s more like your craziest, most jealous, most stalkery ex, only Jexi has access to your dating profiles, your porn collection, your work contacts, and your dick pics.

Even though the 2020 movie season is experiencing extreme drought, I scrolled right by this rental for many months. I’m not much of an Adam Devine fan and though desperate times call for desperate measures, I held out hope that I’d not hit my bottom quite yet. But don’t despair. This viewing wasn’t motivated by desperation so much as it now being able to stream on Amazon Prime (so, free for me, since I have an account). But even free was too high of a cost – what’s worse than an unfunny comedy? An unfunny comedy that makes you wish you’d just watched Her instead. Or Ex Machina. An unfunny comedy that makes you wish you’d watched any other AI movie, or even any other unfunny comedy that didn’t get your hopes up just as you resigned yourself to it. Because while it was Adam Devine’s smug pug face keeping me away this whole time, actually clicking on it revealed castmates like Sykes, Byrne, and Michael Pena, all of whom led me to believe this might not have been as bad as I’d feared and then it was WORSE. Arghghghghg.

This movie is for a very, very small demographic: baby boomers lacking in senses of both humour and irony who will suffer through unfunny comedies just to feel superior to young people as they scroll through Facebook, clicking on all the COVID clickbait conspiracies planted by Russia as if they aren’t the ones who used screens as babysitters in the first place. Ahem.

Black Is King

The Lion King live action remake got one thing right: it remembered that it is primarily an African story. To be fair, it was likely the Broadway show that did this for them, but Jon Favreau had the presence of mind to follow their lead and cast actual black actors in the important speaking parts. The Disney cartoon from 1994 wasn’t motivated by authenticity and we as a culture failed to keep them honest. So when Favreau chose only one returning voice actor to serve as a link between the two films, James Earl Jones was both the obvious and the best choice. His is the voice of wisdom that runs throughout both films, but the 2019 version backs that shit up with a stellar cast that is as talented as they are representative: Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Chance the Rapper, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Eric André. But none were chosen more carefully or more brilliantly than our Simba and Nala, Donald Glover and Beyoncé; they aren’t just black actors but recent symbols of owning one’s blackness. If the The Lion King remake justifies itself at all, it’s by putting those two front and centre, sending a powerful message of just who should be King and Queen.

Black Is King is a visual album from genius multi-hyphenate Beyoncé. It reimagines the lessons of The Lion King for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns. It is a love letter to her African roots while celebrating Black families.

Beyoncé is the undisputed Queen of Pop. Her ascension must have come with a lot of racism, overt and covert, attached – she would have been accused of exploiting her culture while also being asked to suppress it – problems the likes of Pink and Madonna and Lady Gaga never considered let alone experienced. This system seems to have caused or at least contributed to the internalized hatred of his race in her counterpart, King of Pop, Michael Jackson. And yet Beyoncé has not just transcended the challenges to her skin tone and hair texture, she has come out on the other side a powerful and vocal advocate for anti-racism. For many of us, the change in her was undeniable at the 2016 Super Bowl, a performance dubbed “unapologetically black,” incorporating dancers in Black Panther berets performing black power salutes, arranging themselves into the letter “X” for Malcolm, a homemade sign demanding “Justice for Mario Woods”, and Beyoncé’s own costume, said to be a tribute to Michael Jackson. The performance reflected the modern civil rights movement Black Lives Matter and handed us her rallying cry in the song Formation, which references slogans such as “Stop shooting us”, riot police, the shamefully neglectful official response to Hurricane Katrina which demonstrated that poor, predominantly black lives were clearly deemed not to matter. “I like my baby hair and afros. I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils, ” she sang, offering an education in the Black American experience.

Beyoncé has always been a proud African-American woman and artist. She pursued movie roles in Dream Girls and Cadillac Records. Her wondrously thick thighs became politicized in her Crazy In Love video. There were criticisms with racial undertones when she headlined Glastonbury in 2011. She sang At Last to the Obamas for their inauguration dance. She and fellow Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland started a charity to help Katrina survivors. Husband Jay-Z has been critical of the injustice of the profitable bail bond industry, with over 400,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime incarcerated simply because they can’t afford bail, often set at less than 5K. Beyoncé didn’t suddenly discover her blackness in 2016. Whether the political climate pushed her over the edge, or becoming a mother to her own Black daughter did it, or she realized that her success and popularity gave her immunity, Beyoncé started using her voice and her platform quite blatantly, and quite brilliantly. There are few people in the world with her kind of power, and she’s been able to snatch back the Black narrative from the fringes and help spotlight it centre stage. But it was also a risk to have her name synonymously linked with black rights, but as she states rather directly in this film, “Let black be synonymous with glory.” If 2016’s Super Bowl half time show was her coming out party, her 2018 Coachella performance cemented her mythic, iconic status. As the first black woman to headline the festival, her show was explicitly black, triumphantly black. Look no further than her documentary Homecoming to see how deliberately, lovingly, boldly she created every element in her show to be marinated in cultural meaning. She didn’t just pay homage to those who came before her, she used her two hour set to unpack a lesson in black music history. She literally used her platform to honour and recognize black art; the performance was a revelation to the predominantly privileged white audience of Coachella, but it created a real moment in time that reached into the hearts and souls of those could fully appreciated it. Having already achieved pop royalty status, Beyonce is free to make the strong personal and political statements that have defined her career ever since. Her success is no longer measured by mere radio plays; freed from having to abide by what makes her white audience comfortable, she and Jay-Z are reigning from a throne of their own making. She no longer has to shrink or contain her blackness and it’s clearly been a boon to her creativity and craft. Black Is King follows in the footsteps of Lemonade, defiantly blazing her own path, and returning to the African desert that clearly still calls her name.

This visual album is of course an occular and audible delight. It jumps off from The Lion King, swapping lions for Black men and women. It highlights the extremely varied beauty of the African landscape, and of its people. There are set pieces in here where you can readily imagine the ka-ching of literally millions of dollars spent per second of film.

The Gift, Beyoncé’s Lion King-inspired album, takes us beyond Disney’s version of Hollywood’s Africa. Her original contribution to the film’s soundtrack, Spirit, is a gospel-charged anthem, but she didn’t stop there. She found up-and-coming African artists, songwriters, and producers to join her on the album, creating an international vibe with a strong and undeniable heartbeat.

The accompanying film is stuffed with imagery, implication, poetry and practice that feels like such an intimate declaration of love and admiration that I watched on the verge of a constant blush. Even Kelly Rowland felt it, being the recipient of Beyoncé’s sincere serenade, breaking the beaming eye contact with an overwhelmed giggle.

The visual album exists to toast beauty, observe beauty, create beauty, memorialize it. But a visual album from Beyoncé is to define and redefine it, to find beauty in new or forgotten spaces it, to celebrate a spectrum of beauty, to infuse it with ideas of culture and identity, to own it, to actually physically own it. And for that reason, I almost wish I could watch it at half speed. There are so many lavish tableaus set with precision and abundance but only glimpsed for a second or two; I want so badly to just live in that moment, to possess and savour it a minute longer.

And like a true Queen, she steps aside and allows herself to be upstaged by African collaborators, like Busiswa from South Africa, Salatiel from Cameroon and Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi from Nigeria. This album is a show of solidarity, an act of unity. She places herself among them, among the ancient beats and contemporary sound.

A thousand words in, dare I only broach the subject of fashion now? The sheer quantity of couture from Queen B is nearly numbing, except each look is so bold and unique you do your best to keep up to the dazzling, nonstop parade: Valentino, Burberry, Thierry Mugler, Erdem. But also a barage of Black designers from around the world, curated diligently and I’d guess rather exhaustively by Beyonce’s longtime stylist, Zerina Akers: D.Bleu.Dazzled, Loza Maléombho, Lace by Tanaya, Déviant La Vie, Jerome Lamaar, Duckie Confetti, Melissa Simon-Hartman, Adama Amanda Ndiaye…you get the picture. It’s MAJOR, every one of them re-imagining a wardrobe fit for an African Queen, their number so plentiful that no one garment or gown overpowers the beauty of their canvas: brown skin.

Beyoncé surrounds herself with Black beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Adut Akech, and Lupita Nyong’o, but also her own mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, and daughter Blue Ivy. Her family is often presented as a symbol of her strength, young twins Rumi and Sir making appearances as well, equating “kingship” with engaged fatherhood.

There is so much to unpack in this film, from the frenzied and joyous dancing of black bodies, to their posing as sculpture on pedestals, to the recreation of moments from her own storied career, there is more here than I can enumerate let alone appreciate. Like the star herself, Beyoncé’s concept of blackness is a hyphenate of her ancestral lands and the country of her birth. It’s an amalgamation of black art and black history and a vision of black power, of ethnic and cultural splendor. And what a time to have dropped it, in a world where white people are just now opening their eyes to the racial injustice and inequality that has yoked people of colour for centuries, where black bodies are being discriminated against at best, black minds suppressed, black art appropriated, black experienced denied. And here is a woman who could easily coast on her laurels but instead is serving her people by framing the Black experience not only in a positive light, but a powerful and empowering one. Black Is King is not a cure for racism, not even a vaccine, but it may just be the booster shot of pride we all need right now.

Latte & the Magic Waterstone

The animals of the clearing are worried about drought. Collectively they have only 4 pumpkins full of water left, and the sources are drying up, but Latte, a spunky young hedgehog and an outcast from the forest community, has her own small reserve. A young squirrel named Tjum tries to seize her water for the communal coffers but in the ensuing fracas an entire pumpkin is upset, spilling a quarter or more of the clearing’s dwindling water supply. Yikes. The animals are, as always, quick to point the finger at Latte, but this time Tjum recognizes the anti-hedgehog sentiment and takes sole responsibility for the accident.

It’s nice and all but still doesn’t account for the water shortage. Luckily a crow with impeccable timing arrives to tell them all about this mythic waterstone that once rested at the top of bear mountain, allowing water to flow abundantly down to to everyone in the forest and beyond. But then the bear king stole it for himself, leaving all the other animals to go without. Latte resolves then and there to retrieve that stone, and Tjum follows after her. If the bear king doesn’t sound scary enough, they’ll have to cross a perilous forest to get to him, encountering predators like wolves and lynxes who are just as thirsty and even more desperate, not to mention a cockeyed toad whose motivations are mysterious.

Latte & the Magic Waterstone is a German animated film, and German fairy tales aren’t exactly known for their light-hearted joviality. Nobody gets their eyes pecked out (Grimm’s Cinderella) or any kind of blinding (Grimm’s Rapunzel) indeed; eyes are largely safe in this one. But there is some real sadness to contend with: a sweet little hedgehog alone in the world, a community content to shun her. But the movie doesn’t really dwell on such matters. It sticks to its simple and predictable story, an easy little adventure to find or not find a stone that may or may not exist. Dying of thirst or dying of loneliness: what’s the difference?

This movie is occasionally visually stunning and mostly just a forgettable little cartoon about a hedgehog who probably deserves better.