Okay, let’s try this…
I watched Roxanne Roxanne and Annihilation on Netflix in the same day, on opposite ends of the day, which is good as two more wildly opposite films you will not find – about the only thing they have in common are strongly complex female leads. More of that, please, Hollywood.
I’m trying to think how much hip hop, and especially early to mid-ish ‘80s hip hop history you have to know to appreciate Roxanne Roxanne. What I’ll say is the viewing is probably enhanced if you know the history. But you won’t be lost without it. The film is indeed the story of a pint-sized battle rapper who took on the boys, and a pioneer who demonstrated that rap was also a girl’s game. But it’s really, as told, the story of a girl in the hood (Queensbridge, NY to be specific) with a talent for rapping that launched her from street battles for pay to radio popularity and club tours after a one-take response to a record aimed at a fictional Roxanne. It’s about how that girl is taken advantage of and abused, but survives, though never really rising to the superstardom nor affluence her talent and breakout status merit. Her track was called Roxanne’s Revenge. Her name was Shanté Gooden, and that’s really who this story is about – the teen who acts as substitute mother to her little sisters; whose hustle, in addition to rap, included boosting (i.e. stealing clothes for herself and others, for pay); who pulls away from her mother – who is bitter for all the reasons women are bitter in such situations, summed up as heartbreak and hopelessness; and who is drawn in to the spell of a man too old for her and too shady for anyone – though she’s too young to see it and too willful to listen. Her mother is played by Nia Long and her man by Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (who we need to see in more things, Hollywood); newcomer Chanté Adams plays Shanté. All are good in their role – Long, by turns defeated and ferocious; Ali, charming and dangerous; and Chanté hungry – for fame, love, success, healing. I’m usually disappointed by hip hop biopics – cheapened by poor production values and/or sanitized re-tellings, good music though. But I thought Roxanne Roxanne was pretty well executed – touching, with strong performances from its leads, and some well-framed sequences and transitions. They obviously didn’t have a huge budget and they left out some gritty details of Roxanne’s early life and post-credits struggles; plus I could pick some nits here and there about pacing, production details, and some supporting performances. But, all things considered, the producers were wise to turn a very tight lens not on the legend of Roxanne Shante but on the girl and young woman behind the legend.
Annihilation, meanwhile, is a confounding sci-fi film starring Natalie Portman with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (last seen in Creed and Thor Ragnarok and that dope Janelle Monae video; so glad to see her star rising), Gina Rodriquez, and Tuta Novotny as a team of scientists entering a phenomenon called The Shimmer. The only person who has ever returned – after several military teams have been sent to investigate – is Oscar Isaac, who plays Portman’s husband. Except he is not the same and The Shimmer seems a threat to all humankind. The scientists quickly find themselves disoriented but are perhaps better equipped than the military men who went before them to figure out the rules of this other-place. They do, but not without loss and cost. It’s hard to know what to say without being more spoilery than I’ve already been and it really is the kind of movie you should go in to without too much information as it is by the second act as much mystery as drama and sci fi, and by the third act –for me at least – pure horror. But perhaps creepy stuff doesn’t creep you out as much. After watching it, I watched a couple of youtube videos purporting to explain what the hell happened in the end, and I’m still …okay, so what happened? So if you do watch it, come back and explain, because I won’t be watching it again. It might merit a first viewing though, but probably only if you like that sort of thing…or want to support more female-led action-dramas. I was a bit of both, and still came out confused. I’m not sure though that that’s due to the logic of the story – third act aside, the science is not too hard to grasp (grafted mangos, where one genus of the fruit is spliced in to another, are made of this kind of science; things mutate). Still, what the hell happened there at the end?
Incidentally, the director of Annihilation previously directed Isaac in Ex-Machina – and that you should definitely see – creep factor notwithstanding.
That’s it. I’m thinking I’m going to brand this series Le We Talk Movies (or something) – since I’ve talked movies quite a few times on this blog: example Room and Other Movies, Black Panther (though I was too hyped on it to properly review it), Suffragette, Queen of Katwe, Bazodee, Creed, Birdman and Foxcatcher, and Spotlight. Wha Yuh Say?