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‘Master’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

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‘Master’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Ancaster College, the picturesque setting of Mariama Diallo’s debut feature Master, boasts an impressive number of white alumni. The fictional alma mater has educated an army of senators and two presidents — they could have had a third, but they rejected him, forcing that future head of state to settle for Harvard. The school’s verdant grounds are punctiliously maintained by a near invisible staff, and its halls vibrate with history. Most of the student body and faculty are white, but occasionally a Black person joins the institution, though they, of course, never quite find their footing.

The last few years have affirmed that the Black American experience is well-suited to the conventions of horror storytelling. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out inspired a renaissance and re-appreciation: Horror became the preferred lens for investigating the country’s grotesque fascination with and treatment of its Black citizens. Diallo’s movie, a wry slice of horror that follows three Black women trying to call a tony college home, is an assured addition to this recent tradition.

Master

The Bottom Line

Compellingly bold, if not always satisfying.

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Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director-screenwriter: Mariama Diallo


1 hour 31 minutes

Master opens at the beginning of Ancaster College’s fall semester. The school is brimming with the youthful energy of a new academic year, and it’s within this context that we meet Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an exuberant freshman and one of the college’s few Black students. She confidently shuffles around campus in those early days. Nothing can burst the bubble of this young Black suburbanite from Washington state — not even the inconvenient fact that her room, number 302, is haunted.

The entire institution, in fact, is cursed. Jasmine learns about Margaret Millett, a witch who died centuries ago near campus and haunts the area, from her mostly white classmates. They giddily divulge details of the tale over casual dorm room hangs or during raucous fraternity parties. Diallo, whose short film Hair Wolf won a Jury Award at Sundance in 2018, has proven herself to be an adept architect of taut, witty scenes, and she continues to flex that skill in Master. Jasmine’s collegiate experiences — the incompatible friendship, the booze-heavy parties and contrived seminar discussions — are rendered with the precision of someone attuned to the dread and latent horror of these situations. Jasmine struggles to navigate the blunt manner in which her classmates exercise their power and privilege; their audacity perturbs her more than the rumors of the witch who marks one student to die every year.

In a different sphere of campus are two other Black women trying to figure out their place: Gail Bishop, the school’s first Black “Master,” or dean of students, and Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a literature professor up for tenure. As part of her new role, Gail moves into a near palatial home, furnished with gilded antiques and reminders of the school’s racist history. Liv, on the other hand, struggles to initiate a campus diversity project and to connect with Jasmine, whom she teaches. In their off hours, the two women support each other — convening for gossip sessions and going for long runs through the campus’ winding, deserted woods. Their friendship resembles those born out of necessity and mutual recognition of loneliness.

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Master is organized by chapters, each introduced with a title card of text that resurfaces in dialogue later. These tightly conceived vignettes form a fascinating study of the racist undercurrents pulsating through institutions. They also offer Diallo and DP Charlotte Hornsby room to experiment within the genre: A desaturated, almost muted visual language coupled with a liberal use of slow tracking shots add to a sense of relative unease. Some scenes stay with you — like one of Jasmine surrounded by a group of white boys rapping along to a song, their angular faces monstrously contorting as they become emboldened enough to yell “n—er”; or another when Gail celebrates her new position with her peers, their shrill laughs teetering on the delicate line between enthusiasm and mocking.

Despite the strength of these moments, however, Master — rich with cutting jokes akin to the ones in Wolf Hair or even segments Diallo wrote for Terence Nance’s HBO comedy Random Acts of Flyness — doesn’t always satisfyingly cohere. The plot takes peculiar paths as it juggles the perspectives of the three women, whose experiences vary widely. Jasmine begins to have intense nightmares, which further isolates her from her classmates and makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Gail’s efforts to properly settle into her home becomes a maddening exercise — strange sounds ring throughout the residence and maggots infest every crevice. Liv’s greatest stressor remains whether or not the school will grant her tenure despite her “thin” publishing history.

With all these plotlines, the film can sometimes feel like an amalgamation of competing narrative threads. Intriguing moments, like Jasmine not receiving the same enthusiastic greeting as the white students from the dining staff, promise revelations that never come. Character development loses out as a result of the ambitious storytelling; save for Liv, the other women feel unintentionally mysterious. It’s curious, then, that figures like Jasmine’s white roommate Amelia (Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Talia Ryder) are given more heft than warranted.

As Jasmine, Gail and Liv plod through the fall semester, the campus’ strangeness becomes more noticeable. Racist incidents occur, like someone carving the word “LEAVE” onto Jasmine’s door and attaching a noose to the unsavory note. Gail, who emerges as the film’s central character, is unsettled by these instances, and tries her best to crack the mystery. But she’s dealing with her own issues, too — mainly trying to make sure that a grade dispute Jasmine initiated against Liv doesn’t ruin the latter’s chance at tenure. Master often bursts with an exciting tension as the women struggle to make sense of what is happening to them.

The film’s final moments make good on that tension, closing out a third act with several surprising twists. Despite its hiccups and frustrations, Master is inventive in finding fresh ways to package familiar observations about American racism; even the most clichéd sentiments are delivered with a nudge and a wink. As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but admire, above all else, Diallo’s boldness. I’m already looking forward to her next project.

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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