IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin’s 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year’s Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.

Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It’s a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it’s also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70’s. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that “Beale Street” is born from black roots – it’s not geographical, but rather cultural. He’s certainly not referring to today’s tourist destination in Memphis.

Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that’s not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny’s family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny’s judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It’s one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish’s mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny’s mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish’s dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.

That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together … whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today’s issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music – the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.

We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin’s writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love … and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It’s a beautiful film.

watch the trailer:

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AQUAMAN (2018)

December 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were the TV series “Entourage” still on the air, they would now need a new recurring punchline. The AQUAMAN movie is real! At the helm, we are surprised to find the master of horror, James Wan, in the director’s seat. Mr. Wan is known for such genre flicks as SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING, and his talent for visuals transfers well to the comic book style. In fact, with a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the visual effects are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Sure, we’ve seen short bursts of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in a couple of previous DC movies, but this time he owns the pool. Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a hunky beer-chugging rock and roll party dude who just happens to talk to fish and breathe underwater.  Since it’s the first Aquaman movie, writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD) provide us the backstory.

On the coast of Maine in 1985, a lighthouse attendant named Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) discovers Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore. What follows is a whirlwind romance, the birth of their son Arthur, Nicole snacking on a goldfish, as well as her first kick-ass action fight scene. To protect her son, she agrees to head back to Atlantis where she faces the consequences of birthing a half-breed with a landlubber.

When we first see a grown Arthur – with a classic hair flip – he is thwarting the hijacking of a Russian submarine by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father (Michael Beach, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). Manta is one of the two main villains – the other being Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s war-mongering, power-thirsty half-brother. Sharing a common enemy, Orm enlists Manta and provides a highly-advanced weapon that, for some unfathomable reason, Manta begins (via montage) to ‘Iron-Man’ it to another level – one much less stable. It’s Orm who gets much more screen time as he plots a massive attack on surface dwellers (humans) who have been destroying the sea for years. You didn’t think Hollywood would miss a chance to tell us how despicable we are, did you?

The basic story is that Orm must defeat Aquaman to claim the throne and become Master of the Sea. Of course, Arthur is reluctant to get involved and only does so at the urging of his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), both of whom wish to avoid a war with humans. The first battle of the would-be kings takes place in The Ring of Fire, a royal battleground missing only the accompaniment of Johnny Cash. The duel ends prematurely, so that an epic battle can later serve as the film’s epic climax.

Although director Wan may throw a bit too much ‘plot’ and action at the proverbial wall, it is interesting to note the history/mythology associated with Atlantis, the ruling class, and the missing trident. The legends are fascinating and the journey takes us to all ends (and depths) of the globe … from the deepest seas to the middle of the Sahara Desert (itself once a sea) to the incredible core of the Earth. We see the ancient ruins, as well as the high-tech futurama Atlantis … and it’s all stunning to watch.

Don’t tell Marvel, but the film is somewhat a blend of BLACK PANTHER and THOR, and Momoa is every bit the Aquaman that Chris Hemsworth is Thor (quite a compliment). Yes, we find out that Atlantis, like our dry land world, is burdened with politics and power-hungry types, but the underwater world and the visual effects keep us mesmerized. We see terrific dragon-like sea horses, a drumming octopus, and a Kraken-like creature supposedly voiced by Julie Andrews (fact or fiction?). There is an early sequence that takes swimming with dolphins to a level you didn’t experience on your vacation, and the lighting effects at times recall TRON and can be a bit disorienting.

This is probably the largest scale DC movie to date, and director Wan chooses to make a splash with every element – character, mythology, setting, and effects. We also get appearances from Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus and Randall Park as a TV talking head/oceanographer making the case that Atlantis is real and a threat. We even get Roy Orbison singing “She’s a Mystery to Me”, and the IMAX aspect ratio makes the first ever over-the-top underwater spectacle. And what a spectacle it is.

watch the trailer:


PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

January 12, 2017

patriots-day Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too soon? If not, is it too painful to revisit? Even if the time is right, is injecting a fictitious supercop into the horrific events an acceptable approach? Every viewer of the film will have their own answers to these questions, but clearly writer/director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) and Boston area native Mark Wahlberg believed now is the time and that this is the best way to re-create this catastrophe and its fallout.

Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a Boston detective kicked back to uniform duty as penance for a run-in with another cop. His character is evidently a composite of multiple cops and first responders, and though he is the center of the film, the character is the weak link. He’s some type of supercop who never sleeps and manages to be literally everywhere something is happening … either the Boston Marathon finish line, FBI control center, the hospital interviewing survivors, or cruising the streets with his spotlight tracking down the bad guys.

Beyond Wahlberg’s character, the film does a remarkable job at re-creating the tragic events, the emotional and physical fallout, and the urgent law enforcement manhunt. Since it’s been less than 4 years, most every piece of this is fresh in our minds. We follow along from when the street cameras are used to identify the suspects all the way through the final capture from the backyard boat.

Another thing the film does well is tell the stories of certain individuals who were impacted. We experience the emotions of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), the preparedness and cool of Watertown Police Chief Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons), the highs and lows of MIT Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the terror and courage of captive Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang), and the focus and conflicts of Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). There is also the story of survivors Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Christopher O’Shea (Patrick Downes), and a few others who we get to know a little bit.

The bombers/terrorists/brothers are played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, and no effort is made to sympathize or explain their actions. The closest we get is an argument in the apartment with the wife (played by Melissa Benoist) over the wrong type of milk. I will not use the real names here as I don’t believe in providing any publicity for such creators of evil.

The film successfully establishes the “normal” start to what seemed to be a “normal” day. Of course, April 13 2013 turned out to be anything but. We hear the Newtown tribute at the opening of the race, and we see David Ortiz with his color proclamation at Fenway Park. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is always spot on with the mood, and the last 10 minutes are by far the most emotional … we hear from the real life survivors, first responders and others so crucial to that time. I may believe that this story would best be told in documentary form, but there is no denying that it’s a reminder of the power of love, and the spirit of Boston and America.

NOTE: why does it seem Michelle Monaghan is underutilized in almost every movie she appears? She is such a fine actress, but she rarely seems to get the screen time she should

watch the trailer: