There have been some adaptations of James Baldwin’s literature in the past, but I don’t think there’s ever been one ever to hit the big screen. Director Barry Jenkins brings If Beale Street Could Talk to the big screen and it’s quite the experience.
The film opens with a quote from James Baldwin of how most of America’s African-Americans were ‘born’ on the Beale Street of Memphis. The story opens in a prison just outside New York City in the late-1960’s with 19 year-old Tish visiting 22 year-old Fonny behind glass and communicating via telephone. She announces to Fonny she’s pregnant. Fonny is overjoyed and looks forward to being a loving husband and a good father once he’s proven innocent. The crime Fonny is charged for is rape of a Puerto Rican woman: Victoria Rogers. She knows Fonny didn’t do it because he was three blocks away with his friend Daniel when the rape happens. She knew he was arrested because of the racist Officer Bell.
Tish always knew Fonny was the right man for her. They were friends since childhood. Then months earlier Fonny wanted to take the friendship to the next level and date. She agreed. Both Fonny and Tish are people willing to work for a living. Fonny went to community college and had plans of going into woodworking. Tish found a job as a perfume saleswoman at a department store, which considered hiring a black woman in that role to be progressive.
Tish announces the news to her parents and sister. She’s very nervous about it, even though the family see Fonny in high regard. She first announces to her father, and he’s happy. Soon the mother Sharon and sister Ernestine are happy, though nervous as the trial is coming. Fonny’s family, who call him by his real name Alonzo, come to visit. The mother and Fonny’s sisters always had contempt for Tish. When the news is announced, Fonny’s father is happy, but the mother is the complete opposite. The sisters look down upon her and the highly-religious mother even goes as far as saying the child will be a child of sin because he’s conceived out of wedlock. The mother and sisters leave in disgust.
The film goes frequently from the present of the story to the past quite often. Tish reflects back to when they were walking the street and the feelings of love they had for each other. She reflects on the Mexican restaurant and the waiter Pedrocito that made them feel welcome there. She even remembers the time when she and Fonny were searching for an apartment. Fonny came across a loft being sold by a Jewish developer. She didn’t like the idea of a loft, but Fonny saw potential. They were both surprised that the owner had no problem with them being black, but he just loves seeing couples in love.
Soon Tish flashes back to the present. There is a trial they have to work on. The lawyer claims that this is a difficult case to manage, but they feel this white lawyer just doesn’t care about justice for a black man like Fonny. Tish’s and Fonny’s father team up to do illegal trading in order to raise the right money for Fonny’s case. Victoria Rogers returned to Puerto Rico because she couldn’t handle the reminders of her rape in NYC. Sharon has a mission to go to Puerto Rico to get Victoria to come back to New York and testify for Fonny’s innocence, but it will be very costly. In the meantime, the months add up and the child inside Tish is developing. Tish goes to see Fonny again at the prison, but Fonny has gone through months of torture there. He wants to get out so he can live the life he was meant to live and love Tish.
Memories go back to the harder memories. The first is when Fonny is reunited with his friend Daniel. Daniel had just come out of prison for grant theft auto; the result of a plea bargain after being arrested for marijuana possession. Daniel tells him how it’s hell in prison and how he knows how racist the justice system is. She also flashes back to when she and Fonny were just shopping at a grocery store. Tish is harassed by a man and Fonny throws him out. The throwout is witnessed by Officer Bell, who things that Fonny has committed aggravated assault. However the white storeowner comes out and vouches for Fonny that Officer Bell lets him go, but not without that look of the desire to arrest in his eye.
Sharon did it. She was able to get enough money to confront Victoria Rogers and convince her to come back to New York for the sake of Fonny’s freedom. Victoria’s long stay in Puerto Rico is what’s delaying the trial. Victoria is not happy to see Sharon. The rape is the whole reason she left NYC and has no plans to go back. It’s too upsetting for her. Sharon tries pleading to Victoria to come back and give the true story for the sake of Fonny’s innocence, but that just causes Victoria to break down mentally and emotionally. Sharon returns back to NYC and the trial is still delayed. Tish gives birth to the baby in a bathtub with Sharon’s help while Fonny is still in prison. It’s a boy. As the wait drags on, Fonny accepts a plea deal. Years later, Tish and Alonzo Jr. visit Fonny in jail as they all hope for Fonny’s eventual release.
James Baldwin has been known to be an outspoken civil rights leader as well as a renowned author and poet. Racism is one of his biggest themes in his works. The film which is based on his novel of the same title definitely focuses on racism. It’s set in the mid- to late-1960’s just after more civil rights for blacks had been championed. However it was still a struggle as a lot of rights were limited, a lot of racial riots were happening, and many wrongful arrests were taking place. The novel and the film give a depiction of what it was like at the time. Especially with a black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit as seen through his pregnant fiancee. The film also shows the hopes and dreams of a young black couple in love. They will have a future previous generations before them couldn’t have, but it would still take a fight. Very often, you hear Tish and others having negative things to say about white people. Even having a mistrusting attitude towards them. Those who saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro will know about the mistrust towards white people had back then. I’m sure it was a mistrust shared by many African Americans at the time and we hear it echoed in the characters, mostly from Tish
However the novel and film are about more than that. It’s about undying love through hard times. Tish knows Fonny is innocent and she and her family team up to get Fonny free in time for the birth of their son. We see that Fonny is a good honest man. She’s known Fonny since she was a child. She knows Fonny would never hurt anyone like that. When they started dating months before the arrest, she knew right there and then she was the right man for her. We feel that love in the film. Interesting how a gay author like James Baldwin can deliver a better sense of love between a man and a woman than most straight authors. The novel and film however isn’t all ‘whites are bad’ and ‘all blacks are good.’ That meeting between Tish’s family and Fonny’s family showed a certain friction. While the fathers got along well, the mother’s, especially Fonny’s, looked down upon Tish’s family and the sisters had the same snooty attitude. It’s possible that scene was meant to send a message about how certain African Americans aren’t all unified or there’s a superficiality between certain types.
The film does a very good job in adapting the novel, but it does more than that. Barry Jenkins adds his own unique flair to the film. One flair he has in the film just like his previous success Moonlight is the inclusion of a lot of music. The film is a good mix of original score and songs from years past. It fits the movie well. However one thing he does that’s different from Moonlight is he includes a lot of imagery to set the theme of the time. He also includes a lot of scenes where many of the characters involved in the story have their own shots where they face the camera standing still. That adds to the film. Also what Jenkins does is during many scenes, he slows the moment down and softens it so that one can get a feel of the moment. That happens many times during scenes with Fonny and Tish, the scene with Tish working the perfume counter, and the scene with Fonny and Daniel. Sometimes it’s half-muted and we hear Tish’s narration, but we get a very good sense of the situation. I think Jenkins made some good choices in making the film.
Barry Jenkins does it again. It’s hard to say if it’s as good as Moonlight, but the film is nothing short of excellent. He not only plays out the novel on film, he allows us to feel the story. I feel James Baldwin would be very proud. KiKi Layne was very good as Tish as was Stephan James as Fonny. The whole cast was excellent, but the standout was Regina King as the mother. She really did an excellent job as the mother-in-law going out of her way for Fonny’s innocence. For the technical, James Laxton did a great job with the cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders made the right editing moves and Nicholas Britell delivered a great score that fit with the film and blended in with the tracks of past songs.
If Beale Street Could Talk is more than about racism and social injustice. It’s also about the undying love of two. It’s a love no prison system or injustice can destroy.
At first one would think that The Shape Of Water is another science fiction movie with a bizarre story, but it turns out to be a story that’s a lot more than that.
Eliza Esposito is a mute woman in Baltimore in 1962. Orphaned at a young age, she lives in an apartment just above a movie theatre and works as a janitor in a secret government laboratory. She only has two friends. The first is Giles: a gay advertising artist who lives next door to her. They often eat pie and watch entertainment together. The second is Zelda: an African American woman she communicates with in sign language. It’s through Zelda she can tell her biggest secrets.
One day, a creature is brought to the laboratory. It’s a sea creature from South America captured by Colonel Richard Strickland. Right when she sees the creature, she notices something about him. That the creature has some human-like traits. Both Zelda and Eliza sense something wrong with Colonel Strickland as he comes across in a gruff manner. They also notice he brought a cattle prod that has blood on it. Eliza notices the blood travels in a unique pattern.
Later Strickland is attacked by the creature, bleeding badly and lost two of his fingers which get reattached shortly after. As Strickland is being tended to, Eliza wonders who is this creature and what do they want from him? Eliza soon develops a bond with the creature and discovers it’s a humanoid amphibian. She gives him eggs to eat, music to listen to, and communicates with him through sign language.
There are different plans people have for this creature. General Hoyt wants Strickland to dissect it for the possibility of an advantage in the Space Race. Scientist Robert Hoffstetler, who is secretly a Soviet spy, tries to convince his masters to keep the creature alive for scientific study. The Soviet spymasters disagree and want him euthanized.
When Eliza learns of Hoyt and Strickland’s plans for the creature, she tried to persuade Giles to assist, but he rejects at first. It’s after a failed attempt at hitting on the pie man that he agrees to comply. Zelda is also opposed to it at first, fearing for but her job and Eliza’s, but she agrees to help. Hoffstetler tells Eliza he’s aware of her plan and is willing to help.
The plan is to help the creature escape where no one can see. Zelda keeps a close eye on the coast. Hoffstetler helps in the distracting of the surveillance cameras just as Zelda makes the adjustment, and even has a bomb on the power base set to explode at the right minute. Giles rents a truck and paints it to look like the laundry pick-up truck. Eliza is able to get the creature into the laundry bin. Just as it appears that Giles is about to get stopped by security, Hoffstetler injects sleeping medicine into the guard’s neck. The pick-up and escape is successful, but not without smashing Strickland’s new blue Cadillac!
Eliza keeps the creature in her apartment. She keeps it in her bathtub which she mixes with salt and plants. She plans to release it into a canal in a few days one it opens to the ocean. She’s well aware that Strickland still wants the creature. Strickland even meets with Eliza and Zelda to interrogate, but both are able to keep the truth hidden from him.
Back at the apartment, the creature leaves Eliza’s suite and visits Giles’ suite. He takes an interest in his drawings and the television, and thinks one of his cats is food! The creature runs off again just after he slashes Giles’ arm. Eliza goes searching for the creature and finds him in the movie theatre staring at the screen. The relationship between Eliza and the creature grows. She becomes more than just his protector, but his lover. She herself can even acquire the ability to make shapes with water. She even tells all to Zelda, to her surprise. The creature even helps Giles heal from his wounds. Giles eventually opens up to him just after. Eliza gets sexually involved with the creature even to the point she tries to flood her whole bathroom to have underwater sex! Much to the disappointment of the cinema owner down below!
However time is running out for all. General Hoyt gives Strickland an ultimatum of 36 hours to return the creature back. For not helping with keeping the creature, Hoffsteler is told by his superiors he will be extracted in two days. However the creature’s health is failing and he will have to be returned to the water. The day Eliza planned to take the creature to the canal comes. Giles agrees to help drive the creature to the canal when the day comes.
Meanwhile Hoffsteler meets with his handlers and is shot, but not until Strickland intervenes and shoots the handlers dead. He forces Hoffsteler to reveal who took the creature. Strickland then goes to Zelda’s house. To the shock of her and her husband, Strickland arrives and threatens Zelda to reveal Eliza has been keeping the creature. Zelda then telephones Eliza and Giles warning them of Strickland. The time to take the creature to the canal is now. The creature wants Eliza to come with him, but Eliza insists it’s better for him to go alone. The scene ends on a dramatic note and an ending that’s unexpected, but is the right ending for the film.
This does make for a bizarre story of a recently-discovered sea creature and a woman’s romantic connection to the creature. We’ve seen Beauty-And-The-Beast type of movies before like King Kong or Creature Of The Black Lagoon. The funny thing about this is that it actually succeeds as a romance. The first thing that makes it work is that there’s a real connection between the woman and the creature. Rightly so because Eliza is the first to connect with the creature and connects with him in the biggest way. All Eliza had before was her job and the friendships with Giles and Zelda. Here she finds a being that she not only connects with, but becomes her soul mate. The one that completes her. They were two lonely people who were united by fate of the most impossible kind. You could understand why the ending made sense. It was through the magic of the creature’s healing that she is able to live in his world and his world only.
The most interesting thing of the film is its connection of the various arts. It’s more than just nostalgia. It reminds you of the charm and the feel of such entertainment back then that most people overlook. However it’s through those various arts that the sea creature gets a sense of human vitality and even embraces it into his own life. The art he comes across helps him communicate in the human world and gives him his human-like qualities. From the music Eliza plays to the images on the movie screen to even watching a hokey episode of Mr. Ed on Giles’ television, the entertainment is his connection to his human traits. It even helps him experience his feelings of love which he has for Eliza. You could understand why that one scene where Eliza was not a mute –that musical number where she dances with the creature– makes sense. It’s through art that she’s able to express her love for the creature: the one being that doesn’t make her feel like an outsider at all.
The creature doesn’t just affect the lives of Eliza, but of the two closest to her too. Soon after Giles has a change of heart and helps the creature’s escape, Giles opens up to the creature and soon makes him a part of his own art. As Zelda helps the creature escape, she too develops an inner strength in her and is able to stand up for herself to her husband. It’s something to think about. The three main characters are all misfits in 1962 Baltimore. Eliza is a mute, Giles is gay, and Zelda is black. However it’s through this creature that Eliza finds a soul mate, Giles finds a purpose and Zelda finds an inner strength.
I give top credit to Gullermo del Toro. The story he directed and co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor is comical and had a lot of good drama, but it’s the human element that shines in the story line. Del Toro would admit in an interview that this is inspired by The Creature From The Black Lagoon and always dreamt of seeing Gill-Man succeed in the romance to Kay Lawrence. I can sometimes see hints of Pan’s Labyrinth in the story. It’s interesting how he creates this story that romanticizes the entertainment of the time as well as reminds us of the hysteria of Communism at the time too, as well as the racism. All of this makes the charm of the film.
The acting is the biggest strength of the film. The best comes from Sally Hawkins in playing a mute who best communicates to the sea creature with her feelings and with the power of art. Richard Jenkins is also excellent as Eliza’s loner friend who finds a new purpose in life through the creature. Another excellent performance is from Octavia Spencer playing the friend closest to her side. Also very good acting from Michael Shannon. You often wonder if Strickland is heartless or just plain under the thumb of the Colonel. You know he’s troubled when you see the amount of pills he takes. Excellent work for Doug Jones. One again, he does excellent work as the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s movies. Most of you remember him as the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth. You could say Doug Jones is to del Toro’s movies what Andy Serkis is to Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum.
The film has a lot of excellent technical aspects too. There’s the costuming and make-up team that made up the costume of the creature, as well as the visual effects team that made the ‘blue effect’ of the creature’s skin. There’s the production design team that made an excellent set that dates back to the early 1960’s to a tee, even with the movie theatre. There’s Luis Sequeira that designed the right costumes and outfits for the actors as well. Finally, there’s the mix of the music of the time mixed with the imaginative score of Alexandre Desplat. Desplat knows how to compose for a movie.
The Shape Of Water is more than just a creature-and-woman romance we’re familiar with. It succeeds in having the feel of an actual romance and successfully convey the feelings of love. In the end, the romance looks so right! That’s its magic.
I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.
When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.
This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.
Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.
Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.
The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.
Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.
Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.
This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.
One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.
I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.
This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.
In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.
Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.
At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.
The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.
The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.
The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.
The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.
The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.
Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.
And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.