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Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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Stephan James (left) and KiKi Layne are Fonny and Tish: a young couple in love in If Beale Street Could Talk.

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.

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Movie Review: It

Pennywise

Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise, the creepiest clown in movie history, in It.

Until now, It appeared to be the one big Stephen King novel that has not had a big screen adaptation. Sure, there was a miniseries back in 1991, but nothing beats a big-screen showing. Finally it’s here, and the excitement is just beginning!

The story beings in the fall of 1988 in Derry, Maine. Sick and in bed, a stuttering Billy Denbrough makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie to play with on a rainy day. While playing with the boat, it falls into a sewer. Georgie goes to get it, but comes across a clown named Pennywise who manipulates Georgie by biting off his arm and taking him down the drain.

The story progresses to June 1989: the end of the school year. Bill has found himself with a clique of three misfits which include bespectacled big-mouth Richie Tozier, sickly asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, and fearful Stanley Uris who’s the son of the rabbi. End of the school year won’t mean the end of torment from a group of bullies led by Henry Bowers, son of a police officer. Bullying is Henry’s favorite past-time as he loves tormenting almost every kid. His last victim on this last day of school is Ben Hanscom, an overweight kid new to the town. The bullying however does result in Beverly Marsh, who’s bullied by the popular girls in school and called a ‘slut,’ coming to the rescue. She takes a liking to Ben as she learns he too likes the New Kids On The Block. She doesn’t appear bothered by her own bullying at school because she gets it worse by her father at home. Last day of school just means work on the farm for Mike Hanlon, an orphaned African-American boy who’s raised by his grandfather.

The abduction of Georgie is still very much on Bill’s mind. Actually it’s on the minds of most people in Derry. Derry has a dirty secret that children disappear six times more often than the national average. Bill tries to get his friends to locate the possible whereabouts of Georgie, believing he may still be alive and in a marshy wasteland known as the Barrens. Ben does research into the town of Derry. He learns of the explosion of 1908 which killed many children. He also learns of how children of Derry go lost most frequently: a curse going back centuries. Ben encounters a headless boy in the basement and runs off, only to be encountered by Henry’s group. Ben successfully fights them off and runs away bumping into Bill’s group. Adding to the drama of Derry, the group including Ben find the sneaker of a young girl. Patrick Hockstetter, one of Henry’s bullies who is chasing after Ben, is killed by Pennywise and becomes the latest of the missing.

The following day, all five of the boys have some type of nightmarish encounter with It. Later they encounter Mike Hanlon after he was bullied by Henry’s group. Mike becomes part of the group which now calls itself the Losers Club. Mike also possesses some knowledge about this entity and how it’s haunting Derry. Later in the summer, the group get together to do research into this entity that haunts them each. Bev finds her way into the group, thanks to Ben. They come across some interesting facts: they are all haunted by the same entity in the guise of what they each fear; awakens every 27 years to prey on children before returning to hibernation; and uses the sewers to travel about the town upon where a shabby abandoned house on Neibolt street is built.

They see the house on Neibolt as a chance to get to It. Most are afraid, but Billy wants to do this for the sake of finding Georgie dead or alive and to prevent other children of Derry from receiving this same threat. All agree the first time, but after having to wrestle with Pennywise the first time. Inside, Eddie breaks his arm, making him vulnerable to Pennywise. Fortunately Bev impales Pennywise, forcing him to retreat vowing revenge. However the group is threatened to disband as Eddie’s mother is furious with what had happened. Bill insists on continuing to fight It, but all except Bev and Ben leave.

August comes. Bev is threatened by her abusive father and threatens to rape her, but she kills him with a toilet lid. Unfortunately Pennywise abducts her. This prompts Bill to reassemble the Losers Club to rescue Bev. Even Eddie returns to the group after he learns that his asthma is fake and drug-induced by his mother. Meanwhile It goes into the guise of a children’s television host to compel Henry to kill his abusive father and then kill the Losers Club over at the Neibolt house. Henry fights Mike only to pushed down a well to his death. Inside the Neibolt house, they try to make their way to It’s central location, only to have Pennywise bite Stanley’s head with It’s sharp teeth. Soon they make their way to a cooling tower where they find It’s lair, containing a mountain of decaying circus props and children’s belongings. They also find Bev floating in a catatonic state. The group are able to bring Bev down and it’s Ben’s kiss that restores her consciousness. Now it’s up to the Losers Club to defeat It. The film ends with a spectacularly haunting ending that’s both triumphant, tragic and in anticipation for what’s next.

Adapting a Stephen King movie to the big screen is very much a case of hit-or-miss. Not everything can be adapted from the novel so the writers and directors have to work to bring it to life within two to two-and-a-half hours. That would mean a lot of picking and choosing and a lot of pairing down. There have been a lot of cases where it has worked excellently like Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few. There have been duds too like Maximum Overdrive, Needful Things, Dreamcatcher and Cell. YouTube countdown channel WatchMojo even did a countdown on how movie adaptations of novels actually differed greatly from the real thing.

Before there could be a big-screen adaptation of It, the film had to be organized. This is a movie that took eight years and the efforts of three directors to develop and loads of casting changes. It started when David Kajganich decided to adapt the screenplay when he learned Warner Bros. would be in charge of it. In 2012, direction then went into the hands of Cary Fukunaga. He had a vision of the story and originally planned to cast Will Poulter as Pennywise and Ty Simpkins as Bill. That changed when New Line Cinemas stepped in. Fukunaga withdrew from directing feeling that New Line and their concern with budget cuts was interfering with the creative process.

Then in July 2015, it was announced Argentinian director Andy Muschietti would be signed on to direct with Fukunaga remaining as scriptwriter. Muschietti has had a modest success that took off overnight with his 2008 short film Mama being expanded to an English-language release in 2013 with Jessica Chastain as lead actress. Casting changes came about with a new Bill and a new Pennywise most noticeable. Muschietti is the only director that went the full distance.

Then the adaptation of the story. This adaptation from It makes a lot of notable changes from the original novel. First we must remember the novel was released in 1986. The characters as children were set in the 1950’s. The characters as adults were set in the 1980’s. Here, we have the child characters set in the summer of 1989: a summer that’s close to my heart, too. Setting that part in the 1950’s would seem like a good choice as made evident in Stand By Me, but it could also be a hindrance. 2001’s Hearts In Atlantis was set in the late-50’s and it flopped. I feel it made sense to adapt the Losers Club part of It to 1989. It worked here.

Then there’s the choice of whether to do the full novel in this It movie or have this as a movie series. We’re talking about a novel that first required the format of a mini-series in order to get its first adaptation. It made sense to have the first It movie with focus exclusively on the Losers Club as children and then have a second It film possibly with the Losers Club all grown up. It would also be a gamble as this first It film would have to avoid performing poorly at the box office to get a second It film happening, despite the chances of that being extremely slim. I’ll mention later why they won’t have to worry about that.

One thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is a Stephen King film. Adaptations of Stephen King novels have been known to be a case of a lot of paring down of the story to mish-mashing to including only one part of a multi-chapter novel. Stephen King’s novels have a lot of common elements. For those unfamiliar with Stephen King novels, the first common element is the setting in a smalltown in Maine, most commonly the fictional town of Derry. Another is the case of main child characters being the misfits in a harsh time in their lives. Another is the situation of parents who are either negligent, manipulative or downright abusive to their children. Another is of religious figures or religious people with some even possessing a warped sense of blind faith. Another is the element of evil that King works into his villains.

The film included a lot of elements common to a Stephen King story. It’s set in Derry and the misfits form a clique of their own: The Losers Club. As for parents: Billy’s parents are too distraught with the loss of Georgie to pay attention to his issues; Stanley faces the pressure of being the rabbi’s son; Eddie’s mother has a case of Munchhausen syndrome which explains the fake Asthma she induces with pills; Henry Bowers’ father uses his gun to ‘traumatize’ sense into him; and Bev’s father… I don’t want to go there. Religion or religious figures are not seen as so much of a threat, curse or interference in It, but some could argue Stanley’s strict religious upbringing made him a fearful person. As for evil, the character of It is one that messes with the characters minds and fears it took a group of seven children to solve who It is and to end It once and for all.

The film also had to leave some things from the novel out. It’s not just changing the setting of 1958 to 1989. There were some guises of It in the novel that didn’t appear on film. Henry’s bullying of Stanley includes anti-Semitic slurs in the novel. Here in the film, it’s limited to throwing Stanley’s yarmukel like a frisbee. Patrick Hockstetter is not killed by It as Pennywise, but It as an army of leeches. Henry attempts to kill the Loser Club with his friends Vic and Belch in the novel, but he’s on his own in the film. In the novel, Bill confronts It through the Ritual Of Chud. And finally, Bev has sex with all six of the Losers Club boys in the novel after they make a blood oath. You can understand why that ending was changed to what it is.

In the end, Andy Muschietti delivers a winner of a film. He was not the most experienced director when being hired on to do It but it paid off and delivers an excellent thriller that frightens and gets one excited for the next It film. Kudos to scriptwriters Chase Palmer, Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman for putting together an excellent adaptation and making a lot of choices that worked. The story of the Losers Club bonding as one to fight It gives one memories of Stand By Me and even a lot of similarities to Stranger Things. Having Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhart adds to that factor even under those big glasses. The film also did a good job of adding humor into the film. The film is situated around a bunch of 12 year-olds so having some humor adds to it, despite how dark a story it is. Plus the music from 1989 adds to it too.

For those who are complete ‘virgins’ to It— I’m taking about those who have never read the book or seen the miniseries– it will keep them intrigued and scared. It will also seem confusing at first with most being haunted by Pennywise but others scared by other images too. In the end, it will all come together. All are being haunted and tormented by It. They will first think Pennywise is It, but It takes the guise of many figures like Bev’s abusive father, the children’s TV show host that pushes Henry to commit murder, the animated picture from the painting that haunts Stan. Pennywise is the most dominant guise of It and used mostly to lure young children. It’s right and proper that It meets its match as Pennywise and from Billy.

For those who are fans of the novel It and even the miniseries, they will admire that this is a film that captures the best and truest aspects of a Stephen King horror thriller. It doesn’t stray off like so many other adaptions nor is it a victim to too much studio tweaking of the story. Sure, it sets the Loser Club part of the story 30+ years of when the novel sets it, but the characters of the Loser Club and those surrounding them are very much in tune with the novel. Most of the incidents that happen in the movie It closely match what happens in the novel too. I’m sure fans of Stephen King novels will be proud of this movie. Also I feel Stephen King fans will feel that the producers made the right decision to have this first It movie focus strictly in the Losers Club story and have the incidents of 27 years later focused in It: Volume 2, which I will elaborate on in conclusion.

However the best thing about It is that this is a rare case of a horror movie that delivers excellence. The genre of the horror movie is very hard to master. Most horror movies often come across as junk loaded with blood, gore and other elements for the sake of shock value. Us 80’s kids had that with all the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies. Millennial kids got that with the Saw movie franchise. Most of the time, these horror films become horror ‘comedies’ because of how stupid the situations are and how the actors are told to act idiotic on purpose. It takes a lot of effort to deliver a horror story on screen with a good story and good character development to add to it. It’s even possible to create a masterpiece of a horror movie. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie and even Get Out from this year are some of the best examples. Even good acting can come out of a horror movie as Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie earned her the first of her six Oscar nominations as did a nomination for Piper Laurie. It delivers in having a well-written script, a well-directed story and dead-on acting from the actors. This should be a template on how to do a horror movie right.

Jaeden Lieberher did a very good job in playing Bill Denbrough, especially in making the stutter look natural instead of wooden, and in making the quest to fight It a personal battle for Bill. The best thing about Lieberher was he was good at being unselfish with his lead role as he knew the other members of the Losers Club had their moments too. Sophia Lillis was possibly the biggest scene-stealer as tomboy Bev as was Finn Wolfhart whose role of Richie Tozier will entertain you, but also make you want to tell him to shut up! Good performances included Wyatt Oleff as the fearful Stanley Uris, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben the misfit who finds his way, Jack Dylan Glazer as sickly Eddie who develops an inner strength over time and Chosen Jacobs as the farmboy who becomes a help to the clique. All seven of the Losers Clubs kids not only had to play their parts but also make their characters grow. We see it in all the characters, especially Bill. Bill didn’t lose his stutter but he gained a new inner strength.

The actors in the Losers Club did a good job in playing salty-mouthed 12 year-olds that were not afraid to let loose, get sassy and even act like jerks at times. That’s definitely an appeal as Hollywood has a way of making child performances to innocent or ‘sugar-coated.’ Just turn on the Disney Channel and you’ll see what I mean. The kids of It were very unlike the squeaky-clean crystal-clear purity-ring-wearing Disney Channel kids; more like the foul-mouthed kids of Stranger Things. And all the better for it.

It’s not just the Loser Club that delivers in terms of acting. There’s also Bill Skarsgard who did a good job in giving Pennywise his sinister demeanor. There’s also Nicholas Hamilton who succeeds in transforming Henry from simply a jerk bully to being possessed by It’s evil leading to his own death. The mix of music of 1989 hits and the score of Benjamin Wallfisch blended well and fit the scenes of the film well. The visual effects of the film are also excellent and needed to be top-notch to make the movie work.

Already It has broken a load of records in its opening weekend. It set a September opening weekend record of $123.4 million, breaking the old record held by Hotel Transylvania 2 of $48.4 million: more than 2 ½ times that! Usually September is a quiet month for movies and they usually yield low box office results. Mainly because people had their fix during the Summer Movie Season. Summer’s over and now it’s time to get back to regular life and wait for the movie excitement to return in November as is custom. It proved that the September movie season had something to deliver, and right on the weekend after Labor Day, of all weekends! Usually that’s the lowest-grossing weekend but not this year! Other records It broke and feats It achieved according to Box Office Mojo are Widest R-Rated Releases, Widest R-Rated Openings, Highest-Grossing Fall Opening Weekend, Second-Highest Opening Weekend for an R-Rated film, Highest Grossing Stephen King Film (in just five days!), right now the third-highest grossing R-Rated horror film and second only to Deadpool for the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated film! And I’ll bet there will be more to come!

SPOILER ALERT: Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending! The film gives evidence that this will be the first It movie and there’s a Volume Two coming. It’s in the end credits and it’s very well-hinted when the Loser Club makes a ‘blood promise’ to return to Derry in 27 years if It returns. There’s already talk of It: Volume Two on IMDB. There’s a lot of talk about it from Muschietti to the producers to even the young actors. As of yet, nothing is finalized. It’s possible one could assume the film could be set in 2016–27 years from the first It— and Pennywise makes a return to the Losers Club all grown up. It’s very possible the original Losers Club from this film might have a low presence in Volume Two. That could help or hinder the story because all seven of the Losers Club helped make this adaptation of It a hit and their absence might mean the absence of their charm in Volume 2. However nothing is finalized and it leaves those that saw It in big anticipation of what’s to come.

It delivers as a Stephen King horror movie that has all the right moves–a rarity for horror movies as a whole– a hotly-anticipated Stephen King adaptation that works on the big screen, and a big reason for people to go to the movie theatres in September! Some say this could be the best Stephen King movie since 1976’s Carrie. You be the judge.