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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 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso: the heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.

Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.

Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.

The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.

Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.

They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.

The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.

Movie Review: Elysium

A computer hacker (Wagner Moura) gives Matt Damon the right stuff to help overtake Elysium.

A computer hacker (Wagner Moura) gives Matt Damon the right stuff to help overtake Elysium.

Okay, you remember how I mentioned a while back about the struggle of big budget action movies this summer? Elysium has been out for a while. Does it have what it takes to get things moving again? Or will it be another casualty?

 

Before I get into the plot, I have to give you a picture of the two worlds. It’s 2154 and Earth is a poor polluted overpopulated planet under anarchaic conditions. Out in space is the satellite Elysium:  a luxurious satellite full of sun, life and full cure from disease in the comfort of your own home. Earth isn’t even ruled by humans. Just ruthless androids programmed by computers. Elysium however has robots in their favor, as servants to them.

 

Max da Costa has developed into a rebel on planet Earth. He grew up an orphan and has lived in prison most of his life. Out on parole, he now works an assembly line of robot parts for Elysium in a wrecked-out Los Angeles. Max has a dispute with a robot that turns violent and lands him in the hospital with a broken arm.

 

In the hospital, he meets with a nurse named Frey. Frey was actually his childhood love in the orphanage. Despite his hard times growing up in the orphanage, he had the comforts of the love of Frey and a nun who served as a spiritual mentor to him and always believed he was meant to do something great one day. Frey is not only a nurse now but a mother of a daughter dying of leukemia.

 

Elysium is under a power struggle. It’s run by President Patel but Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt has power desires of her own. She orders the shooting down of a spaceship full of civilians from Earth which earns her a reprimand from Patel and her top security agent Kruger fired. That only fuels Delacourt’s desire for power as she connives a plan to have CEO billionaire John Carlyle design a computerized cybercoup to make her president which allows Carlyle’s company to override security for the next two centuries. Carlyle has the program implanted in his brain for safekeeping until his return to Elysium.

 

Max however is exposed to radiation at the plant one day and is given only five days to live. He desired to head to Elysium to cure himself and through the help of Spider: a computer hacker who builds illegal space caravans to Elysium. Spider agrees to send Max up there as long as he agrees to steal vital information. Max agrees and Spider gives him weapons, a fake Elysium ID, a bionic exoskeleton that can help him withstand force from android sentinels, and a cerebral data upload that can allow Max to steal data implanted in Carlyle’s mind.

 

However Carlyle and Delacourt know what’s going on and try to end Spider’s plan by shutting down the system. In the ensuing fight, Carlyle is killed along with most of Spider’s men. Max’s friend Julio sacrifices himself so that Max can get away. He does but only after being stabbed. Max goes to Frey for help but she wants to come along to get her daughter cured. Max tells her to stay out of it as this might be a suicide mission. Meanwhile Delacourt is in pursuit of Max as he holds Carlyle’s data implanted in his head. Spider wants to extract the data to make all people citizens of Elysium but can’t as long as the power is shut off in his place. The power outage can’t even get Max to Elysium just before he dies.

 

They are able to get a ship to Elysium through Max exchanging the program with Kruger but only to disguise Frey and her daughter as hostages and hold a grenade to his own head. Kruger agrees and Spider is able to sneak more people on board. During the trip, Kruger’s head is severely damaged by the grenade explosion and the plane crash lands in Elysium causing Delacourt to set off a state-of-emergency and fire Patel.

 

Right when Delacourt plans to get the program from Max and ‘bring him to justice’ Kruger’s head is reconstructed and he has mutiny plans of his own which includes assassinating Delacourt and making Elysium his own private playground. This allows Max and Frey to escape and get her daughter cured. However the ‘cure booths’ on Elysium only work on Elysians which her daughter is not made officially. It’s all up to Max to work with Spider to make everyone a citizen of Elysium and defeat Kruger from his regime in what little time Max has left. The ending is somewhat predictable but it works well for the movie.

 

The film seems to focus on the division of the rich and poor. It’s not an uncommon theme. Those who studied classic literature must have read A Tale Of Two Cities. Now we have Elysium where Earth is a hellhole for the 99% who can’t afford to live on Elysium while the rich 1% have it. It’s interesting that Neill Blomkamp is tackling such a common theme of the ‘other 99%.’. If you’ve seen his first big movie District 9, you’d notice how the transporting of aliens from one area of land to another echoes of apartheid. Now we see the separation of classes in Elysium. It’s unique to see Blomkamp make sci-fi movies that can get people thinking. It’s a welcome relief from most of this summer’s sci-fi with is mostly mindless. One unique twist from District 9 is that District 9 shows an outsider succumbing to the apartheid he’s participating in. Elysium is the opposite as it shows the lesser people trying to make the unfair fair. Good change of twist that works here.

 

This is another great sci-fi effort from director Neill Blomkamp. It’s not as well-written or well-directed as District 9 but it does make for a more intelligent sci-fi film than most of what’s been released this summer. The acting however was not that much of a standout. Matt Damon came across as a cardboard hero and Jodie Foster looked like she was trying to be a robot. Alice Braga wasn’t much of a scene stealer. Sharlto Copley however was quite good at playing the villain and Wagner Moura was a scene-stealer as Spider. The visual effects were very good and the satellite of Elysium was done excellently without flaw. It almost looked like a satellite capable of acting the same way earth does, with plant and sunshine, is actually a possiblility even in this century.

 

Checking out the box office, things don’t look so good. Elysium opened two weekends ago at the top of the box office with $29.8 million. Pretty somber since it cost $115 million to make. Last weekend also gave some bad news with only $13.6 million and this past weekend was more bad news as it didn’t even muster $7 million and ended the weekend at #7. I don’t know. Do you think it’s a victim of timing?

 

Elysium seems to be the right sci-fi thriller out at the wrong time. It is intelligent and does get you thinking unlike most of the sci-fi movies this summer but it suffers because of the current audience weariness of sci-fi movies. I think if it was released earlier this summer or even last year, it would have had more impressive box office results.