Tag Archives: 70s

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

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Roma

8 Dec

‘Roma’: Calling on the maid to be a mother when chaos strikes a family and ’70s Mexico

 

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Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican-born director who’s made a reputation of tackling a wide variety of subjects and milieus, hopping from the depths of outer space (“Gravity”) to barren, post-apocalyptic futures (“Children of Men”) and even Harry Potter and Dickens (“Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Great Expectations”), returns to his homeland – where be crafted his signature tale of taboo sex and betrayal, “Y Tu Mamá También” – to forge the semi-autobiographical contemplation “Roma,” something of a nostalgic dream cut with historical incident and unhappy reality. Folks who could never bite into the floaty neorealism of Fellini’s “8½” or “Amarcord” will struggle with the director’s languid sense of place and time, hoping for more of the disruptive chaos of the earthquake, wildfire and class revolt that punctuate the film. The central dilemma of a pregnant housemaid abused and abandoned by her lover and trapped by her unenviable station in life might not jump off the page, but for those who give it time, there are rewards.

The time is the early ’70s (aptly Fellini-esque) in Mexico City, as the camera swirls around the doings of an upper-middle-class family. Dad (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, works long hours at the hospital while mom (Marina de Tavira) and the housemaid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) maintain the homestead and look after a brood of corrigible youth. Mom and Cleo care, but are not the most effective homemakers. Mom dings up the car every time she takes it out and Cleo allows mounds of canine fecal matter to amass in the driveway – cars skid and people slip on poo, it’s a running thing. The film’s driving factors are the father’s sudden and prolonged absence as well as Cleo’s pregnancy: How she gets pregnant, the father’s reaction and the end result of which provide for surprising turns.

“Roma” moves in subtle, wispy ebbs fueled by undercurrents of class and gender oppression. There’s a poignant yin and yang in every frame. Fate and circumstance factor large too as the action moves from the cloistered streets of the city to the bourgeois countryside, even a muddy hillside slum and ultimately a riot (the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1970). Throughout it all Cleo and Sofia rally frantically to keep the children safe, despite considerable setbacks. “Roma” is clearly a love letter to the women who made Cuarón the person he is today.

The film, shot by Cuarón himself in black and white – an artistic high-dive against the grain but in good company (think “Schindler’s List,” “The White Ribbon” and “The Artist”) – is a scrumptious wonderment to behold. If there’s any subversion, it’s that “Cold War,” another foreign language film in a similar format yet radically different style, could give Cuarón a run in the best-cinematography category.

Artistic merits aside, the key to “Roma” is the patiently quiet and soulful performance by Aparicio. Clea’s fleeting optimism amid repressed pain amid continual reminders of her subservient role are heartwarming and heartbreaking. You want her to break out and do something bold, but in her quiet resolve there’s a deeper dignity that transcends.“Roma” is not about good or bad, but about connecting and persevering.

BlacKKKlansman

13 Aug

‘BlacKkKlansman’: True story of infiltration that hardly has to sneak in a modern message

 

If someone told you there’d be a movie about a black man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you’d probably call BS. I mean, how could that ever be? But what if the infiltrator were Jewish? You’d likely double down on your BS card – after all, these are the two bloodlines that drive the rallying hate of the white knights whose mission has been to keep America pure and white. Continue reading

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

28 Jul

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’: Alcoholic cartoonist was hell on wheels

Image result for picture don't worry he wont get far on foot

The films of Gus Van Sant, be they the good (“To Die For” or “Drugstore Cowboy”), the total miscue (“Psycho” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”) or even a crowd-pleasingly mainliner (“Good Will Hunting” or “Milk”) have always been embossed by a gritty, streetwise authenticity. That’s Van Sant’s gift – plus, by skill, proximity or both, educing some of the great performances of the past 20 or 30 years from actors the likes of Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, Robin Williams, Matt Damon and River Phoenix, to name a few. Here he’s re-teamed with River’s brother Joaquin, who played one of Kidman’s teen lovers-turned-hubby snuffers in “To Die For” (1995).

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” isn’t a topical grabber; it’s a biopic about an esoteric satirist/sketch artist by the name of John Callahan who died in 2010 after spending most of his adult life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident involving a drunken driver. The terrible catch there being that the car was Callahan’s, driven by another (Jack Black) because Callahan was too drunken to drive.

“Don’t Worry,” however, isn’t so much about overcoming physical difficulties and beating the odds, but about confronting one’s demons. As the film has it, Callahan has an angry closet full of ’em. A raging alcoholic from the minute we catch up with him to the alcohol rocket of an evening that ends with Callahan’s VW Bug wrapped around a cement post, the slacker handyman out for the next good time seemingly has little prospects beyond his shaggy good looks and winning smile – and then that too seemingly gets taken from him. Strapped to a hospital gurney in the cold, sterile aftermath, Callahan flirts with his physical therapist (Rooney Mara, impeccable and fetching in the small role) and when peppering his counselor (Rebecca Field) about the functionality of his equipment, she suggests with grave seriousness that he ask the night nurse to sit on his face. Callahan flashes his old smile and accepts the challenge gleefully. Out on his own. Callahan returns to the bottle with self-pitying vehemence. It seems a fast downward spiral, but he also starts drawing acerbic political doodles that get published (“the place that publishes Gary Larson just called”) and elicit strong public reaction. He also checks into an AA group led by Jonah Hill’s ultra-rich gay swami, Donnie, who presides over the flock with the smarmy, manipulative charm of a cocksure charlatan. Callahan takes to Donnie, but keeps boozing on the side with angry-man swagger. All of which makes for a gonzo 12-step ride.

It might be treasonous to say, but Phoenix and Hill don’t have great chemistry. They’re fantastic, mind you, but not in the way Bogie and Bacall or Newman and Redford were, or even Damon and Affleck’s bros in Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting.” When the two are on screen together the film is undeniably intoxicating in its own quirky right; if you were at a bar with this duo, you’d find it hard to close out your tab before closing time. But they’re just not pouring the same stuff. And sans the bravura performances – self-righteous Hill and self-hating Phoenix – I’m not sure “Don’t Worry” would be that interesting of a film. Cultural icons Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Carrie Brownstein have small bits and feel plugged in but not necessarily engaged in the presence of the immersed leads. Gordon, best known for her work as a member of edgy ’90s rock band Sonic Youth, also had a small role in Van Sant’s “Last Days” (2006) the last chapter in the filmmaker’s Death Trilogy that reimagined Kurt Cobain’s demise. The other films in that series, “Gerry” (2002) and “Elephant” (2003), a repainting of the Columbine massacre, are similarly fact-based and likewise riveting. “To Die For” (1995) and “Paranoid Park” (2007) too might make apt bookends, and if you added in “Don’t Worry,” an individual alone in a country cabin for a weekend with the ability to stream such a double-triple program might emerge on Sunday depressed, enlightened and oddly invigorated. The most telling and frightening aspect of “Don’t Worry,” however, is its raw and honest depiction of addiction and the grip it has on the ensnared – and the ends they will go to in spinning a false narrative even as the knees of reality betray them.

Battle of the Sexes

4 Oct

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell square off in Battle of the Sexes

Courtesy Fox Searchlight

 

Battle of the Sexes is more than just an empowerment victory lap for women and others seeking equality. It’s also a heartfelt tale of two intimate love stories — with the least surprising of the two registering the more surprising result. Oh yeah, it’s also a fantastic time capsule resurrecting the early ’70s with aplomb and a sad reminder of just how deeply chauvinistic mainstream culture used to be (and still is). Take the venerated sportscaster Howard Cossell commenting in the preamble of the titular event (an ABC prime-time broadcast that was almost as big as the Super Bowl) that if tennis pro Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) lost her wire-rimmed glasses and bland bob, she might shock the world with movie star good looks. Did Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe ever get brought up for their appearance?

King by all rights was a trailblazer, the first female professional athlete to earn over $100K in a year and a reluctant feminist icon who sought more equal pay for female players who were paid “eight times” less than their male counterparts. Resolute and unwavering to pro tennis tour honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and his claim that men were the bigger draw, King quickly retorts that the women sell just as many tickets at the same price. Solid logic that gets brushed aside.

That’s when King and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) decide to create their own tennis circuit (what becomes the Virginia Slims Circuit). Kramer initially can’t believe the bluff and goes on the offensive in the media saying the idea will fail when it begins to take root. Not onscreen much, Kramer becomes the film’s de facto villain, more so than Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), the other half of the “battle,” who at age 55, an anointed tennis legend (Grand Slam winner, former No. 1 player, and tennis hall-of-famer) bored with life and addicted to gambling, reinvents himself by calling out King after her fiscal milestone. He’s a lover of the limelight and needs more than the bare-knuckle tennis matches he and his scotch-sipping cronies stage — with a handicap of course. In one deftly comical scene, Riggs has to hold a pair of Afghan dogs on leash while dodging a series of folding chair obstacles placed on his side of the court. For his troubles, he wins a Rolls Royce. Continue reading

Inherent Vice

9 Jan

There’s drugs and free love a’plenty in Inherent Vice, but the characters steal the show 

Doc’s Orders

Joaquin Phoenix takes the audience on a trip in  'Inherent Vice'

Warner Brothers Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix takes the audience on a trip in ‘Inherent Vice’

Clearly Paul Thomas Anderson has a thing for the storied eras of America’s past. Boogie Nights welcomed in the rise of the porn industry during the flared-pant, disco-fueled 70s; the more nuanced The Master took up the arc of an L. Ron Hubbard-like charlatan in the wake WWII; while There Will be Bloodnegotiated the nasty, avaricious early roots of the American oil grab. Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, is no exception. In texture it’s an ode to the psychedelic 70s of free love and rampant recreational drug use.

Anderson’s always been a contemplative filmmaker with a keen sense of perverse quirk, and those qualities really come to the fore in Inherent Vice, a gumshoe noir on LSD if ever there was one. The stalwart indie director —who proved his ability to handle the opus works of literary lions by spinning Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will be Blood — delves deep into Thomas Pychon’s far-roaming 2009 novel with baroque gusto. Continue reading