Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Look...do not get me wrong. After reading about this year's nominations for the 2019 Academy Awards, I was immediately thrilled about two items:
1. Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" was one of the eight nominees for BEST PICTURE, certainly notable for being the first superhero themed film to receive such recognition but also, because it was undeniably one of the very best films of 2018 regardless of genre.
2. Secondly, Writer/Producer/Director Spike Lee, was FINALLY nominated in the category of Best Director, this time for his superior helming of "BlacKKKlansman," also an exceedingly well deserved Best Picture candidate. This long overdue recognition serves as Lee's very first nomination in this category after 30 plus illustrious years as one of America's finest filmmakers, in my opinion.
But aside from those two nominations, this year's nominations felt to be overly predictable, in ways that were more than deserved and other, which dishearteningly felt like the result of excessive studio campaigning rather than an honest representation of what the very best cinema that 2018 had to offer--and for my time and money, 2018 was an exceptional year at the movies.
It is of no secret to me that the Oscar season possesses more than its share of elements that are akin to a horse race rather than a celebration of cinematic art. but there felt to be something different in the air this time around. I guess it is a certain obviousness to the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that is leaving a bad taste in my mouth, especially as aspects of the film industry and the world of how films are even being distributed and viewed have changed dramatically.
With the eight Best Picture nominees, I have currently seen five--"Bohemian Rhapsody," "The Favourite," "A Star Is Born" as well as the aforementioned "Black Panther" and "BlacKKKlansman." "Green Book" I had missed due to personal issues between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I just haven't gotten myself to "Vice" just yet but hopefully, with their nominations, I'll now be able to catch up with both of those.
And then...there's Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma."
"Roma," which was partially financed by Netflix, is indeed a heavy hitter critically and now with the Academy as it is standing tall with 10 nominations. It is the film that I wish to see the most out of the nominated films and especially because of its critical acclaim as well as my status as a fan of Cuaron's stellar cinematic work.
But, I have not seen the film as I do not have Netflix, the platform upon which the film is currently streaming, and also because its theatrical release has been even less than scant, with no theater screenings at any theater whatsoever in my city of Madison, WI. For Netflix, regardless of whether the film wins Best Picture or not, it is a win-win situation for them as they can now become a major player against both the traditional and independent studio systems as well as continuing to claiming an exclusivity for their platform by having the product that you can only go to them to even see--an aspect that, as far as I am concerned, dilutes the art as well as the shared experience of the cinema as an art form!
I resent not being able to see "Roma" at this time, frankly because I do not wish to feel forced into purchasing something I do not need just to watch one movie. Or two movies, for that matter as The Coen Brothers' "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs," a second Netflix exclusive, nominated for Oscars but a film I have been unable to see due to the lack of a theatrical release.
I do bring this grievance up for the following reason: It is the irony of a streaming service, a corporation not remotely interested in making movies or the theater experience, arriving with the very motion picture that only an exclusive group of people can see at a time when the movies and movie going experience are existing at a particularly precarious period for filmmakers and audiences regarding which films are available and which films are even being made. For how can one really celebrate the art and artistry of the movies when one is unable to even see what is being held up as representative of the very best the movies have to offer in a given year?
And then, on the opposite end, is "Bohemian Rhapsody" truly the very best the movies has to offer?
Yes, I know that so many of you loved "Bohemian Rhapsody" and that you were not alone as it was indeed a box office smash and it took some surprise major wins at this year's Golden Globes. But for me, I can honestly think of 20 films that I felt represented a certain greatness (all will be revealed on this site soon), as well as better leading performances than Rami Malek's (honestly, Ethan Hawke's career best performance in "First Reformed" should have been recognized).
For that matter, I have read similar criticisms towards "Green Book," again which I am unable to speak towards as I haven't had the chance to see it yet. But, I am concerned that we have a couple of popular but flawed films representing "THE BEST" when there were some truly great, exciting and downright audacious features that have not been recognized at all (Academy, you really dropped the ball by not showing "Eighth Grade," "The Hate U Give," "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and especially "Sorry To Bother You" some love).
Then, there were the typical Academy oddball moves regrading their snubs. Like, why were Bradley Cooper, Peter Farrelly and for the love of Pete, Ryan Coogler not nominated in the Best Director category for their work on "A Star Is Born," "Green Book," and "Black Panther" respectively? It is not as if the films directed themselves!
Furthermore, where were the female directors this year?
But of course, there was good news.
For instance, and aside from "Black Panther" and Spike Lee, I was happy to see all three actresses--Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz--all rightfully nominated for "The Favourite." I was thrilled that the great Sam Elliot finally received his first ever nomination, again, rightfully so, for his work in "A Star Is Born." The severely under-represented "If Beale Street Could Talk" from Writer/Director Barry Jenkins was otherwise correctly represented in the Best Adapted Screenplay category as well as for Best Original Score, which was so rapturously composed by Nicholas Britell.
Apples and oranges...apples and oranges...but even so, there is a ho-hum quality to the nominations overall, when they could have been more exciting and well rounded.
Hopefully the host-less Oscar telecast on February 24, 2019 will provide some excitement.
Monday, January 21, 2019
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13
Hear me out, dear readers, for I have not lost my senses.
In some ways, I have to admit to feeling somewhat resentful with feeling that I need to apologize for my feelings towards the latest film from Writer/Director M Night Shyamalan, a figure whose celebratory status as a filmmaker ascended spectacularly, plummeted profoundly and has begun a gradual ascension once more...although one that is housed with a certain skepticism at best and vehement disdain at worst.
In fact, regarding the tenor of at least one review I happened to see regarding "Glass," Shyamalan's finale to the surprise trilogy that began with his finest film to date "Unbreakable" (2000) and continued with the claustrophobic freak flag that was "Split" (2017), the writer of the piece ended up composing what I feel to be a film criticism cardinal sin: reviewing the person or public persona and the perceptions of either instead of what is on the screen.
As for me, the filmography of M. Night Shyamalan has been one that I am admittedly affectionate towards. In some ways, the cinematic wine he serves just happens to be the very kind that I happen to enjoy, as he has long established a style, a tonality, a full idiosyncratic style and vision unlike anyone else. For that alone, I feel he is to be celebrated, or at least appreciated, for devising a point of view with his films, whether you like them or not.
Without question, "The Sixth Sense" (1999) still holds up after (good gracious!) 20 years. I believe that we can all agree on that assessment as it has long felt that people, including his detractors, will only allow him this one legitimate success. For me, I have found value with his misfires like "Lady In The Water" (2006) and even the much maligned "The Happening" (2008), as they each did represent his artistic approach honestly but yes indeed...don't get me wrong and don't get me started on the disastrous "The Last Airbender" (2010).
I will concede that M. Night Shyamalan indeed may have lost his focus creatively for some time but beginning with the sneaky, creepy, small-scaled " The Visit" (2015), he has been slowly rebuilding his brand as well as his confidence and with "Glass," for my sense and sensibilities, he has crafted not only his best film in years, but a terrific concluding chapter to a most unorthodox trilogy.
Set a full 19 years after "Unbreakable" and three weeks after the grisly events of "Split," M. Night Shyamalan's "Glass" opens with Security Guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), now working with his adult son Joseph (again played by Spencer Treat Clark) as the secret vigilante known in the media as The Overseer, as he is in hot pursuit of "The Horde," the full collective of 24 personalities inside of the dissociative identity disorder afflicted Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy).
After a showdown with Kevin's most ferocious personality known only as "The Beast," both he and David are soon apprehended by the authorities and placed into a mental institution where they are each supervised by the facility's head psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is out to prove that both individuals are suffering from delusions of grandeur and actually do not possess superpowers like comic book heroes and villains.
And what of the fragile boned yet feverishly agile minded comic book aficionado Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also incarcerated in the institution by Dr. Staple? Well, despite his seemingly lobotomized appearance, one can never count this particularly insidious mastermind down for the count, now can we?
As with all of M. Night Shyamalan's features, it is best to not divulge anything more than this basic plot description so as not to produce spoilers. While I am certain that many of you out there will not believe me and some of you may feel that I have gone out of my head, I'm telling you and I am sticking firmly by my assessment, as I sat and watched "Glass," I can honestly tell you that I was enormously entertained, engaged and even at times enthralled as Shyamalan again used his series, what is now being referred to as the "Eastrail #177 Trilogy," to inject vibrant new life into a film genre that desperately needs a fresher, and decidedly more unique perspective.
It has indeed been a long and strange journey from "Unbreakable" and "Split" to "Glass" regarding the cinematic landscape that surrounds all three films and in a way, "Glass" faces more than a bit of an uphill battle and not just from Shyamalan's hungry critics. Back in 2000, the superhero genre in film was essentially non-existent, or better yet, it was nothing approaching the box office behemoths those sorts of films receive today.
In true Shyamalan fashion, "Unbreakable" made my jaw hit the ground so powerfully in that film's final moments when he pulled back the curtain to reveal that what we had been watching, in addition to a moody, meandering, existential thriller was indeed a comic book superhero origin story, an odd conceit at that time. Yet now with "Glass," you are unable to throw a pebble and not hit 20 superhero themed movies and television programs, therefore any sense of novelty has been erased, threatening to make Shyamalan's film just another one in the more than overstuffed pack.
I have spent considerable time and energy over the years bemoaning the sheer amount of superhero themed material that has been, and is continuing to be, released in our theaters currently and I will spare you the rants once again. But I do bring it up for a specific reason in comparison with what I experienced with "Glass." What truly set M. Night Shyamalan's film miles apart from so many other in this specific genre is a singular point of view, which would then make for a wholly unique film experience, regardless if there were zero comic book themed film playing in our multiplexes or if there were 100.
For what we are seeing within the genre itself is a relative sameness that has now become as predictable as the sun rising each morning. By now, we understand how these films work, what they do, how they operate and what differentiates them is a matter of quality, so to speak. Not everything is able to be what Christopher Nolan accomplished with his "Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012), but, make no mistake, we are all receiving a brand that is dictated by certain qualities and aesthetics that are inherent to the genre, thus ensuring their continued financial success.
Yet, from a filmmaking standpoint, these sorts of films do indeed carry a certain directorial anonymity. Even the Marvel Comics films, as good as they are, are essentially anonymous works. Really, aside from Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" (2018), can you really speak of the artistic differences between say Kenneth Branagh's "Thor" (2011), Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015) and Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" (2016) and Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017)? No shade intended for any of those movies but I am expressing this thought to establish that the Marvel films have established a brand that dictates a particular lack of individualized artistic personality.
With "Glass" on the other hand, we are firmly placed into M. Night Shyamalan's cinematic universe and no one else's and he is representing no one other than himself, therefore automatically setting him and his film completely apart from all other films in the genre while also celebrating and often deconstructing and re-building the genre simultaneously. Working brilliantly alongside Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Composer West Dylan Thordson and his entire set design crew, Shyamalan has ensured that his film looks and honestly, sounds unlike any other film within the genre as he utilizes his trademark slow burn, dialogue heavy style to grand effect, keeping us all intensely focused and increasing unhinged due to the mounting, menacing developments within the story and characters.
Just regard how Shyamalan frames his action, never once falling into the ADD editing styles and CGI bombast that are now pre-requisites of the genre. He explicitly knows precisely what to reveal and when, just what should be left within the frame and what should be left out. Seemingly simple movement make for grand effects throughout "Glass" and I so appreciated the visual skill on display. To that end, I loved how color was used throughout the film as certain colors represented certain characters in a truly lush comic book fashion.
But all of those aesthetic touches would mean nothing without a story and I felt that Shyamalan was working in peak form with "Glass," allowing the film to serve as its own entity while also wrapping up a film trilogy is high style. As the titular Mr. Glass, Samuel L. Jackson is obviously having a delicious time portraying his evil genius, making him a figure to be feared as well as one to empathize with as his horrific actions speak to his existential crisis of discovering and living up to what he believes to be his life's purpose. Sometimes, there is nothing more joyous than seeing and hearing Samuel L. Jackson tear into a luxurious monologue and Shyamalan has not let him down by supplying him with several that flow as musically as ever.
Sarah Paulson struck a commanding yet deeply eerie presence as Dr. Staple, a figure who takes hold of the films lengthy mid-section as she attempts to convince all three figures that they are not who or what they each believe themselves to be. So focused Paulson is, again mastering Shyamalan's massive dialogue to the point where she was nearly convincing me that I had not seen what I know I had seen over the previous two films.
But James McAvoy, as with "Split," is a veritable hurricane to regard. Obviously thrilled with being completely let off of the chain as he tackles a whopping 24 personalities, McAvoy remains so beautifully in control of his acting powers, never losing focus and exploring his wonderful physicality throughout, making his body appear to magically shrink and even grow in size to complement the characters of the never aging 9 year old boy, the prim and proper older woman or the full horrifyingly ravenous force of the Beast.
Even Shyamalan seems to be gleefully rubbing his hands with his good fortune in casting James McAvoy as he has designed a couple of mesmerizing sequences that display McAvoy altering personalities in real time from one to the next, sometimes in a rapid succession. And every single time, McAvoy's transformations are complete, ensuring that we, in the audience, are seeing and fully understanding which persona poor Kevin has been possessed by. James McAvoy is absolutely...ahem...marvelous.
And finally, I loved how self-aware "Glass" happened to be, serving up a comic book story all the while knowing that it is a comic book story. For some, it may read as yet another example of M. Night Shyamalan's perceived rampant ego but for me, it was just good old fashioned storytelling at work. Storytelling that enveloped me and made me hungry to know what was coming next and how all three films connected explicitly, a quality I felt Shyamalan served to strong effect.
I know. I know. I am certain that many of you will remain unconvinced regardless of my words and may not even try to see this film. Or you may go anyway and hate it upon principle. I do understand that. Believe me, I think that Michael Bay, for instance is the death of cinema itself. But that being said, I am willing to give him a chance and give praise should I feel that anything he devised spoke to me positively.
So, I just ask the same of you regarding M. Night Shyamalan's "Glass," a riveting dark dream of a comic book tale presented in full, unapologetic, unrepentantly personalized style and substance.
Monday, January 7, 2019
Based upon the novel by James Baldwin
Written For The Screen and Directed by Barry Jenkins
**** (four stars)
A film of devastating beauty.
It has not been lost on me whatsoever, that within this purely exceptional cinematic year, we have been exuberantly presented with an unusually high amount of excellence regarding Black cinema. From superhero epics (Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther"), to children's fantasias (Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time"), to bare knuckled, high wire satires (Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You"), to crowd pleasing blockbusters (Steven Caple Jr.'s "Creed II"), to coming of age dramas (George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give") and of course, Spike Lee's blistering "BlacKKKlansman," 2018 truly delivered a cinematic spectrum pertaining to the Black Experience unlike anything I have seen in years past.
And now, as I have taken in Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk," his adaptation of the James Baldwin novel as well as his follow up to the Oscar Best Picture winning "Moonlight" (2016), not only has Black cinema received one of its highest achievements this year, the movies as a whole, and therefore all of us who love the movies, have been given what could only be considered to be a gift.
Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a work of visionary elegance, a sumptuous tone poem that simultaneously soars and plunges into the profoundly urgent yet tender heart of its central love story and the uncompromisingly dark heart and shameful indifference of America's relentless injustices. In what is unquestionably one of the year's most humane films, we also have one of its finest. It is just a privilege to see something as supremely artful as what Barry Jenkins has delivered to all of us.
Just as with the James Baldwin novel from which it is based, "If Beale Street Could Talk" takes place in Harlem during the early 1970's and centers itself around the relationship between the film's narrator, 19 year old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her 22 year old artist/fiancee Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James). Cherished best friends since childhood, now grown into committed lovers with hopes of beginning their adult lives together, which includes becoming parents to their unborn child, find themselves with dreams crucially deferred as Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, leaving Tish to endure her pregnancy without him.
While undoubtedly terrified, Tish and Fonny remain determined to not allow their love for each other to falter, even as jail eats away at Fonny's spirit. Meanwhile, Tish is surrounded and held upright by the tenacious love of her family, which includes her salt-of-the-Earth Father, Joseph (the excellent Colman Domingo), her fiercely compassionate Mother, Sharon (the inimitable Regina King) and her sharp tongued sister Ernestine (Teyonah Paris), each of whom all attempt to discover solutions to Fonny's plight and ultimately, get him freed.
Told in an exquisite, non-linear structure, Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a film that is decidedly and purposefully not in any hurry to reach any conclusions or destination. It is a work that unfolds luxuriously. Working in breathtaking tandem with Cinematographer James Laxton and most crucially with Composer Nicholas Britell's elegant, melancholic score, Jenkins has again delivered a stunning, languid film, an experience of expressionistic poetry fully designed for audiences to luxuriate themselves within the spoken and visual language as if one is sitting alone reading and fully digesting a series of sonnets.
Barry Jenkins is not interested in extolling an agenda, or even instructing the viewer how to think or feel. But with that, he has presented a work of pure artistry and aching empathy as his presentations of African-Americans' upended dreams merged completely with the persistence of hope, love, family and justice make the film as powerful a statement about being Black in America as any more incendiary works about the same subject matter.
In many ways, the film feels like a series of moments, or better yet, memories of moments, all played back to Tish, and therefore, to us in the audience, much like our own memories--almost determinedly refusing to run in the sequence in which they occurred in real life, but as some sort of mental patchwork as Tish tries to stitch together said moments in order to make greater sense of the tragedy that has only continued to exist and quite possibly may refuse to conclude.
In doing so, what we are given is the basis, strength and dogged endurance of the film's love story between Tish and Fonny. A walk in the rain after a meal in Spanish Harlem. The joy in, at long last, being accepted into renting and moving into the first real address of their young adult lives. Marveling at sharing baths together as small children to the realization of their deep and pure emotional connection as lovers. Making love for the first time in a basement apartment with raindrops clearly audible outdoors. Just the look of unending love from one set of eyes and soul to the other. To me, this was a cinematic love story that moved like Miles Davis' "Sketches Of Spain" (released July 18, 1960) and was as lush as the most colorful Picasso paintings.
Barry Jenkins doesn't just show us the love, he bathes us inside of it, through his peerless usage of color, lighting and the superlative work from his two leads, KiKi Layne and Stephen James, two actors that I am unfamiliar with yet will firmly keep my eyes open for from now own as their respective performances, weaved the dreamlike and a grounded, multi-layered quality that spoke to the romantic heights and the brutality of the injustice that kept them apart and solely through a racist fallacy and judicial system.
To that end, Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" could serve as a companion piece to both Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" (2013) and Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013), two films that deftly illustrate that for Blacks in America, we are never as free as we just may think or believe ourselves to be. That whatever freedoms that we may happen to possess can be taken away and even obliterated within an instant, leaving us trapped in worlds we never created for ourselves, with people who disregard our shared humanity for we are never seen as human beings, and that is if we are not extinguished altogether.
Through Tish, we are witnessing an awakening. Not to suggest that she is necessarily naive or viewers the world through rose colored glasses, especially considering the straightforward nature of her family. But, it is when she gradually moves from family to Fonny to the larger outside world that her worldview builds, is challenged and a greater realization and understanding is unearthed as a result.
A stunning sequence late in the film, as she is employed as the first Black female at a department store makeup counter, showcases her perceptiveness with how she is viewed and treated by Black and White male customers and the minute details revealed, and as riveting as they are, provide a window into the world of Black women that is, in essence, unseen in modern cinema and therefore unacknowledged in the real world for who else would know or empathize?
Tish's awakening is mirrored with or own as we view this film and to that end, connects us even greater to the love she holds for Fonny and the love he holds for her in return. Again, Jenkins simultaneously lifts us in its purity and crushing us in its adversity, an adversity that is delivered to a superior, haunting degree through the character of Daniel Carty (played by the enormously gifted Brian Tyree Henry from FX's "Atlanta"), an older friend of Fonny's, just released from his own falsely accused jail time. His monologue, which contains revelations about himself and his place as a Black man in a White world, is quietly shattering in its sobering reality and it rightfully hovers throughout the film afterwards as a cloud of sorrow.
It is this very awakening that permeates throughout the entirety of "If Beale Street Could Talk" as Barry Jenkins also gives us a front row seat into the diversity of the Black community from families that are more secular, to ones that are more religiously devout and the divide that exists in between. Social-political outlooks that are more conservative to liberal are presented as well, again showcasing the reality that African-Americans are not a monolithic unit who work as if within a hive, all holding beliefs of the same mind.
Yet, above all else, Jenkins celebrates the tenacity that exists within the love of the Black family, and therefore, the love that has afforded us our continued existence within a corrupt system that is designed for us to not survive. Love will find a way for working class Black Fathers to somehow find the money to pay the young Jewish attorney's legal fees to try and get Fonny released from prison. Love will find a way for a Black Mother to travel to Puerto Rico to hopefully confront the woman who wrongfully accused Fonny, thus having him arrested. And love will find a way to keep Fonny's soul alive behind bars when all hopes for release are running out. And even still, Jenkins is wise to question that for all love's power, is love ever really enough when faced with racist inhumanity?
By the film's end, I experienced this feeling of submergence. I just succumbed. I succumbed to the sheer weight of this transcendent experience that Barry Jenkins has devised. All of the pieces were finally in place and the reality settled itself into the Black American tragedy that has happened before, and now and for that matter, the future as well. For if we are unable to be viewed as equally worthy of life and love as our racial counterparts, will true freedom ever be achieved, regardless of the love we hold for each other, and especially when hope is lost?
Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" is an undeniable work of art, filmmaking excellence, Black or otherwise, at its most resplendent.
Tuesday, January 1, 2019
As the cinematic year of 209 begins, I am hoping that during this first month of the new year, I am able to move forwards and finish up some 2018 duties as well.
I could not be more excited about this film, the third installment in Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan's unorthodox, unexpected comic book saga, which began with "Unbreakable" (2000) and continued with "Split" (2017). Hopes are high for Shayamalan to pull this one out. Let's hope that he can do it.
I have been most anxious to see what Writer/Director Barry Jenkins would come up with to follow up his Oscar winning "Moonlight" (2016) and I believe that this coming weekend, the film will, at long last, arrive in my city.
And after I see that film, I will begin to compile my 2018 wrap up, the annual Savage Scorecard series, detailing my favorite and least favorite films of the year.
So, with that, please do have me in your thoughts and I will pledge to give you my very best. And as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!