If Beale Street could talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk

Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James)

There is so much rarity that oozes out of If Beale Street could talk that at times it is hard to describe. Here is a romantic drama that does not rely on fantasies or hopes but on the pluses and minuses of reality. No other tag line has rung more true for a 2018 film: “Trust love all the way”.

Based off the book (which I am hoping to read soon) by James Baldwin and written for the screen by director Barry Jenkins (whose last film, Moonlight, won the Oscar for Best Picture), we meet the young lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso (Stephan James), or “Fonny”. She is 19. He is 22. They have known each other since they could take their first bath together as kids. Their lives in  New York are marred with troubles, but they remain faithful, even when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Things get a little more complicated when we find out that Tish is pregnant. While her family is supportive, his family is…well, to say they are against it is putting it very mildly. The scene between the two families sets the absolute mood of the film.

The movie is told sometimes in flashback (as told by Tish), showing her relationship with Fonny before his arrest. The rest shows their attempts to get Fonny out of jail, but certain complications arise (and they don’t come cheap). Thankfully, Tish has very supporting parents. While her  dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) is there for his daughter, it is clearly the mother, Sharon (Regina King) who is the should Tish leans on the most. Every scene King is in explodes with talent, proving she is a strong contender for best supporting actress in the next few months. That would not be the films only nomination, as it also has possibly the best musical score I have heard in 2018.

The film also supplies other strong performances, but the crystal clear heart of the film is the chemistry between the two young leads. Layne plays Tish as soft-spoken, but not one who will let you step on her toes. James allows us to see Fonny (as Tish hopes all call him) as a young man who knows the hardships of life, but still is kind-hearted.

Parents, the movie is rated R, and should be. While there is a lot of swearing (including racial slurs), there is not much violence. There is, however, one of the more longer sex scenes (nearly five to seven minutes) that occurs and has nudity. Mature High Schoolers and up.

There are some parts of the movie that seem a little off (I am not sure yet how I feel about the trip that Tish’s mother makes, despite how undoubtably heartfelt it is), and the outcome of the movie may not be for everyone. I was fine with it. The message was simple: Even in the worst of circumstances, you must, in all honesty, trust love. All the way.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate u give

After the death of her childhood friend, Starr’s life is forever changed.

It did not take long to see how preachy The Hate U Give would be, let alone how well-timed it has been released. I admit it took me a while to realize that maybe, just maybe, it needs to be preachy. It’s message is clear, and, for the most part, delivers it well.

No small part of that revolves around its main young star (pun intended) Amandla Stenberg (who, once upon a time, was Rue of The Hunger Games). She is Starr, who lives in one very run down neighborhood with her family. She informs us she was “nine years old when she had the talk” from her dad Mav (Russell Hornsby), about the statutes of the black panthers (not the Wakanda kind).

Flash forward to present day, where she goes to a private school (mostly white) since the public school is only a setting of chaos and trouble. She tries to live two separate lives, acting as “non-ghetto” as she can, even around her two friends Maya (Megan Lawless) and Hailey (former Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter). She even tries the act in front of her boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), who is not your typical movie boyfriend (which is a compliment).

One night, while at a party in her home neighborhood, she reunites with Khalil (Algee Smith), one of her best friends growing up (and first crush). Tragedy strikes when, after the party, he is pulled over and shot dead by a cop. The movie (based off of the book by Angie Thomas, which I will need to read soon) is far too smart to be about whether this cop is going to be arrested. It is far more than that.

There is grounded wisdom and solace that Starr gets mainly from her parents, which are played nicely by Hornsby and Regina Hall. We get also so very nice subtle work by Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the MCU) as the feared leader King, who once worked with Mav before the latter left it all behind. There is also Mav’s police officer brother Carlos, played by Common. Starr’s siblings are also nicely played, with Lamar Johnson as Seven, and TJ Wright as Sekani.

Parents, I have heard that the book does have some sexual content in it. There is not much of that here, aside from some kissing and mention of one character trying to have sex with a girl and failing (nothing shown). The PG-13 rating is mainly for the violence, swearing, and (most of all) the thematic situations. High School and up (maybe mature middle schoolers).

As stated before, the movie does get to be rather preachy at times. Perhaps I was just thinking a little too much of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, which may be unfair to compare this film to (or almost any film to). Director George Tillman Jr. does do a fine job with direction and pacing, and the film does give more proof that young Amandla Stenberg is a light that will only get brighter as her career progresses.

It is as timely a movie as any out there right now, so yeah, it is definitely worth the watch.

Overall: Four Stars ****

 

First Man (2018)

First Man

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the First Man in line of the first day of training at NASA.

It should be noted from the get go that Neil Armstrong did make it to the moon and became the first human to walk on the surface. It is not a spoiler, since we all know that going in, but as a way of saying how wonderful the film First Man really is. There are many areas of tension throughout that we need to remember it will be okay for Armstrong in the end, even if it seems like the odds are impossible, which they probably were close to.

Director Damien Chazelle (fresh off his Oscar win for La La Land) has made a movie that truly is on par with classics like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. With a screenplay by Josh Singer (who won an Oscar for Spotlight) that is based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man starts off where it should: high above ground. We meet Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he is in the mist of being an engineer and pilot. After suffering a blow to his family, we see him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, the recent Emmy winner of The Crown) as he is chosen (along with many others) to be the pilots to help NASA reach the moon before the Russians.

Others in the cast include Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke as Ed White, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (the role Tom Hanks played in Apollo 13), Lukas Haas as Mike Collins, and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. This is just a handful of a supporting cast who bring an unsung backbone to the film’s success.

As the main role, Ryan Gosling gives a rather subdued, yet powerful performance. This, of course, is because Armstrong was known to be a very humbled, quiet man (unlike Buzz Aldrin, which Corey Stoll plays perfectly). It is also a crucial move for Gosling since the performance by Claire Foy as his wife is much more direct and demanding. It is most clear in scenes such as her yelling at Slayton for turning off her radio, and when she is telling her husband not that he should talk to their sons before the mission, but that he will talk to their sons. Like Gosling, Foy gives Oscar caliber work.

However, the one I feel who deserves the most praise is Chazelle. After Whiplash and La La Land, it is clear as day that this guy is one of the best young talents in film today. I read a user review of the film online saying how the movie was too slow, which is ludicrous. Patience is something any movie goer must have to appreciate film as an art, and the pacing of the film here is pitch perfect (it hardly seemed to drag, even at two hours and twenty-one minutes. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (also a La La Land Oscar winner) gives us not the light we as an audience would need, but the light the characters would have (in other words, he basically seems to use natural light). This is one of many reasons why First Man makes you feel as much as an astronaut as a film has. In Armstrong’s Gemini mission, there is one sequence that has stayed with me more than anything from the film, particularly one sound effect. This and the rest of the sound effects are as spine chilling as those I witnessed when I saw The Exorcist.

Parents, there is no sexual content at all (aside from some kissing). There is some swears (one, maybe two F bombs), and a lot of thematic material (especially with the result of the one main Apollo mission that ended tragically). Still, I would like to believe Middle Schoolers and up would be totally fine with this film.

I conclude with a plea. Recently, First Man had gotten a lot of negative press because the moon landing did not feature Armstrong planting the American Flag on the moon (I still like the fact that Gosling found it humourous that he is Canadian). There are plenty of shots of American flags in the film, and we do see the flag on the moon as well (though not the actual planting of it). It is up to you if you want to miss this film because of one minor thing that they left out. If you still insist on not seeing it, I would say undoubtably that you are missing one extraordinary film experience.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

To All the Boys I've loved before

There is palpable chemistry between Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter (Noah Centineo)

There are a good number of rarities that occur in director Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018). Such include teenagers that act like actual teenagers,  well talented acting youths, and a Netflix original that is actually enjoyable (unlike their recent film The Kissing Booth, which I would review if I could ever power myself through the thing).

But back to this film. Based off of a book of the same name by Jenny Han, the movie introduces us to Lara Jean (an extremely lovable Lana Condor). She is entering her Junior year of High School after her sister Margot (Janel Parrish) has left for college, leaving Lara Jean with her widowed dad (the always wonderful John Corbett), her little sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), and next door neighbor/former best friend Josh (Israel Broussard). I say former not because they grew apart, but because he was the former boyfriend of Margot, so a friendship would be difficult at best.

Since about the pre-teen years, we learn that Lara Jean has kept letters she has written to certain boys she has had crushes on over the years (Josh being one of them). Kitty finds out about the letters and mails them out. This is not because of Kitty being a mean, bratty little sibling. It is because she loves her sister and that love trumps over Kitty not knowing her sister will have a hard time for the near future.

While some recipients are no longer on the table (such as her freshman year homecoming date Greg who is gay, played by Andrew Bachelor), the main drama comes with Peter (Noah Centineo). He was Lara Jean’s first “kiss” during a spin the bottle game in seventh grade, and has just recently broken up with one of Lara Jean’s former friends Gen (Emilija Baranac).  Peter and Lara Jean therefore come up with an idea: pretend to be dating so that it makes Gen jealous enough to take him back. Of course, a couple of ground rules must be put in order (such as no kissing).

While one of the keys of the film is Condor’s screen presence, another is her chemistry with Centineo’s Peter. The main scene for me was in the local diner, where they actually stop “pretending” and have a serious talk (we learn Peter’s dad had left him and has a new family now). That scene made me realize how this movie was going to be much better than anticipated.

One thing that threw me off was I realized there was more romance in this romantic comedy than there would be comedy. That is not to say I did not laugh: much of the comedic lines comes from Lara Jean’s best friend Chris (Madeleine Arthur), who is a strong personality to say the least. There is also a great deal of coming of age ness that made me feel some shades of John Hughes. The movie truly digs deep into the realism of those first few stages we feel when it is not just us falling in love, but the other falling in love with us.

Parents, there is some swearing (not sure if I counted any F bombs), and talk of sex. While there is no sex in the film, there is a hot tub scene where two characters are making out and is (minor spoiler) mistaken as sex. I would say High School and above, but maybe Middle School. Maybe.

I am still not sure I like the title of the film. I know it is based on a book (which is in a series), but I just felt the title seems off-putting. Nevertheless, when you consider some of the bad original films that Netflix has (like the awful Irreplaceable You), it makes it all the more reason to state that To All the Boys I Loved Before is truly a diamond in the rough.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars ***1/2

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Blackkklansman

Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is somewhat suckered into Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) plan of infiltrating the local branch of the KKK.

It should come as no surprise that the brilliance of BlacKkKlansman is mainly because it is made by Spike Lee. Not only could this movie be made well by another director, but I don’t think any other director would have guts to make it.

Set in the 1970s, the film tells the true story of a new African-American police officer in Colorado (which I never once thought of as being a state with racism) named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, real life son of Denzel). After some time of working in the records room, he gets his chance at going undercover. He eventually finds himself convincing a KKK member (Ryan Eggold) to give him a chance at becoming a member. It is here where he enlists Flip (Adam Driver) to cover for him in the person to person meetings, while Ron handles the phone conversations. It works so well they even get to convincing the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (a nearly unrecognizable Topher Grace, and not just because he has a mustache). There is also a side romance between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), a local college student known for being vocal about her race.

If reading this review (or seeing the trailer) has made you feel a little guilty on laughter, don’t worry, because there will be a lot of it. The characters know they are in a situation that is ludicrous, but go thru it anyway. There are many characters that do come across as somewhat stereotypical, mainly that of the married couple Felix and Connie (Jasper Paakkonen and Ashlie Atkinson, respectfully). Still, there are others who do actually seem like they are right in their life choices, even if that is racism.

All the acting is stellar. Washington does show some signs of his (arguably more famous) dad, but still makes it his own performance. I am now becoming more and more convinced that Adam Driver will be able to have a much more standout career as a talented actor and not just the guy who killed Han Solo (I would say spoiler, but you should know this by now). One of the most dramatic moments comes when two characters are making speeches. The first is David Dukes (again, was that really Topher Grace?), and the second is an old African-American survivor telling his story of racism. He is played by Harry Belafonte, who gives a prime example of making a great scene out of little screen time.

Parents, the movie is, of course, rated R (as almost every Spike Lee film is). There is no sexual scenes (just talking) and some violence. The R rating is mainly due to the language (mainly the N word, which is spouted an infinite number of times). I would say High School and above, but I should mention I did see at least one child in my screening who could not have been more than ten years old.

Now to the ending of the film, which is one that will be talked about for a long time. True, it does get political (it should not surprise us how Lee would feel about President Trump, especially when you see the cameo in the first five minutes of the film). Nevertheless, the film does end the way it should, stating that this problem of racism and hatred is still rampant today, and is right in front of our eyes.

Kind of reminds me of that quote from Rodney King.

Overall: Five Stars *****

My Left Foot (1989)

My Left Foot

Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis), feeling proud of stealing coal.

 

As someone who is a dominate right-handed person, I can’t imagine doing anything with just one foot, but the left foot by itself is unthinkable. Yet that is what Christy Brown had to do for his life. He did not live to see My Left Foot (he died in 1981), his story is still one that resonates today, not just because he had cerebral palsy, but because (like everyone) he had more than his fair share of character flaws.

That is not to say he wasn’t extraordinary. Born into a traditional (and large) Irish family in 1930s Dublin, we see the story of Brown in flashbacks as the grown up Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at an event celebrating his memoir. He shares his book with a newly met Nurse, Mary (Ruth McCabe). At first, it is her eyes we see the life of Christy, but then we find ourselves seeing it thru his eyes.

It is beyond frustrating at first for the adolescent Christy (Hugh O’Conor). He has a caring family and siblings, though his father (Ray McAnally, who passed away after filming concluded) is not the best at showing his love. The one clear rock in Christy’s life is his mother (Brenda Fricker), as shown in the brilliant scene when he communicates with his first word, “Mother”.

As a young man, Christy learns the many things we all do: sports, first love, heart ache, and self discovery. A lot of this is also shown in Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), who takes a huge interest in Christy and his art.

No review of this movie would be complete with out mention of the acting. Perhaps the only bad thing one could say about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is that it overshadows that of Hugh O’ Conor’s. Both are extraordinary, making it seem like one performance instead of two. Still, this is the film that brought people’s attention to Day-Lewis (it won him his first of a record three Best Actor Oscars).

The film won another Oscar for Brenda Fricker as Best Supporting Actress, who is stellar. It is clear that, without her, Brown would never have been able to be fueled to do all he accomplished. Still, as is the case in every movie he has been in, Daniel Day-Lewis showed us for the first time (and many times after) why he is one of the greatest film actors we have ever had (and if you don’t believe me, just look at the making of this movie and how in character he was. He was carried around the set when the cameras were off).

Parents, the movie is rated R. There is one bit of nudity (young boys see a nude photo in a book, and talk about sex). The main aspect though is swearing. I would say High School and above (though some mature middle schoolers may be okay at seeing it).

Had Christy not been flawed as a human, I doubt the movie would work as well as it did. To put it bluntly, he is no Helen Keller. I would say he is prickly, but that is understating it. Still, My Left Foot is a true inspiration of what the human spirit can accomplish, and a great study in how moving a performance can be.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

 

 

Molly’s Game (2017)

Molly's Game

In court, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) with attourney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba)

With the exception of Tarantino, I can’t think of anyone who does electric dialogue like Aaron Sorkin, and it shows in his directorial debut, Molly’s Game. True, there is a good amount that is hard to follow, but it is so palpable that you can’t turn away from it.

Based off the book of the same name, the film tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic skier who finds a way to make money by hosting poker games. The film splits between the story in the book (narrated by Bloom), and the events two years later after her arrest by the FBI. She searches for an attorney, and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  Jaffey is only part way through her book, but when he decides to become her lawyer, he mentions how he now needs to finish it.

We see how Bloom’s life has been hard from the get go. A demanding father (a wonderful Kevin Costner) who was also her coach at a young age, he pushed her even after a disease required her to have spinal surgery at the age of 12. It is only after an accident of pure chance during the Olympic qualifying rounds that her skiing days are truly over.

At first, I thought the narration by Chastain was a little too much, but I realized how essential it was. I have played a good amount of poker games in my life (not professionally), but the film reminded me how little I knew about the game in general (mainly the terms I never heard of).

For privacy sake, Bloom decides not to mention the real names of any of the players (who range from hollywood stars to politicians), though there has been speculation as to who they are. Some include Player X (Michael Cera), one of the best around, and Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), who still manages to make money even when he is one of the worst players imaginable.

The tension between Elba and Chastain is some of the best non-romantic chemistry I have seen in an acting duo in some time. It is like a game of ping-pong with words. It is no wonder that the real Molly Bloom said she wanted Chastain to play her.

Parents, the movie is rated R mainly for swearing (and there is a lot of it). There is no sex or nudity, but the female characters do wear a lot of revealing clothing. There is also one scene of a violent assault. High School and above.

Perhaps what I liked most about the movie was the character traits of Molly. She is not the type we would associate with as a villain. She needs to make money, but (for the most part) does so in a near ethical way. We know there were some slip ups, but her heart is in the right place. Thankfully, the same could be same for Sorkin.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has Treacher Collins syndrome, starts his first day of school.

There are many reasons why Wonder hit home for me, but the biggest has to be because I am such a supporter of anything that has to do with anti-bullying. As a small, autistic child with a larger sized head (“Big head” was a huge nickname for me as a child), it is easy to see why I was picked on as a kid. If only Wonder had come out two decades earlier (Note: I did have friends as a child so don’t feel too sad for me or anything.)

Based off of the book by R.J. Palacio (which I highly recommend), the film centers on August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, from Room). After being home schooled by his mom  Isabel (Julia Roberts) and having 27 surgeries, the time has come for him to attend public school. It is the first year of middle school for all fifth graders, so Isabel thinks now is the best time, despite the doubts from her husband Nate (Owen Wilson). Both walk him to school on his first day, along with his older sister Olivia “Via” (Izabela Vidovic).

We have learned that Auggie has already met at least a few kids, as well as the principal Mr. Tushman (“I have heard all the jokes”), played perfectly by Mandy Patinkin. There are some who just revel in bullying poor Auggie, such as Julian (Bryce Gheisar), but others who eventually warm up to him, mainly Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis). Both Davis and Jupe are rather sensational.

If you have read the book, you know that it is divided into sections that are not just narrated by Auggie, but by other friends and family members. I was not sure how the film would have approached this, but it does so wonderfully (though some parts do seem a little jumbled). Some may think subplots like that of Via (who goes to her own school across town) and her time in the drama club would seem off base, but it is still essential to the film as a whole. Her potential romance with Justin (Nadji Jeter) is as sweet a budding relationship as they come.

All the cast is spot on. To start with, there were times I was watching Owen Wilson as the dad and forgetting we are looking at the same guy from movies with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. It is truly one of Wilson’s best performances. Of course, Julia Roberts is pitch perfect as the mom, as are all the rest of the adult cast (including Daveed Diggs as Mr. Browne).

Still, it is the young cast that shines the most. The kids don’t act over the top like you would expect in a Disney Channel show, but like real kids (though there is no swearing, so as to keep the movie at PG). Even small roles like that of Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), Via’s best friend, are played with depth and insight.

In the end though, it all goes down to Tremblay as Auggie. Ever since his huge breakout performance in 2015’s Room (which I still feel he was snubbed for at the Oscars), I knew he had a big career ahead of him. Now, more people will be able to see him in Wonder and jump on board. The kid is a born natural actor.

Parents, it has been quiet some time since I have seen a great, non-animated family film. It put a smile on my face that the majority of audience members were kids. There is no sex or nudity (some kissing), and next to no swearing (I think I heard “crap” only once). Basically, I would say ages 7 and up are not only okay with seeing this film, but should see the film.

In a nutshell, Wonder is a pure heart warmer, one that will inspire a lot of discussion in families long after the credits role (Note: I am not a parent, but I would assume a lot of parents will say there are some things the kids do that are not right, such as helping a friend cheat on a test, or fighting.) While Wonder is not my favorite movie of the year, I have a feeling that, when the time comes to make my top ten films of 2017, I will be fighting hard for Wonder to have a spot on the list.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Shining (1980)

The Shining

Danny (Danny Lloyd) comes across the creepiest cinema twins in history.

“A big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside.”

This is how author Stephen King has described the Stanley Kubrick film version of The Shining. Of course, not all movies based off of movies will make the author happy (like P.L. Travers, who strongly disliked the Disney version of her literary character Mary Poppins).  Still, this review is coming from someone who has not (as of now) read the original material. I saw the film first around the age of twelve, not knowing it was based on a book. From that perspective, I found it terrifying.

The story is rather well-known: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a former teacher who takes his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), in his only screen performance) to the Overlook Hotel to be the caretakers for five months. A (somewhat) recovering alcoholic, Jack is determined to being secluded in order to help finish his writing. He is so optimistic he does not seem to mind that one of the former caretakers butchered his family before killing himself, or that the hotel was built on an indian burial ground.

The other element being brought to the stay at the Hotel is the peculiar Danny, who has the ability to “shine” (see the future, and read the minds of others who can do the same). The only other we see who can do this is the Hotel’s cook, Hallorann, (Scatman Crothers). It is he who informs Danny (as well as us) nothing good resides from room 237 (more on that later).

There is one thing that King does say positive about the movie, and that is the visual appeal. This is no real surprise, as the movie was directed by film icon Stanley Kubrick (known to be as much a perfectionist as anyone behind the camera). If you were to choose any shot from The Shining and say it was your “choice”, it would be hard to argue regardless of what it was. Whether it is Jack in the doorway shouting his famous “Heeere’s Johnny!”, any visuals of the hedge maze, the long unblinking stare of Jack, the red bathroom, the elevator full of blood, or the hallway showing the creepiest twins in film history.

“Come play with us Danny.”

Chills.

Parents, it should come as absolutely no surprise that this film is not for kids. Besides the obvious creepy scenes and swearing, there is one main scene of nudity that does take place in room 237 (as well as some nude pictures, and a brief scene in a bed room that is far more creepy than sexual). In other words, unless you have the most mature middle schooler, High School and above.

Perhaps if I do read the original book, I will be able to see more of what King dislikes about the movie (he did not approve of the casting of Nicholson or Duvall). The movie came out with mixed reviews, so much so that it got two Razzie nominations: Duvall for worst actress and (believe it or not) Kubrick for worst director (you read it right). Time, of course, is always the best judge of movies, and The Shining still stands as one of the best horror films. It has layers that can keep being peeled away (the ending is for sure going to raise questions upon every viewing) and you still are not sure what to expect. Anytime a movie does that, it is something special.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****