If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Brian Banks


There is absolutely nothing like a mother’s love.

(2018) Sports Biography (Bleecker StreetAldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Libaud, Dorian Missick, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosia Roquemore, Gina Vento, Mytie Smith, Rick Vyper, Edward Parker, Charles Alexandre, Dean Denton, Mary Faulkner, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Kevin Yamada, Harrison Stone, Monique Grant, Elizabeth Donaldson. Directed by Tom Shadyac

 

There is little doubt that the American legal system is seriously broken. Justice seems to be the sole province of the wealthy and the white. Standards of proof seem to fluctuate depending on the color of one’s skin and the gender of the accuser.

Brian Banks (Hodge) is a 16-year-old kid with an incredible future before him. A star linebacker at Long Beach Poly high school, one of the premier high school football programs in the entire country, he has already been accepted to the University of Southern California and seems guaranteed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.

That rosy future is interrupted by an accusation of kidnapping and rape by a fellow Poly student (Roquemore). Banks is arrested and indicted, then his ineffective lawyer convinces him to accept a plea agreement that turns out to be a raw deal for Banks, sending him to prison for five years which would be followed by probation for an additional five years – plus being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Sounds pretty much like justice except for one thing; the rape never happened.

Banks struggles to prove his innocence, reaching out to Justin Barber (Kinnear), founder of the California Innocence Project who gently informs Banks that because he entered a no contest plea, the only way to get his conviction reversed is literally for his victim to recant her testimony.

Amazingly, Banks perseveres even though he is as much a prisoner on the outside as he was in prison. Nobody will hire a convicted sex offender and Banks isn’t allowed within a certain distance of public parks and schools. Every time it seems like Banks finds a ray of hope, some tough-on-crime politician rams through legislation that slams the door shut.

This is meant to be an uplifting, inspirational film about the power of perseverance and believing in one’s self and one’s dreams. Hodge delivers a star-making performance that carries the picture, holding his own nicely against stellar actors like Kinnear and Freeman (who plays a prison teacher whose platitudes help Banks find inner peace). While the true story is compelling enough, it is Hodge that most people will remember best after seeing this film.

Definitely the movie makes some commentary on the gulf in the justice system that exists between black and white. Had Banks been a white athlete, it’s likely that the accuser would not have been believed and even if the case went to trial, the perpetrator would have gotten a slap on the wrist if he did any time at all. Boys will be boys, but African-American boys will be criminals – at least that’s how our legal system apparently sees things.

In the #MeToo era there is a bit of tone deafness about this project. False rape accusations are relatively rare and more often than not, accusers are treated with disbelief and scorn, often being blamed for their own assault. Even though this is a true story, it’s not a typical one and the movie really doesn’t address that.

Still, Banks is an inspirational person and watching Hodge absolutely nail his performance is a treat. That the plot gets a bit maudlin especially in the last half of the film doesn’t help matters. The real Brian Banks couldn’t have asked for a better performance to capture his life; he certainly could have asked for a better movie to frame it.

REASONS TO SEE: Hodge delivers the performance of his career.
REASONS TO AVOID: The script gets a bit soapy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a certain amount of profanity, as well as some adult thematic content and accompanying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least eight of Banks’ teammates on the Long Beach Poly team eventually played professional football either for the NFL or overseas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Seaside

Lockout (2012)


Lockout

There can never be too much fog on a space station.

(2012) Science Fiction (FIlmDistrict) Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Jacky Ido, Tim Plester, Mark Tankersley, Anne-Solenne Hatte, Peter Hudson, Nick Hardin, Dan Savier. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger

 

When the President’s daughter is stranded on a space station full of psychotic criminals, that can just ruin your whole day, especially when you’re a top government agent falsely accused of espionage and murder. Or at least, so goes the popular thinking.

That’s the kind of day Snow (Pearce) is having. No first name by the way – just Snow. He’s got a briefcase that the CIA wants badly, particularly director Langral (Stormare). He’d watched Snow murder a friend and fellow agent with his own eyes and take a briefcase of secrets away for sale to the…well, whoever the Americans are battling with in 2079.

He manages to get it in the hands of Mace (Plester) before getting arrested. He gets a nice beating from a thug named Rupert before finding out he’s got a one-way ticket to MS-One, the maximum security low Earth orbit prison where prisoners are kept in cryogenic sleep for the duration of their sentences.

Now, the President’s daughter Emilie Warnock (Grace) happens to be on MS-One at that very moment on a fact-finding mission to determine the validity of rumors that prisoners are being abused which when you think about it is kind of bizarre – how do you abuse someone who’s frozen?

As it turns out, a somewhat overeager Secret Service agent (Ido) disobeys prison rules and brings a gun into an interview with a prisoner who’s been awakened just for the purpose and of course he manages to secure it from the agent and get free, setting loose all the other prisoners in the process.

Alex (Regan), a Jeffrey Dean Morgan look-alike, is the leader of the little revolt (his little brother Hydell (Gilgun) is the scumbag who set the others free) and he doesn’t realize that he has the president’s daughter at first being a little bit out of touch with the political landscape. Cryonic suspension will do that to you. That’s an advantage the powers-that-be know won’t last forever. They need to send someone up there to fetch her – but the prison is well-defended. An army couldn’t get in there without killing everyone in it – but one man…one man…

Guess who that one man is? Just call me Snake…I mean, Snow. Yeah, remember him from three paragraphs ago? That guy. His boss Shaw (James) doesn’t believe a word of the whole espionage and murder thing, thinks that the only guy for the job is Snake…I mean Snow. So why not send him in there? Of course, he’s got a prison full of psychotic rapists, murderers and psychopaths but that’s not unlike a session of Congress no? Anyway, he agrees to go when he discovers Mace has been caught and sent to MS-One…sounds like  Microsoft app doesn’t it? Anyway, Snake…I mean Snow has another reason to head up there other than to rescue the progeny of the man who is sending him to jail. Well, figuratively.

This is the latest from producer Luc Besson (whose The Lady which he directed is in limited release even as we speak) and more along the lines which he’s traditionally associated with – taut action films with genre leanings. This is on the sci-fi lines. Besson came up with the idea and turned it over to St. Leger and Mather who make the most of it.

One of the brightest ideas was to cast Pearce. He is clearly having fun with his role as the wise-cracking Snow, delivering quips as easily as a sci-fi James Bond. Snow is more of a Snake Plissken type – that just keeps coming up doesn’t it – he’s not nearly as suave as the British superspy, but he makes up for it with easygoing self-confidence. This could easily be a franchise character, although the box office numbers don’t really justify it to date. However, since the movie was so inexpensive to produce (only $40 million at the box office gets it to profitability and it hasn’t been released in many overseas territories yet) being shot as it mostly was in Serbia, well, could still turn out okay.

The movie borrows liberally from a number of sources, including the aforementioned (well afore-referred to) Escape from New York as well as dozens of other prison break movies and sci-fi actioners. There is even a clever underhanded reference to Escape director John Carpenter’s early cult film Dark Star (kudos if you get what it is) near the end of the film, making this a semi-homage to Carpenter; if Michael Myers had popped up in a mask among the prisoners it might have made for a perfect Carpenterama.

That’s all forgivable. IF you’re going to steal, steal from the best I always say. However the plot makes some pretty laughable leaps in logic, defying physics and common sense (who would have a gunfight in a space station? one stray bullet can really suck). The infuriating thing is that with a little imagination, the writer/directors could have easily stuck to their internal logic and made for a more exciting movie – or even a movie that made more sense.

Don’t get me wrong though – the reason to see this movie is because it’s fun and action packed and this one is those things. It has a terrific lead – who knew that Guy Pearce could be a great action hero? – and an attractive Maggie Grace in the heroine role. It won’t make any top ten lists and it might not even stick to your memory for more than an hour or two, but you’ll have fun while you’re watching it and that’s really all you can ask for from a movie like this.

REASONS TO GO: Pierce has great fun with what could easily have been a cliché role. Fun and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Some terribly long leaps in logic. Borrows a little too heavily from other films.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence and a fair share of bad language. There are a few sexual references but nothing sexual per se.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The brothers are named Alex and Hydell. Lee Harvey Oswald used the alias Alek Hidell at one time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fortress

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION LOVERS: The Space Station gets its own cameo appearance in the film which may cause a bit of consternation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Salt of Life