Commentary on Deadline Article on “Moonlight”

Yesterday, an ILC reader brought something to my attention that amazed and excited me in equal measure. So much so I decided to take a short break from my other drafts to wax poetic about what I read; it concerns the international market success for the Oscar-nominated film Moonlight, which I reviewed late last year.

For proper context, I enlist you to read the article on Deadline.com titled ‘Moonlight’ Shines At International Box Office As A24 Grows Offshore Biz Model.

As you will see in the article, a deliberate and strategic effort has been put in place by the film’s director (Barry Jenkins) and distributor (A24) to generate commercial success overseas, in spite of the subject matter and not having any star power that would normally be a draw for international audiences.

What I find fascinating in reading between the lines of this piece is that in addition to the above, there is the factor worth noting – Moonlight is a film which centers on African American lives.

Although the tide does seem to be shifting a bit in recent years, for quite some time I have read about the challenges film and television studios have had when trying to sell or promote their products that prominently feature casts of color. The conclusion being that there just isn’t a market for this “niche” piece of filmmaking overseas. The implied impact, of course, being that if you can’t repeat the domestic success abroad, one must consider carefully any future development projects that fit this profile. Now in the case of Moonlight, there is the recognition that because of the critical/awards successes and high profile it has received, the film’s cache increases as it enters the worldwide box office. Other films, unfortunately, might not be so lucky.

But if this article proves anything, is that with a little creative marketing strategy, the full-throated support of the studio and a general faith in a discerning and sophisticated movie audience, many films can find their footing outside of the United States.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016/7)

Where does one begin with this amazing documentary and make no mistake – let’s get that out of the way – this is an AMAZING documentary that I recommend everyone seek and discover.

In these uncertain times, I have often found myself at a loss of words on how to articulate exactly what I feel as I look at the world around me. On that level alone, the Academy Award ®-nominated I Am Not Your Negro could not have come at a more perfect time. After watching this documentary, I felt as if many others and myself are given a voice through the eloquent thoughtful words of James Baldwin.

Based on a 30-page manuscript from an abandoned 1979 project wherein Baldwin set out to detail a personal account of the lives and deaths of friends and civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the project never went past these few pages, they are more than enough to be brought to life through the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

The eloquence of the spoken words is accompanied with a wonderful visual language that director Raoul Peck has chosen to broaden out this original story to examine race relations in America.

As someone who (obviously) loves the language of film, I must say this cinematic technique was really put to good use. Archival interviews featuring Baldwin, photographs of the past and present, clips from classic Hollywood films, as well as contemporaneous images chronicling current events are beautifully woven to tell a story that is both very personal as well as serve a larger narrative purpose.

Often when you watch a documentary film, one tries to decipher what the central thesis of the work is. As the story revealed itself to me, I almost immediately registered that the filmmakers are trying to drive home one simple fact: history is not the past, it is now. Sure, some events may have happened in the past and as such, are a matter of record in the present. But never forget – the events of the past are alive and all around us, informing us as we journey through our lives. And sure enough, as the film neared its conclusion at 90 minutes, Baldwin in his own words said very much the same thing as if speaking to the audience from whatever realm he currently inhabits.

And given the dour circumstances and moments the documentary captured, there is a lovely and emotional chord of optimism struck at the end.

I Am Not Your Negro is an instructive and masterful work that will touch your heart and mind with its powerful message.

Fences (2016) – from the Great White Way to the Silver Screen

Many years ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform the August Wilson play Fences on Broadway. Fast forward a few years later, imagine my surprise (?) when news came out that they would be reprising their roles for the big screen. Of course, the cynical side of me immediately went to this being the ideal awards-bait. This status was further assured when the release date was announced. Would I allow this cynicism to deter me from seeing what is sure to be a cinematic display of tour-de-force acting (which it was, by the way)? Well, obviously I am writing about it, so I did not let this transient thought dissuade me one bit.

With a screenplay from the late playwright August Wilson and directed by star Washington, Fences is part six of Wilson’s ten-part saga (“The Pittsburgh Cycle”), which chronicles the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century.

Set in the late 1950’s, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh sanitation employee married to Rose (Davis), devoted wife and mother to their teenage child Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is a former Negro League baseball player who showed a great deal of promise until his life takes an ill-fated turn. It is this life-altering event which forever changes Troy and leaves him with a great deal of “bitterness,” a bitterness which becomes more apparent as our story progresses.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. By all accounts, given the time and circumstances under which they live, the Maxsons have a rather ordinary and stable home life, which includes visits from Troy’s recently departed (from their shared home) disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, reprising his stage role) and Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russel Hornsby, reprising his stage role) from a previous marriage. Another member of the extended Maxson clan is Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his stage role), Troy’s coworker and best friend.

As earlier mentioned, eventually the combined impact of Troy’s feelings about the course of his life and a myriad of forces from the outside world collide and manifest themselves, impacting the internal life of the family; I will leave it to you to see how fences come into play.

Beyond the literal and/or figurative meaning of “fences,” we have a dynamic family drama which unfolds beyond our eyes. Maybe because of my nearly seven-year separation from seeing the stage production, I was able to simply watch and enjoy without playing that mental game of “checking off the plot points.” Not doing this allowed more than a handful of scenes to really pack a punch and emotionally resonate with me.

One thing that always makes or breaks a movie adaptation of a stage play for me is the way in which the environment that surrounds the central action is presented on screen. In other words, how much the “visual world” of the story is represented on film. At its worst, it can go either the direction of being too isolated (maintaining the “single set” feeling stage plays are generally confined to) or go way too big – this usually feels like the film production is all too aware of matters of scale and therefore attempts to remedy this by expanding the movie to what they perceive will make it better suited for the cinema. Fences strikes this balance quite well. In fact, such a personal, intimate family drama lends itself to this visual storytelling.

One final point I had made note to point out as I reviewed Fences was the physicality of Mr. Washington. This is more a credit to how well he has aged over the years than anything else in my opinion, but I do remember thinking to myself as I watched the stage show, that he looked a little young in the role. So fast forward to the film adaptation, and I have to say that just the look of him really seemed to suit the character of a world-weary Troy Maxson much better.

As I reflect on these words, I really did not anticipate that this post was going to heavily rely on me comparing my stage and screen experiences, but I guess that was inevitable, especially as I enjoyed each in its particular medium. Not sure when (and if) this play will ever return to the Great White Way, but in case it doesn’t I highly recommend you take the opportunity to catch it at your local movie theater.

Sing Street (2016)

Maybe somewhere buried in this blog (or maybe not), I have talked about my unwavering love of music from the 1980s. Hands down and without a doubt it is a favorite period of mine. Just talking about the sounds of the era automatically fill me up with a sense of nostalgia.

I guess some of my friends know me and my penchant for this period well enough because it is a mate of mine who recommended I watch the film I will be discussing (Sing Street). And boy, I am very glad I took her up on her recommendation 🙂

Sing Street, which made its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, is written and directed by John Carney (Once, Begin Again). Set in 1985 Dublin, this musical/drama/comedy tells the story of teenaged Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose life is turned upside down when he is told by his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) that due to money problems, he will have to leave his tuition fee-paying school and enroll in a local state (free) school, Synge Street CBS (Carney was a former pupil here).

Almost immediately, he finds himself on the wrong side of things with the school bully (Ian Kenny) as well as with the hard-nosed school principal, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).

At the same time, Conor makes an immediate connection with a beautiful yet mysterious young woman, Raphina (Lucy Boynton); he attempts to win her over by asking if she would like to feature in his band’s music video. Only problem? He doesn’t actually have a band – well not yet anyway. Conor uses this moment to set in motion the formation of a band (named “Sing Street” of the title), comprised of a few of his classmates. At the start, they primarily cover 1980’s pop songs. Then at the recommendation of his ne’er do well older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), himself a self-proclaimed music aficionado, Conor decides to take up the task of producing original music with fellow bandmate and instrumentalist extraordinaire Eamon (Mark McKenna).

I think I will stop here in terms of providing you all with a plot synopsis 🙂 What follows is an inspiring story which has its fair share of laughter, drama, and joy. Sing Street has a heart and musical soul that will remain with you well after the credits roll.

And speaking of music – major props to the composer Gary Clark for the work he did on this film. His original music wonderfully captured the tones and the sounds of the era as they accompanied the songwriting efforts of John Carney, Ken and Carl Papenfus (of the Northern-Irish band Relish), Graham Henderson and Zamo Riffman (Source: Wikipedia).

In addition to this original music, Sing Street also features songs from established acts including The Cure, A-ha, Duran Duran, The Clash, Hall & Oates, Spandau Ballet, and The Jam. And in case you are wondering, YES – many of the songs did make it onto the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

As I mentioned in my previous post recapping 2016, Sing Street was one of the highlights of my moviegoing year.

If you love music from the 1980s and are intrigued by “small” stories that are “big” with emotional resonance, then I cannot recommend Sing Street highly enough.

Have any of you seen this film? What did you think of it? Hit me up in the Comments section below.

Looking Back at 2016

As the sun sets on what can only be described as an “interesting” year, time for some reflections, thoughts, and hope for what is to come in 2017 both cinematically and for the world as a whole.

A bunch of wouldas-couldas-shouldas. Normally I am eager to run to my latest multiplex or art house theater to see the latest and greatest. Well, 2016 seemed to provide a mixed bag for me. While I still averaged about one trip to the movie theater a month, overall, until pretty late in the calendar, not many films I felt were “must sees.” This and the fact that my work-life balance in 2016 got totally out of joint meant that I had a bit of a scaling back of my viewing and coverage of many films. Among some missed opportunities this year included:

Sure this is a short list which will over the years grow as I look back and attempt to play catch up, but for now, these are films I really wish that I had seen while the getting was good.

And yet there were more than a handful of pleasant surprises… some were covered here and some have yet to be covered. Chief among this lot is the Irish indie Sing Street, which screams of nostalgia for that wonderful musical decade (the 1980’s) in a refreshing and entertaining way. More on this in an upcoming post.

Increased access and availability to decades worth of world cinema. One of the more pleasurable experiences I have had in mixing old and new when it comes to my luv of cinema is that the possibilities of “discoveries” becomes nearly limitless. And now, thanks to specialist streaming services like the TCM-Criterion collaboration Filmstruck, the world of cinema is a few clicks of a remote or keystroke away. My first film viewed using this service was the 1943 French horror film La Main du diable. Based on my reaction after plucking this title out of the catalog, I am sure that over the course of this next year (paid subscription through 2017), I will definitely get my money’s worth.

The year in which I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc. I discussed this film around the time I saw it at the 2016 TCM Film Festival, but it is worth mentioning again. Simply stated, seeing this film on the big screen with live musical accompaniment was a truly transformative experience for me. I cannot say enough about this film.

… also the year I saw I, Daniel Blake. Speaking of transformative cinematic experiences, Ken Loach’s latest reduced me to a puddle of tears. It is definitely a film that I found myself recommending over and over again to folks.

Not all ‘boyhoods’ are created equally. I know that everyone is praising Moonlight right now, but believe it, it is well deserved.  I said it at the time and it holds up even more now that I have had months to meditate on it – Moonlight, a poetic story of a young man coming up in a world that may not totally understand him, is everything that I think films like Boyhood could only aspire to be. And I say that as someone who liked Boyhood.

Looking ahead to 2017 …

This probably is worthy of its own post in the coming days since it requires a level of research on my part, but as I always do, I go into the new year with my eyes and ears open. Maybe because of the world events which surround us all, I am really (really) looking forward to going to the movies as a form of escape. What does that mean about the frequency of and selection of the films I see? Only time will tell. But starting in mid-January, I look forward to covering the Sundance Film Festival – again from afar (scheduling will not allow me to travel out to Park City this year). I have taken a look at the films scheduled, but now plan on really going deep, as in recent years, I have used the films screened at Sundance as a barometer of gauging what most to look forward to in the next twelve months.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Even before my ‘remote coverage’ begins, I am starting the new year off right by seeing Fences tomorrow.

So that is me done – see you next year!

 

Star Wars’ Rogue One – A Standout Standalone in the Galactic Series

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was just about any and everything you could hope for in a story where you (kinda?) know what the overall outcome is. Or at the very least, it is a story which will answer some of those lingering questions a Star Wars movie fan might have had, but were not addressed elsewhere.

Like most films I have gone to the theater to see as of late, I went into Rogue One actually knowing very little about it in terms of plot. Of course, I can’t take full credit for this, since it was widely reported that there were several reshoots done to “correct” some of the issues the studio (Disney) had with the movie even as information was being shared with the public. In most cases, knowing this bit of information would not leave me feeling that good about the movie’s prospects, but I was confident that Disney would spare no expense to prevent a stinker of this magnitude from being dumped into cinemas across the world. With the general popularity and acclaim which came from their first outing as outright owners of the Star Wars property (last year’s The Force Awakens), it seemed a certainty that they would not let the side down.

The only other detail I carried into the theater with me was that Rogue One sits as a bridge between Revenge of the Sith (Episode 3) and A New Hope (Episode 4). That aspect was intriguing to me because I am sure there are about a million stories they could tell that could serve the larger narrative justice – it was more a question of which one they would choose. Overall, it is a welcome addition and can provide any newbies to the franchise a reasonable excuse to gingerly pass by the largely disappointing prequels and start with this movie instead. Sure you miss some of the finer details of the Darth Vader origin story, but from this point in the story, you can figure it out and what you don’t figure out you can have filled in for you by your squad.

What Rogue One aims to do (and accomplishes in my opinion) is to set itself apart in so much as being a Star Wars story that is both familiar and new to us. In terms of setup, Rogue One is more or less a standalone episode. It is therefore essential that the filmmakers take some time to establish these new characters and contextualize them for the audience based on our prior knowledge of the Star Wars universe (or galaxy). Top to bottom, I felt connected to the cast of characters we were introduced to. Further congrats to the creatives at Disney for committing to populating the story with such a diverse array of individuals.

Of course, the challenge is to plot this out (not rushing it) but also move the story along at a pace which continues to engage the audience. My suggestion for those fans who tend to go into their sci-fi space adventures expecting wall-to-wall action packed sequences is to be patient. All of the setup we are given in the beginning culminates with a closing 45 plus minutes that has some really riveting and intense set pieces that are reminiscent of many a wartime-action epic motion picture you may have previously seen on the big screen.

We are also treated to a few “Easter Eggs” that uniquely ties the episodes together. Check your local internets to see if you found some of these gems in your viewing 🙂

Also worth noting that Rogue One is also one of, if not THE  darkest chapter in the Star Wars movie franchise to date (rivaling The Empire Strikes Back [Episode V] for that title IMO). Mind you, it totally makes sense considering where in the larger story we are, but still, be prepared. Be very prepared. Stripping away all the sci-fi and special effects, you are left with a narrative that carries a great deal of pathos and emotional weight. By the end of the proceedings, you may feel that the film’s conclusion was inevitable, but the construction and actions in the film are more than enough to capture your attention and keep you engaged up until that point.

There is probably a whole bunch else that I am leaving out of reaction to Rogue One, but I think you can tell I liked it.

What did you think? Sharing is caring – so hit the Comments section with your thoughts.

Hot Take: Doctor Strange (2016)

This month saw the release of yet another installment of the Marvel cinematic world – Doctor Strange.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange."

Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange.”

If I am to be honest, my ever expanding cinematic wish list did not include this title, but lo and behold, I found myself on a Saturday morning in a 3D IMAX theater on opening weekend. Go figure.

Brushing my initial ambivalence aside, I must admit that the end product turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Doctor Strange manages to take some very obscure concepts (at least by comic – to screen standards) and turn them into an accessible and cinematically stunning action adventure film. It is a rare moment when I recommend watching a film in 3D, but if you hadn’t seen this in this format, you did miss some pretty awesome sequences, that if nothing else, would leave your head spinning.

One thing that Doctor Strange and most of these Marvel films have going for them is the ability to draw top-notch talent. Sure, there is a part of your brain that chuckles at the thought of “thespians” like Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swindow, et al, donning goofy costumes and running down the streets, but you know what? Talent is talent and ultimately they all acquit themselves well enough, enough so that I was thoroughly entertained, whether the beat was dramatic or lighter in tone. Not much else one can ask for.

Another item worth noting is that the film felt a lot brisker than its 115 minute run time would suggest. I really felt like once the opening sequence launched, we were taken straight into the story with a few (if any) loose ends bogging the story down. Me likey.

If there was a negative point for me to make about Doctor Strange is that while it was a solid film, at the end of the day it is more or less “forgettable” in the pantheon of all the characters that we have seen on the screen to date (a result of genre sensory overload, perhaps?). That said, I suspect this is to be expected since the character is not one that I can ever claim to have known about until news broke about the development of the movie. My guess is that like always, we will have to take a “wait and see” approach in determining how seamlessly this chapter slides into the world of Nordic mythology, American Idealism and a huge green fella.

Carnival of Souls (1962), a.k.a. Why Do I Put Myself Through This? Halloween Edition

First off, Happy Halloween Night, guys and ghouls!

Secondly – as the title of this post indicates – why do I do this to myself?

Mind you, I really do like watching scary films, but usually in mixed company where my sheer terror can be diffused by the enjoyment of watching the film with a group of people.

Well, not this time – this time, I flew solo in a weekend binge of scary movies on TCM and arrived at Carnival of Souls. Actually “re-arrived” – I have seen this film before, but a time ago, which means fragments of the plot specifics slipped through my sieve of a memory; I did recall a sketch of the outline: shortly after surviving a car crash, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) embarks on a trip westward to Utah, where she is set to start a new job as a church organist. Along the way, she encounters a creepy apparition (the film’s director Herk Harvey) and is drawn to a long-ago abandoned pavilion by the lake.

Once settled into her new life, Mary continues to have episodes which she cannot explain, including continued reappearances of the apparition, all leading up to a frightful conclusion.

Made for an estimated $33,000 and produced by industrial filmmakers, Carnival of Souls is a brilliant example of how to scare your audience with simple yet effective “tricks,” tricks which left me peeking through my hands:

  • foreboding, suspenseful organ music
  • dispossessed movements of characters
  • character movement toward the camera (= camera is the 1st person POV)
  • cutaways which yield the occasional (and effective) jump scare

So yeah, it was enough to put the frighteners on my this past Saturday night. And with that, I highly recommend this cult classic, which is available on Criterion disk (DVD/BluRay) as well as in the public domain. When accessing make note of the running time. There is a 78-minute theatrical version as well as an 84-minute director’s cut.

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Kicks (2016)

Kicks (2016) has been out in cinemas for around a month, but I think it is worth a mention as it is an inspired feature film debut from of one Justin Tipping (who was also the film’s co-writer alongside Joshua Beirne-Golden). With a cast that combines newcomers as well as emerging talent (Kofi Siriboe, Mahershala Ali), Kicks is an entertaining and sometimes trippy journey around the Bay Area featuring teenage Brandon (Jahking Guillory) in the central role.

Film still from KICKS.

Film still from KICKS.

Brandon longs for a pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers and through his ingenuity, finds a way to procure a pair. Of course, that is not the story … it just sets into motion a series of events which leads our young protagonist, along with best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) traversing the urban landscape of the Oakland/Bay Area in search of recovering his now-lost treasure.

Kicks is not so much a statement of “sneaker” culture, although it is there around the edges. Instead, it feels like another film in a trend that I can only describe as being the “atypical” (by Hollywood standards) story centering on young black men in the inner city. These young men are not the now trope-ish “urban” characters that we often see on the silver screen. This idea even extends broadly to the less than virtuous characters, who are given additional character layers that allow the audience to connect with them in a refreshing way. In other words, these are simply kids and people trying to get by in the world the best way they know how to. It just so happens to be a world that may a bit unfamiliar (in the cinematic and real sense) from the average teen coming of age drama we are used to seeing. The story of Kicks and its characters is yet another example of why the diversity pipeline in our entertainment is so important.

In fact, in reading the production notes it is worth citing that as Tipping was working on his screenplay, he found inspiration from many of the films he grew up with – The Goonies as well as the films of the 1980’s, courtesy of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And in many ways, I do see that – the days-long journey or quest to a yet to be determined destination, which ultimately leads our main character and his cohort to realize that there is more to them and the world around them than they had anticipated.

Kicks is not a perfect picture – for example, there are a lot of messages to process packed into its 87-minute running time (is that really a problem?) – but it does not take away in any way from the good work that Mr. Tipping has put together as a start to his career in feature films. In fact, his next credit according to IMDB is as the screenwriter of Lowriders a film for Universal Pictures starring Demian Bichir, Eva Longoria and Melissa Benoist.

In addition to the limited cinematic release, audiences have the opportunity to catch Kicks on digital via Amazon, OnDemand, iTunes, GooglePlay, etc., with a DVD/BluRay release on December 6th.

NYFF54 Feature: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ken Loach‘s brilliant I, Daniel Blake is a scathing portrait of a welfare system drowning in a sea of bureaucracy.

idanielblake_02

Our way into this story is through “everyman” Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old Geordie (hailing from Newcastle). Recently disabled by a medical condition and unable to work, Daniel is getting nowhere in his efforts to get relief from the government services, which are allegedly put in place to help someone in his situation. He finds himself in a nightmarish, Groundhog Day scenario that involves an endless stream of paperwork, ambivalent government officials and roads that lead absolutely nowhere. It feels like a scene out of some far-flung dystopia – but no – it is this world,  this England, circa now.

During one of his fruitless expeditions to the Benefits office, Daniel meets recently-arrived-to-Newcastle single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Dylan and Daisy, who were forced north due to affordable housing shortages in her London hometown.

Through the tears, there are still those precious nuggets of joy and the occasional laughter to be found in the film. But overall, this is a story about an extremely vulnerable segment of modern British society which by and large has been (cynically) left behind.

There is one moment involving Katie that absolutely took my breath away. Even as I recount it now, my eyes are welling up. In a scene that can’t last more than 15 seconds (if that), I was overcome by an avalanche of emotions. Kudos to Ms. Squires for her performance, which doesn’t feel like a performance as much as a channeling of the plight endured by many women who are struggling to make a way for themselves with some dignity and self-worth.

And that is the thing – not for one moment do you see these people as taking advantage of a social safety net or being “skivers,” as they are often portrayed in much of the press. They are people that through circumstances (i.e. LIFE) find themselves in a place where they need a helping hand to get through a rough patch. Thanks to a script from long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake subtly keys the audience into the fact that the system in place seems to be doing quite the opposite of helping those in need. By hassling and creating unbelievable obstacles in their path, the establishment succeeds in stripping away as much of individual’s self-worth as possible, to the point of making many resign themselves to their lot in life, ultimately and simply giving up. It is a powerful message to be presented in such a gentle manner.

Even as the film came to an end and I could sense where it was going, the tears continued to fall down my face. Life is not a fairy tale and even when given a cinematic treatment, it can deliver the most painful of punches to the gut.

That said, it is clear why I Daniel Blake took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a memorable film that must be seen.

I, Daniel Blake is scheduled for release in the UK this Friday (October 21). And after making a few more film festival stops on this side of the pond, the US will get a limited release starting on December 23rd – just in time for major awards consideration.