REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is a paradox. It is a beautiful movie about ugly realities. It is light enough to take flight and simultaneously weighed down. It should be an ordinary love story of two young people, but it also can’t be because those two people are black. And it is a movie of extraordinary substance, but only sometimes. So, I loved it, but only sometimes.

One of the most significant paradoxes, is how the film can feel incredibly focused and far too broad with its characterization. This is especially true for Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan Lane), the couple around which the film (and occasionally the camera) revolves. Tish is newly pregnant. Fonny is newly imprisoned. It is a story that feels sadly inevitable. So even as Tish holds out hope for her beloved’s return, we watch with a sense of doom. They are beautiful outlines, walking down the street, hand in hand. Brightly blue and yellow clothing against the concrete sidewalk, you want to follow their silhouettes forever. But that’s all they are. Outlines. They never feel shaded in because so many things, their personalities, their histories, feel like afterthoughts in the narrative. Instead, they are constantly overshadowed by racist, societal forces that refuse to see them as people. And ironically, neither can we.

Though, Barry Jenkins certainly tries. His humanist style is apparent in every shot. When his camera focuses, really focuses, on Tish’s and Fonny’s faces, the lack of explanatory detail is utterly insignificant. Their eyes seem to contain a depth that is voiceless, a meaning that is inexplicable. When the score starts thrumming and the camera sweeps across a brick New York street, the feeling grows until it encompasses everything. Those overwhelming moments don’t by themselves, make the film incredible, but it certainly impresses upon you the importance of every moment. Time slows down, each passing moment agonized over, a memory in movement. For Tish and Fonny, after all, time is of the essence. Separation by prison glass makes every second precious. Seconds before Fonny is led away to a place where even Tish’s love cannot reach. Seconds before their time together is a distant memory.

The film’s greatest accomplishment, though, is forming characters around the Tish and Fonny so their relationship never becomes claustrophobic. In that way, the movie emphasizes familial love as much as romantic much to its advantage. Unlike Tish, her parents have long seen the world as it is. So, their happiness at the imminent birth is both incredibly joyous and a cautious projection. Regina King as Tish’s mom stands unwaveringly in her role, her eyes swimming with hidden vulnerabilities. And as Tish’s father, Coleman Douglas is a pillar of strength, going so far as to sell stolen merchandise to support the increasingly heavy fees for the lawyer. Every moment that the world crumbles, there is a willing hand, reaching out to take on another burden.

A love story above all, If Beale Street Could Talk wanders in a world of color without ever hesitating to explore the dark corners. It is, after all, in the hidden spaces where love blossoms best. In a cramped apartment room where Tish and Fonny finally connect. In a family home, where the celebration for a new member begins with a toast. In these places, there can be no police interference or shady justice systems. In these places, love triumphs.

REVIEW: 2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation

The 2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts in the Animation category explore similar themes of family and time, evoking certain emotions over and over again.

Many of the shorts, including Bao and Weekends, were autobiographical. Bao, Disney Pixar’s short released with Incredibles 2 and applauded for its cultural representation, tells the story of a lonely Chinese mother and one of her dumplings when it comes to life as a little dumpling boy. This narrative with animations characteristic of Pixar plays with the idea of parental possessiveness and the need for familial love and attention, taking a harrowing turn at the end that leaves one to wonder the costs of overprotection. Also featuring an Asian-American family is One Small Step, the cleanly-drawn animation about big dreams and realistic achievements. Through the passage of time, Luna must grapple with her dreams of being an astronaut and the obstacles in her way, supported by her single father the entire time. The crisp 3D animation was certainly appealing, turning this “dream-chasing-believe-in-yourself” storyline into something fresh and emotional.

Another short that deals with family is Weekends, a hand-drawn melancholic tale of childhood after a recent divorce. The absence of dialogue brings all the focus onto the universal mood of this film, as a child bounces between homes and lives and relationships evolve as a result, offering a compelling story of a fractured family with purely the art of animation. Late Afternoon looks at the painful issue of memory loss, as Emily, an elderly woman, goes through old memories in order to make sense of the present. Through the use of color, Emily was able to weave through all the different memories, and the flow through time between the present, the subconscious, and the memories. The emotions associated with memory loss was heightened with the use of water throughout the film, washing over her as she searches for clarity.

The last nominee shown, Animal Behaviour, features anthropomorphized animals in a group therapy session. As the most comedic short in the featured films, it is filled with crude animal jokes based on their natural traits until an ape gets going and sets off the dog therapist. The lineup also included two additional selected shorts, Wishing Box and Tweet Tweet. Wishing Box introduced us to a greedy pirate and his hungry monkey companion who come across a box that will give you anything you wish for, while Tweet Tweet gives us the courage to balance on a tightrope as a girl befriends a sparrow who guides her throughout her life.

All the short films used a variety of animation styles, opening my eyes to how diverse animated films can be. From the scratchy and homey feel of the hand-animated Weekends to the colorful, flowy vibe of Late Afternoon to the crisp 2D-on-3D animation of One Small Step, the animation nominees were all both visually appealing and emotionally resonant.

REVIEW: Oscar-Nominated Shorts (Live Action)

So often I am struck by how little film makers do with their medium. It is an art form that combines visual and audio elements more immersively than reading a book or perusing an gallery can really claim to do. Yet we end up with so many American Pie types, popular but containing no real depth. Emotion and meaning are dulled when movies become uniform in this way, and their power to deeply affect dies. Moreover, even the aesthetic capabilities of the film medium are often ignored, settling for unimaginative school or office buildings, with costume designers seeking normalcy so fervently that their characters’ dress becomes boring.

Fortunately, there are some who understand the abilities film has to deeply move its audience. All five of Academy Award-winning live action short films (Mother, Fauve, Marguerite, Detainment, and Skin) provoked a larger range of emotions in me than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen. Mother gave me a feeling of creeping cold desolation, with its wide sweeping gaze at the empty beach in the beginning and end. Using the point of view of the lost boy’s mother gives the audience a closer look into her desperation and helplessness. We listen to him with her, clinging onto every word his soft voice says through the phone. The camera work is disorienting, making us panicky with the mother and grandmother as the reality of the situation sets in.

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In Fauve, there are two drastically different sceneries: the wildly beautiful Canadian countryside (wildflowers, long grasses, mountains) and a stark mine site (plain grey earth for what seems like miles on all sides, reminiscent of an alien planet). The scenes in the mine site seem surreal compared to the lushness of the fields the boys travel through to get there. I almost expected the earth to begin to rumble and rise, revealing itself to be some enormous living creature.

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Marguerite was the only one to make me cry, and one of the few movies that have ever made me cry. The loneliness she must have felt moved past the screen and into the most melancholy part of my mind. It is unclear whether she loved again after her soulmate was married, but because she lived alone in the movie, it seemed her companionless existence had been eternal. The whole movie had me feeling cold: the slowness of all her actions, the neatness of each room in the house, the millions of wrinkles lining her face.

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I felt least connected to Detainment, though it disturbed me more fully than the true crime documentaries on TV have ever done. The documentary-esque style of the piece did not go well with the narrative tone, and the same few images of the boys abducting the baby were played over and over again, without adding much value to the film. However, the filmmakers played on the boys’ conflicting stories, which helped create an uncertain, uneasy feeling.

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Skin was by far the most brilliant star of the five. It played on racism in modern America, the psychology of childhood development, gun politics and violence, the idea of innocence and how easily it can be destroyed, the uncertainty of placing blame…I could go on. It made me question my own life and thoughts, those of my family, of the country and the greater world. I had to catch myself when I unconciously started distancing myself from the white family’s attitudes and actions, recognizing the weakness in that thought, the automatic stereotypes I’d applied to make myself feel better. And when the two young boys locked eyes for the second time, I was haunted. Somehow within the film’s disturbing content, there was still an attention to lighting and landscape details that made it uncomfortably beautiful, the exquisite drip of blood, the lonely desert nothingness.

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PREVIEW: On the Basis of Sex

25 years after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment to the nation’s highest Court, the biopic On the Basis of Sex tells the story of the first gender discrimination case that she argued as a lawyer, and what ultimately became the first step in her rise to become one of the nation’s leading advocates for women’s rights.

Directed by Mimi Leder, the film features Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the Basis of Sex is currently showing at the Michigan Theater, and tickets are $7.50. If you are interested in learning more about the life of an American icon, don’t miss it!

REVIEW: CMENAS Film Screening: “Rachel”

“Rachel” is a documentary piecing together the nuances and injustices of the death of an American activist in Palestine named Rachel Corrie. Twenty-four year-old Rachel was on a trip to Palestine as a trained activist with a group of other activists in their twenties. At this time in the early two-thousands, the tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was gaining a new wave of intensity with the beginning of the Second Intifada. Rachel and her team were helping Palestinian civilians whose homes were most in danger of being destroyed by Israeli occupation. In an attempt to prevent the destruction of one such house, Rachel stood in front of a bulldozer to obstruct their moving forward; however, the driver of the bulldozer claimed to not see her– though the eye-witnesses to the case speculate otherwise– and ran her over; in a matter of seconds, her body was mangled beneath a mound of dirt and crushed by the metal. Rachel died. Though there seems to be evidence that there was criminal intent by the driver of the bulldozer, the case gained a momentary spark of media attention, only to die down with the injustice of Rachel’s death never to receive due legal attention. This documentary is an exploration of the testimonies of the activists who she travelled with, Israeli soldiers, and many others who were knew her or were related to her death.

The simple, straightforward style of the documentary makes it easy to follow all the intricacies of the evidence presented: testimonies of colleagues and family members, on-site videos and photographs, Rachel’s diary entries. By the end of the film, I felt fully educated about the facts of Rachel’s death– and the thing about the documentary is that it doesn’t ever once say outright that what happened to Rachel unfair or unjust. It just keeps building evidence, slowly but surely, until you’re painfully aware of all the wrong that was done to her. The driver of the bulldozer claimed that he couldn’t see her over the mound of dirt while her team says the mound was hardly a few feet tall; the US embassy failed to send an American to oversee her autopsy even though her parents requested it, probably because the US didn’t want to entangle itself politically; the general of the Israeli forces claimed that there was not enough eyewitness testimony or video evidence, only two opposing viewpoints, which seemed essentially inconclusive. No real legal action could be taken to prove that the driver of the bulldozer had criminal intent.

The documentary works to show that there was a system of injustice present that lead to Rachel’s death. The documentary illuminates the cracks of legality and excuses that Rachel slipped between. The documentary itself works as a bulwark against injustice. The film is modest in its cinematography and aesthetics, but it is large in its meaning and purpose. Rachel was one American activist whose life and injustice has been filmed and commemorated, but it’s a powerful reminder that there are people suffering from crises around the world who won’t get any attention. But there is a small line of hope, perhaps– as we keep talking about these injustices, as long as we make art and conversation about it– we can create a bulwark against it.

I’ll end this post with a beautiful letter that Rachel wrote during her time in Palestine: “You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resistor. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them (and may ultimately get them) on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death. I felt much better after this morning. I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first-hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable. I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and the basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.”

(You can find more of her letters and diary entries here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/02/shopping.extract. I would seriously recommend checking them out– they’re gorgeously written and she’s so wise.)