Tag Archives: Moonlight

Waves

21 Nov

‘Waves’: In haze of dazzling Florida sun, tragedy threatens to pull a family under

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Like the entity of its title, “Waves” moves in crests and crashes, mostly that of the fates and emotions of its characters, and the profound and lingering impact of those actions. Wunderkind filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha,” “It Comes at Night”) immerses us in the ebbs and flows of life of an African American family in South Florida in a way that feels like cinéma-vérité, but the beginning and end – a girl riding a bike along a serene esplanade – bookends the film with poetry and purpose.

Following that scene of tranquil innocence, we jump into a car full of teens joyriding across a bridged expanse, the sky above and water below both impeccably blue as music blares on the radio. The camera, seemingly hung disco ball style from the roof of the SUV, swirls around and around as we catch glimpses of happy faces singing along and legs, arms and heads lolling out the window. It’s a scene of pure, energetic joy, but glorious and uplifting as it is, there’s an imminent undercurrent of fragility and peril.

Two of the teens, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Alexis (Alexa Demie, from the TV series “Euphoria”) make a tumultuous pair. When it’s good, it’s great, but ripples in the relationship lead to bigger ramifications. Tyler’s a rock star of a wrestler with a shot at a college scholarship, something his controlling father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), drills into him on a daily basis, making him do extra weight training after practice and breaking down his technique ad infinitum – after one or two of these life coaching lecturers, you too will want to slip away to your room. The first setback for Tyler comes in a potentially career-ending shoulder injury that leads to the use of alcohol and drugs to cope. Then Alexis mentions the words: “I’m late.”

How that conundrum is wrestled with (and it takes wildly unexpected turns) arrives early in the film; then there’s a dramatic focal shift to Tyler’s kid sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who struggles in the aftermath but ultimately finds comfort and romance in the company of Luke (Lucas Hedges), another wrestler and something of a goofball romantic despite having his own issues (mom died when he was young, and he’s estranged from his father).  For all the natural and architectural beauty Shults finds in South Florida – the setting for other notable recent indie greats as “Moonlight” (2016) and “The Florida Project” (2017) – it is not the happy place it appears to be on the outside.

Like “Moonlight” – and comparisons between the films are inevitable, though they are very different – the matter of race in “Waves” is not embossed or underscored. But it’s there, subtly and provocatively. About the most overt the film gets is when Ronald, who along with his wife (Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, “Hamilton”) has provided the children a spacious and nurturing environment, tells Tyler solemnly, “ We are not afforded the luxury of being average. Got to work 10 times are hard just to get anywhere.” It lingers.

Of “Waves,” not enough can be said about the cast. Brown’s prideful patriarch commands the screen so throughly that I can’t imagine he’s not in the Best Supporting Actor conversation come year end; but the whole tsunami of emotions doesn’t crest or swell without Harrison Jr., seen this year in “Luce.” His once hopeful character goes through a gantlet of external and self-imposed torment – a bravura performance from such a young actor who has to hit such a wide range of emotions, so high and so low, and something he takes to the mat each time, giving Shults’ middle American saga its brine and soul.

Interview with Trey Edward Shults

21 Nov

The three-film secret of Trey Edward Shults: Keep it personal, even during the apocalypse

 

Trey Edward Shults on the set of “Waves” with actor Sterling K. Brown.

The films of Trey Edward Shults are haunting in their immersive ambience and enigmatic narratives, but they’re also – to date – deeply personal, if not autobiographical. In his debut, “Krisha” (2016), Shults explored the effects of addiction on the family surrounding the user, reflecting how Shults’ immediate family had been affected by addiction and alcohol abuse over the years; even his near post-apocalyptic chiller “It Comes at Night” (2017) was a means for Shults to work out the grief of losing his father to pancreatic cancer. 

Themes of addiction and struggles with an estranged and dying father are also part of Shults’ latest, “Waves,” in which young African American wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), in a tumultuous romantic relationship in addition to struggling against his controlling father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), turns increasingly to drugs after an injury that threatens to sideline his promising athletic career and shot at college. Meanwhile, Luke (Lucas Hedges), another wrestler on the team, struggles to reconnect with his his dying, distant father. 

“I’m both Tyler and Luke,” Shults said in an interview with the Day, “and [their] girlfriends are something like my girlfriends. The parents are somewhat based on mine – primarily Luke’s dad – but Brown brought a lot to the role of Ronald.”

The story revolves primarily around Tyler’s family members, who happen to be black. “I wanted to tell a tale that was both universal to what all families go through, but also show the challenges a black family faces that white people don’t,” said Shults, who is white, and wrote in collaboration with Harrison Jr. At one juncture in the film, Tyler’s dad tells him that because they are black, they need to work 10 times as hard to take a step forward, and then there’s the one lone hateful drop of the N-word – just one, but it resonates. 

“I just knew I wanted to work with him again after ‘It Comes at Night,’” Shults said of Harrison Jr., whose experiences described in long “mini therapy” talks between the director and actor helped “Waves” take shape. Harrison Jr., who was also in “Luce” earlier this year, delivers a nuanced and complex performance that is bound to elevate his stock.

Shults, on his third film at only 31, got into filmmaking somewhat by happenstance when visiting his aunt, Krisha Fairchild – yes, the star and title character of his debut – in Hawaii, where she got him a job working on commercials. That led to an encounter with Terrence Malick, who was there filming his documentary “Voyage of Time” (2016); Shults, just 18, stepped in as a film loader for the shoot. Seeds for “Krisha” were sown quickly.

“That film changed my life,” Shults said. After “Krisha” won the Grand Jury and Audience awards at South by Southwest, buyer and distributor A24 was was hungry for more. “I had a version of ‘It Comes at Night’ before I shot ‘Krisha,’ and A24 wanted to know what else I had.”

As for what comes next, “I’m not sure,” Shults said.

“Maybe live a little? I put everything I had into this film,” he said, “and now I’m just a blank slate.”

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale

 

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Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

Oscat Not So White

30 Jan

This Year’s Academy Awards May Just Counter ‘Oscars So White’ Controversy

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight." (Courtesy David Bornfriend/A24)closemore
COMMENTARY

On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their slate of Oscar nominees, a lineup that will certainly be eyed with much scrutiny for its diversity. Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded after people of color were noticeably left off the Academy’s ballot for the second year in a row — a move backward considering 2014’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years A Slave.” Given the films that found success in 2016, both critically and commercially, the list of nominees should successfully change the tide.

The origins of the hash-tagged tumult, which had notables like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the ceremony last year, are two-fold. For starters, the Academy’s makeup is not diverse by any measure — a Los Angeles Times analysis in 2016 found it was 91 percent white and 76 percent male. Secondly, the industry was not producing many quality films made by, or featuring, people of color.

The cast and crew of "Spotlight" accept the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
The cast and crew of “Spotlight” accept the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

When the nominations came out last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, promised immediate action. Following a unanimous vote by the board eight days later, rule changes stipulated that members who had been dormant in the industry for over a decade would be be moved to emeritus status (effectively losing their voting rights) and the recruitment of new members would begin immediately. Though, past winners and nominees retain full membership status and voting rights. The list of 683 invitees contained a notable presence of women and people of color (Rita Wilson, American Repertory Theater stalwart Cherry Jones, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali now in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” and John Boyega).

The industry too, almost as if on cue, made an initial, responsive roar when Nate Parker’s slave uprising saga, “Birth of a Nation,” garnered a record-setting $17 million distribution deal at the Sundance Film Festival in late January of last year. Expectations for the film were high, but when it finally poured into theaters, the edgy concept of a bloody revolt against injustice, while admirable, didn’t measure up at the box office. “12 Years a Slave” it was not and Parker’s past allegations of rape (he was acquitted) didn’t help either.

Colman Domingo as Hark, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Chike Okonkwo as Will in "The Birth of a Nation." (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Colman Domingo as Hark, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Chike Okonkwo as Will in “The Birth of a Nation.” (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In light of “Oscars So White,” “Birth of a Nation” registered something of a disappointment, but the industry, in its own organic way, was quietly on the mend. The later crop of films featuring diverse filmmakers, casts and subjects shone — from “Moonlight,” the saga of a gay black youth, bullied and growing up under the negligent eye of a crack-addicted mother, to “Loving,” the haunting recount of the interracial couple who boldly broke the anti-miscegenation law in segregated Virginia and, more recently “Hidden Figures,” another based on true events, pre-civil rights movement drama about African-American female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. Overall, 2016 was a year the blockbuster faltered and small films about people with varying backgrounds and experiences, navigating adversity, took center stage.

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