The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

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It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.

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Captain Marvel Flies High

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The whole history of Captain Marvel is an interesting one not just in the comics but in real life. Lawsuits were involved, settlements happened. We’re not gonna talk about that stuff today. Maybe another time.

If you have been following social media too much and broke the cardinal rule of not reading the comments, then there has never been a Marvel Studios movie that had the deck stacked against it than Captain Marvel. We’re not covering that stuff today.  Maybe another time.

Captain Marvel is Marvel Studios’ latest entry into their MCU vault of superhero characters that they have rolled out over the last ten years and over twenty movies. It is not only the first Marvel Studios movie to feature a female lead, but also features what may possibly be the most powerful character in the Marvel comics universe.

It is a not really possible to do a fill review of Captain Marvel without a few spoilers but I will try my best to keep them at a minimum.

Brie Larson plays a Kree soldier serving the Kree Starforce named Vers.  Yes, silly name, especially in light of a proposed real life Space Force. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  Unlike other Marvel origin stories, she is already trained and formidable. But there is something off about her. She has no memory past the last six years of her life as a soldier. She has occasional flashes of her past but they have little meaning and make even less sense to her. Her commander and mentor,Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) says that she is too emotional and must keep her powers, namely the ability to fire photons blasts from her hands, in check.

During a mission against enemy Skrulls who are also shapeshifters, Vers is separated from her squad and captured by  the Skrulls. She is brought aboard a ship and using a form of mind probe, it is determined that she holds the key to a secret power on a planet known as C-53, which is of course, Earth. She escapes them while in Earth orbit, destroying the ship in the process, in a damaged pod that promptly disintegrates on entry. This is where we see her in the trailer crashing into a 1995 era Blockbuster.

It is not long before Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson digitally de-aged) shows up to investigate. Being a veteran SHIELD agent, he is also skeptical about her being some noble warrior from another planet hunting shapshifting aliens. This would be Fury’s first encounter with a super-powered being.

The film becomes a road trip buddy cop movie from there with some nice banter between Fury and and Vers. They find themselves at a secret military base for experimental aircraft. She believes that the Skrulls are after the secret to a Lightspeed Engine and that it is also connected to her memories. While there, they encounter a very special ginger cat named Goose that steals every scene (I’m a sucker for gingers). They also discover, while going through records that Vers was once a test pilot, and she is connected to what the Skrullls are looking for.

They follow a lead to the last person to see her alive, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Maria and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) not only move the plot significantly forward but also provide the emotional connections she needed to unlock her memories as former test pilot Carol Danvers.

This is unique among Marvel films as it does not tell a linear origin story. And marvel, I think, does best when they don’t make a straight up comic book superhero origin story. Characters like Iron Man, Dr. Strange began their films flawed, who have to undergo a change both physically and spiritually. Captain America has a long intro of a scrawny Steve Rogers who transforms into Captain America. Thor has to undergo transformation to be worthy of Mjornir, etc. In the case of Carol Danvers, she is a character who must rediscover herself. And since much of the story is told in flashback it unravels throughout the whole movie. As she learns more about herself, her character changes.

Captain Marvel has the double-duty of being a bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame but also an introduction to a character that is not really well known outside comic shops. For doing all that, it runs relatively short for a comic-book movie, clocking in at two hours and eight minutes with credits and end credit scenes. With that running time there is much groundwork laid out not only for her story but for a sequel and digging up clues that tie into the rest of the movies.

The film is full of subtle Easter eggs and that tie into existing MCU lore and fans will be pleased that it honors the memory of Stan Lee in more than one way. There is just a slight breaking of the fourth wall, but it’s for Stan. We owe him so much.

This film works best because of the dynamics between the characters. From the chemistry between Fury and Danvers to the believably deep friendship between Maria Rambeau and Carol. Akira Akbar is especially charming as Monica Rambeau, which is a character that has had major roles in the Marvel comics, so it is possible we will see her in a grown up iteration in present-day stories.

Ben Mendlesohn, who is not featured much in the trailers, turns in an exceptional performance as the lead Skrull. It is multi-dimensional and even humorous.

And we of course have Goose the cat. In the comics, the cat is named Chewie and has been Carol’s pet for years. For whatever reason, the name has been changed. Nevertheless, Goose steals every scene he is in. And without giving up spoilers, Goose’s story is pretty much unchanged from the comics.

There are quite a few twists and deviations from the source material and that subversiveness upends expectations, and in my opinion for the better. For the most part it does a very good job of that. There is so much going on that it may require a couple of viewing to let it all sink in. I saw it twice and actually enjoyed it more the second time around.

The movie does several things very well, and much of that is stuff you may not notice. Carol Danvers is not hampered by any romance angle and instead focuses on her friendship between Nick Fury and Maria Rambaeu. It’s a believable connection and contains a lot of heart that really adds to Carol’s source of strength to overcome her own inner weaknesses.

Brie Larson offers a very nuanced character here. As she learns more about herself and her life as a human, she also opens up to us character-wise. So yes, she is rather bland in the beginning as a Kree, but I believe that is by choice. She is an inspiration and the flashbacks we get of her does a very good job of telling us what

Captain Marvel is a powerful character, a very strong one. Is she the most powerful character in the MCU? Possibly. But let us not forget that Thor would have killed Thanos if he had only made the choice to go for the head. She is no more powerful than Thor was in Infinity Wars with Stormbreaker. And will she be too overpowered? I doubt it. I don’t expect her to just show up and knock out Thanos.

The visual effects work well, especially the de-ageing of Samuel Jackson by several decades. Some of them are a bit dodgy such as a couple of flying sequences. Nevertheless, the actions scenes are very well done, ranging from close combat to aerial dogfights. And when Carol unlocks her potential, it is a iconic moment.

Is this the best Marvel movie ever? No, but then you are dealing with a film franchise of twenty films and counting. This ranks as an above average Marvel film. Now, I consider average Marvel films to be Thor, Ant-Man, and the Iron-Man sequels. Considering that average level Marvel movies have been good and entertaining then Captain Marvel does a a very good job of introducing us to a character that most movie goers may not be familiar with. And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that film-wise this is a better female superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman, for two reasons, there is no need for a love story and Wonder Woman‘s final act was ruined by an over the top CGI fight that was not only bad CGI but made no real sense.

I’ve been following her comics for quite a bit lately and really think there is much potential to be explored there and this serves as a good opening to her character. I for one can’t wait to see more of what she can do. Highly Recommended.

Alita: Battle Angel is Manga to Film Done Right

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For decades, James Cameron, who was once a wunderkid of Hollywood with successes such as Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic, had been sitting on the rights to a manga and anime called Battle Angel Alita. And it seemed like it would never be made. Well it has been a long road but it has finally arrived to us with Robert Rodriguez directing.

The source material is a manga series by Yukita Kishiro that began in 1990. And even though the original run called Battle Angel Alita runs 9 volumes (a manga volume will comprises of several chapters with a page count of about 200 pages per volume), the sequel series runs an additional 18 volumes (15 of which have been collected into 3 in 1 omnibuses). Mars Chronicle is a series currently running. Suffice it to say it is a long running series.

A short anime adaptation was made in 1993 which covered major events of the first 2 volumes. It was through the anime that Guillermo del Toro introduced James Cameron to a video of the anime and it prompted him to read the manga. The rest of the story is a couple of decades of development and when Avatar and development of its multiple sequels got in his way, Cameron eventually asked friend Robert Rodriguez to take over directing duties.

Now, live-action anime and manga adaptations in the west has not had a good track record. The failed Dragonball movie comes to mind and most recently the uninspired Ghost in the Shell movie barely covered production costs (whitewashing was the least of its issues). Speed Racer, though unabashedly embracing its anime roots was a box office failure. Netflix’s own adaptation of Death Note was met with critical and fan disdain.

Japan is not immune to doing bad anime adaptations. Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist were both projects that failed to impress.

So after 20 years of development limbo and following in the footsteps of other US manga to live-action failures, does Alita: Battle Angel succeed?  As far as box office, time will tell as it’s nearly $175 million budget shows and marketing campaign can’t be cheap either. As a movie, though, it is a glorious and exciting film filled with action and eye-popping special effects not just in the action sequences but in the simple creation of the main character of Alita herself. Weta Digital, the company made famous by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings goes above and beyond in the creation of Alita.

This would not have been possible to believe without the break-out performance by Rosa Salazar in a role that is guaranteed to make her star. Across the spectrum, she is being praised for her work, and rightly so.

As Alita: Battle Angel begins, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, combing for spare parts. There he finds a humanoid head and upper torso. Though it is a cyborg construct, he finds that the human brain is still alive. Taking it back to his clinic where he is a local doctor who helps repair many of the cybernetic prosthetics of the citizens of Iron City, he attaches her head to a cybernetic body that he intended to make for his dead daughter.

She awakes with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Dyson names her Alita after daughter. So it is obvious right away that he become her father figure. It is also one of the most drastic departures from the manga.

As far as science-fiction action movies, this movie is pretty dense on plot. And depending on other critics, either it’s too much story, or too little story. So what do we know? Along with discovering who she is and her place in the world she has awakened in, she realizes that she has an instinctual attraction to conflict and that she is trained in a deadly form of combat that has not been used in 300 years.

One night, she discovers that Dr. Ido has been spending his nights as a hunter warrior, a bounty hunter who uses the money earned to help pay the bills for his clinic. Unfortunately he gets in over his head when he is outnumbered. Fortunately Alita’s curiosity led her to follow him in that night. So instead of running like he tells her to do, she manages to take out two of the bounties and wound a third who barely gets away.

Because this seems to trigger bits of memory she wants to join the ranks of the hunter warriors too. Of course Ido is dead set against this saying how dangerous it is. Seriously, this is right after she kung fu’ed to death a couple of psychopathic cyborgs and saved Ido’s life.

There is a romance subplot, the weakest element, not because it exists, but in the way it is executed. Hugo is a young man working odd jobs for Vector (Mareshala Ali), a bit of a kingpin in Iron City. He runs the motorball arena, which is reminiscent of Rollerball but even more violent. Hugo believes that if he saves up enough money from doing work for Vector that he can earn his way to Zalem. Yeah, that’s not going to end well,  especially when Ido says if you are born on the surface you stay on the surface.

Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, a character not based on the manga but on the anime. The script, by James Cameron and others, makes her the estranged wife of Dr. Ido as well. Her character, as well as Ido were born on Zalem but were sent down because of their daughter’s physical disabilities. Her story contrasts with Ido in that she wants to get back to the floating city and works with Vector in the hopes of someday getting back.

Throughout though is the manipulative hand of Nova, a mysterious puppet-master looking down from Zalem who recognizes that Alita is a danger to the order of things and in true villain fashion keeps sending minions after her that fail.Ultimately it is a way to go from one action scene to the next.

These action scenes are without a doubt visually exciting to watch. Weta Digital outdid themselves in the execution of not only the fighting scenes but in the Motorball sequences. In between the action is the incredibly realized Iron City that is densely populated and has a lived in and worn look of a city that is still recovering from the aftereffects of a war that occurred 300 years ago. The manga itself can get gory and I think the only reason that the film adaptation did not get an R rating is because many of the bodies being ripped or heads being decapitated are machine bodies.

Robert Rodriguez seems to juggle everything well and bring a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi action film that fires on most cylinders. Despite how crowded the story is, and  even though the movie is self-contained, there is still an opening for a sequel. The end result is a movie that literally delivers on the strong kick-ass female led movie. It is also one of the few films in recent years to really take advantage of 3D and makes me wish I had a 3D television to watch this when it gets a home release.

I must say I originally had my doubts about yet another attempt at a western adaptation of a manga or anime. But Alita: Battle Angel won me over and shows that it is possible to do it when you have filmmakers that not only have a love of the subject but respect the source material as well. Highly Recommended

The Wandering Earth is China’s First Great Science Fiction Epic

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I have watched Asian cinema all my life. And Asia, let alone China, is not at the top of my list as a source for science fiction films using hard science and incorporating state of the art special effects that would rival that of big budget Hollywood productions. As much as I love my Godzilla films, the effects have always been sub par and the science dubious at best.

The Wandering Earth is China’s big attempt at serious science fiction. That is something that not even Hollywood gets behind much as much of the science fiction we get these days fall on the more action-adventure and space opera vein. Every once in a while we may get an Arrival or The Martian, both of which were based on written works.

Cixin Liu’s novella of the same name serves as the source material for The Wandering Earth and he acts as an Executive Producer. Liu is China’s best-selling science fiction author and whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) has achieved international acclaim including a Hugo award for The Three Body Problem. I find his writings to be very much like Arthur C. Clarke’s in vision and scope and it is apparent that classic Golden Age science fiction is an influence on his writing. The film, however, ends up flirting with the Roland Emmerlich territory of schmaltz and grandeur.

The film starts with title cards setting up that the sun is in its final stages of death and before dying off, will expand to engulf the inner planets. An ambitious plan is devised move the entire planet to the nearest star to survive. The journey will eventually take 2,500 years.

Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing lending star power and producer creds) is an astronaut who is about to embark on a mission in space where he will serve on space station that serves as a navigator for the earth. He promises to return to his young son Liu Qi that he will return when his time is up in 17 years. It is up to Han Zi’ang, the boy’s grandfather to raise him now.

Flash forward 17 years and we see that half the earth is peppered with 10,000 plateau sized engines with massive mountain sized ones encircling the equator. The surviving population (It’s implied that many were left on the surface and died) live underground near the engines. Liu Qi, now an adult drags his adopted sister Han Duoduo to the surface for no real discernible reason, actually. Outside of taking some kind of joyride in one of the massive ATV vehicles that services the local engine with fuel to burn, there is no reasoning for him wanting to stay up on the surface. They get busted for using his grandfather’s pass and gramps has to bail him out. In lockup next to Liu Qi is a, without explanation why, bi-racial Tim (played basically for comic relief by Chinese American Mike Sui).

As earth approaches Jupiter to take advantage of its massive gravity to help sling it out of the solar system, the effect of the gas giant’s gravity causes massive quakes across the globe shutting off many engines. It’s amidst this that our earthbound protagonists find themselves involved in a cold icy road trip to an engine in Shanghai with a maguffin to ignite it.

Meanwhile, on the navigation ship, the AI has determined that Jupiter’s gravity spike will actually pull the earth in and kill everyone so it enacts emergency protocols that require the crew to go into hibernation. True to science fiction trope and probably due to the fact that the ship’s AI, MOSS, looks quite a bit like HAL from 2001, things are not what they seem on the ship.

The movie goes from one bad situation to another until the end where true to most Chinese big budget films of late, only by cooperation, teamwork, struggle, and sacrifice can the world be saved.

Frant Gwo is not known for directing science fiction or big budget films and though he does a good job of visuals it seems as if he is padding a story that could be told a lot simpler to stretch it out to a two-hour runtime. Along the way will be clichés of the absent farther and resentment for that and a bit of Chinese nationalism. You can see influence from disaster epics from Roland Emmerlich and Michael Bay. But you can also see problem solving as in Apollo 13 or The Martian. The visual effects and set pieces are stunning and it is hard to believe that such impressive visuals were achieved on the equivalent of a $50 million budget. The image of Jupiter and its giant storm eye looming over a frozen earth is a stunning sight.

The script is a bit more convoluted than it needs to be and since it is marketed for a Chinese New Year release, of course several references to the Lunar New Year are thrown in about coming home, family, and hope for a better future. Yes it is very cheesy at times, but no more than any other epic disaster movie.

I do recommend reading the source material as it is only a scat 45 pages. The movie differs greatly from it in many aspects and basically uses the premise and some scenes as the basic core of the story.

The Wandering Earth is presented mainly in Mandarin with smatterings of other international languages like Russian, French, even Malay. The English subtitles are well done for the most part except for just a couple of syntax errors. And to reach an even wider Chinese audience, Chinese subtitles are above the English ones for non-Mandarin speakers. It is on its way to becoming either the biggest or second biggest grossing Chinese film ever.

It is not a perfect film but it is epic in scope and quite an achievement visually and its core story is quite good even if some of the dialogue can come across as corny. It is worth seeing in the theater for the visuals alone. Recommended.

 

Review: The Kid Who Would be King

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There is something about The Kid Who Would be King gets right that other King Arthur movies don’t. It embraces the ideology and mythology of King Arthur. It doesn’t try to be realistic or gritty. But instead it is a source of hope and inspiration. Some of my favorite fantasy books have been based on the Arthurian legends. Some of the screen adaptations have not faired so well, though. Sure Excalibur is a classic, but some of it is a bit silly. Merlin was a decent retelling and straight up Fantasy for the BBC.

After a brief prologue that sets the background for this particular take on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we are introduced to Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a twelve-year-old boy being raised by a single mother and attending middle school in London. He and his best friend, Bedders are both the subject of bullying by fellow classmates,  Lance and Kaye.

The world is a dark place: international strife; global conflicts; basically our real world. And anybody who is familiar with Arthurian lore knows that after his last battle, and near death, Arthur is taken away to Avalon where his wounds will be healed and in a time of our darkest need, the King will return to fight the forces of evil.

One day, while running away from them, Alex finds himself at a construction site where he encounters a sword embedded into a block of  concrete. The inevitable happens and Alex pulls the sword out. (I seriously heard Wagner’s music in my head from Excalibur as this was happening.) After taking it home and running the engraving through Google Translate — come on, it’s still a kids movie after all — they find that it says it is Excalibur the sword of King Arthur. Alex playfully knights his best mate, Bedders.

Meanwhile deep beneath the earth, Morgana, the half-sister and eternal enemy of Arthur is awakening and sends he minions after Arthur to retrieve Excalibur. At Stonehenge, Merlin, in the guise of a teenager appears to aid Arthur. He suffers from a bit of time confusion as he is not quite assimilated to the timeline yet. But he makes his way to Arthur and Bedders’ school. Using his powers, he joins the school as a transfer student. It is revealed that in four days a total lunar eclipse will occur and that is when Morgana will reappear fully on earth.

What follows is Alex eventually recruiting Lance and Kaye as knights to aid him on a quest to find his absent father, who happens to live in Titagel, legendary home of Camelot. Knighting his companions also allows them to see the dark minions that periodically attack Arthur and Bedders as when they appear, time freezes and no one else can see them.

The story focuses on the need to not only work together despite differences but to also believe that the world can be a better place. Along the way, the uneasy friendship that Lance and Kaye have with Alex and Bedders will be tested as well as Alex’s belief in himself.

As the time of the eclipse draws to a mere few hours away, Alex must convince and recruit an army to defend the world from the evil of Morgana. So what better place to recruit an army but school? In a stretch of the suspension of disbelief, even for a fantasy film, an army of middle schoolers are armed, trained, and set up a fortifications and traps to await Morgana’s army.

This movie had so many opportunities to go sideways but it has a charming cast, a competent script and deft direction. Patrick Stewart, who doesn’t seem to age unless it’s through make-up, is on hand as the older version of Merlin. He pops up every once in a while to render some sage advice. It is ironic that he was also in probably the last good King Arthur movie, Excalibur, as Uriens. Freshman actor Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis) delivers a heartfelt performance as the boy who does not want to be king eventually embraces his Once and Future King mantle. Dean Chaumoo, another new actor, provides a believable portrayal as Alex’s best mate. Rebecca Fergusen, who has been appearing quite a bit in movies such as Mission: Impossible – Fallout and The Greatest Showman makes for a very dark and threatening Morgana.

The Kid Who Would be King is definitely entertaining and if you have young ones, I think they will enjoy it. If you are young at heart, you can sit back and have a good time too.

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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Normally, I’m writing about geek and genre things, science fiction, fantasy, anime, etc. Things that go boom and make your eyes bleed with in-your-face special effects. Most of the time, they won’t get any sort of awards come awards season, unless they are for technical achievement. There are a lot of people who only watch these kind of movies. And then they wonder why critics lambast genre films.

If Beale Street Could Talk is one of those films that is pure cinema. Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it is a film that is complex, yet is broken down to the most simplistic idea that love is a powerful force that gives hope and strength to even the most broken of people.

Kiki Layne plays Clementine, called Tish who is having a baby. But her fiance is currently in jail awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit.  Alonzo, or Fonny as he is known is played by Stephen James. Through a series of flashbacks their love story is revealed to us. From when they were growing ups as little kids to their teen years, it appears as if they are destined to be together forever. Lonny shows promise as a sculptor and they plan on finding a loft together as man and wife together in a loft as is the way of so many artists. It’s a simple dream, but it’s also the early 70’s. This is reflected in a scene taken almost verbatim from James Baldwin’s novel:

“They got lofts standing empty all over the East Side, man, and don’t nobody want to rent them, except freaks like me. And they all fire traps and some of them ain’t even got no toilets. So, you figure like finding a loft ain’t going to be no sweat.” He lights the cigarette, takes a drag, and hands it to Daniel. “But, man – this country really do not like niggers. They do not like niggers so bad, man, they will rent to a leper first. I swear.”

The underlying story behind this tale of love is Baldwin’s examination of being black in America, not only of the racial tensions and the injustice of the criminal system, but of the bonds of family that can serve to unite as well as divide

Though the film features exceptional performances from its leads of James and Layne, it is very much an ensemble film with performances that ring emotionally authentic. But Regina King as Tish’s mother delivers an exceptional performance as a strong mother that is the backbone of the family and even has to travel to Puerto Rico where the victim of Fonny’s alleged crime has fled.

There is also a memorable cameo by Diego Luna as Pedrocito, the restaurant owner with a golden heart, and friend of Fonny.

Director, Barry Jenkins, whose last movie Moonlight, won an Academy Award for Best Picture, does a good job of going from flashbacks to present. His script adaptation wisely chooses to stick mostly to Baldwin’s excellent way with words. Though if you have read the book, there are some slight differences in then ending. This could not have been done without the smart editing by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders.

James Laxton’s cinematography should bon noted for creating scenes of dreamlike near fairy tale quality while interspersing with stark scenes described by Tish of the injustice of the way black men are treated, through still photos.

It may seem like If Beale Street Could Talk is a dark movie, certainly there is dark material here. But the is love that permeates every inch of this film gives hope. And that hope makes the film all the stronger. Highly Recommended.

Review: The Hollywood Jim Crow

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Maryann Erigha has definitely done quite a bit of research for her book, The Hollywood Jim Crow. It’s an open secret that Hollywood has embedded in itself a racial belief and divide that with a few exceptions, Black directed and starred films are not bankable. Though primarily focused on Blacks in the film industry, the author tangentially applies this to Asian and Hispanic led films.

This idea is challenged with researched numbers dispelling this idea, though. Not only do Black helmed films do well, they proportionally outperform. The author primarily focuses on Hollywood’s treatment of Black directors and studio reluctance to dole out films of significant budgets to black directors. I do not dispute that there is significant racial bias in favor of white filmmakers, the numbers prove the author right. Of course there is a reason Peter Jackson directed all three Lord of the Rings movies, he was also the producer and writer. It was his project from the get go. That it ended up as big a budget and as huge a franchise as it ended up being was a gamble that paid off. Erigha used this as an example without the context of the background.

In bringing up Black Panther, the author points out that it took Marvel and Disney eighteen movies to hire a Black director for their films. Without a doubt, Black Panther was a financial success and it scored well critically as well. And let’s face some reality about Marvel movies, part of their success is their ability to fit as a whole narrative almost like a multi-part single movie. Directors are basically work for hire executing a big narrative. There is very little reason for this sort of racial disparity.

Those are blockbusters and The Hollywood Jim Crow points out as many successes as “bankable” stars or directors have had, their have been just as many flops. Yet Hollywood still hands out the big bucks and the projects. There was hesitation of having Denzel Washington star in The Equalizer, for instance. Now, Denzel Washington is probably one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, yet Hollywood still has this belief that a person of color can’t carry an action film, especially overseas. It did quite well. And for the first time in Washington’s long career, he signed on for a sequel.

As it is, studio execs, either purposefully or not, have little to no faith in films by Black filmmakers or starring Black actors in lead roles. And when those films come around, they are lower in budget and given less marketing than their equivalent movies of similar budget. Filmmakers like Tyler Perry have had more consistent profit in the box office despite lower market saturation. Is it because he appeals to a niche market and his films will only be as profitable as what his lower budgets are? We don’t know that for sure.

Although Erigha presents her facts well, at times, those facts are repeated a few pages later. Also, I did have some confusion on whether it was a good thing that Black directors were given projects with primarily White casts or not. Also the book does mention that many Black directors are pigeon-holed into making Black-urban films – characters struggling to get out of their “ghetto” life.  To me, those are fine films but it’s the same as asking a Chinese actor if they can perform martial arts for their character. One anecdote from a director says “I make movies about human.” And the human experience as far as cinema is concerned encompasses every experience of our lives. A recent example from this year of a human story, but also a Black story is the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk.

The book is definitely an academic work. The dead giveaway is that it is published by NYU Press. The Subject matter is compelling and certainly relatable, but at times it does come across as dry. It relies on published anecdotes, and figures but  does not seem to reach out to some of the personalities that the author talks about. It would have been nice to hear from Spike Lee or Chris Rock directly for the book rather than rely on previous interviews. It may have provided more current perspectives, if only a few comments.

Not mentioned in the book as much is also the way Asian actors and directors have been treated in Hollywood. As big a star as Jackie Chan is, he’s never had his own starring vehicle and been paired with a partner for market purposes. It is only recently in the rather serious film from him The Foreigner that he was the main lead, albeit, Pierce Brosnan was the villain. Asian directors, such as Justin Lin, and James Wan have had better success, though. That success in getting the big budget films comes from someone at one time giving them that big budget seat at the table. Not everyone gets that chance.

In the end, much of the author’s arguments are a call to action for better representation not only in the director’s char but in the studio boardroom as well. It is about the money, but that buttresses against old Hollywood beliefs about marketability and bankability. There is quite a lot to digest in such a short book, but it is well worth a read and a read on hand reference for those who don’t buy into the myth that people of color don’ make money in the box office.

I received The Hollywood Jim Crow as an advanced galley through edelweiss.com but it does not effect the positives I feel for this book. It is educational and well-informed. It could have even been wider in scope. But the author made a conscious choice to focus primarily on Black filmmakers and I don’t fault that choice. It is well worth a read.

It is my hope that studio execs give this a read or at least get an intern to read and summarize for them, because it holds a mirror to Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to representation behind the camera and within the industry. I seriously doubt it though. But as demographics change, Hollywood will have to as well if they want to stay profitable.