Monday, September 16, 2019

Fried Green Tomatoes

The film that makes me cry: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Rebecca Nicholson took some time to figure out the true meaning of this sentimental story of female strength and love – and then she wept even harder

‘Love is love, and true happiness, however brief, is always possible’ … Mary-Louise Parker as Ruth Jamison and (right) Mary Stuart Masterson as Idgie Threadgoode. Photograph: ITV/REX 

When my mum moved house recently, for the first time in years, she handed me a box of junk and asked me to either bin it or take it back to London with me: excruciating teenage poetry, letters from my first summer away from home, postcards of Green Day, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, and a few promotional film posters that I used to get from the video shop in town. Along with The Craft and 10 Things I Hate About You, I found Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, a southern story so unapologetically sentimental that even the soft-focus women’s-mag artwork brings a tear to my eye. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), in her post-makeover power suit, leans on the shoulder of Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), and is carried through her menopausal breakdown by the love story of Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgoode, who smile behind them, not yet ripped apart by the cruellest cancer in cinematic history.

When I was 12, Fried Green Tomatoes was my favourite film. To prove my devotion I almost wore out the VHS that I had taped from a late-night Channel 4 screening. My mum said she didn’t know how I could watch it so often. Years later, I found the answer. When I was 19 and at university, I made one of my housemates watch it with me. He informed me that I loved it because it was the gayest film of all time.

“What? No! Shut up!” I said, when he pointed it out during a scene in which Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) go for a platonic picnic, and there’s a pointed close-up of Ruth dipping her fingers into a pot of honey. I was doing an English degree at the time, which is remarkable, given my failure to grasp basic subtext. From then on I watched it with open eyes. The food fight on a hot, sweaty afternoon, in which they smear fruit across each other’s mouths then collapse onto the floor? Ah. That drunken peck on the cheek while they literally dip their toes in the water? I see. (In 2006, a documentary called Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema got to this point more quickly than I had, explaining that the source novel was explicitly about a romance between Ruth and Idgie, and that the film had toned it right down to inference, in order to give it more of a family appeal.)

I loved them when I thought they were just very good friends who had chosen to open a cafe together (and live together and raise a child together and be together forever), but I loved them even more when I realised that I had been growing up with a sneakily non-heteronormative portrait of romantic happiness. Towards the end of the movie, it looks as if everything is going to be OK. Ruth’s abusive husband, who had brought the Ku Klux Klan to town, has been murdered (which we fully support, because he is horrible), and Big George and Idgie are cleared of the deed in a court of law, so there’s a happily-ever-after in sight. “Till that fall, when Ruth lost her appetite …”

On any typical viewing, by this bit, I have already cried at Buddy Sr getting run over by a train, at Evelyn being ignored by her sports-slob husband as she tries to revive their marriage by means of an innovative use of clingfilm, at the story of Ninny’s love for her now-deceased disabled son, and at that scene where Evelyn is sworn at in the supermarket by a rude young man and then her bags rip open. But I am never too wrung out to resist the huge, all-encompassing sobs that take me over when Ruth finally shuffles off this mortal coil, as Idgie tells her a silly old story about geese taking a frozen lake with them all the way from Alabama to Georgia. “Miss Ruth was a lady, and a lady always knows when to leave,” says Sipsy, as she draws the curtains, at which point I can no longer see or breathe. Idgie, the bee charmer, has lost her soulmate. Who will appreciate her fashion-forward dungarees, no-socks, boxy shirts look now? (An important note: in its final shot, the film implies that Jessica Tandy’s character is Idgie, which annoys me, because earlier, she clearly states that she married Idgie’s brother and I feel like it’s a con that takes advantage of the more casual viewer.)
I’ve cried at a lot of films since – notably Stepmom, Steel Magnolias and the first 15 minutes of Up – but no movie death has ever come close to causing the devastation I still feel when Ruth croakily asks Idgie to tell her one last story. I can’t imagine I will ever get over it. But I am grateful to them both for the message, more implied than explicit, that love is love and that true happiness, however brief, is always possible.

Monday, September 9, 2019

"The General" - An Appreciation

Buster Keaton’s The General 

Yeah, it’s silent. So what? You’ll barely notice. It’s that good.


Monday, September 2, 2019

"Searching" and the Future of Film

John Cho Sees the Future of Film in ‘Searching’ and Its Colorblind Casting
The Indie Spirit nominee is still taken with Aneesh Chaganty's clever screen-centric thriller, but its forward-thinking goes beyond just cool technology. 

Dec 13, 2018 2:00 pm

The technological demands of Aneesh Chaganty’s feature directorial debut “Searching” were profound. A computer-screen thriller that unfolds on various displays, zinging from laptop to laptop and back again, Chaganty’s film required a canny handle on technology and the way it looks and moves, but it also needed an actor able to root the family-centric film in emotion and humanity.

That came from the inspired casting of the always-reliable John Cho as David Kim, a recent widower who must use all his smarts (and a ton of literal screen time) to find his missing teenage daughter Margot. The “Star Trek” and “Columbus” actor delivered, turning in a nuanced performance in a film that could have been dominated by on-screen wizardry.

While a film like “Searching” could impress by virtue of craftsmanship and technology that makes it feel so contemporary and true-to-life — this is the rare internet-centric film that utilizes existing apps and websites, no weird “Facebook” knockoffs here — the casting of Cho allowed Chaganty’s feature to tap into modern sensibilities in another way. Cho, a Korean-American actor, has always mixed up his roles, from those that hinge on his cultural background (from the “Harold and Kumar” films to Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow”) and those that don’t (like Kogonada’s “Columbus” and his early supporting work in the “American Pie” series).

“Searching” fell under the latter categorization, a film in which Cho’s race wasn’t baked into the narrative and a colorblind casting that he’s hoping to see more of in Hollywood.

“When you’re shooting, it’s all about, ‘Does this moment work? Will people understand this? Are we telling that story correctly?,'” said Cho. “But, particularly after Sundance, I began to think about what this movie meant. For me, it’s like the movie behaves as if we’re past all the firsts, you know what I mean? We’ve sort of had the discussion and we agreed that it’s okay for an Asian to be in any kind of movie and this is the movie that’s been made. To me, it’s like a movie from the future in that regard.”

The film premiered under the title “Search” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it was quickly picked up by Sony’s Screen Gems arm. The studio released the indie in late August, where it went on to make more than $70 million worldwide. Not bad for a film that reportedly cost about $1 million to make. Cho’s recent Indie Spirit nomination for Best Male Lead, pitting him against contenders like Ethan Hawke and Joaquin Phoenix, took him by surprise, but it also reminded Cho of just how exceptional the film has proven to be.

“I didn’t know that I was in the mix, I didn’t know that was possible,” he said. “So that was a total surprise. I feel like it legitimized our film, which could be seen as sort of adjacent to horror, which I think is a completely legitimate genre but also sort of ignored by critics. Our movie is so unusual that it might not even look like a traditional independent film. It certainly doesn’t look like a traditional studio film, but it’s so unusual in its look that I didn’t think people would see it as what we’re supposed to expect of independent cinema.”

For Cho, who has long moved between indie films and studio pictures, the expectations that scared him about the role were rooted in the demands of making a film that takes place on computer screens. For the majority of the feature, his David is stuck staring into his and Margot’s laptop screens, only occasionally interacting with others through chats, emails, and “live” videos. It’s insular work.

“The problem was I didn’t have any people to look at for the most part, and that was extremely difficult for me, to feel like I was connected,” Cho said. “I think you rely on looking into another soul to verify that you’re connected with that person and make the scene authentic. … I felt like I had to develop a much more intimate relationship with the director. I had to rely on him for the geography of the screen, because they were all plot points and everything was all these micro movements that were so important. Whereas on a traditional set, I think my strongest relationships are with the actors, on this one my strongest relationship was with the director. We just had to become very close.”

Cho is eager to deflect praise to not only Chaganty, but also to the rest of the creative team that made his performance look so good inside a universe that was created and constructed long after he had filmed his scenes.

“There’s a world in which all of the graphics don’t look that good,” he said. “I was very happy when I saw the film, it was so thought out. I was really so deeply impressed the time put into those web pages and the depth of characterization. A really glancing scroll through Facebook represented so much thought, because you’ll see five profiles and each profile was a different photograph they had to take and they had to decide on a pose and different likes and dislikes and all that stuff. It just has a real respect for characters.”

While computer-screen films haven’t yet exploded as a singular genre, there have been other success stories, like the horror franchise “Unfriended” and Timur Bekmambetov’s thriller “Profile.” 

(Bekmambetov also produced “Searching” and has been vocal about his dedication to making a ton more screen films in the coming years.) For Cho, the recent uptick in such films has been a matter of not only technology catching up, but also the public understanding how it can all work as entertainment.

“I don’t think we could’ve made this movie even five years ago, because there was like the collective vocabulary of the public wasn’t there when it came to our computer literacy,” Cho said. “Now it’s there, but because we’re all caught up, you have to be sharp and you have to be real and you can’t do anything false. You can’t make false movements in that zone. … I feel like moving forward, there will be so many more screens presented in films. I think it’ll be a separate department.”

Cho also thinks the tide is turning when it comes to the other kind of on-screen representation that “Searching” so easily utilized. Recent blockbuster successes like “Black Panther,” “Get Out,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Wonder Woman” prove that diverse films can make a lot of money, while a 2017 study crunched the numbers and came to the same conclusion.

“I think it’s just the age, this is a guess, but it’s the age of the people who control the pursestrings,” he said. “I think with the fracturing of the film business’ economy, there’s not really an incentive to be false about representation. I think the incentive is to be more authentic, more real, and represent more accurately what’s happening in society. I’m kind of bullish on the future now in a way that I wasn’t even five to 10 years ago.”

With over 20 years of acting experience, Cho resists the idea that he’s gotten more picky as his star has risen. Instead, he offers that his success comes from something more personal, the kind of emotional intelligence that made his work in “Searching” so compelling.

“I feel like it’s more being older and being comfortable with leaning into my instincts and looking for things that speak to me on a personal level,” he said. “That’s what it is now. It’s not so much being choosy as it is following my heart on these things. Sounds false, but it really isn’t. I’m trying to be less strategic about things and not ask the question, ‘What should I be doing next?,’ but I find myself asking the question, ‘What connection do I have to this material? How can I contribute?’ “He added with a laugh, “I’m gratified to say that I feel like that not thinking about the career has paid off in the sense that it’s been good for my career.”

"Searching" Fall 2019

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Welcome to the Fall Edition of Intro Film at RWU

This Fall Semester promises to be filled with quite an amazing roster of films and programming to whet your appetite. Hopefully, these will serve to inspire the discovery of both old and new films hitherto not seen.

Our journey has begun.

Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019



Director Barry Jenkins summons James Baldwin’s spirit in his adaptation of the author’s 1974 book, “If Beale Street Could Talk” by immediately quoting him onscreen: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” For Baldwin, Beale Street doesn’t just run through Memphis, Tennessee; it runs through the DNA of African-Americans, a symbol of our shared experience in these United States. Although we are not monolithic in thought, we are all beholden to the issues Baldwin interrogated and challenged with the words he spoke and wrote, issues like racism, injustice and so on.

History at large is written by the victors, but Black history is protected and passed on by our storytellers, the folks—famous and not—whose life lessons filled in the blanks for what was so often missing from, or corrupted by, the general narrative. The stories of our ancestors’ trials and tribulations form a generational artery that can never be severed so long as there is someone left to tell the tale.

Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout “If Beale Street Can Talk” is a wise one. We feel Baldwin’s gaze whenever the director and his cinematographer James Laxton execute the director’s trademark of having his actors look into the camera. The lovers at the heart of this story are technically staring at each other—and by extension, at us—with a devotion that is as tactile as the image itself. Like all love stories, this one occasionally takes fluttery flight, triggered by the gentlest and most subtle of gestures and emotions. But even at his most romantic, Baldwin never let the reader fall too deeply into the starry-eyed ether; the barbed scorpion’s tail of harsh reality remains ever-present, waiting to strike at any moment and break the spell. This realism is rendered in such matter-of-fact fashion that it becomes smoothly woven into the narrative without artifice.

The first words we see are by Baldwin, as are the first words we hear. Tish (KiKi Layne, making a stunning feature debut) utters a sentence you can find on page four of the book: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” The beloved person under glass is Fonny (Stephan James), her boyfriend and the father of her unborn child. Fonny is incarcerated for a rape he did not commit. Each time the film visits him in prison, we’re reminded of the cruelly taunting symbolism of Baldwin’s line. Glass is transparent to the eye but impervious to the touch; a lover’s embrace is so close and yet so far away.

But there is no “woe-is-me”-style posturing in these scenes. Instead, Fonny and Tish find a semblance of normalcy tinged with sadness and elevated by hope. Sometimes the duo even laugh at situations that arise, sharing the gallows humor entrenched in the lives of the oppressed or downtrodden. This kind of dark humor snakes its way through “If Beale Street Could Talk,” sometimes finding itself in a release of relief, other times getting caught in one’s throat when situations suddenly become tense. This film knows that suffering and joy are strange bedfellows, opposites that are quite often prone to finding each other, sometimes within the same beat.

Thankfully, Fonny is not kept behind bars for the length of the film, as the retelling of his love story allows Jenkins to fiddle with the timeframe. We see the evolution of Fonny and Tish, first as rebellious, somewhat antagonistic children and later as devoted soulmates. In those latter scenes of burgeoning affection, Jenkins orchestrates a sense of pace and timing that, abetted by Nicholas Britell’s excellent score, makes the viewer swoon. There’s a woozy affectation to these moments—as Alan Jay Lerner once wrote, it’s almost like being in love. So whenever the narrative shifts back to Fonny trapped behind that glass, the result has a shattering effect on us.

Surrounding the leads are their respective, supportive families. Played by a murderers’ row of superb character actors led by the brilliant Regina King, the parents and siblings of Fonny and Tish are as memorable and well-drawn as the main characters. We meet Tish’s family first. Her parents, Sharon and Joseph (King and Colman Domingo, respectively) and her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) hear about Tish’s pregnancy first. The sequence unfolds in meticulously crafted moments that almost feel sculpted by Jenkins and his actors, none of whom are afraid of the awkward pauses that would realistically inhabit this type of discussion.

King plays this scene as if she already knows what her daughter has to tell her. When Tish calls to her mother before pausing to formulate her thoughts, Sharon’s “yes, baby?” response is so delicate, so impeccably rendered that we’re stunned that King could wring that much maternal love out of two words. Parris adds even more power to the moment. “Unbow your head, sister,” she says with a fierceness meant to instill pride. The bond between these women feels unbreakable, a testament to the actors who build it in such a short period of time.

Ernestine also serves as a bit of comic relief in the extremely tense meeting that takes place once James decides to invite Fonny’s parents over to share the news. Fonny’s parents are played by Michael Beach and the always welcome Aunjanue Ellis. They are joined by Fonny’s sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne). While the men get along like a house on fire, there’s a palpable tension amongst the women, who seem to tolerate one another less robustly than the men do. The Hunt women clearly think they’re better, and Tish’s pregnancy will give them something to gloat about for sure.

Since this parental meeting is the novel’s most memorable scene, Jenkins’ casting reveals itself to be very clever, especially if you are familiar with the actors. Beach is always shorthand for somebody trifling, Domingo is boisterous yet no-nonsense and Ellis is a master at quickly defining her pride-filled characters. The Hunts are a Sanctified bunch who will immediately inspire nods of recognition for anyone with Sanctified relatives, though Mr. Hunt is definitely not a strict follower of this religious doctrine. When things come to a vicious boil, it’s one of those moments where big laughs give way to even bigger shocks. Though Jenkins tones down Baldwin’s verbal vitriol, the scene lands just as effectively as it does in the book.

Fonny and Tish have their own memorable scenes together, from their first night of lovemaking to their attempt to rent an apartment in a neighborhood whose renters do not want them there. This latter scene features Dave Franco in a landlord role that at first felt like stunt casting (the critics at my screening audibly groaned, in fact). But he, Layne and James create this ebullient, magical scene of pantomime that in lesser hands would come off as silly and trite. It’s the film’s most joyful moment. But again, we know what lies ahead for Fonny, so an underlying sadness is also present.

Though “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a series of vignettes, it holds together better than most films of this type. Each separate piece is tethered to the dual running threads of its love story and its tale of injustice. Though there are White cops in the latter story who are clearly villainous, the mistaken rape victim is also a person of color who has escaped back to Puerto Rico to deal with her trauma. This development sends Sharon to Puerto Rico to attempt to bring her back so she can exonerate Fonny. Before trying to find this woman, Sharon contemplates how she should dress. This scene unfolds wordlessly, yet King plays it so physically well that no words are necessary. There’s an unapologetic Blackness to her thought process as she decides whether to wear a wig or her natural hair—it’s the hairstyle equivalent of code-shifting—and what she settles on seems right, at least in that moment.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” leaves the viewer with feelings of anger at the fate society forces Fonny to accept, but it also conjures up some optimism for his and Tish’s future. This isn’t a happy film but it isn’t a hopeless one, either. The most striking thing that you’ll take with you is that Baldwin’s novel was written 44 years ago, but it’s just as timely now. Not much has changed for people of color, which probably wouldn’t surprise the author. And yet, he’d demand we not give up. This film powerfully conveys that message. The struggle is real, but so is the joy. We live, we laugh, we love and we die. But we are not gone. Our story continues, carried onward by our storytellers.

"if beale street could talk" Trailer