BASED ON: Life on the Cross in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), based on a James Baldwin novel of the same title. (Warning: rated R. Even more graphic content in the novel.)

The works of James Baldwin have seen a resurgence in recent years. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary told solely through the words of Baldwin: his essays, interviews, lectures and other non-fiction works. Both the film and the primary sources pack a great deal of political power.

I was unaware of his fictional writings until the release of the critically claimed and awards nominated film, If Beale Street Could Talk. Upon reading the book, I realized the story was unique in that it was essentially a story devoid of a structure. By non-structure, I mean that it did not follow typical Western literature rules such as act structure and character arcs.

In the briefest of summaries, the first half of the book deals with a young African-American couple falling in love … much to the chagrin of the young man’s devout mother. What follows is a graphic description of the consummation of that lust. The second half of the novel commences after a corrupt policeman frames the young man for a sexual assault. The families attempt to exact some justice, hiring a well-intentioned lawyer, and going so far as taking an out-of-country trip to find the alleged female victim, but they’re ultimately trapped in limbo. The young woman and her son long for a husband and father unjustly separated from them. A third act never materializes.

A novelist, essayist, activist and playwright, Baldwin’s words posses more of a stark and objective reality. Barry Jenkins’ big screen adaptation provides more artful fine strokes. His cinematography captures some of the more beautiful compositions in a film from last year. The principal characters, after all are themselves beautiful. Even in the prison scenes that conclude the film, the young man is shown weary, but his good looks are retained, only assuming a more rugged quality.

The editing as well, reinforces the non-story structure. The incident of police corruption and brutality fractures the two families’ worlds. The resulting non-linear flashback style, then serves its dramatic purpose. Jenkins improves upon the Baldwin work, a novel written almost exclusively in temporal order.

Thematically, the book and film achieve their greatest feat. Beale Street avoids the path (pun intended) that another period film, The Favourite, unfortunately takes. Even if ahistorical, the three female characters in The Favourite behave badly in their ruling of Great Britain, given license, I suppose because men did the same in the dynasties prior. Women acting like men, I would venture, hardly constitutes a feminist story ,as nothing really pertaining to womanhood is depicted.

Jenkins’ story and its underlying lack of traditional structure however, capture the minority experience of America. In many cases, the director posits, African-Americans are deprived the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The key lies in the title, Beale Street, a familiar cultural marker in the black community. Jenkins phrases the title as a question: “If” blacks didn’t have the system rigged against them, maybe the “talking” of the stories could display complete, three-act, happily-ever-afters.

Alas, for now, it seems such stories will remain akin to something a wise priest once told me in seminary. Especially, in the developing world, some people don’t experience a resurrection in this lifetime. They’re born suffering and die in suffering. Perhaps, too with Jenkins’ sobering film, we see a  birth of the two-act structure: stories that begin and end on the cross.

Image: Annapurna Pictures

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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Oscars Not Neighborly to Mr. Rogers Doc ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”/Focus Features

The Academy Award nominations came out today, and as always, there are complaints about snubs, but the omission of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from the Best Documentary list is a sad moment for gentle, uplifting films.

This isn’t to say that the films that got nods are slackers. Here they are (with a link to something interesting about them):

Free Solo

Follows the free-climbing (that is, climbing precipitous heights without a rope) adventures of Alex Honnold, with a insight into his high-risk psychology.

Click here for an in-depth review from Climbing.com.

Minding the Gap

Filmmaker Bing Liu chronicles the bond among himself and his skateboarding buddies from the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois — along with their family and personal issues.

Click here for a review from Justin Chang, the Los Angeles Times‘ critic (who’s also Christian).

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Directed by RaMell Ross, who moved to Hale County, Alabama, in 2009 to coach basketball and teach photography, and then created a lyrical portrait of African-American life in the South.

Click here for NPR‘s review, and here for one from National Review.

Of Fathers and Sons

Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki looks at a jihadi father raising sons in northern Syria.

Click here for a review from when it showed at Sundance.

RBG

Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West profile Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Click here for a review at AVClub.com that doesn’t exactly love it.

Short of asking individual Academy members, we may never know why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — which received glowing reviews, even from me — didn’t make the cut.

But I do have some speculations:

  • Fred Rogers was a Christian. That isn’t overemphasized in the film, but it comes through clearly. On top of that, he was a Christian who acted like one. He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to live out his faith. That may be a plus with God or with us, but it doesn’t likely impress the average Academy voter. If he’d been a bad, hypocritical Christian, then maybe …
  • The documentary didn’t try to deconstruct Rogers, tear him down or reveal his dirty secrets. He didn’t really seem to have any of note. As I said, the film is “a love letter to a gentle, thoughtful, kind man who was pretty much as he appeared to be, and who cared deeply about small children.”
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tackles issues like race and sexuality — in the person of Rogers’ adoring gay co-star Francois Clemmons — with great sensitivity and a minimum of rancor. So, it’s not courting controversy, and that’s not in its favor.
  • Rogers didn’t have a major fall from grace — prison, an illness, drug addiction and so on — that forced him to rise from the ashes. That always makes for more compelling film, especially with Oscar voters.
  • It’s a beautiful-looking film, but it doesn’t feature soaring vistas (like Free Solo) or take us to strange worlds (like Of Fathers and Sons) or profile a political and judicial icon with a job that affects all Americans (like RBG). It may be that Fred Rogers’ world just isn’t exciting enough to merit an Oscar nom.

No doubt there are many other worthy films that didn’t get nominations either. But wouldn’t it be great if a lovely film about a good and gentle man made the cut? After all, it’s not like we’re hearing about them every day.

The documentary will air Feb. 9 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series. It also debuts that night on HBO.

Image: Focus Features

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

‘Project Blue Book’s’ Catholic Actor Neal McDonough: ‘Go Out and Sin One Less Time Today’

Neal McDonough has gotten a lot of attention lately for saying he lost a Hollywood job because he wouldn’t do a love scene — but this is nothing new for the devoutly Catholic actor.

McDonough currently stars as General James Harding in the History Channel Tuesday-night UFO drama Project Blue Book, but my entertainment-journalist history with him goes back to the 1990s (click here for one of those stories). In a recent interview with Yahoo.com, McDonough talked about being replaced on a short-lived ABC show called Scoundrels because he wouldn’t do a sex scene.

“I was [surprised], and it was a horrible situation for me,” McDonough said. “After that, I couldn’t get a job because everybody thought I was this religious zealot. I am very religious. I put God and family first and me second. That’s what I live by. It was hard for a few years. Then [Band of Brothers producer] Graham Yost called me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to be the bad guy on Justified. I knew that was my shot back at the title.”

Back in 2016, I spoke to McDonough for Greater, the faith-and-football film he starred in and produced (currently available to stream on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and Hulu). Click here for what he had to say about the movie, but here are some excerpts from our conversation, originally posted right on this blog.

With his bleached-blond hair (first acquired to play World War II hero Buck Compton in Band of Brothers) and ice-blue eyes, McDonough often plays the bad guy. But in real life, he’s a devout Catholic and a political conservative — and one of the nicest guys I ever met in Hollywood.

But, being true to the Faith does carry a price in all aspects of life, and the entertainment industry is no different — especially when you’re a married man with mouths to feed.

Said McDonough on what he will and won’t do:

Two rules. I don’t use the Lord’s name in vain on TV or movies, and I don’t have sex scenes. How do I work as an actor after that? Okay, I’m the bad guy. I tell you, with five kids, I’ve got to keep working.

I’ve got to pay those bills. Every time I have a job, I have to figure out how to be the most creative and fun guy and great performance and all that stuff. Aside from that, I just love doing what I do. I have a great time doing it, and I’m blessed beyond belief to have the opportunity to keep working. I mean, this is 30 years in the business of constantly working on whatever. It’s been awesome.

On the advice given to him by Father Colm O’Ryan, pastor emeritus of Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills (where he married his South African wife, Ruve Robertson):

Go out and sin one less time today. Go out and drink one less drink today. Go out and do these things one less time today, and you’ll be doing your job as a child of God. That’s what he’s about. That’s what I try to do after I get to play bad guys on TVs and movies.

On working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, with fellow Catholic Kevin James:

We had Mass every day at lunch.

We hired the biggest suite at the Wynn Hotel. We’d fly priests in. We’d have Mass every day during the filming of this in Las Vegas at the Wynn Hotel.

Not for gambling, but for God. It was phenomenal. Kevin James — not only one of the greatest actors on set, but one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. Gosh, what an amazing human being to do that. “All right, everyone in the cast, everyone in the crew. You want Mass? It’s going to be in suite 306. Let’s have at it. Every day.”

Is it a challenge to be a faithful Catholic in Hollywood? Sure. And sometimes you may have to make tough choices about roles. But as McDonough shows, it can be done.

As you can see from his role in Project Blue Book, McDonough is still making it work in Tinseltown. If you stand on principle, you’re going to lose some roles, but if you’re good, more will come.

Image: History Channel

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

BASED ON: Melissa McCarthy in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’

Melissa McCarthy/Can You Ever Forgive Me/Fox Searchlight

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Screenplay written by Nicole Holofcener, directed by Marielle Heller, based on a memoir of the same title by Lee Israel.

This film has gotten a lot of awards notice. Most recently, it just landed a Writers Guild of America nomination for best adapted screenplay, for Nicole Holofcener and Josh Whitty.

Thus far, it’s won two Satellite Awards, for best supporting actor for Richard Grant; and for best adapted screenplay; and a New York Film Critics Circle Award, for Grant.

In nominations, Grant received nods from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Independent Spirit; National Society of Film Critics; and Critics’ Choice. McCarthy got best actress nods from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, National Society of Film Critics, Critics’ Choice and Satellite.

And now, Father Vince’s review …

The real-life Lee Israel enjoyed a bit of literary success in the 1980s, enough to pay New York rents, but not enough to cure her deluded thinking that her book advances should match those of a Tom Clancy. She wrote biographies of esoteric figures such as Estee Lauder, Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead.

When the 1990s arrive, life finds Lee Israel in much poorer circumstances. She lives alone in a decrepit apartment, having resorted to selling off her personal library of books after the legal firm where she once proofread let her go. Her penury remains her own doing, though as Israel pours her latest research into the long-forgotten actress, Fanny Brice. She finds a letter by the author in one of the books. A trip to one of New York’s famed bookstores reveal quite the market for such personalized memos. Israel falsely assumes the voice of various authors and begins her newfound “professional” life in forgery.

Reading Lee Israel’s memoir, one can see in hindsight how she soon found herself down on her luck. I would say that she writes in an “elevated” language, like a graduate student trying to impress some famous professor that they indeed, belong in that fancy MFA program. It’s not so much the words that a good writer uses, by how they arrange and use them that counts.

She employs “piratical” as a $64,000-dollar word, when a lesser adjective would better suffice. Her style somehow impressed the publishing world one decade, but come the next, they’ve shelved her for someone more marketable and digestible.

Melissa McCarthy brings some humanity to the role. The memoir in its current form would be almost unwatchable. The film centers around Israel and her gay friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Although, Hock’s promiscuous choices lead to his eventual sad, demise, it is Israel who oddly enough ends up in a more pathetic circumstance.

She shuns human relationships to the point that the accidental death of her cat ruins her more than any botched relationship could. The memoir is even less kind. While the film shows a genuine friendship between the two, Israel records Jack as little more than a hired hand, only utilized because word is getting out about her.

Perhaps, the saddest note comes on Israel’s reflecting about her misdeeds. Her own words are telling. She appends the line “Can you ever forgive me?” to a Dorothy Parker letter. Parker writes apologetically comparing her current hangover “to a museum piece.” Israel comments she wrote the line presuming Parker, “apologizes with no intention whatsoever of mending her wayward ways.”

I read the letter without Israel’s doctoring, however, as a sincere apology from someone who like many of us say stupid things at dinner parties having had a bit much to drink. So the appended line, then says more about Israel than the writer she’s impersonating.

Israel’s description of later crimes, some 400 forgeries in all, are scribbled in a matter-of-fact tone. If she evokes any emotions, they’re ones of self-satisfaction for pulling off the ruse for the few years she did. McCarthy delivers a heartfelt apology to a near-empty courtroom prior to her sentencing. It’s touching. She’s a phenomenal actress who moves us to sympathize with the least sympathetic of persons.

Israel writes, though, that she believed in maybe half of what she stated to the judge. The film’s title, then more than a mere plot point, asks the viewer as to whether can they extend mercy to the forger? For the character in the movie, I would cautiously say “Yes.” For the real-life, Lee Israel, unrepentant to the bitter end, I must sadly say, “No.”

Image: Fox Searchlight

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: From ‘Black Panther’ to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to ‘Dirty John’ — Nominees Drawn From Other Works

Black Panther (Marvel)/Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros.)/Patrick Melrose (Showtime)

Happy New Year — and Happy Awards Season!

The Golden Globes takes place this Sunday, Jan. 6, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom in Beverly Hills, California, and airs live on NBC. The nominees have been announced, and between now and then, it’s a guessing game.

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called Based On, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies. Here he looks at some of the nominated works he deems worthy, which originated in another form.

Film Nominees

BLACK PANTHER, based on the Marvel comic.
(Best Motion Picture — Drama)

The film works on a popular and critical level because it does not stray from the original arc of the comics. The strong traditional family values and political isolationism of the land of Wakanda was recipe for strong box office and a Golden Globe for best picture.

THE WIFE, based on a Meg Wolitzer novel.
(Glenn Close, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama)

A greater portion of the book version of the story takes place on a transatlantic flight to Stockholm, where Joan Castleman contemplates divorcing her writer husband, Joe. She’s the real writer behind his books, thus de-legitimizing any real claim he has to the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. The film works as a scenic Scandinavian travelogue, but the book better realizes the strained, yet still-hobbling-along marriage.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS, based on a Kevin Kwan novel.
(Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy; Constance Wu for Best Performance by an Actress in the category)

The book delves far deeper into the ugly underbelly of Singaporean high society. The novel features dogfighting as the main event of the bachelor party, while the film airbrushes this away. The film applies a similar cosmetic effect when Christianity is only given fleeting recognition. In the book, the magical sequence of the wedding becomes more a point of contention when the devout Christian aunts take issue with the church transforming into a lily pond.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, based on the Marvel comics.
(Best Motion Picture — Animated)

The panel format of comic books limits the number of characters and their development over a five- or six-issue arc. Each arc really can only handle one or two Spiderman characters. The medium of animation, especially on the big screen knows no such boundaries.

TV Nominees

SHARP OBJECTS, based on a Gillian Flynn novel.
(Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television; Amy Adams, for Best Performance by an Actress in the category; Patricia Clarkson, for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in the category)

The HBO series succeeds because it doesn’t deviate from the novel — especially when the producers get the “spine” (pun intended) of the book right … the story is less about the detective procedural and more about the main character’s family dysfunction.

DIRTY JOHN. based on a true series of Los Angeles Times articles reported by Christopher Goffard.
(Connie Britton, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television)

The Bravo series about a confidence man deceiving a successful, yet naïve Orange County woman makes for an exalted Lifetime mini-series. The TV show failed to incorporate Debra Newell’s devout Christian faith. It would have provided far more texture and believable plot sequencing as Newell relies far too much on unconditional forgiveness, giving John Meehan’s facetious “mea culpa” one too many chances.

PATRICK MELROSE, based on a collection of short stories and novellas by Edward St. Aubyn.
(Benedict Cumberbatch, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television)

I was only able to make it through one novella of this leisure-class tale of decadence and addiction. Benedict Cumberbatch acts so well as the depraved titular character that I was only able to make it through one episode.

Images: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., Showtime

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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Should You Give Up Social Media in 2019? Bishop Barron Weighs In

Resolved for 2019: Giving up all social media. Done. Kaput. Gone! … But is that a good idea?

If you work in media, like we do at Family Theater Productions, that’s not even a question. You just can’t. For hearing from the audience, and communicating back to them, social media is vital. Otherwise, it’s just a one-way ad stream going outward, with no feedback — and that’s not good.

We’re active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, both for FTP and for our productions — like The Dating Project and Catholic Central — and every day, we check to see what you’re thinking and saying (and we hope you check in with us).

But for me especially, as Social Media Manager, in the thick of it every day …whoa, there’s a lot of bad out there. I spent many years in mainstream entertainment journalism before I came here, so the craziness and negativity doesn’t surprise me. Every now and then, though, I’m even brought up short by just how nasty people can be.

On the other hand, we get lots of positive, wonderful and helpful feedback as well. Like this comment on YouTube:

And, outside of business, think of all the ways social media has connected people — lost relatives, old and new friends, people in crisis, potential pets and spouses. It’s also brought us shocking, important or heartwarming stories from the furthest corners of the world.

Personally, I think of Facebook as a huge dinner party, with invited friends, nosy neighbors, party crashers and crazy uncles (and aunts).  Twitter is the 24/7/365 rowdy cocktail chatter of the world, encircled by an eternally updating news ticker. Instagram is the beauty (and weirdness) of the world as it is, with a heavy dose of the world as we pretend it is.

Professionally, I’m eternally surprised to learn what you all out there like, and don’t like. Trust me, we listen, and we learn. Anyone who works in media has to have an ear to all the social channels. We can work on projects for years, talk among ourselves about what we like and don’t like, what we think will work — but ultimately, you guys are the ones that decide whether a project is a success.

Media ignores the voice of the audience at its peril. Creators can’t allow the audience to dictate to them — after all, it’s that creator’s unique voice that can make something special and authentic — but at the same time, if they want their creations to be enjoyed and appreciated (and most especially, produced), they need to pay attention. Sometimes it can be bruising, but it’s essential.

But even secular media, including such business-focused sites as Ragan.com, realizes that one has to take a break every now and then. From a post today:

If you have an unhealthy relationship with social media, consider a cleansing “fast.” Give up Snapchat or Facebook for Lent. Break it off with whichever platforms give you grief and little else.

For people of faith, using social media can be especially fraught. For that, I happily yield the floor to Los Angeles’ Bishop Robert Barron, who knows as much as anyone about the rewards and pitfalls of faith in the social square:

Here’s to a happy, healthy and sane 2019, even in social media!

Image: Shutterstock

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.