The TIFF Report, Vol 4


Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Donna Mills, Connie Nielsen, Finn Wittrock, Blair Underwood
Synopsis:  An inspired adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s life, digging into the nuance of discrimination in an unspoken system that has shaped America, chronicling how lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
Thoughts: A sustained ovation greeted director Ava DuVernay before and after the screening of her new film, Origin, and one can hardly blame an audience for rising to recognize the phenomenal amount of work that went into adapting Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s beautifully researched novel, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. In taking the writer’s work from page to screen, DuVernay had a monumental task: translating a 500-page analysis of the Caste system across history into a narrative film. Incorporating Wilkerson’s life into the movie was a way to give structure to Origin and hand Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor a role that finally gave her the full spotlight she deserved. Though filled with some impressive supporting players (Niecy Nash-Betts and Audra McDonald received major applause during the credits along with Ellis-Taylor), our star commands the screen and leads us through difficult moments necessary to understand the reinforcement of hierarchy between socioeconomic status. Wilkerson’s novel and the overarching theme of DuVernay’s narrative may have allowed for a broader net to be cast cinematically (i.e., this could have been a limited series), but keeping this contained to feature-film length will enable you to walk away with a feeling that you’ve sat through a thesis with a beginning, middle, and an end. The conversation it elicits won’t ever be complete because every person who comes to the table has a unique perspective, but DuVernay has successfully (and powerfully) achieved what she’s set out to do. It’s a tough movie to summarize quickly (I doubt anyone could give you a plot description in less than three run-on sentences), but it’s not easy to forget.

Fair Play

Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza
Synopsis: An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
Thoughts: While the era of the sophisticated erotic thriller has passed, I think a film like Fair Play would certainly be a candidate for consideration if a new list for the 2020s were started. In less considered hands, the film could have been your standard corporate ladder-climbing fling, but writer/director Chloe Domont wants the effect of this grappling for power affair to last long after the credits have finished. Was I tempted to give Fair Play a 10/10 for opening with Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” off the bat? Maybe. It was the perfect way into this sexy thriller set in a sleek modern NYC where men and women supposedly work on a level playing field, but everyone knows the same old rules still apply. The final twenty minutes of Fair Play get unpleasant for various reasons; some work in context with the characters as they progress, and some seem to come out of the ether. Watching the film with a packed audience at TIFF made it clear whose side the public was on. Still, when I watched this again at home, I found that the finale might push those on the fence into the muddy waters of uncertainty. Still, I enjoyed Domont’s insistence on both characters never backing down…even amid certain (personal and professional) ruin. 
Full Review Here

The Teachers” Lounge

Director: Ilker Çatak
Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachoviak, Sarah Bauerett, Kathrin Wehlisch, Anne-Kathrin Gummich
Synopsis: When one of her students is suspected of theft, teacher Carla Nowak decides to get to the bottom of the matter. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her.
Thoughts: Recently announced as Germany’s official entry in the Best International Feature Film for the Oscars, The Teachers’ Lounge sprung from director Ilker Çatak’s’ childhood memory of being searched at school when money went missing. Along with his co-writer, he’s expanded that story to examine what would happen if a teacher (Leonie Benesch) pointed the finger at one of her own. With the school already on high alert due to a recent spate of thefts, on a hunch, the teacher sets up a video camera, thinking she’d catch one suspect but winds up identifying another. When the accused is confronted and denies it, it has a ripple effect that flows back to the teacher’s classroom, where her students are still figuring out their interpretation of right and wrong. What’s so satisfying about a visit to Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge is the way it builds upon its central theme of accountability, ping-ponging back and forth between the teacher who feels a responsibility to the school but also ownership of her actions that are causing upheaval in the daily lives of so many. Benesch is marvelous, taking the role to places you won’t expect, and each time you think you figure out how Çatak will wrap it all up, he surprises you. I’d be shocked if this doesn’t get an Oscar nomination…and even an American remake.


Director: George C. Wolfe
Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey
Synopsis: George C. Wolfe brings Bayard Rustin’s story to life with a joyous performance by Colman Domingo as the activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington while being forced into the background because of his sexuality.
Thoughts: There is no doubt about it: more people need to know about activist Bayard Rustin and his role in the history of Civil Rights in America. Many of the names that get mentioned often are legitimate trailblazers. Still, Rustin’s is rarely spoken alongside them; if it is, it is used as a sidebar tangent that factors into his personal life. As an out gay man at a time when just being one minority was tough enough, his homosexuality put him into a smaller box than the tiny one he was already being forced into. Ostracized by the men he was working alongside to affect positive change in this country, Rustin fought tooth and nail for justice and the right to be who he was and to stand for democracy at the same time. Unfortunately, in Rustin, the life of Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin is brought to life via a biopic so textbook, you can almost hear director George C. Wolfe flipping the pages from one moment to the next. Though arguably grounded by Colman Domingo’s (Candyman) larger-than-life performance (which comes out of the gate like a locomotive), you’ll keep waiting for Rustin to take a different approach in the telling. Yet it plods along, hampered by Wolfe’s lousy casting choices in supporting roles (Chris Rock…oof) and its impassioned grandstanding, which often rings resoundingly false. Wolfe is a formidable director in the theater world, shepherding unforgettable works by new playwrights and introducing audiences to artists doing their most vital work. On film, though, he’s been largely a bust…and I’m including 2020’s too-stagey Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in that list. Rustin is yet another indication that he’s a theatrical director with a style that doesn’t translate to film.
Full Review Here


Directors: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Cast: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans, Karly Rothenberg
Synopsis: The remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad, who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Thoughts: Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative debut with Nyad to crowd-pleasing, rousing results. Skillfully blending actual footage from long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s life, including her numerous attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West, with dramatized events featuring stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, it’s got some rookie flaws (mostly continuity editing and slight pacing issues) but exists chiefly as a glowing showcase for its leads. Bening (Death on the Nile) trained for a year for her role, and her dedication, determination, and drive have paid off. If ever there was a time to give her that long overdue Academy Award… it’s for this. I want her to win an Oscar by golly, and by all accounts, she has nailed the unapologetically brusque Diana Nyad. And don’t count out Foster adding another trophy of her own to her shelf…what she’s doing here is supporting the star, yes, but also carving out a niche corner of her own for raising the bar for what a Supporting Actress can achieve. In a career dotted with goldstar performances, Foster again demonstrates why she’s so valued onscreen. And how about Ifans? Where did THAT sensitive performance come from? Often tasked with playing a slimy villain or snarky comic relief, Ifans is offered the chance to tug on some heartstrings, which he does with care. As a sports biopic, it checks all the boxes without falling into a staid formula; as a rah-rah celebration of achieved potential, it sets an example for us all to keep pushing…and have a friend by your side when you do.
Full Review Here


Director: Tony Goldwyn
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, William A. Fitzgerald, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, Rainn Wilson
Synopsis: An unpredictable ensemble dramedy about parents struggling over how best to raise their child.
Thoughts: Over nearly two weeks, I was fortunate to see many movies, most of which ranged from entertaining to excellent. The outliers were medium-cooked and misguided, but only on select occasions did I encounter titles I wished I’d skipped altogether. The first true blue dud of the fest for me was Tony Goldwyn’s Ezra, a starved-for-laughs dramedy about a divorced comedy writer turned stand-up comic with anger issues who kidnaps his neurodivergent son when his ex-wife wants to send him to a school for the gifted. It’s as cringe as it sounds, and despite boasting an enviable cast (Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Rainn Wilson), it’s the first film at TIFF23 I nearly considered skedaddling from. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie about a comedian who isn’t funny but is supposed to be knocking it out of the park. Between the two of them, Goldwyn and Cannavale don’t land a single joke onstage…not that there’s any in Tony Spiridakis’s script to begin with. Strangely, offscreen husband and wife Cannavale and Byrne show little chemistry onscreen, even playing divorced parents of a child with special needs. That the entire set-up of kidnapping by a parent (a serious crime that is still prevalent in today’s society) is played for laughs is skeevy, and using the situation as a series of punchlines is more motivation to give this one the hook. Participation in this project felt like a favor to someone; the good news is that watching it doesn’t have to be.

Dumb Money

Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogen
Synopsis: The ultimate David vs. Goliath tale, based on the insane true story of everyday people who flipped the script on Wall Street and got rich by turning GameStop (yes, the mall videogame store) into the world’s hottest company.
Thoughts: Though incredibly topical and current, surprisingly, Dumb Money may be the most unremarkable bauble of digestible studio entertainment I saw at TIFF. Detailing the GameStop stock craze orchestrated by undervalued investors that shook up an unsuspecting Wall Street, it’s less flashy than similar examinations of financial coups (insert your chosen title here). Still, it lacks emotional tenterhooks to keep you fully engaged. You’ll forget you saw it 60 minutes after it ends. Maybe part of my apathy toward Dumb Money is partly self-imposed. I fell prey to festival FOMO and sacrificed a screening of another film to see this, even though I knew it would be released mere days after TIFF ended. I spent much of the movie, which I should say again is resoundingly average, running through “what if” scenarios of better films I could have attended. Stuck in low gear from the beginning, I’m not sure who the audience for Dumb Money is supposed to be. Anyone aware of current events will feel this is a star-filled recreation of what we only recently lived through, and if you haven’t been keeping up, it’s unlikely what transpired will keep your attention in the first place. Be smart; spend your money elsewhere.
Full Review Here

Other Volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 5

The TIFF Report, Vol 3

Knox Goes Away

Director: Michael Keaton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Al Pacino, Marcia Gay Harden, James Marsden, Suzy Nakamura, John Hoogenakker, Joanna Kulig, Ray McKinnon, Lela Loren
Synopsis: When a contract killer is diagnosed with a fast-moving form of dementia, he is presented with the opportunity to redeem himself by saving the life of his estranged adult son.
Thoughts: If you didn’t think you needed to see a drama directed by and starring Michael Keaton where he plays a hit man with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease in 2023…you were wrong. Knox Goes Away is pure Keaton cool cat, a crime pic that delivers on an early promise to follow through and not pull punches. There’s an efficiency to the film, to the directing, that can only come from someone who has been in this business long enough to know how to keep an audience engaged but still leave sufficient room for characters to be formed and explored. Is it the most refined crime film you’ll see this decade? Probably not, but there’s something special about seeing Keaton (the rare actor you want to root for, whether he is playing a good guy or a bad one) move through this world with confidence most actors half his age don’t possess. And who doesn’t love a good twist that gets dunked into the mix at the perfect time? Keaton must have cashed in a few favors to get Marcia Gay Harden and James Marsden for supporting players, and he creates some pleasant moments with Joanna Kulig as an escort who sees him as more than a client…for a while. Then you have Al Pacino (rarely moving from a seated position) awake and alert as Keaton’s trusted connection, apparently roused from the coma he’s been in for his last several movies. Consistently keeping you on your toes, this could be one to keep an eye out for those who love to untangle triple cross tales.

The Critic

Director: Anand Tucker
Cast: Ian McKellen, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Ben Barnes, Alfred Enoch, Romola Garai, Lesley Manville
Synopsis:  Adversaries are forced to take desperate measures to save their careers in this scintillating tale of ambition and deceit in the theatre world.
Thoughts:  Ian McKellen in a period thriller as a snippy theater critic who resorts to murderous ways to stay relevant? All I needed was to read this logline, and I didn’t need to know more about The Critic because I was on board. I’m not sure if going in blind kept expectations low or didn’t level-set them at all, but the movie is middle-of-the-road Wednesday afternoon entertainment that feels overly worked and not half as wickedly clever as a Patrick Marber screenplay should be. Based on the 2015 novel Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn, director Anand Tucker has all the suitable material to create snappy suspense, but there’s a key ingredient missing.   That pivotal spice is interest and Tucker’s film strains to develop any (or keep ours) as it plods along with a frumpy slump. I was frequently bored with the goings on of this world, and as a theater/movie nerd who loves this period and all the backstage gossip and backstabbing that comes with it, I’m precisely the target audience this would/should be speaking to. The supporting cast of The Critic is stacked with dependable players (Gemma Arterton as McKellen’s critical target of ire and eventual accomplice, Mark Strong as his editor, and Lesley Manville as Arterton’s mum) who usually have nothing to do but look good in Claire-Finlay-Thompson’s costumes. No one does an exhausted sneer like McKellen, and as a nasty theater critic in pre-WWII London intent to keep his job and willing to resort to Shakespearean deceit to do it, he’s in fine form. If only the movie had as much bite as McKellen’s critical bark.

Sing Sing

Director: Greg Kwedar
Cast:  Colman Domingo, Paul Raci, John Divine G Whitfield, Sean San Jose, Jon-Adrian Velazquez, David J. Giraudy, Sean “Dino” Johnson, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin
Synopsis: A theatre troupe finds escape from the realities of incarceration through the creativity of putting on a play in this film based on a real-life rehabilitation program and featuring a cast that includes formerly incarcerated actors.
Thoughts: It’s not coming out until 2024, but Sing Sing is one of those films you can tell is going places. Based on the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program (RTA) founded in 1986 at Sing Sing maximum security prison, Greg Kwedar’s film uses a handful of professional actors (namely Colman Domingo and Sound of Metal Oscar-nominee Paul Raci) but is predominantly made up of real-life former inmates/alums of RTA. Most of the time, casting non-professional actors can have drawbacks, but it is the key to Sing Sing’s ultimate soaring success, lending pure authenticity and raw honesty to the semi-fictionalized story as scripted by Kwedar and Clint Bentley. Domingo (also represented at the fest with biopic Rustin) plays Divine G, a leader of sorts in the RTA who takes a new member, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, under his wing as they begin to mount their spring production. At the same time, Divine G is preparing for his next parole hearing and assisting his fellow inmates on theirs, even though many have been resigned that making their case to a blank-faced board won’t change their sentences. As you may expect, there’s a degree of darkness to Sing Sing that gives it a weight to carry forward, which can sometimes slow the pace. Still, the beautiful hearts of the performers and the joy they feel from creating and performing are the electricity that energizes the movie. If some have suggested this is more of an advertisement/endorsement for RTA and similar programs, then so be it; it demonstrates the individualized power derived from placing the incarcerated into creatively fulfilling roles while they serve out their time. 

The Burial

Director: Maggie Betts
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, Amanda Warren, Dorian Missick
Synopsis: Inspired by actual events, a lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice.
Thoughts: Let’s not forget the power of the rousing David v. Goliath courtroom drama because director Maggie Betts and her co-screenwriter Doug Wright sure haven’t with The Burial. It may be old-fashioned, overlong, and frequently pandering to cliche (one summation is played to a horn-drenched underscore so loud it nearly drowns out the speaker). Still, it worked like gangbusters with our packed crowd at the TIFF. Set in 1995, the film follows a standard formula where a little guy (a small-town funeral company) is taken advantage of by the big guy (a big-town funeral company) and needs the help of a shiny savior. What makes The Burial interesting is that the little guy is played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, who we might often associate as the one who would swoop in and save the day for Jamie Foxx (another Oscar winner), who instead is playing a flashy lawyer used to working with much more prominent cases. These types of courtroom-savvy films don’t get made anymore, at least not with the kind of regularity that we were used to. Thundering opening statements, “gotcha” cross-examinations, late-breaking reveals that threaten to derail the case, all the elements that made audiences think that trial cases were as exciting as a broadcast wrestling match. Of course, years of CourtTV have shown us otherwise, but movies like The Burial remind us how a little Hollywood magic can turn the mundane into grand, if unbelievable, entertainment. Betts has also made a good-looking and easy-to-watch film on top of it, which is almost icing on the cake.
Full Review Here

Pain Hustlers

Director: David Yates
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy García, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James, Chloe Coleman, Britt Rentschler
Synopsis: Pharmaceutical drug reps unwittingly help kickstart the opioid epidemic in the pursuit of financial success.
Thoughts: From director David Yates, Pain Hustlers is a flashy, fast-moving chart of the rise of the opioid crisis via shady pharmaceutical start-ups with another sensational performance from Blunt (A Quiet Place). If only the rest of the movie were as layered with nuance as Blunt’s turn as Liza Drake, a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer who unexpectedly finds her calling as a rep for a Florida drug company. While Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) never lets the scope overwhelm the message, it can drag a bit as it moves toward the second hour. It’s a big production that wants to feel like it’s made with the same verve as The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, but it lacks a hard-nosed edge to play in the same league as those films. It also suffers in the timing arena as well. I feel like this story has been told multiple times in film, limited series, and documentaries over the last half-decade, so my brain was already saturated with the structure of a) a person who comes from nothing who b) makes it big and c) learns there’s a considerable price for getting what they want. What I did appreciate in Pain Hustlers, and this is what has always made Yates a strong director, is the way he pays attention to minor character turns, casting excellent actors (like Britt Rentschler from the also fantastic Pretty Problems as the wife of a man who becomes addicted to the drug Blunt shills) to fill out pivotal roles.
Full Review Here

Hit Man

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman
Synopsis: A sorta-true crime comedy thriller about role-play, romance, and the precarious pursuit of self-knowledge.
Thoughts: Oops, it happened. I had heard it occurs at these big festivals but wasn’t sure I’d be affected. Yet, it still happened. The overhype machine got me with Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, a good but not great grey comedy that confirms Glen Powell is an A-List star who favors solidly B material. Powell plays an ordinary Joe Schmoe working for the local police in a tech support role who pinch hits for an undercover detective posing as a hitman for hire and displays a talent for being a master of deception. Creating different personas and crafting unrecognizable looks, the man at the center of this “sorta-true” story eventually falls for one of his marks. He gets in over his head trying to keep her out of harm’s way from his job and other criminal cohorts. Overlong and hinging on a second-act series of heretofore police ineptitude that is more convenient than plausible weakens what had started as a breezy good time. Though not exactly a newcomer, Adria Arjona makes a considerable impression. I suppose the blazing chemistry between Arjona and Powell creates the type of self-fanning fire rarely seen in movies, which is why Hit Man created such waves in TIFF and eventually sold to Netflix for release in 2024. I chalk that up to Powell being so charming that he could make an audience believe he’s attracted to the apple tree next door, but if we want to hang the success of Hit Man on the heat generated between Powell and Arjona, I won’t object. The two share a scene of aural deception, which will likely be mentioned in every review, that hints at the kind of high-stakes comedy the entire film should have partaken in. As is typical, Linklater’s knack for finding the right players of (un)familiar faces (to me) in minor roles gives the film homespun authenticity.


Director: Ethan Hawke
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Willa Fitzgerald
Synopsis: Exploring the life and art of American author Flannery O’Connor while struggling to publish her first novel.
Thoughts: I grew up reading the work of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor in my high school English class, but it had been some time since I cracked open one of her novels featuring eccentric characters living through strange conditions. With his experience as a published author navigating a niche market often struggling for acceptance, poet/writer/actor/director Ethan Hawke was a perfect filmmaker to take on a biopic of the late writer. His approach is both literary and literal, frequently spinning off into small productions of O’Connor’s short stories that are arguably self-indulgent but not nearly as indecipherable as you may be led to believe; Wildcat is a hard-to-love look at author O’Connor as she navigates a chronic illness and being stymied artistically by an industry not used to her lyrical prose. As director and co-writer, Ethan Hawke can’t always balance blending reality with the short stories that play out (usually with stars Maya Hawke and Laura Linney in multiple roles) in fantasy. Still, every so often, the film locks into something that starts to burn brightly. Maya Hawke still can’t shake the extreme resemblance to her famous mother, Uma Thurman, she gives off onscreen but digs deeper than ever to try O’Connor’s mousy look and repressed attire on for size. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Linney perform poorly in a movie before, but she treads close in Wildcat with a few outlandishly overplayed roles that are beautiful buggy crashes we often can’t look away from. Not for everyone…but if you’re up for seeing MANY different sides to Linney, give it a go.


Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Josh Charles
Synopsis: Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both as they open the door to the past.
Thoughts: This year at the Toronto International Film Festival was a bit different because of the ongoing Writers Strike and the Actors Strike, both of which hadn’t been resolved to allow these key figures to attend their premieres at fall film festivals without a special waiver. Thankfully, there were some exceptions. Hot off a strong showing in Venice, Memory arrived at TIFF23 and brought stars Jessica Chastain and Venice Volpi Cup for Best Actor Peter Sarsgaard to talk after. In the film, written and directed by Michel Franco (Sundown), Chastain is a single mother social worker carrying the tumult of unresolved pain from her childhood. A recovering addict, her efforts to remain on track are challenged after attending her class reunion and spotting a man she believes factored into her trauma. Sarsgaard plays the man, and as it turns out, he has his own obstacles which will open both up to a greater understanding of problems from their past and how they face their future.   While it’s clear both actors bring their typical dedication to the process, and their performances are admirable, they’re stuck in Franco’s flighty plot, which square dances around many heavy subjects but never bothers to face them head-on. I’m amazed that Sarsgaard was singled out for his role when Chastain is going for something far more profound and nuanced. Whereas he is playing something just below the surface, she’s several layers further down, exploring a new part of her craft. The resulting film has good actors (wow, does Merritt Wever need a lead role soon, and holy moly, when is Jessica Harper going to get some recognition for her years of work playing brittle women?) assembling thin connective tissues that eventually snap during a protracted finale. Memory begins with some momentum but quickly swings into an inertia it can’t escape.


Director: Christos Nikou
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson
Synopsis:  Anna and Ryan have found true love, and a controversial new technology proves it. There’s just one problem…Anna still isn’t sure. Then, she takes a position at a love testing institute and meets Amir.
Thoughts: There was a palpable excitement in the Princess of Wales Theatre before Fingernails held its International Premiere, and once Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s wistful sci-fi romance began, you could see why. The futuristic view of a love match and how we accept our mate starts strong, with Jessie Buckley, Jeremy Allen White, and Riz Ahmed all delivering wonderfully human(e) performances. It gets rocky in the second half when Buckley begins to question her match, and we begin to question why she’s making a fuss in the first place. Unsurprisingly, Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos because this often feels like The Lobster for the McDonald’s crowd – easy to devour at the outset but gets greasy at the end. Fair warning: the entire premise of the picture is based on a test that is done by pulling out the, yep, fingernails of its subjects, and while the movie isn’t incredibly gory for the sake of being graphic, there are a few sequences that will have you cringing in horror as a nailbed gets ripped clean. The three leads are all doing admirably reflective work, and the role of the conflicted girlfriend, wondering if she should want more, seems to fit Buckley like a glove. I do wish Ahmed and White had pushed (or been written to push) their characters a bit further into some degree of decisiveness instead of making Buckley’s the only one that affects the action, but that’s also part of the reason Nikou’s script for Fingernails has drawn this love triangle with such sharp angles in the first place. Oh, and it’s got a killer soundtrack.

The King Tide

Director: Christian Sparkes
Cast: Alix West Lefler, Clayne Crawford, Frances Fisher, Aden Young, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Michael Greyeyes, Ryan McDonald, Ben Stranahan, Amelia Manuel, Cameron Nicoll, Kathryn Greenwood
Synopsis: Ten years after a child with miraculous gifts arrives at an isolated East Coast Island town, her adoptive parents must decide whether her safety is more important than their community’s prosperity.
Thoughts: Though the premise (mysterious infant child with mystical gifts washes up on the beach of a remote island fishing village) has all the makings of early Stephen King, The King Tide owes much to Shirley Jackson. Things get dark quickly as the town becomes more dependent on the girl and less inclined to let her leave…or anyone else enter. This TIFF23 world premiere from director Christian Sparkes is a Canadian-made gem, with gorgeous scenery giving it a real sense of place and isolation…making the situation that much more fraught the tighter Sparkes fixes his gaze on the danger in commodifying those we should be caring for. Exceptionally well cast with a mix of familiar faces and Canadian character actors, I especially warmed to the chilly Frances Fisher (also at the fest in Reptile), who is showing a continued verve for playing wicked women. Also finding a real groove in these slow-burn pictures is Clayne Crawford, who is nothing but confident charm as a conflicted father and mayor of the town. To its credit, it prefers to hold its cards close to its chest, never letting on how this might turn out. That allows the finale to catch you with breathless surprise, a haunting conclusion befitting an enigmatic tale told with an assured hand. I can see this one easily slipping by unnoticed because it may not have the name recognition or the flash, but it’s worth keeping track of for the artfully crafted screenplay and terrific performances.

Other Volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 4
Volume 5

Movie Review ~ Rustin

The Facts:

Synopsis: Activist Bayard Rustin faces racism and homophobia as he helps change the course of Civil Rights history by orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington.
Stars: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey
Director: George C. Wolfe
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: There is no doubt about it: more people need to know about activist Bayard Rustin and his role in the history of Civil Rights in America. Many of the names that get mentioned often are legitimate trailblazers. Still, Rustin’s is rarely spoken alongside them, or if it is, it is used as a sidebar tangent that factors in his personal life. As an out gay man at a time when just being one minority was tough enough, his homosexuality put him into a smaller box than the tiny one he was already being forced into. Ostracized by the men he was working alongside to affect positive change in this country, Rustin fought tooth and nail not just for justice but for the right to be who he was and to stand for democracy at the same time.

Unfortunately, in Rustin, a new film from Netflix that I screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the life of Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin is brought to life via a biopic so textbook, you can almost hear director George C. Wolfe flipping the pages from one moment to the next. With a story credit to Julian Breece, most of the screenplay is surprisingly attributed to Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Black, who won his award for 2008’s Milk about human rights activist/congressman Harvey Milk, can’t replicate that film’s sincerity here. Missing is the passion Black brought to the table for his Milk biopic. What’s left is a just-the-facts effort that doesn’t expand into anything deeper when it could have been more nuanced in its sketch of a black gay man during a time of great unrest.

Set mostly in and around the time leading up to the historic March on Washington held in 1963, the film nimbly moves through the early history of the movement and Bayard’s involvement in landmark moments that helped further the Black political cause. While he was ultimately pushed to the side or left out of the conversation entirely because of his relationship with men, his renewed fire that came with planning the March on Washington may have started as a way to show his peers he could pull off the impossible while opening the eyes of the world, but it gradually turns into an effort that was bigger than himself.

As biopics that cross paths with pivotal moments in history go, there are appearances from key historical figures (all of whom make sure we know who they are by essentially looking at the camera and reading a short bio) and extended scenes with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, Till Death) who was at one time a close friend and political mentee of Rustin’s. Black’s screenplay eventually begins to go from one factoid to another in what could be described as a book report come to life. The one thread that is partially tweaked, Rustin’s longtime relationship with a white activist (Gus Halper, Ricki and the Flash) and his affair with a closeted NAACP preacher (Johnny Ramey), feels underdeveloped and, ironically, the one Wolfe is least comfortable staying with for any length of time.

Though arguably grounded by Colman Domingo’s (Candyman) larger-than-life performance (which comes out of the gate like a locomotive), you’ll keep waiting for Rustin to take a different approach in the telling. Yet it plods along, hampered by Wolfe’s bad casting choices in supporting roles (Chris Rock…oof) and its impassioned grandstanding, which often rings resoundingly false. In the theater world, Wolfe is a formidable director, shepherding unforgettable works by new playwrights and introducing audiences to artists doing their most vital work. On film, though, he’s been largely a bust…and I’m including 2020’s too-stagey Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in that list. Rustin is yet another indication that he’s a theatrical director with a style that doesn’t translate to film.

In a small preview of what’s to come next year, I know that Domingo is so much better in Sing Sing (which I also saw at TIFF – it’s terrific), but he will likely get his first Oscar nom for this. Domingo is an actor just waiting to be recognized by an awards body, so I’m all for a spotlight being shone on him (he may even be nominated twice if he’s as good in December’s The Color Purple as I think he’ll be). Still, I wish that he was in a movie that matched his talent. Far and away the best thing about Rustin is the Lenny Kravitz song playing over the closing credits. That’s an Oscar campaign I could get passionate over.

Movie Review ~ Candyman (2021)


The Facts:

Synopsis: For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood were terrorized by the word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer known as Candyman, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, a visual artist’s chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer exposes him to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman, unleashing a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, Christiana Clark

Director: Nia DaCosta

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even as the Delta Variant rages through the U.S. and hints of another shutdown begin to loom large, films that were delayed from a year ago are sliding into theaters and making their rescheduled dates and for that I’m grateful.  Of all the movies that were bumped around the calendar due to the original pandemic lockdown in 2020, I was most disappointed that producer Jordan Peele’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to 1992’s Candyman was affected because as a huge fan of the original I was looking forward to what Peele and director Nia DaCosta could do with this property.  More than that, I was intrigued to see what it was going to be in the first place.  We knew it wasn’t a remake, but was it a direct sequel, a stand-alone film, a re-imagining of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” that inspired the first movie?  We had to wait a whole year to find out but Peele (Us) and DaCosta kept us engaged along the way with creative trailers and morsels of hints that showed more of the movie yet still didn’t reveal all of their cards.

As it turns out, this is one of those films that was well worth the wait.  A rare delight that pays service to fans of the original while addressing a new generation of devotees that have come onboard over the years (and maybe during this last year alone), DaCosta’s Candyman picks at the fabric lining the jewel box the 1991 movie was placed in and uses it to craft a horrific new garment all its own.  There’s a distinct voice present throughout that isn’t just Peele’s with its direct or indirect societal symbolism but a generational one that lives, works, fears, and loves in the environment DaCosta and her crew probe to terrific results.  That it manages to cover a lot of ground in such a short time frame without ever feeling rushed is a testament to efficiency on all levels.

The original Cabrini Green towers have long since been torn down but their dark history remains nightmare material only spoken about in hushed whispers or, better yet, not at all.  Now, new housing has been built on the same site and after a brief prologue set in the late ‘70s we meet two new tenants of the gentrified Cabrini.  Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) and her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman) are settling into their new digs when Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, The Kid Who Would Be King) tells them the story of Helen Lyle, a grad student that went crazy after visiting Cabrini looking for an urban legend known as Candyman.  With a hook for a hand, the killer was said to haunt the projects and called Cabrini his home, but Helen took the investigation too far, becoming obsessed with her own research, killing numerous people, and abducting a small child that almost died at her hands before she was finally burnt alive.  Scary stuff that Brianna doesn’t want to know about. (But viewers of the original know the story isn’t quite accurate…)

Once stunted artistically, the terrifying tale inspires Anthony in surprising ways.  Researching Candyman by visiting the old part of the neighborhood and meeting a long-time resident (Colman Domingo, Without Remorse), he comes away with a new zeal for expression, just in time for an art show at the gallery Brianna works at.  The piece he creates is a mirror and he provides instructions on how to ‘call forth’ the Candyman by saying his name five times to your reflection.  One unfortunate soul does it, then another, and before you know it, bloody death is everyone around Anthony…but is he to blame for all the carnage or is he simply fulfilling a destiny that started long ago and was never truly finished?  Perhaps a visit to his mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) will explain it all…

Originally written as a short story set in London’s tenement neighborhoods, the director of the 1992 film wisely moved the action to Chicago’s projects and it gave the film some credibility as a statement on how communities create their own legends.  Sometimes it is to protect themselves from the evil that lurks within but often it can be to keep the more wicked outsiders from entering.  Peele, DaCosta, and co-screenwriter Win Rosenfeld latch onto that notion and run with it, exploring how the tale of Candyman has evolved overtime and why it’s possible that a society might need a Candyman just as much as he needs them to believe in him.  It’s surprisingly not as tangled or heady as it could have been and the script isn’t interested in making more out of it than that. 

I also appreciated that while this new Candyman is brutal in its violence, much of it is restrained and either shown at a distance or just offscreen.  After the last year, many of us have seen death firsthand and so anything we see portrayed on film could never been as disgusting or horrific as what we’ve witnessed real people, not actors, doing to each other.  When it’s appropriate, DaCosta lets the audience have it but there’s ample build up to get to those moments of bloodshed.  Accompanied by stellar production design from Cara Brower (Our Friend), unique cinematography by John Guleserian (Love, Simon), and a nerve-jangling score courtesy of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, all of the elements are there to keep you on the edge of your seat, breathless, waiting for the next shock to arrive.

There was a time when remakes of these old titles felt like betrayals of trust but when they’re handled with such intelligence and care like Candyman has been, I find that I can relax a little bit when the next one is announced and hope that future filmmakers learn a thing or two from it.  This is how you take a fan-favorite property and do something of your own with it, while at the same time allowing that previous film to live on (and thrive) because your film is equally as terrifying and well-crafted.  Sweets to the sweet is a famous bit of graffiti seen on the walls of Cabrini Green in the original film and that goes double for DaCosta and her crew.

Movie Review ~ Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


The Facts:  

Synopsis: An elite Navy SEAL uncovers an international conspiracy while seeking justice for the murder of his pregnant wife. 

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce 

Director: Stefano Sollima 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 111 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6.5/10) 

Review:  I must confess to being a huge fan of the Tom Clancy films of the Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford days and not so much from the later chapters when Ben Affleck took over for Ford, Chris Pine took over for Affleck (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and John Krasinski took over for Pine in the popular TV series for Amazon Prime.  Each actor had their own spin on the role of Jack Ryan so you were bound to have someone along the way you could call your favorite.  Movies just aren’t made at the breakneck speed necessary to keep up with the pace that books are written so much of Clancy’s material has been left un-adapted and even the properties that were already brought to life have had to jettison key characters with stories too complex to include into larger narratives.

Take John Clark, Jack Ryan’s close friend and onetime bodyguard.  Featured in a number of Jack Ryan novels and eventually becoming nearly as popular as Ryan himself, Clark fits into many of the operations Ryan undertakes throughout Clancy’s blockbuster espionage thrillers.  However, it was in 1993’s Without Remorse that Clancy gave readers Clark’s origin story, including how and why he changed his name from John Kelly and why the CIA helped him change his identity.  Though the film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years trying to get made with several big names attached, it wasn’t until red-hot star Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) showed interest that the title became a must-have commodity again.  Now, as Jordan gets ready to direct and star in Creed III, he’s set himself up with another franchise starter but how would Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse measure up to the level of thrillers it has followed?

It’s a little bit of the whole good news and bad news situation right now.  Ripping the band aid off, I’ll say that the bad news is the overall ambiance of the movie doesn’t feel like the big budget production it should, considering the studio funds behind it and the producers involved.  A number of films originally intended for theatrical release acquired by a streaming service look like they were made for the big screen when you see them at home.  With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, everything feels scaled down like the original goal was only to be for in-home distribution.  More on that later but for now let’s talk about the positives.  The good news is that Jordan is a natural for the role, well suited to be playing a skilled Navy SEAL back from a dangerous mission in Syria involving the CIA and the Russian military.  When members of his team are assassinated and his pregnant wife is killed, he’s left for dead by an attacker’s gunfire but survives.  This turns out to be, ironically, a good news/bad news situation all over again.  Good news for John Kelly and bad news for anyone that gets in his way of finding those responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child.  Taking the title of the movie literally, Kelly is a one-man machine of vengeance as he mows his way through high ranks of government both foreign and domestic to get the answers he wants. 

The final script was re-written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River and the upcoming Those Who Wish Me Dead) and it shows with his vernacular and tendency to use shorthand in his technical terms.  He has the actors speak like these professionals would talk and it assists in the authenticity of it all.  Working with his Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima, Sheridan took over script duties form Will Staples so I can’t say who made the majority of alternations from Clancy’s original novel but the changes seem to be for the better in allowing this story to grow in future installments…because it should and will.  Apart from it filling a gap for representation in people of color as action heroes, Kelly’s a complex character like we haven’t seen much of lately.

Much of that complexity is owed to Jordan’s performance as well as his platonic relationship with Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) a friend and SEAL team member he can trust that has been watching out for him while he’s healed.  Working with the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce, Lawless) and a not entirely trustworthy CIA Officer (Jamie Bell, Rocketman), Kelly and Greer use their government resources to further their serach for the truth. Of course, this being an action film built around large(ish) scale set piece, Kelly stages some daring acts of aggression in order to extricate information from sources that can help them locate who put a target on all of their backs.

You’d likely be able to write down who the bad people are at the beginning the film, seal it, and open it again at the end of the film and find your correct answer within.  Along with a strange look that gives it almost a B-movie vibe, there’s little in the way of surprise as the plot moves from Point A to Point B.  Extended fight sequences are periodically thrilling but endless gunfire scenes start to get old rather quickly, especially when it becomes a challenge following the action.  Several times, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Beautiful Creatures) leaves us lost amongst the action with no direction on where to look.  It’s all disorienting.

It might not rise to the ranks of The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games but for a first outing with John Kelly, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a sufficient introduction to the character.  This was a Saturday evening choice in my house and it proved to be a popular and rather perfect selection for a movie night.  Jordan is said to be coming back for a second film and if that proves successful I’m wondering if we’ll ever see him team with Krasinski or another new Ryan feature film in the future – now that would be the event film I’d like to see.

Movie Review ~ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


The Facts

Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Since April, Broadway and musical theater fans have been starved for ways to watch live performances and have had to settle for pre-recorded shows from the archives of regional and national theaters or newly produced live streams that don’t always go off without a hitch.  Nothing is going to replace that feeling of actually being in the theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor, hearing the rustle of the programs, the annoying cellphone noise, and, of course, the badly timed cough which will only be more of an annoyance in the future.

As theaters continue to look for alternative arrangements until the lockdown on Broadway playhouses has ended, Netflix has been bringing a little bit of Broadway to audiences in ways they may not even realize.  First there was the September adaptation of the revival of The Boys in the Band, then the recent movie version of the fun musical The Prom (sadly, not provided to me in time for an official review), and an upcoming taped recording of Diana, the stage musical that was in NY previews when COVID-19 shut down Broadway in April 2020.  Jury is still out on how Diana will fare and The Prom transitioned nicely to the small screen but The Boys in the Band, though entertaining, felt like the stage-bound play it was…and that’s not the only stage-to-screen adaptation premiering on Netflix before the end of 2020.

Looking at the cast for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix is enough to make one want to shell out the price of a premium ticket to see a production of August Wilson’s 1982 play in person on the New York stage.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) is the real-life “Mother of the Blues”, one of the first African-American professional blues singers who recorded her music early on, becoming a pioneer in that field for her race and gender.  In Wilson’s play, a fictionalized recording session for Ma Rainey and her band that quickly goes off the rails, there’s a real fire to the dialogue and it bristles with the sweat and heat of the late 1920s summer day it takes place on.  The scenes between the veteran band members and Levee the cavalier trumpeter crackle and anytime Ma Rainey gets fired up demanding the respect and quality treatment her white agent provides his other clients, the electricity starts to create massive sparks.

The trouble is, this isn’t live on stage or even a performance that was filmed to be broadcast later.  It’s an adaptation using Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and directed by George C. Wolfe.  That it doesn’t have the same verve and pulsating rhythm Wilson’s work has when seen in the intimacy of the live-theater setting isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors, but it does have to fall on someone, somewhere.  The scenes feel stagey, almost more-so than any stage-to-film movie I’ve seen in recent memory and it becomes so reverential to Wilson’s work that it begins to do damage to the motivation of the piece.  At least Denzel Washignton’s superior adaptation of  Wilson’s Fences in 2016 was able to find ways to open-up the story beyond the backyard setting of Wilson’s original work.  Keeping everyone cooped up is part of what makes the tension boil over during the recording session, true, but there are a number of interludes that could have more movement and Wolfe has directed enough films to know how to keep the camera moving while continuing to establish character.

What the film also has is the responsibility of carrying star Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) final performance in a leading role before tragically passing away earlier in 2020 after a private ongoing battle with cancer.  A genius actor with years ahead of him, I think a number of people want this film and the performance to be at a certain level of greatness as a way to memorialize him and that’s unfair to put all that weight solely onto the actor.  Thankfully, while the film may not live up to the expectations I had going in, Boseman  does and turns in a haunting performance…another in a long line of winning acting choices the young actor had under his belt when he passed away.  You can’t hang the whole movie just on him but he’s definitely due the kudos of his performance being a knockout.

As for Davis, the role tends to overwhelm her just like her outward appearance and prosthetics threaten to overtake her performance at times.  It’s odd; the garish eyes and glittering teeth, body glistening with sweat and ample bosom feel like they are from a different iteration of this character.  Pictures of the real Ma Rainey are shown at the end and none of them have the type of matted, dripping, ghoulish make-up we see her in throughout the film.  I don’t doubt it is historically accurate but I would have loved to see some kind of context for the look so we have a comparison.  Match that with a voice that is supposedly Davis with some “extra help” (that needs to be investigated) and there’s something that just feels like the dial was turned too far with this one…Davis is one of the best actresses working today and if this were onstage I’d probably be insanely crazy for how good she was.  On screen though, it comes off as overkill.

Where more attention should really be paid is the three supporting actors making up the rest of the band.  Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and especially Glynn Turman are dynamite as old friends who have seen it all as members of Ma Rainey’s bad.  They have the war stories to tell of their touring days with her and the injuries to back them up.  There’s also pain bubbling below the surface and it takes a wild card like Levee to raise the heat while they wait for Ma Rainey to get ready to sing.  Each get a nice moment in the spotlight with Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) emerging as the mediator between the band and Ma Rainey and Turman (Bumblebee) hilarious at one point but ultimately heartbreaking in the film’s final moments.

Even at a short 94 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels longer than it should.  It’s one of those watches that you wind up feeling like you should be getting more out of for your own sake more than the sake of the movie and that’s when you need to let go and admit a movie just isn’t working for you.  Boseman’s final leading performance is a memorable turn and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent in supporting roles, but everyone is working with material that is unavoidably stage bound and immovable.  Watch the movie now but seek out a live performance of it when things get back to some sense of normalcy in 2021 (hopefully!).

The Silver Bullet ~ Candyman (2020)

Synopsis: Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Release Date:  June 12, 2020

Thoughts: As I recalled in my 31 Days to Scare review, 1992’s Candyman remains one of the rare movies that still manages to frighten me to this day.  It scared me terribly when I first saw it and I get a little rush of sweat in my brow when I know I’m going to be seeing it again.  It’s just that well-crafted of a horror film.  So I was more than a little curious when a remake was announced, thinking it was just another in the long-line of ill-conceived reboots that no one asked for.  It’s when Oscar-winning screenwriter and surging director Jordan Peele (Us) came on board to co-write the script and director Nia DaCosta signed on to direct that I really got interested and if this first trailer is any indication, this 2020 Candyman is going to pack that same scary sting as the original.  With an enviable cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and even original cast member Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) returning as what looks to be the same character this one is something to look forward to.  Looking over the cast on IMDb reveals Peele is either making a sequel ala the recent Halloween or remaking the original with a twist…either way I’m in for some sweet screams.

Movie Review ~ If Beale Street Could Talk

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  In 2016, writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight, telling a unique story about a heretofore underrepresented population of the black community onscreen.  It was a bold, beautiful movie that challenged viewers and our own prejudices not only to skin color but to our perceptions of love and acceptance.  While Jenkins missed out on winning Best Director, Moonlight famously went on to win Best Picture is an Oscar snafu that first saw La La Land announced as the victor only to have Academy officials quickly rush the stage to say presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read the wrong winner and the small indie Moonlight actually took the prize.

Two years later, we were all waiting with baited breath wondering would the next Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, capitalize on his momentum and solidify that Moonlight wasn’t just a flash in the pan moment of greatness.  Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins has again adapted a work of great beauty that juggles multiple timelines and emotions and creates an utterly transporting experience.  While it couldn’t be more different from Moonlight in subject matter, it captures a similar spirit and builds on that earlier work, bringing audiences deep into the lives of two young lovers and their families dealing with a terrible situation.

Tish (KiKi Layne, Captive State) and Fonny (Stephan James, Selma) have grown up together in Harlem, their childhood friendship blossoming into teenage affection and then into adult love.  When the film opens, Fonny is in prison awaiting trial for a raping a woman and Tish has to tell him that she’s going to have his baby.  Through flashbacks intercut with present day scenes of Tish and her family seeking assistance in clearing Fonny’s name, we see how these two young people got to this place and time and mourn the likely loss of the shared life they’ll never get to begin.  Is the woman accusing Fonny doing so because he’s black?  Or was she instructed to pick him out of a line-up by a cop (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) that had a previous run-in with him?  What about the darkest question of all?  Could Fonny have actually done it?

Even though this is only the second film I’ve seen from Jenkins, I can already see a calling card style to his work. Like director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Jenkins favors having his actors staring directly into the camera, which functions as a way of drawing audiences into the action and makes you feel like they are delivering their lines directly to you.  You suddenly become the character being addressed and the effect is unsettling, yet thrilling all the same.  Much of If Beale Street Could Talk are just conversations between ordinary people and the film isn’t afraid to keep things quiet and reflective, like in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) recounting to his old friend Fonny what a black man’s psyche feels like after being in prison.

At the center of the film are the two impressive performances of Layne and James, navigating countless emotions throughout from the nervous excitement of a first coupling to elation in the face of fear at the news of their upcoming child to the desperation and eventual resolute acceptance of a broken legal system.  The work here, especially Layne as the film progresses, is outstanding.  The young actors are strongly supported by Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Tish’s mother who is mighty and moving in several key scenes without ever resorting to the kind of showboating acting the role could have leaned toward.  For me, it’s not quite the Oscar-winning performance people are claiming it is but King is always such a solid presence I get why she’s at the top of the conversations this year.  I also enjoyed Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) as Tish’s no-nonsense sister, and Michael Beach (Aquaman) and Aunjanue Ellis (Get on Up) as Fonny’s parents who come calling for but one scene early on in the film and leave a sizable impression in their wake.  Familiar faces Diego Luna (Contraband), Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) show up in smaller supporting roles that thankfully don’t get in the way of our leads.

Nicholas Britell’s (The Big Short) brass heavy score is fantastic as is James Laxton’s (Tusk) golden-hued and period specific cinematography, all playing their role in picking you up and placing you exactly where Jenkins wants you to be.  Jenkins has a way with casting even the smallest of roles pitch-perfectly, with no one betraying this is a movie set in 1974 made in 2018.  While Moonlight was more of a film that led to further discussion, If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t quite have that same “Let’s talk about it” feel to it when the picture ends.  That’s not to say it isn’t highly effective or incredibly moving – it’s a movie made with emotion that you can’t help but be swept away with and that’s largely due to the performances and the way Jenkins brings many elements together to create a true movie-going experience.  One of the best of the year.