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.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Trailer #2)

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_ver2

Synopsis: Rebels set out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star.

Release Date: December 16, 2016

Thoughts: Not that it’s a very high bar, but this second trailer for December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is better than most films we’ve seen so far this summer.  Maybe even more than 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, this spin-off prequel sends waves of nostalgia over the viewer. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) seems to have created a movie made now that feels like it was lensed in the ‘70s and has cast it with a striking group of fresh faces creeping their way up into the A-List.  I’m even more excited to see how this ties into the saga of films that it takes place before and it’s a given that the film will be a swell Christmas gift in just a few short months.   Watch the first teaser here.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Book of Life

book_of_life_ver3

Synopsis: Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Thoughts: While watching the dazzling trailer for October’s The Book of Life, my first thought was more of a concern: that my eyes were going to pop out of my head from the array of colors and textures blazing by at a rapid pace. Producer Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) is known for his attention to detail in thoughtful stories with underlying themes that reveal themselves slowly so I’m quite interested to see what new ground The Book of Life will break. While I’m not as averse to 3D as some of my contemporaries, I think it has proved to be best used in the type of rich animation The Book of Life employs. With the voices of Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), and Diego Luna (Elysium) the film reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, and Coraline.

Movie Review ~ Elysium

elysium_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Achieving a minor miracle of a success with 2009’s District 9 (which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), it’s interesting that it took director Neill Blomkamp several years to release his follow-up film.  Laboring long and hard on a film that, like District 9, is not merely a science fiction stunner but a thinly veiled allegory about something bigger the wait was (mostly) worth it with Elysium.

Now I know this film has some problems.  Its storyline is a bit fractured with holes that are wide and frequent but it’s the intense focus on the superior visual design of the movie that earns high marks from this reviewer.  Surely housing the best looking effects of any film released in 2013, Elysium sometimes becomes too enamored of its own shine and flash and that’s why it’s class warfare parable doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as Blomkamp’s apartheid statement hiding under the wiry guts of District 9’s plot.

That being said, you have to hand it to Blomkamp for aspiring to something greater than just delivering straight-forward science fiction with a message that doesn’t seem force-fed or totally obvious.  I’ve mentioned in my review of the trailer for Elysium that Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster (Carnage) are notoriously choosy about their films and it isn’t hard to see why both actors eyeballed this project.  Though I don’t feel either broke any new ground, it winds up providing solid fodder for Damon to continue his flawed hero character he’s been honing since the Good Will Hunting days and for Foster to fashion another ice queen so brittle she might break if she bumped into a wall.  Foster adopts a strange accent that sounds like it was both an afterthought and extensively fixed in post production dubbing…it just felt off and a rare misstep for the actress.  The most satisfying performance comes from Sharlto Copley’s (Europa Report) wicked wicked contract killer, a rough and tumble movie villain from a movie era long since obliterated.

Blomkamp’s script has its fair share of twists and interesting commentary about future society until it pares back the bigger ideas for bigger action sequences.  These aren’t necessarily unwelcome bits of action but it feels like Blomkamp was a servant to two masters…his own ideology of what he could say with this film and a movie studio that supports the director but also sees the bottom line of a summer action film.

I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would and found it a wonder to look at, if not always to follow along with.  I’m hoping that Blomkamp gets back to what made his first US splash such a smash and find a way to achieve more balance with what he’s saying and what he’s showing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Elysium

elysium

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his first film, 2009’s District 9, a sci-fi action film set in the future that was a very thin veiled statement on the horrors of apartheid.  With his newest film, he seems to be taking on a bit of class warfare in the quest of equality.  Attracting the notoriously picky Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster bodes well for the quality of the picture, and this first trailer shows the August release has impressive visuals to go along with its action roots.  We’ve had a healthy run of futuristic pictures in the last few years and it will be interesting to see how Elysium fits into the genre.