If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)

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Just two years ago Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ won the big one at the Academy Awards and he’s back with another intimate tale of relationships, one that feels richly soaked in spellbinding love.

Alonzo (Stephan James) and his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) have known each other almost their entire lives and they wish to move in together but Alonzo is arrested for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. Matters only become more difficult when Tish realises she’s pregnant with his child and the hopes of her lovers’ freedom start fading away.

Told in a non-linear fashion, this is a captivating tapestry of love and the strains of racist America destroying their ideal dream. Some films which flit back and forth can lose their way in a muddle or become a tiring slog but ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is neither because director Jenkins is an incredible master of storytelling. Character is front and centre and it shouldn’t ever be any other way, Jenkins has this inspiring knack to make the camera fall in love with his subjects and therefore, we as an audience do as well.

The look of the entire film is just lovely, that seems like such a simple word but you can’t help but topple into a comforting state when watching this beauty of cinema unfold. There’s a sumptuous quality to Tish and Alonzo’s connection making the spark of the story feel like a dream to get swept away by. James Laxton’s gorgeous, glowing cinematography and the abundance of perfectly framed close-ups really make this a personal picture and only go and make the unfair persecutions of their situation that much more emotional.

Nicholas Britell delivers a dreamy score, one which beautifully mirrors the elegance that cinema can often deliver in blue moon moments. The joyous sounds of New Orleans inspired jazz aid the honeymoon romance of the central pair but when circumstances get rougher, such as Ed Skrein’s despicable officer inflicting a troubling presence, Britell’s work becomes moodier and unsettling with the faintest brass notes to be heard in the distance.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne are an exquisite duo who perform with such an infectious chemistry which make the emotional beats that much more pronounced. Regina King is a triumph as Tish’s mother Sharon, a parent who will do anything for her little girl. Teyonah Parris is excellent also, delivering with sharp precision, some cracking lines in the face of disapproving in-laws.

Barry Jenkins maintains a determined solid bond between his stars, things may threaten to shake their foundations but love is constant and with these two young lovers it is heart-breaking to witness.

7.5/10

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019)

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Forgery has never looked so gently compelling but ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is out and about in New York to show how unexpectedly sweet and deliciously sour it can all be.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has a NY Times Best Seller book under her belt but has fallen under writers block and other self-made hard times. Whilst trying to compile notes for a new novel she unearths letters sent by the person she wants to write about. This sets in motion a plan to spin money by forging letters from other writers and along with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel gets into her groove once more.

The film is lovingly layered with spot on wit, never over-laden to breaking point, the screenplay has a fair few amounts of razor sharp insults and sniping but it’s still a film that is generally a pleasant watch, like the director has managed to settle her audience in to this calming, jazzy ambience of comedy and drama. It’s like you’re watching this talented yet hard to reach writer figure of Israel, not from a cinema but on a plush armchair with atmospheric lighting setting the mood in comfortable surroundings.

It is also true that it can feel like a biographical picture more like a lazy Sunday afternoon watch because it never changes gears and it takes a bit of time to warm to the aggressive nature of Lee as a person but once she begins her typewriter hustling and forms a bond with flamboyant Jack, the movie becomes a much more investing product.

The film does well in making Lee Israel and her fraudulent letters a rather interesting matter, it’s a story truly deserving of the spotlight and they don’t squander it. It’s made me want to find out more about her and I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on others. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a great commentary on the eagerness to lap up literary content and buy into the world of the writer, any unheard of material is ripe for the picking without any due thought which makes her actions all the more understandable. The writers and director never paint Lee out to be some unholy crook but more a mildly unpleasant, anxiety-ridden alcoholic with a mouth on her…so like all writers!

Melissa McCarthy brings amazing presence to the film and silences any critics to her more usual shouty comedy flicks, which was me included. Like in ‘St. Vincent’, McCarthy shines by proving great dramatic chops that she clearly has within her. Richard E. Grant is purely enigmatic with a cheeky smile helping him bring Jack to spritely life. The two actors bounce off each other so well, the characters they play clearly sharing like-minded souls in bittersweet humour and sadness. The pair of performers play the relationship beautifully with a radiant spark flaring up between them every time they’re on screen together.

It’s an intriguing film and very close to being a joyful watch. The witticisms and emotional current that carry the film are wonderfully balanced.

7/10

Bird Box (2018)

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It has been claimed by streaming giants Netflix, that this film gained over 45 million viewers in its first week, those are some impressive figures and it isn’t too difficult to see why because ‘Bird Box’ has an interesting premise, stellar cast and flitting moments of chilling unease to draw you in.

Around the world, masses of people are committing suicide causing great hysteria for people hoping to survive. It becomes quickly clear that covering your eyes and not stepping foot outside can be helpful but stuck in a house with a mixture of personalities leads to frayed tensions. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) tries to remain calm in her situation but as the film shifts back and forth in time we see what a dangerous journey she has to make.

Based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, this is a post-apocalyptic movie with a fairly interesting plot. It definitely could have gone further with the premise, these mysterious dark influencers causing folk to kill themselves are a worrying threat but the ideas don’t ever fully reach their target, it just feels like this film is almost missing something.

What with the silence of ‘Hush’ and the quietness of ‘A Quiet Place’, sense deprivation in horror is proving to be a diving board for storytelling in strained circumstances. Unlike those two, this one doesn’t stand as strong, there are one too many moments throughout that detract from the film, either by feeling ridiculous, posing too many unanswered questions or having the characters move and therefore the film loses impact.

It is this latter issue which made the film less exciting than I hoped it’d be. A house bound portion of the film is filled to the rafters with acting talent and lets cabin fever settle in but as ‘Bird Box’ jumps forward and backwards in time, it loses tension and the river boat sequences just aren’t that good. Then after a certain point the remainder of the film feels weak, as if trying to claw on with the chilling factor but it can’t quite sustain the brilliant burst of doom witnessed in the beginning.

Sandra Bullock is great in this, her frustrations and angry eagerness to persist are note perfect as is her sarcasm. John Malkovich is bold as the man all thrillers have, in where they speak words no-one else wishes to utter, you’re meant to dislike him but in world ending moments I’d kind of agree with what he says, is that bad?! Trevante Rhodes is the heroic figure, always staying on the side of caution and kindness and he has good chemistry with Bullock. Tom Hollander pops up and once he does, the entrapping quality of the house is amplified by his magnificent performance.

Aside from an ending where a location of haven is revealed and is pretty laughable and a mixture of good and bad points swirling like a boat bashing on water, ‘Bird Box’ has chilling qualities and stock characters to make for a neat thriller if only it took flight more.

6.5/10

Disobedience (2018)

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Love is an all consuming thing and this film goes some way in demonstrating the strength of that powerful four letter word. Anchored by two astonishing female leads, ‘Disobedience’ isn’t as resolute in the pursuit of its story and feels slightly lacking of consequence.

After a family tragedy, photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) flies from New York to London to pay her respects. The world she returns to is of the strict Orthodox Jewish community of which she’d left behind. As she stays longer, her past is unbottled and Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams) is a reason for why she was estranged and distanced from her father and his religion.

What this film has going for it, is a good sense of tenderness. Sebastian Lelio ensures that the central pairing of his stars are the focus, their developing connection one that feels soft and lovely around the edges. There are some great moments in the opening scenes of the film with the setting up of characters and Ronit’s arrival back in London comes with traces of strained family humour and a tickling sense of intrigue to these furtive looks that occur between Ronit and Esti.

On the other hand, it is this tender quality that can make the film feel somewhat wishy-washy. The burning nature of love and passion should be unmistakable and though you can tell the two ladies want each other, it’s the aftermath of their connection that never really hits like you’d expect or want. Perhaps the setting of it within the Jewish faith is why the glances and silence are all you get but a darker kick-back to what they do and what happened in the past would make this film more engrossing to watch.

In fact, the film doesn’t totally sell us on the build up to their elicit rendezvous, there’s just a smidge enough to know there’s something going on but it doesn’t feel like the movie has enough gusto to sell us on the fact and suddenly what happens, happens. It’s the softly softly approach which makes for good detailed performances but doesn’t help the screenplay feel sparkling, in fact the film quickly loses dynamics and come the end, it feels vaguely like a quiet soap opera.

Weisz is superb and you can see it in her face and the way she fiddles with her hair or scarf that she’s juggling feelings of grief, annoyance and love. McAdams is just as sensational as her counterpart, if not more so. The complicated state of her marriage, the possible lack of love in her life and the reappearance of Ronit are all carefully balanced by the American actor, she is captivating to watch and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her up for an Oscar in 2019.

‘Disobedience’ has some nice qualities and the background of the Jewish community feels well handled, Weisz and McAdams are the perfect lovers. If only the film didn’t disobey it’s own powerful rules on love, when it should have instead, committed to a more vivid and less unsatisfying flow of tension in the relationship.

6/10

Wildlife (2018)

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‘Wildlife’ marks the directorial debut for actor Paul Dano and what an assured, quality debut it is. Dano and his partner; fellow actor and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, have joined as a force of talent to script this film, which delves into a family through beautiful crisis.

In Montana of 1960, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to find a new job and gets one working away from home, to control the fires in some mountains. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) finds work of her own and it’s during this time when their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has to become the man of the house and witness a shift in his parent’s relationship.

Paul Dano had stated that he always knew he wanted to make films about families and this is a look at one that disintegrates whilst you helplessly watch. Based on a 1990 novel of the same name, his screenplay was looked over by ‘Ruby Sparks’ writer and playwright Zoe Kazan who then helped as joint screenwriter and, together the pair have really nailed down on the personal, unflinching state of separation, explored through the 14 year old eyes of Joe, yet blisteringly sold by Mulligan’s performance.

It isn’t long until the strains of Jerry and Jeannette’s marriage take hold and once this happens the cracks can do little but get larger and larger. Through this slow-motion descent, Carey Mulligan trembles, spills tears and explodes with her affecting portrayal of a mother always asking what her son thinks and slowly taking her own route at whatever cost. She provides a fantastically haunting, mesmerising performance.

The cinematography from Diego Garcia is similarly mesmerising in a haunted, stunning way. Just from the opening shot, which sets the scene for it being a movie about house and home and the dysfunction that can happen within. Then you see the lovely bliss of this town and its peaked background reflecting the story of their apparently blissful marriage clouding over like the fire and smoke which is raging close by.

Dano and Kazan have ensured there’s a quiet burning which runs through the narrative, carrying a simmer of unease. You never truly know if something will boil over and on the occasion it might, the atmosphere slams with such a ferocity of family heartbreak, none more powerful than the silent and final image of this film. Paul Dano himself has seamlessly carried his remarkable magnetic talent from in front of the camera and neatly placed that skill behind it, ensuring there’s no need for showy tension to make a weighty drama and that’s what makes this film all the more important and brilliant.

‘Wildlife‘ is a carefully written work of art with its power buried from the inside out. As it slowly leaks out, the audience are in for a film that feels like theatre, this scenario of a family breakdown gorgeously acted by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal and wonderfully sold from Oxenbould’s Joe, as he and we too, can’t help but face this happen.

8/10

 

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

The Hate U Give (2018)

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Based on a 2017 novel sharing the same name, this drama release certainly releases a perfectly pent up rage to the system and following the solid talents of its lead, ‘The Hate U Give’ becomes a film that well and truly took me by surprise.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), her brother and half brother attend a popular school away from the predominantly black neighbourhood where they grew up and live. On a drive home from a party in this part of town, Starr and childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) are pulled over by a white cop and she witnesses Khalil getting shot. In the tornado of anger that follows, Starr must decide whether she can stand up and find her voice to speak out about what she saw.

George Tillman Jr. is a director who’s been behind the camera for comedies on the most part, so this is a fair departure from his previous work. He’s taken from the source material of Angie Thomas’ book and with Audrey Wells’ screenplay, this becomes a powerful recipe for a motivational, provoking piece of drama. Tillman Jr. ensures the film has more than a couple uses of commanding imagery; ones that evoke clear parallels to the saddening events frequently seen from America and their police against black people.

It’s a film which had me almost on the verge of tears not just once but a few times. This emotion stems from an enraged kind of sadness which surges up and out as the narrative progresses to some brave places and the injustice keeps on going. The whole issue of black lives mattering is a constant thread and this front which Starr places on herself away from her home of Garden Heights, an embodiment of nonthreatening, perfectly proper schoolgirl to cater to the white students is thematically strong throughout.

‘The Hate U Give’ does have some necessary sprinkles of charming dialogue too, moments that save the movie from being too melodramatic. Chats about Harry Potter or what dish mac n cheese is really make the characters feel real. There isn’t just frustration to the police brutality to be had, there are humourous aspects which tie in nicely amongst the more emotional, drama driven beats. There are a couple of cases where dialogue feels fairly on the nose and that stale YA adaptation aura threatens to wash in but it often escapes those clutches and is an extremely relevant film with a chorus of mighty performances.

None more so than Amandla Stenberg who is a sensation as Starr. She truly lights up the film, as her character name suggests she really is a dazzling star in this, her smile is infectious and the neutral sitting back approach of her almost double life is perfectly performed leading her to act with great explosions of emotion when the drama boils over.

‘The Hate U Give’ is a movie that must be seen, it’s got a lot to say and there’s an unmistakable quiet buzzing of anger which rises and rises to dramatically outstanding effect.

8/10