If Beale Street could talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk

Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James)

There is so much rarity that oozes out of If Beale Street could talk that at times it is hard to describe. Here is a romantic drama that does not rely on fantasies or hopes but on the pluses and minuses of reality. No other tag line has rung more true for a 2018 film: “Trust love all the way”.

Based off the book (which I am hoping to read soon) by James Baldwin and written for the screen by director Barry Jenkins (whose last film, Moonlight, won the Oscar for Best Picture), we meet the young lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso (Stephan James), or “Fonny”. She is 19. He is 22. They have known each other since they could take their first bath together as kids. Their lives in  New York are marred with troubles, but they remain faithful, even when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Things get a little more complicated when we find out that Tish is pregnant. While her family is supportive, his family is…well, to say they are against it is putting it very mildly. The scene between the two families sets the absolute mood of the film.

The movie is told sometimes in flashback (as told by Tish), showing her relationship with Fonny before his arrest. The rest shows their attempts to get Fonny out of jail, but certain complications arise (and they don’t come cheap). Thankfully, Tish has very supporting parents. While her  dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) is there for his daughter, it is clearly the mother, Sharon (Regina King) who is the should Tish leans on the most. Every scene King is in explodes with talent, proving she is a strong contender for best supporting actress in the next few months. That would not be the films only nomination, as it also has possibly the best musical score I have heard in 2018.

The film also supplies other strong performances, but the crystal clear heart of the film is the chemistry between the two young leads. Layne plays Tish as soft-spoken, but not one who will let you step on her toes. James allows us to see Fonny (as Tish hopes all call him) as a young man who knows the hardships of life, but still is kind-hearted.

Parents, the movie is rated R, and should be. While there is a lot of swearing (including racial slurs), there is not much violence. There is, however, one of the more longer sex scenes (nearly five to seven minutes) that occurs and has nudity. Mature High Schoolers and up.

There are some parts of the movie that seem a little off (I am not sure yet how I feel about the trip that Tish’s mother makes, despite how undoubtably heartfelt it is), and the outcome of the movie may not be for everyone. I was fine with it. The message was simple: Even in the worst of circumstances, you must, in all honesty, trust love. All the way.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can you ever forgive me

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) does what she can to survive.

I made a startling realization about half way thru Can You Ever Forgive Me?: It was the first time I had seen Melissa McCarthy on the big screen (I would later find out the only other film I had seen her in was 2010’s abysmal  Life as We know it, which I don’t remember her being in. I take it she would be thankful for me for that.)

Oh, I have seen plenty of her clips online from movies like Bridesmaids (which she got an Oscar nomination for) as well as her skits on Saturday Night Live, so I knew enough going into this film that this would be a change of pace for her. Change of pace is a gross understatement. The fact that her Lee Israel swears a lot is really the only thing even close to resembling Melissa McCarthy. The performance is nothing short of revolutionary, and will surely be in the Oscar conversations for the next couple months.

Based on a true story, Israel is a struggling writer living in New York in the early 1990s, whose books have been all but forgotten. Her biography on Fanny Brice is a dead end, there are an abundance of flies in her apartment, and her cat is sick. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) invites Lee to her party, and we see right away people skills are not in Lee’s skill set.

By accident, Lee comes across the letter of a famous writer, and realizes she can do well at impersonating them as she writes fake letters, later selling them to collectors. The only person she informs her plan to is her homosexual writer friend Jack Hock (an equally great performance by Richard E. Grant), who is not the best drug dealer out there. The chemistry between Grant and McCarthy is near magic.

The rest of the supporting cast is spot  on (including Ben Falcone, real life husband of McCarthy), but the unsung heroes in my mind are screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. The dialogue is as near perfect as it can be. They deserve Oscar consideration right along Grant and McCarthy.

Parents, the R rating is justified, as there is a lot of swearing that I would think no middle schooler has heard before in context (at least I hope not). There is no sex in the movie, but we do see some rear male nudity. High School and above.

The title of the film comes from a letter from author Dorothy Parker, one of the many authors that Lee Israel tried to impersonate. In a way, it is also fitting to some of the roles Melissa McCarthy has had throughout the years (I know, I never saw them, but I can only speculate from what I have heard). It may have taken some time, but after her performance here, I can safely say I can forgive her.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary

Toni Colette’ Annie is having a few issues…

Not knowing anything about a movie before you see it can be rewarding, and the most recent prime example is Hereditary. Having not seen the trailer till after I saw the film (which is rather spoiler free), my only knowledge was that it starred Toni Colette.

With vibes of 2016’s hidden gem The Witch (both films have the same producers), Hereditary starts with an opening shot that will be dissected by film buffs for years to come. What a hook from the get go. Annie (Colette, who does ravishing work) is on the way to her mother’s funeral with her family. We learn their relationship was rocky, to say the absolute least. The person her mother favored was Annie’s daughter Charlie (striking newcomer Milly Shapiro). Charlie has a peanut allergy, which I mention because that is far from her worst issues. There is also Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s older teenage son. While kind-hearted, he is not one to shy away from smoking weed after school. Finally, there is Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who I am still not sure about. Is he a dullard or just fed up with the issues in his family? I am still on the fence.

The movie plays like a crescendo of horror, in that it does not just spurt out random scenes of “gotcha” moments so much as add more and more tension. You know a movie is doing something right when you realize you have not considered containing so much tension before.

The imagery of Hereditary is strikingly effective in a haunting way. The house in which the family lives should have star credit on its own. It is as neatly polished as the small figures and sets that Annie works on. The musical score only adds to the horror we feel (as all scary movies should).

Yet Hereditary is not completely a horror so much as it also becomes some bit of a thriller. Mixing those two genres may seem easy, but not all the time. Director Ari Aster (who also wrote the script) handles the balance of horror and sadness so well that the feeling you leave with is bound to stay with you for weeks.

Parents, this is in no way a movie for children. There is mild nudity (nothing sexual) that is a little easy to miss, but the horror aspect is sure to frighten anyone under the age of…actually, any age. High School and above.

I went to this movie with a close friend of mine. I have known him for a while, and have not seen him as shaken up as he was. After the film, I mentioned we would probably need to watch five to ten Disney movies (maybe more) to brighten us up again. I even mentioned to other friends to give him a hug just in case.

Consider that a warning. Well, a positive warning.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther

The Black Panther sticks another landing for Marvel

Perhaps it is late for me to say, but Marvel Studios is starting to mirror that of Pixar, in that it is hard for them to have a flop financially or critically (it helps when you partner with Disney). A decade after the universe was launched with Iron Man, Marvel Studios is still going strong, and now delivers one of their very best in Black Panther.

Introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther takes place just after those events, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is being crowned King of Wakanda. Wakanda is a country steeped in poverty, but only in the eyes of the outside world. We learn it is truly flourishing with technology that is beyond anything we have yet seen in a Marvel movie (or any other). At first, I was afraid it would be too much like Asgard (the home world of Thor), but Wakanda still manages to stand out as its own environment.

Before he can take his place as king, T’Challa/Black Panther must stop Ulysses Klau (the always reliable Andy Serkis) from stealing Vibranium (the key substance to Wakanda and its economy, not to mention weapons and armor). Helping him is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who manages to make a name for himself along the best of Marvel’s baddies.

What makes Black Panther so wonderful is the same formula that makes nearly all other Marvel films great as well. The actors take the roles seriously, but are still managing to have a lot of fun (especially Andy Serkis). Director Ryan Coogler (who also directed Jordan in Creed and Fruitvale Station) never has moments (well, maybe one or two) that drag on. We are enticed from the word go.

It also helps that, despite lack of screen time, every actor is giving all they got to the roles they play. Such actors include (but are not limited to) Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead‘s Michonne), Daniel Kaluuya (recent Oscar nominee for Get Out), Angela Bassett, and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us). When you see them on-screen, you know talent is erupting.

Parents, this is another Marvel movie, so if your kids have seen at least one (I don’t know many kids who haven’t), they are fine here. There is some swearing and violence, but no sexual content or nudity (despite some female characters wearing some revealing clothing, but nothing bad).

Is Black Panther the best Marvel movie? The vote is still out, but it is definitely in the running. It says a lot about an action/adventure movie when the action free scenes are as engrossing as the action scenes are (which are superb).

It is clear that 2018 now has its first great movie. And what a movie.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

The Florida Project (2017)

The Florida Project

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) trying to have a talk with Monee (Brooklynn Prince).

There was a time in my childhood where there was a five year stretch (give or take) that I was blessed to be able to go to Disney World (the last time was a Marching Band trip in my freshman year of High School back in 2003). It has been some time, though I now have a different reason to revisit the theme parks besides new rides and additions.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project explores the world outside of the walls of the Disney attractions of the state, a world I for one never had an inkling existed. The film shows this universe through the eyes of a six year old girl named Monee (Brooklynn Price, a stunning young actor). She lives in poverty with her mom Halley (an equally impressive Bria Vinaite). There is no explanation as to how they got into their current situation, nor a need to. The film’s plot is rather loose, but that is what is great about it: It seems like a total slice of life.

Indeed, I would have thought the film was a documentary if it wasn’t for one familiar face: veteran actor Willem Dafoe. He plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel that they mom and daughter stay at. He is all business, making sure all follow the rules, but he is also down to earth. The type of guy you know you can talk to when he is in a good mood, and even okay with occasionally letting the kids eat ice cream inside (provided it does not spill) and letting his desk be available for hide and seek. It also helps that he does look out for kids, especially in one scene where he fends off a certain suspicious character. You can sense Bobby is doing it not because of business, but because he does have a good heart. Certainly a turn from darker characters we have seen Dafoe play in the past. Expect to see him in the Oscar nominees this year for Supporting Actor (he may even win).

Parents, the movie is R for swearing and some sexual material (the only real nudity occurs when Bobby is telling a patron that she cannot tan in the nude). There is a lot of swearing (many from the kids) and thematic elements. Definitely High School and above.

Originally, I was going to say the film’s main flaw is that it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the more I think of it, the more that is not a flaw at all. Like 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project is about life in a place that we never see mentioned in daily life, and is both easy to miss yet still easy to access. I won’t give away the ending of the film, except that it is perfect, mainly for the characters we see in the last shot. Truly one of the year’s best films.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Queen (2006)

The Queen

Helen Mirren is The Queen. Simple as that.

As we near the upcoming 20th anniversary of the tragic death of Princess Diana (and having just viewed the very well made Netflix’s Original Series The Crown), I decided to revisit 2006’s The Queen. While viewing it, I tried to do something I had not done while viewing the movie before: trying to judge every part of the movie without focusing entirely on the performance by Helen Mirren.

It was no easy task. Helen Mirren gives a powerhouse performance as Queen Elizabeth II, so much so that in the few moments she is not on-screen, her presence is still felt. When I first saw the film, I knew virtually nothing about the history of the Queen herself, only the event that was Princess Diana’s death (I was 10 when it happened).

The movie starts of with her majesty meeting her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, who is stellar). It is clear that Blair is bringing in a new, youthful era to the country. When told that he wishes to be called by his first name instead of his title, the Queen asks, “Has anyone given him a protocol sheet?”

Fast forward to the tragic day at the end of August of 1997, when the Princess and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, died in a car accident in a Paris tunnel. receiving the news, both the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip (an under appreciated James Cromwell) are stunned to find out that the Prime Minister is hoping for the royal family to make a statement. This is supported by Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who in turn has to look out for his sons. It is a week that brings back many memories to people, as it is clear that the People’s Princess had touched all corners of the world.

The film has many scenes of quiet beauty: Simple walks in the palace, strolls with the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), talks on the phone, and (most of all) a very brief encounter with a stag. All scenes are played out with exquisite taste and care by director Stephen Frears.

Parents, the movie is a moderately gentle PG-13. There is no sex/nudity, just some swearing (one brief F-Bomb). There is also a little bit of gore revolved around hunting, show with a decapitated head of an animal. I would say middle school and up.

In the end, the movie belongs to Helen Mirren. When I first saw the movie, I knew little about the source material, yet I was still able to realize how dominate she was in the title role. It is one of the best performances an actor has given. You don’t see her acting at all during the movie. All you see is a woman who, despite her power, is still human. She still feels, still reacts, still makes hard decisions, and still manages to accept them.

Like the real life Queen Elizabeth II, this film is a surplus of dignity, power, and grace.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2