if beale street could talk

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by/chris stephens
Annapurna/119 min.

What immediately struck me in Barry Jenkins’ latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an atmospheric sense of warmth that never lets up. From the opening frames, we see a young couple, Tish and Fonny, holding hands as they walk through a park. Deep green grass and bright autumnal leaves crowd all around them, and Tish and Fonny wear matching blue and yellow outfits as they stroll quietly along. Later on, we see them on a cold street, but their vibrant outfits pop in the dreary weather, blurred multicolored lights radiating behind them. Or we see them in a jail with sunshine yellow walls, or an urban apartment with cozy tungsten lights. Across the entire film, through costumes, production design, and cinematography, this visual motif of ambient warmth provides a comfort to what we’re seeing, even if the events of the movie feel cold or oppressive or painful.

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This warmth and comfort reflects the intimacy between Tish and Fonny, a young black couple living in New York City in the 1970’s. The story — adapted from the 1974 novel of the same name written by James Baldwin — follows the challenges these two face when Fonny is arrested after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. However, while Fonny is stuck in jail awaiting his trial, Tish reveals that she’s pregnant, and the two of them struggle to support each other through their mutually trying experiences. The narrative plays out in a non-linear structure that goes back and forth between Tish’s pregnancy, Fonny’s legal case, and the early stages of Tish and Fonny’s relationship. Their dynamic is brought to life wonderfully by KiKi Layne (who delivers a subtle but evocative performance, her minute facial expressions saying so much) and Stephan James (who brings equal amounts charisma and vulnerability). The way that these two just look at each other conveys so much. Fear, passion, devotion, love. Far and away, the heights of this film are whenever these two share the screen.

The other performances are mostly strong throughout. Brian Tyree Henry shows up briefly as an old friend of Fonny’s, and as always he’s totally captivating. Regina King and Colman Domingo play Tish’ mother and father. King brings in the dignity but also the suffering and sacrifice of a loving mother, while Domingo is fun and comedic, but always caring. Fonny’s family, however, is less impressive. Michael Beach as Fonny’s father is effectively funny, but his mother and sisters (played by Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, and Dominique Thorne respectively) come across as needlessly and excessively cruel to the point where they don’t even feel like characters so much as devices meant to convince the audience to sympathize with Fonny and Tish. But when the sympathy is derived from characters that feel false, then the sympathy feels false. This issue isn’t major, it only really occurs in one scene early on, and once the story moves away from his family then things pick up again, but it does stand out as an obvious low point in the overall narrative and performances.

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The political aspects of the film are overt, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This movie has no qualms with openly and desperately showcasing the frustrating injustices of prejudice and a warped legal system as directly as it possibly can. I understand why this lack of subtlety could bother some people, especially with elements as blunt as black-and-white slideshows of police brutality, but none of it feels hamfisted or insincere to me. It just feels honest, and angry, and genuinely sad in a way that’s open and motivated by the story.

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The weakest element overall is the classic dialogue. It seems stylized after the more theatrical writing from early romances of the 50’s, the kind of dialogue that always sounds incredibly acted and written rather than naturally spoken by a human being. In older movies it’s easy to forgive as a product of its time, but employing it in a modern light feels stiff and unnatural. It’s difficult to tell whether or not this stems from Jenkins’ writing, or from the prose of the novel not really translating to current audiences, but either way the dialogue often times feels stagy in a distracting way. However, this is salvaged by strong performances that work well with the writing, and a cinematic style that displays Jenkins’ utmost respect for his characters. He’s not afraid to linger on them, even if they’re not a major focus in the story, and the way they’re shot whenever they’re screaming or having sex or breaking down is intimate without being voyeuristic or exploitative. We feel like we’re there with them, and this helps us feel what they feel; their claustrophobia and anger and loneliness, or their love and joy and passion. These characters and the respect the movie gives them elevate this film into a delicate piece about sociopolitical injustice, familial sacrifice, and love as a means of redemption and salvation.

mary queen of scots

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by/nicholas leon
Focus Features/124 min.

Mary Queen of Scots, starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as the titular Scottish queen, and featuring Australian actress Margot Robbie as her English contemporary, Elizabeth I, is an exercise in endurance. Directed with the visual fidelity of a made for TV movie with a big budget, Mary Queen of Scots makes a false promise to the audience in the first scene of the film. From the stylized cinematics, color palette, and writing, it foreshadows something contemplative, thoughtfully filmed, and, well, good.

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To rewind a moment, though, the movie shows you how it is going to be in the text card before the aforementioned intro scene. Telling the audience about how Mary has returned from exile in France to seek the throne of England, for which she has a legitimate claim, we get nothing in the way of personal motivation, sociocultural significance, or anything remotely personal that the film tries to imply when it opens with Mary’s execution (500 year old spoilers).

I don’t mean to blunder, but the movie is frustrating in a bit too many ways for me to tolerate. From the plot-driven narrative which make things happen not because of any personal motivation that involves the audience, but because Mary wants a throne that ultimately plays no significance. People negotiate and backstab, and we don’t know why, but what’s worse is that there is no reason to care. A big part of that is the music of the film, which ironically isn’t that memorable. Tonal mishaps that try to tell the audience how to feel every time a character is hurt, killed, or makes a seemingly life-changing decision, it all becomes a bit of a mess.

This is also due a number of characters in the film allied with either Elizabeth or Mary in their struggle for the Crown. On Mary’s side there is her half-brother, her counselor, a sexist protestant minister, her conniving bodyguard, and a couple conniving English parliamentarians. On Elizabeth’s there is (thankfully only) her ambassador, her counselor, and her boyfriend the stable boy (he takes care of horses, I think). With Mary’s cast of characters it soon becomes clear that there is not enough room to carefully flesh out their individual unique traits, so when they betray Mary for trite reasons like her not being smart enough to rule because she’s a woman (even though they are with her campaign for significant portions of the film), it’s because we’re supposed to care more about Mary. And I certainly would, but throughout the film’s runtime, I never felt as if I had enough time to get to know her.

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Contrast that with Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth, who, although she’s more of a featured supporting character than a fully realized counterpart to Mary (with not nearly as much time onscreen), does plenty to flesh out her insecurities and desires. Elizabeth’s own circle of characters is small enough for them to make contributions to Elizabeth as a person, more showcasing her own different character traits, while still coming off as real people on their own.

With Mary, however, it boils down to this: everyone betrays her because they want the power that is hers by right, even though no one has any idea what that power really means (if they knew what it meant, I would too).

Imagine my surprise then at director Josie Rourke’s masterful shots of the Scottish landscape and various aspects of blocking and lighting in certain scenes that intersperse the otherwise quite slow-moving parts of the film. It is in stark contrast to the aforementioned made-for-TV quality of much of the film’s visuals. I don’t have much to say about the shots besides that they are astounding. Mist falling over a dark mountain while Scottish horsemen ride on a road flanked by ancient stones, or a character flanked by people pressuring him to sign a document that will legitimize the murder of his wife’s friend, a candle flickering on the wall above them showing the last flickering light of humanity leaving his soul, or even Mary whispering a Catholic prayer in Latin before she is to be executed. These elements are sparks in an otherwise smoke-filled room. They, along with Saoirse Ronan’s and Margot Robbie’s performances, are the good parts, it’s just unfortunate that that’s about it.

the favourite

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by/nicholas leon
Fox Searchlight/119 min.

THE FAVOURITE

Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of such films as Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster, delivers slightly more normal fare with his latest film, The Favourite. Set during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, the film follows two of her ladies-in-waiting: rags-to-riches Abigail, and ambitious but frank Sarah. The former, played by Emma Stone, claims to come from a disgraced noble family, and, upon arriving to the royal residence, uses her skills to get close to the Queen. The latter, played by Rachel Weisz, is Queen Anne’s most trusted confidant, one who clearly states her intentions but has more than herself in mind.

With a script (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) that is both comedic and dramatic, this is as much a character study as it is historical fiction. Being set in a royal palace, political intrigue abounds, and characters work around and behind each other as each seek to attain what they desire. Of note is the performance of Nicholas Hoult, who plays Earl Robert Harley. He, along with Sarah and Abigail, seek to earn the favor of the Queen for various reasons. Earl Robert and Sarah are politically opposed, with Robert desiring and end to English involvement to a war on the European continent and Sarah intensely invested in it. Abigail, meanwhile, disguises what she truly cares for, whether it is the crown, kingdom, or herself, it takes the entire film for audiences to find out.

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It is this back-and-forth that alerted me to the notion that there isn’t a single protagonist in this film, but rather two, and it’s one of the many changes to the usual narrative and cinematic approach that Lanthimos makes that, while I questioned, I certainly didn’t take glaring issues with. In summary, the writing balances the narrative paths of both Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah, with Abigail seeming at first the protagonist, but Sarah still having plenty of meat to her story. Hoult’s Harley pops in every once in a while as a fun treat that belies a certain ambiguity, but is fun to watch nevertheless. And before I forget, Olivia Colman, playing Queen Anne, is perfect.

Accompanying the performances is a staggering cinematic quality. Shot in all natural light, Lanthimos uses dolly shots, many wide angle lenses, and effective close ups to convey his characters thoughts and intentions. The result is an astoundingly clear presentation that I would say is the best-looking film I’ve seen all year, all because it changes the way the real world is presented to me without using any artificial means besides a really expensive camera.

But while the film succeeds in many of the areas it sets out to improve, in so doing, it also falters. The writing, while having a playfully serious tone, sometimes overstays its welcome with a few jabs at purposeful comedy. A formula becomes apparent in the early parts of the film where the script will add up a lot of serious character drama, and then finish off the scene with a joke. Most of the written ones didn’t land for me, and when I caught on to the way they were written in, I became increasingly disappointed. But it wasn’t all for naught, however, as the physically comedic bits, while fewer and further between, make up what the writing lacks. Awkward and unexpected, they don’t waste time and move the story forward more effectively than a punchline.

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It is slightly unfortunate that the filmmaking also hamstrings itself with overreach. Although most of the shots are fantastic-looking, calling attention not to the technique but to what is seen onscreen, Lanthimos’s use of wide angle lenses had me asking myself silently: Why? While the close ups and other midrange lenses do well enough to present the changing moods within people and groups, the wides tend to distort the frame in a way that distracts, rather than informs. I love wide angle lenses, but here, it just seems that the filmmakers were looking for a way to present the natural and manmade world in a way that would compensate for its size, and sadly, it misses the mark repeatedly.

But while those issues peep out from the woodwork, it does not detract from the film’s overall quality. The writing, direction, lighting, and performances are all quite stunning, and although those words are trite, I only say it because you need to see the film for yourself to believe it.

suspiria

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by/nicholas leon
Amazon/152 min.

Horror is not something that is generally looked up to in modern cinema. It’s definitely more of a guilty pleasure or treasure for connoisseurs of trash or cult classic films (which I do consider myself to be a part of, for clarification). So when I felt mesmerized by the astounding skill with which director Luca Guardagnino employs still shots, blocking, and imagery, I knew I was watching something other than a conventional film.

Starring Dakota Johnson as Susie, the film follows her journey through an elite dance school in Berlin during the 1970s. Numerous events of historical context play out in parallel to her plot, echoing the themes of the central narrative but only playing a minor role in its importance. Susie comes to Berlin from Ohio, where she lived an oppressive life in a religious school. She goes to Berlin, in part, to be free, but during her time there, she discovers that what she wants may not turn out to be so fantastic and enlightened.

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Surrounding Johnson’s Susie include Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc, Chloe Grace-Moretz as the elusive and perhaps delusional Patricia, Mia Goth as Sara, and also Tilda Swinton as some other characters which I’d prefer not to spoil. There are many more characters that add to this group I’ve already listed, but they serve a purpose more akin to set dressing that say things and have mischievous looks about them, rather than three-dimensional people.

Of course, for those who have seen the original film, something mysterious is happening behind the doors of the dance academy that Susie attends. Others have their suspicions, but the teachers at the academy have their ways of concealing what happens behind closed doors. It is this air of mystery that Guardagnino lights and directs the film. Faces and bodies cast in shadow while rooms are clearly lit with a stylized flair. The dormitories of both student and staff characters, corridors leading to the dance studio, and even the lobby of the dance academy are lit like a temple, with barely any noticeable light except what is needed to properly illuminate characters in a dark, mysterious fashion. Take, for instance, a scene early on in the film, where Susie goes in for the initial audition to the prestigious dance academy. Susie stands in a dark hallway, and then a door opens. A teacher stands there, backlit with bright dance studio lights. Susie’s face is illuminated, while the teacher’s face is in silhouette.

In hindsight, I personally view this as Guardagnino’s thesis for the lighting in this film. The dance studio serves as a place of ceremony for both the students and teachers of this dance academy, while all other parts are simply dark and gray. That is quite literally true, as all scenes that take place outside the film look like they take place in realistically colored settings on an otherwise quite dreary day. I understand that this is a sort of antithesis to the lighting of the original film, and I judge it not on that basis, but rather its own originality. I was going to label the way Guardagnino lights outdoor settings something cliché like desaturated or overcast, but really, it’s more like everything outside the dance studio is lit this way because the elements are without life, not to say that the dance academy is a joyous experience for all its students.

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It’s nice then, that this film gives the audience people to root for in their respective arcs. Sara, played by Mia Goth, and a Dr. Josef Klemperer become the audience surrogates, characters who have motivations to find out what’s going on behind the scenes. Compared to Susie’s journey, which is almost oppressively static until the end of the film, theirs are paths of change. The scenes that involve them investigating the mystery behind the academy are quite intense, and had me gasping about what was going to happen, likely to the annoyance of the audience members in front of me. Although Sara’s character is less complex than Klemperer’s, with the latter having a fairly obscure past that is dug up as the film goes on, she slowly became my favorite character in the whole movie.

Characters, rather than plot and genre, are the driving force behind the film. I wouldn’t find the darker elements so interesting if I hadn’t taken note of the people onscreen. I don’t want to spend too much time on the darker elements of the movie, besides to say that they are good, if slightly overindulgent at times. One scene near the beginning of the film, for instance, starts out intense, but as it goes on, becomes a slog to watch, as if the director is saying: “look how terrible I can make you feel” rather than just scaring us with the thought of what could be happening onscreen. Otherwise, they’re good, except for a few glaring times that the direction changes the way viewers see what plays out onscreen.

Up to now, I’ve had nothing but praise for the direction of the movie. More than anything, it made me care about the characters’ lives, and even better, it looked darn good. I barely mentioned the way Guardagnino deftly uses slow and still shots, which evoke a belying calm to the proceedings. It’s unfortunate then, that the director has a tendency to break his own rules.

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Character motivations, lighting, and filming techniques are all things that the film does well, and yet there are occasions where it trips on its own face trying to be different about its own approach that it’s heretofore built up so well.

Flashbacks to Susie’s life in America, Madame Blanc’s decisions that have her siding with students sometimes, the academy and instructors at others, and Dr. Josef Klemperer’s life history playing into his character come as interruptions to the narrative, causing me to question both the importance and decisions of placement in the writing. They don’t override how the good the film is, but they are serious road bumps in that they are not very clear to understand.

Other mistakes that Guardagnino makes is messing with his own formula, and also taking it too far. As I said, his best shots are slow and still. Although they make up most of visual arrangement of the film, they are interrupted at times by really quick, really sloppy zooms. Unless he’s trying to replicate purposefully terrible B-movie zooms or somehow attempting to echo shot composition of the original film (which I would not know since I have not seen it yet), then it makes no sense why they are included. In addition, there are times, especially toward the ending, where the film’s already eccentric lighting is taken to an extreme, and although I am certainly not complaining about what I saw onscreen, I do take issue with how it is executed. Deliberately slowing down or speeding up the way people move onscreen works if it is a leitmotif, but not in singular instances, as is the case here. Of that, I will say no more.

This is the best horror film I’ve seen in quite a while, and one of the few that I personally take seriously as real contenders for excellent writing and direction. But it is overly self-indulgent in the way it approaches its own techniques in lighting and editing, which although seems fine at first, just causes me to question why it’s come out this way in the first place, throwing me out of a film that is otherwise quite engaging. But Suspiria is a lot more than what it looks like, and for that I am thankful.

border

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by/nicholas leon
Neon/110 min.

Interesting character traits, shady people, and mysterious plot threads dangling in front of the viewer’s face should elicit a tense, interesting picture, but in Ali Abbasi’s new film Border, a Swedish film adapting author John Lindqvist’s short story of the same name, it just ends up a visually uninspired, narratively tepid slog.

Following Tina, a border patrol officer with a keen sense of smell, the viewer is treated with shot after shot made to look like they were composed with purpose, with the color palette inflected by a gray Scandinavian autumn. Tina’s life is pretty boring. She waits for the right person with the wrong things packed in their bag to walk across her path, visits her ailing father in a nursing home, and has to deal with her probably unfaithful boyfriend.

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This changes once elements of the plot, rather than Tina’s own actions, change the course of the narrative. Due to Tina’s excellent nose, she is roped into doing some shady work for the local PD to catch a ring of criminal offenders. It’s not clear why Tina does this, other than the fact that she’s the best person for the job, and her life is empty otherwise. The second element, the one that actually changes the character, comes with the arrival of Vore. An enigmatic man who has a thing for bugs. There is a bit more emotional motivation going on with Vore’s plotline, with him revealing to Tina details of her past hidden to her from her father, and some pseudointellectual discussion on what it means to be human. The film would have engaged me more, however, if these two parts hadn’t really kicked in until about an hour into the film. Until then, all viewers get are quiet shots of backcountry roads and the occasional interaction with side characters that only serve as meat for the plot to advance, only slimly serving as anything for Tina to build off of in a meaningful way.

That’s not to say that the writing and direction don’t try. It’s clear that with a change in the character come new consequences, and with this being a film that combines mystery, mythological history, and thriller elements, the stakes will keep building, and a neat resolution will remain elusive. That part of the film is actually quite satisfying, not just emotionally but because it makes clear that the filmmakers know that what really matters is Tina’s journey of self-discovery.

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It’s a shame that what hinders that is the film’s choice of genre, or perhaps it’s non-choice. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that Border’s story is literally and metaphorically about what makes us human, and treads the tired trope of using a particular genre to reflect our world, without taking the risk of fully embracing the requisite ruleset. This is what happens when you set up your movie with aimless visual drivel, only to throw in one plot that the character is not fully active in their pursuit of, and then layer up aspect upon aspect in the main plot.

As an aside, I do have something I’d like to say about the genre element of the film. If you’ve seen any advertisement for the film, you know that Tina certainly has an unconventional appearance. For the sake of not spoiling things, I’ll leave it at that. Tina’s presentation is unconventional. The reason for that can be boiled down to the aforementioned cliché of reflecting our world with genres that bend the rules of realism. But the only thing it shows is the filmmakers’ aversion to address real issues about real people. Kudos to the makeup team on Border, because I thought that Vore and Tina were real people. I really thought that I was watching a movie that didn’t star conventionally attractive white people (it’s Sweden but stick with me, please), but when Tina calls herself ugly and the film want me to think it’s being smart, but I have the awareness that I’m watching a typically pretty face wearing a ton of makeup, a discrepancy pops into my head which tells me that, rather than dealing with real issues of self-perception, the film is actually telling me to treat so-called ugly people as unhuman. It’s a misstep, and a pretty ugly one at that.

mid90s/another take

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by/lauren davidson

Admission: my recent viewing of Eighth Gradegreatly colored my opinion on Jonah Hill’s much-anticipated feature directorial debut, Mid90s. Both movies aim to tell a coming-of-age story about children in similar age ranges. Where Eighth Grade takes the viewer deep into the psyche of its protagonist, Mid90s focuses on serving a highly-curated vibe; I recently read an article about the hours Hill spent in the editing room, contemplating the tiniest of details, like what was being shown on a background television.

Seeing the runtime prior to entering the showing led me to believe that this would be a brief exercise in world shaping. I was unpleasantly surprised when I ended up checking my watch multiple times. One could say that Mid90s is severely lacking in terms of a storyline, consequences or any kind of stakes.

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If I were to guess at a plotline, I’d say it was revealed in the long stoner soliloquies from the skater crew, one of whom goes by the nickname “Fuck Shit”. Along with conversations with LA’s homeless population, these speeches hinted at a gravity that Hill was trying to reach, but ultimately failed to nail down.

Still, there were glimmers of the movie which I enjoyed. There was an excellent party scene and the soundtrack is incredible. Hill created a well-thought-out world and the nostalgia immediately sucks you in. If the movie had focused on fleshing out the atmosphere and staying more adherently to a storyline, it could’ve been great. Sadly, the constant introduction of random elements and lack of any real consequences leads to viewer detachment and–frankly—a boring and disappointing way to spend 84 minutes.

 

mid90s

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by/nicholas leon
A24/85 min.

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If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the film Mid90s, the directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill, you might think it a pastiche of superficial nostalgia mixed in with a fun narrative about some young punk skateboarders. I was of the same opinion, until I saw it.

Starring Sunny Suljic as Stevie, an aimless middle schooler with a gaze both dazed and bleak who lives with his distant but loving mother (Katherine Waterston) and abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), the film follows his picaresque narrative as he ambles around Los Angeles in search of a home among people.

Pointless references to pop culture are—with the exception of Stevie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bedspread—largely absent from the film, instead replaced with mostly solid visual communication showing why Stevie makes certain decisions with his life. Yes, the 90s and skateboarding are a major part of the film, but only insofar as they serve as the backdrop for why Stevie and his group of friends get together.

His friends, who go by the names Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ray (Na-kel Smith), are rambunctious types who drink and smoke while underage spit on authority, but ultimately are not entirely ill-meaning, instead driven by their emotions. Hill writes them with believability. They are equal parts thoughtful, rude, and stupid. In other words, they’re teenagers, living their tough lives at home, and trying to make something of it at the local skate park.

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Shot in 4:3, the visual aspect of the film is equal parts inspired and original. Many times, the film has a grain that makes it look as if it were made in the 2000s at the latest (I say that because many films that I’ve seen that were made circa 2000-2001 look like they were made in the 80s). But Hill deftly employs frames-within-frames, a color palette of a gritty sans glitz Los Angeles drained of all its sunny superficiality, and wide shots and close ups composed solely of movement and silence to show the viewer both what Stevie wants and what he thinks. Sunny plays him with a blank look that can change from loving to loathing in an instant. As the film goes on, the experience he goes through with his friends galvanizes him to fight back against his brother and against his mother, turning the lonely kid into one assertive of his place in the world, even though he hasn’t actually done anything except drink, smoke, and barely even learn how to ollie.

Stevie’s friends, however, are not afforded that same type of dynamic. In a pivotal scene after a chaotic sequence that sees Stevie’s family erupt, the oldest (and dopest) of the group, Ray, tells Stevie about the family troubles that all members of the group are going through. It’s a touching scene, and one that is especially relatable, at least to myself, and demonstrates to the viewer why this group is as tight as it is. But in doing so, it breaks that classic rule of show, don’t tell. Hill makes up for this by letting the viewer connect the dots by thinking about the scenes set in Stevie’s home, and imagining what might go on behind the doors of the other kids’ homes, but it leaves something to be desired.

But luckily, that is partially filled in by the performances. Equal parts touching, funny, and disgusting, the acting on display for Stevie’s friends is on point. They’re fragile, reaching for something, but all are stuck in their own unfortunate situations in one way or another.

It’s unfortunate then, that the ending of the film, which leads the viewer to think that there will be room to watch the characters change, are instead left hanging by a thread once the credits start rolling. Again, it both does and does not work. The emotional work done by the characters is complete. They probably realize that certain aspects of their freewheeling lifestyle are not beneficial to their safety, but we don’t see that play out on film, instead, we go on a literal nostalgia trip recounting the fun-and-love filled parts of their lives. It gives a bittersweet energy to the film, and certainly ends it on a high note, but I was still surprised when the film cut to black.