[Early Review] If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins

119 mins. Rated R for language and some sexual content.

 

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy) carries a lot of clout based on his recent Best Picture win, and for his follow-up feature, he adapted James Baldwin’s classic novel If Beale Street Could Talk. I’ve had a copy of the book on my shelf for some time and have yet to reach for it (there are stacks of books to read in front of the bookshelf; I’m doubtful I could even reach it at the moment), but I’ve been aware of its important for a while now. I know the book is very important and personal to Jenkins, and the trailers have been magnificent, and so is the finished product.

The film is the story of Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James, Race, TV’s Homecoming) and their love story. Fonny has been incarcerated for the rape of Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios, Quinceanera, TV’s Snowfall), but Tish knows he’s innocent. She was with him that night, and she knows Fonny. There’s a cop, though, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein, Deadpool, The Transporter Refueled), who claims he saw Fonny flee the scene. Now, Tish is tasked with proving Fonny’s innocence while carrying his child, and her loving family is fighting for them.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a damn beautiful love story. It’s sweet and tender and, at times funny and heartbreaking. Kiki Layne shines as a standout in her first feature film, and Stephan James is incredible. He is able to say so much with his eyes. In fact, one of the most powerful elements of Jenkins’s film is his letting the camera focus on one person and just letting them breathe and feel. So much performance is gleaned from the moments of silence that the film allows. It’s a slow burn at times because of it, but I wouldn’t say I was ever bored by it.

The supporting cast is, to be fair, incredible. Colman Domingo (Lincoln, TV’s Fear the Walking Dead) and Regina King (Ray, TV’s American Crime) shine as Tish’s parents, and the film is littered with minor performances from talented actors. The wonderful Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, TV’s Atlanta) has maybe ten minutes of screen time but the message and strength of his supporting character gives so much during that time.

The other major strength of the film besides performance and the gorgeous cinematography is the score. Every time the sweeping music came into play, I felt the hair on my arms stand up. Its simplicity and repetition make for a memorable, sweet, and at times foreboding piece of music.

If I had a flaw with the film, it would purely be that its ending is left slightly open-ended. We don’t get resolution on some of our plot threads, but my wife put it quite well. She says that it’s because our characters, even with some closure, still have uncertainty in where their lives are headed, and it’s a haunting way to end things. There’s some light for them indeed, but leaving things open just made me pine for more.

If Beale Street Could Talk is an excellent follow-up for director Barry Jenkins. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was nominated for or even wins Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. It’s stacked with amazing performance work, stunning visuals and color choices, and a musical score that will stay with you long after leaving the theater. Take some time after Christmas to find a theater playing this one. You’ll be happy you did.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, click here.

 

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[#2018oscardeathrace] Baby Driver (2017)

Director: Edgar Wright

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza Gonzales, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal

Screenplay: Edgar Wright

112 mins. Rated R for violence and language throughout.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Film Editing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing [Pending]

 

I missed out on Baby Driver last year. I made the attempt several times to get to the theater to catch it, but each time, I ended up missing out on it. It hit home video and I picked it up, and for months, it sat on my watch pile. Thankfully, I needed to check it off my Oscar Death Race. So here we are.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars, Allegiant) is a getaway driver who works somewhat freelance for Doc (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty, TV’s House of Cards). He suffers from tinnitus, and he plays music to drown it out. He is working his way toward paying off a debt to Doc and finally being free when he meets Debora (Lily James, Cinderella, Darkest Hour), an attractive diner waitress he falls head over heels for. Baby sees a future for him and Debora that is without crime, but when Doc pulls him back in, Baby finds himself in a situation where he is forced to betray everything he knows to escape.

This is the first film from writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) since completing his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, and it’s a hell of a way to break out of the wheelhouse. Wright’s direction is strongly tuned to the music (he reportedly wrote each scene with a specific song in mind and sent an iPod with a playlist out with each copy of the screenplay) so that the film feels like a big concert action film. His writing gives the feeling of larger-than-life characters existing within a realistic landscape.

Ansel Elgort shines as Baby with a performance mostly physical. Elgort uses his body language as dialogue here to react to the building tension, especially in the final act of the film, but everyone in this film feels so strongly placed, from Lily James’s Debora to Jon Hamm (Marjorie Prime, TV’s Mad Men) as Buddy (Buddy was written with Hamm in mind, and rightfully so). I also really liked Jon Bernthal (The Wolf of Wall Street, Pilgrimage) as Griff, though I would have liked to see more of him. To be fair, though, Jon Bernthal should be in every film.

I wasn’t all that taken with Jamie Foxx (Ray, Sleepless) as Bats, though. It just felt like he took his character from Horrible Bosses and reused him here. He isn’t terribly interesting and I would have liked to see someone else embody that psychotic thief.

But the real star of the movie here is the soundtrack and Wright’s expert handling of the action set pieces. This movie got my toes tapping more than once throughout the runtime. Wright’s focus on practical driving over CGI as much as possible helps to maintain a good pace for the film, one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Baby Driver is one of the best action films of the last decade. It’s an enjoyable romp with terrific performances and a lot of heart both in front of and behind the camera. A passion project from Wright, the movie is similar to the director’s previous work in that it’s wholly rewatchable and endlessly fun. This is one to seek out if you missed it.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, click here.

 

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