Now Playing — If Beale Street Could Talk

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James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk, his fifth novel, in 1974. In the new film adaptation, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the action takes place in the era of the book, but there’s a fierce modernity to the concerns raised by the story. Centered around the romance of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), the film addresses the myriad of way in which young black and women in U.S. society are told they don’t belong, they are not valued, their rights are lesser, their freedoms are subject to immediate and permanent revocation. Jenkins and his skilled collaborators include the proper period trappings — soulful music, florid fashions, and a New York bereft of tourist-friendly gussying — but they are not making a period piece. Jenkins knows that Baldwin’s thesis of oppression sanctioned by the apparatus of the state is persistently pertinent. He uses his film to reargue it with passion and empathy, underlining with permanent ink.

I don’t really mean for my descriptions to imply that the film can tilt toward the didactic. But it can. Although he wrote several novels, Baldwin is arguably now best known for his politically-minded essays and corresponding willingness to step forward as a public intellectual (when the country still valued such individuals) and engage all manner of contrary fools. And If Beale Street Could Talk sometimes comes across as rueful rumination on the state of society adorned in the mildly convincing costume of fiction. Consistently admirable in intent, the film occasionally relies on contrivances of character to heighten the drama. A scene in which Tish reveals a piece of notable personal news to Fonny’s family is staged, shot, and acted marvelously — calling to mind a stage play of pugnacious emotion —  but it also relies on an alignment of people that strains credibility, calling into question how their paths could have ever started to converge. Similarly, a pivotally placed racist police officer (Ed Skrein) is portrayed with such abject villainy that it undercuts the film’s argument about the inborn prejudices that corrupt true justice.

Despite the flaws, the film remains compelling, convincing, powerful. Much of that is due to the work of Jenkins, whose style invites ready comparisons to poetry. The music peppered through If Beale Street Could Talk brought me to realize the proper corollary is jazz, where the space between the notes can be the most important part of the music. The film operates by mood, by feel, by intricate consideration of the moment. There are strong performances throughout — particularly by James, Regina King, and, building a whole person in essentially one long scene, Brian Tyree Henry — but it is the elegance with which Jenkins pulls everything together that imbues the film with pained beauty. The work doesn’t approach the deep and contained accomplishment of Moonlight (few films do, it must be noted), but If Beale Street Could Talk is clearly from the same immensely skilled cinematic author. Even its flaws help to illuminate greater truths.

Now Playing — Mary Queen of Scots

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Much as the wholly understandable current cineaste lament centers on eager franchise chasing and pursuit of brand recognition that limits originality in the various major studio’s dwindling slates, it’s worth remembering the retreat to the tried and true is hardly a new endeavor. Over the years, Mary Stuart, the sixteenth century monarch of Scotland, has been played by Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Morton, and, in a teen drama CW version, Adelaide Kane, who also menaced the Power Rangers. I think that makes it fair to expect that a new rendering of this particular swath of British history offers something unique. Mary Queen of Scots beckons audiences back to the damp, drafty castles when intrigue plays out, yet has very little new or interesting to say.

Officially adapted from a 2005 biography written by John Guy, the film purports to be a more accurate rendering of Mary (Saoirse Ronan) than has come before, especially in presenting her strength in dealing with the various challenges to her rule that accompanied he return to Scotland as a young widow. Focused attention is given to her fraught relationship with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), her cousin and Queen of England. Among other contentious points, Mary believes she has a claim on the kingdom’s throne that is at least the equal of Elizabeth’s. The screenplay by Beau Willimon (best known for presiding over the the U.S. version of House of Cards) builds much of its drama around the intricate machinations of power. It aspires to dizzying political chess, but mostly settles into plodding tedium. The nice details scattered throughout are overtaken by a sense of narrative futility bereft of deeper insight. The storytelling is shockingly inert.

Other individual elements of Mary Queen of Scots at least show some promise. The visual sense of Josie Rourke, a British theater director making her film debut, is strong and casually resplendent without lapsing into overt fussiness that can infest period pieces. And Robbie is very strong as Elizabeth, tapping into brittleness borne of the ruler’s insecurities, essentially providing another version of the poisonous privilege found in Olivia Colman’s turn in the far superior The Favourite. None of this is enough to transcend the flaws built into the work, typed onto the page and stubbornly unfixed, maybe unfixable. Mary Queen of Scots fails on the most fundamental level: establishing a compelling reason for being.

Now Playing — Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Nearly thirty years after Tim Burton’s Batman became a box office behemoth, around fifteen years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man set a proper template for big screen superhero adventures, and ten years after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there remains an aversion to acknowledging the comic book origins of cinematic subgenre that currently rules the movie business. That’s changing in increments. Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, was rightly lauded for its sharp comedy, but what truly distinguished it was the embrace of endless possibilities of superhero storytelling, where believability is based on establishing basic rules and then adhering to internal logic, earthly facts be damned. These are beings equipped with superhuman abilities who don colorful costumes to fight similarly enhanced and garbed evildoers. Wild imaginings should come with the territory.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most beautifully unbound and freely imagined superhero story yet flashed onto a theater screen. It comes remarkably close to stirring the sort of thrilled sensations I experienced in my boyhood when I eagerly raced through monthly periodicals produced by Marvel and their distinguished competition. In part because working in animation makes gravity that much easier to defy, the film — co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman — is vividly, riotously committed to gleeful inventiveness.

A simplified but accurate description of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that it presents the origin story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a character introduced on the page in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line. The film takes place in an alternate universe in which Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) is killed in action, fortuitously around the time Miles suffers familiar side effects after an irradiated spider chomps on him. Miles tentatively tries to step up and fill Peter’s wall-crawling shoes, getting assistance from a cadre of unique web-slingers from other dimensions (including an older, gone to seed version of Peter) yanked into the timeline by a colossal reality warping machine funded by the hulking mobster Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin (Liev Shreiber).

The concept of divergent versions of Spider-Man teaming up is drawn from a comic book storyline that sprawled across a variety of titles a few years back. Enthralled by its own pained convolutions, that comic saga was dreadful, but it cracks open the freewheeling spirit of the form in the way it’s handled in the film. Trope-tweaking master Phil Lord developed the story for the screen and co-wrote the script with Rothman. They know the assemblage of bounding heroes needs to have a deeper purpose to avoid becoming mere narrative clutter, and so the characters represent a cross-section of the comic book form, including manga (Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glenn) and funny animal stories (Peter Porker, the spectacular Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney, a stroke of casting genius that deserves an award). Repeatedly returning the images of comic books as visual scorecards to discern among the players further emphasizes the loving homage.

Visually, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a knockout. The directors employ slightly different styles as further signifiers of the derivations of the different characters, managing to make it all meld with friction that drives that story but doesn’t obliterate needed consistency. The images are striking and densely full of wonder. Other superhero films, even those rendered in animation, have compacted the characters and scenarios in evident attempts to sate the skeptical. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse remains true to itself, inviting the viewer to meet it where it is. The journey is worth taking for anyone who longs to stand agog before the brightly impossible.

Now Playing — Roma

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Alfonso Cuarón is almost peerless in his visual craftsmanship. The accuracy of that observation is only enhanced by his prolonged absences from the screen. (He has delivered only two films in the past ten years.) Watching a Cuarón film invited enraptured luxuriated in the sheer precision of what’s within the frame, especially as he favors long tracking shots presented as single takes. Unlike many other edit-averse directors, Cuarón rarely indulges in the merely ostentatious. He clearly prefers such moments to have a true storytelling purpose. It is that instinct that which reinforces the most valuable quality Cuarón brings to all his work: authenticity.

Cuarón has cited the autobiographical origins of his latest film, Roma. Even without those assurances, the film is unmistakably built upon the sturdy framework of truth. Set in the early nineteen-seventies, in Mexico City, Roma is primarily concerned with the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a member of the live-in staff to a doctor’s family. She is maid, nanny, cook, laundress, practically anything that is needed in the moment. Without bombast or melodrama, Cuarón examines what this mean, what this life is like, deftly explicating broader social issues in the process. History plays out in the background, but it doesn’t intrude in the manner of contrived fiction. It is part of the whole, built into the memory.

When Cleo’s tale tips towards the stuff of melodrama, Cuarón maintains his restraint. He is interested in simplicity and in finding the profound in the mundane, surely certain that such an approach will only heighten the more wrenching moments when they arrive. There is no manipulation in place. I don’t even think it’s quite accurate to assert that Cuarón is trying to earn strong emotional responses. Roma exhibits yet greater confidence than that. He trains his camera on his own heart, believing each viewer will quickly feel their pulse align in symmetry.

Cuarón has made a film that is bracingly personal and wryly wise. It is charmed and quiet and heartbreaking and funny. Its look is deeply dazzling and its soul is resonant. In every way, Roma is lovely.

Now Playing — The Favourite

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It’s been twenty years since Deborah Davis’s screenplay for the film that would become The Favourite first made the rounds. Of course, that was well before director Yorgos Lanthimos got his sharpened, toxin-tipped talons into it. The particulars of the script’s evolution are beyond the parameters of my personal research, but I’ve little doubt the original iteration was a close cousin to any number of upstanding period pieces of staid yet intricate palace intrigue. What’s most fascinating about The Favourite is the way it fully maintains that lineage and yet carries the inky shadows of Lanthimos’s trademark corrosive wit.

Early in the eighteenth century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is presiding over the British Empire with a mildly addled indifference, the gaps in her leadership largely papered over by the stealth maneuvering of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah attends to the Queen’s needs, providing counsel and yet more intimate support. Their delicate equilibrium is complicated by the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), cousin to Sarah. Abigail is seeking employment as a means of escaping dire personal circumstances. Initially relegated to the harshest of household tasks, Abigail sees the Queen’s neediness as opportunity for elevation, and thus the pieces begin their strategic jaunts around the chessboard.

Lanthimos stages the film with a certain ribaldry of the spirit. He has a persistent interest in the way desperation wells up in the human soul and how its swampy influence leads to choices of rickety morality. He arguably couldn’t find a better setting to apply his thesis, and he films with ostentatious technique, often using fisheye lenses to warp images in accordance with psyches that are curling at the edges.

The director also employs marvelous partners in grimly funny playfulness across his entire cast. Colman is a cyclone of wounded personality as the Queen, pitching her performance to rafters and shaking loose plaster. Stone and Weisz are more controlled and therefore more cunning in their work, taking the most evident pleasure when the script (co-credited to Tony McNamara, enlisted by Lanthimos to tinker with its sensibilities) allows for the trading of remarks that cut past the quick to sever digits altogether. And though praise has largely been centered on the trio of actresses getting the sadly uncommon opportunity to tear into material fully worthy of their talents, there’s also a grand performance by Nicholas Hoult, playing a Parliament member who presses his political causes with sparking disdain.

It would have been so easy for The Favourite to get buffed and polished to a more refined finish, which only makes me more grateful for the joy of its thrilling, thrashing complications. It’s difficult nature is precisely what makes it utterly riveting. The road was laid a while ago, but it took until today — and until a filmmaker like Lanthimos — for it get all of its glorious ruts.

Now Playing — Burning

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Burning begins as a young man name Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) makes his way through a busy Seoul street. Outside of one of the storefronts, two women are hyping the business to the crowd, and one of them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), spares Jong-su some flirty glances as she pulls numbers for raffle prizes. Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, but Haemi reveals they were classmates and neighbors when much younger. The two go to dinner and the tentative overtures of romance continue, culminating in a gentle sexual encounter shortly before she departs on a trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jong-su regularly goes to Haemi’s apartment to feed a pet cat he never sees.

The film is firmly, comfortably in the realm of the sedate and mundane — exquisite art house cinema land — finding restrained drama in the specifics of the character’s personalities, his awkwardness and her cheery invention.A greater disruption arrives when Haemi returns from her vacation. Jongsu expects a continuation of their budding relationship where it was left, but she is closely trailed by a new friend named Ben (Steve Yuen, billed here as Sang-yeop Yuen, the name he was given when he was born in Korea). He has an ease and confidence that is the exact opposite of Jongsu’s personality, and it quickly becomes clear that he has laid claim to Haemi’s affections.

Upon this simple narrative frame director Lee Chang-dong constructs a veritable palace of insight and profundity. There is not a wasted moment or detail across the film. (Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay is co-credited to Lee and Oh Jung-mi.) Everything contributes, either to the character development, the understanding of place, the explication of class divisions, or, as Ben’s secrets darken, the mounting sense of danger. Lee renders it all with skill and care, showing special mastery with the delicate emotions of the piece. In that task, Lee has remarkable collaborators in his actors. Yoo rouses instinctual sympathy though the dictates of the character require a considered obliqueness, Yuen hints at the ways privilege can corrode the soul, and Jun is nothing less than vivid in portraying a young woman whose inquisitive positivity just might make a bit of a fabulist.

Many of the images Lee puts on screen are staggering in their beauty, especially an extended sequence that takes place at a remote house in an atmosphere of prolonged gloaming. The film is lovely, but spare. There are sequences of jarring impact, but Lee has no apparent taste for ostentation. Burning is lean. It’s also wise and deeply felt. It represents one of the rare and wondrous instances when a film does everything right.

 

Now Playing — Creed II

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There were many reasons to celebrate Creed, led by Michael B. Jordan’s exemplary performance as second generation professional boxer Adonis Johnson, who would eventually overcome emotional-fueled reluctance claim the name of his departed father. The other aspect of the film that most impressed me was the strong sense of how elegies are strengthened when they look to the future, emphasizing continuation of the stories that interlace. Creed gave ample time to another chapter of Sylvester Stallone’s decade-spanning turn as Rocky Balboa, but the stallion was clearly being put out to pasture. In his script and direction, Ryan Coogler stressed continuance over nostalgia, reinvention over repetition. It’s open to debate whether there were more stories worth telling about Adonis, but the Rocky saga felt properly completed. That Stallone and others felt there was more to say about the character he created over forty years ago is an anchor on Creed II.

The sequel didn’t seem inevitable, and yet here it is. As the film opens, Adonis claims the heavyweight title in a fight that flicks by with surprising speed and lack of drama. Narratively, it’s mere prelude to the main plot, which brings forth a notable challenger. Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) has been building a quiet reputation as a brutal boxer in his Russian homeland, under the tutelage of his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren). It was Ivan who killed Adonis’s father, Apollo Creed, in the ring, only to later face defeat at the gloves of Rocky, an outcome that led to personal disgrace, as depicted in Rocky IV. As soon as Adonis has a belt declaring him the champ, Viktor comes a-challenging. It’s a bad idea for Adonis to accept the fight, but history and pride prevail.

It’s not exactly unfinished business from the first film addressed by Creed II, but there’s at least consistency to its considerations of the burden of legacy, the craving for acceptance, the need to establish a worthwhile sense of self in doggedly tough world. Jordan remains fantastic in the role, committing to its complexities when mere charisma would do. And his rapport with Tessa Thompson, playing Adonis’s love, Bianca, has only strengthened. Some of the movie’s best moments come in the little scenes of the two of them tentatively, carefully shaping their future together. The screenplay’s shaky motivations and handy conveniences are given just enough repair by the authenticity of the acting.

Just as Creed brought delayed dignity to Rocky’s greatest opponent, Creed II has the makings of the same rescue for the Drago clan. Although it’s given only a modest amount of screen time, there’s a emotional power — even a poignancy — to the harshness of Ivan’s regret and the combative mentoring he provides his son, partially to the goal of providing the younger man with a better life. Director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have the same offhand visual ingenuity and perfectly calibrated pacing as Coogler, but he does demonstrate a keen ability to burrow into the deeper emotion of a scene. That generates a lasting effect for some of film’s smallest details.

The film’s footwork mainly falters in the persistence of Rocky’s presence. Stallone again plays him with with endearing melancholy of diminishing fortitude, but there’s nothing new to add. After ceding the screenplay duties to others on Creed, Stallone once again takes a writing credit (shared with Juel Taylor, while Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker provided the story). If Stallone felt the need to provide his own parting words for the character that changed his life (and there are indications he considers this film to be Rocky’s final round), he has rendered too long and belabored of a goodbye. There little here that wasn’t covered as well or better in Creed, so redundancy sets in. The new movie is solid when it’s actually Creed II. It bogs down in its lingering obligations to be Rocky VIII. There can only be one champ at a time.