REVIEW: “If Beale Street Could Talk”


Barry Jenkins became a household name with his 2016 Best Picture winner “Moonlight”. Despite the film’s universal acclaim, I could never get in sync with its storytelling rhythm and felt it dropped off significantly in its second half. That’s certainly not the case with his follow-up feature “If Beale Street Could Talk”.

Adapted by Jenkins from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, “Beale Street” has a very distinct voice. It’s a movie filled with longing and not just between two lovers. There is also an ever-present longing for hope, peace, equality, justice. This longing is in every frame of Jenkins’ soulful film and you see it burning in the eyes of nearly every character we encounter.


Jenkins begins his film by introducing us to Tish who is 19 and Fonny who is 22. Their opening gaze makes it clear that these inseparable childhood friends have fallen in love. They are two black kids in early 1970s Harlem with plenty of societal hurdles and a deck stacked against them. But in this early moment their love is all they see. In a very poignant way their simple yet central romance is the catalyst for everything else the film has to say.

The young couple’s world is turned upside down when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sent to prison while Tish discovers she is pregnant with their child. Jenkins elegantly maneuvers back-and-forth on his timeline, braiding together their challenges during Fonny’s incarceration with touching looks back at their lives as a couple subtly framed as memories more so than flashbacks.

Jenkins shows off an impressive knack for drawing a ton out of his characters, not just through his dialogue but even more so from his camera. Take relative newcomer KiKi Layne who plays Tish. She brings a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerability to her character. Layne’s earnest portrayal conveys an inherent goodness in Tish which Jenkins wisely locks in on. He does the same for Stephan James as Fonny. He’s gentlemanly and sincere; so full of life and love yet slowly being drained of hope with each passing day behind bars.


Then there is the stellar supporting cast led by Regina King who is winning every award she’s nominated for. She plays Tish’s mother Sharon, a realist but also a loving encourager determined to help Fonny despite there being no easy road to justice. Colman Domingo is superb as Tish’s father, also a realist and equally compassionate, yet forced to help the kids in his own unique ways. Both performances offer up some of the year’s best supporting work.

I should also mention Brian Tyree Henry who appears in a key sequence midway through. He plays Fonny’s old friend Daniel who just got out of prison for a crime he also didn’t commit. In a bit of on-the-nose foreshadowing, Daniel shares his experience with Fonny almost like a prophet warning us of what’s to come. Obviousness aside, Jenkins allows their conversation to play out, probably a hair too long, but still in the way it needed to. And within the framework of their conversation, every word they express feels authentic and honest.


Perhaps the most magnetizing sequence sees Tish and her parents inviting Fonny’s family over to break the news of her pregnancy. It’s tense and contentious from the start eventually bringing out thoughts of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. The scene is almost undone by Fonny’s belligerent and over-the-top mother (possibly Jenkins’ attempt at channeling Baldwin’s negative perception of religion). Still, you find yourself glued to every character and every exchange.

Barry Jenkins clearly has something to say about racial injustice, not just of the past but also how it still resonates today. It forms an ominous cloud that hangs over his entire film. But at its deepest core “Beale Street” isn’t a loud, angry social lecture. It’s an aching love story lusciously shot by Jenkins favorite James Laxton and accompanied by one of the year’s best scores from Nicholas Britell. The tragedy is in how this love is forever effected by a cold, prejudicial system. Tish’s burdened father once says “These are our children, and we gotta set them free.” This becomes our longing as well.



REVIEW: “It Comes At Night”

Comes poster

“It Comes At Night” has some intensely personal roots for its writer and director Trey Edward Shults. The film’s genesis can be found in Shults’s sorrow following the death of his father. After ten plus years of estrangement fueled by his father’s addictions, the two reconciled on his deathbed. Shults began writing “It Comes At Night” two months later as a way to cope with his grief.

Shults’s familial connection to his film is not unlike his previous movie, 2015’s “Krisha”. In it we witness a character’s relapse and ultimate breakdown – something inspired by a real-life family incident. In “It Comes At Night” the opening scene is the emotional release point for Shults. It shows a daughter giving words of comfort to her dying disease-stricken father. Shults has stated these are the words he shared with his dad.


We quickly learn the infected man’s name is Bud (David Pendleton) and the consoling daughter is Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). The disease’s effects on Bud are obvious – nasty boils, milky eyes, pale skin, the works. Sarah’s husband Paul (Joel Edgerton) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take Bud outside, Paul shoots him and then burns the body. For the remainder of the film’s running time this disturbing mercy killing haunts this family, especially 17-year old Travis.

The film tells us very little about the epidemic, how it started, or even how its contracted. Frankly all that stuff is unimportant. Instead we are dropped into this already contaminated and chaotic world. And despite the impressions left by the trailers, the tension and suspense is drawn more from what lies within the characters than what may be lingering outside in the night.

Paul and his family live in a boarded up house deep in the forest. Their closed-off lives are shaped by survivalist protocols and justifiable paranoia. Their feelings of isolation and security are broken when their home is discovered by a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) who is seeking supplies for his family. A hesitant Paul agrees to take in Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). For a time a sense of social normalcy returns, but ultimately the human responses to fear and anxiety are too much to shake.


It would be easy to see this as a conventional horror film – a deadly virus, a cabin in the woods, a spooky red door at the end of a hall, and the ominous title. But there is a surprising psychological depth that transcends any genre expectations. There are a handful of jump scares and the shadowy claustrophobic setting is indeed creepy. But the film’s true intensity comes from its cliché-free handling of the inner demons gnawing away at these characters.

“It Comes At Night” is many things. It’s an unconventional horror picture. It’s a deep emotional treatment of loss. It’s a troubling, unorthodox coming-of-age story. The cool thing is how well Trey Shults packages all these things together without an ounce of conflict. It is a meticulously paced and tightly focused story that does a good job utilizing its stellar cast. It is unshakably bleak – maybe too much so for some, but if you can get in tune with its unique rhythm and are willing to dig deeper under it’s surface, you’ll find more to this film than the trailers would have you believe.



REVIEW: “Isle of Dogs”


There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to Wes Anderson movies. As is often the case, his films either work for you or they don’t. They definitely work for me. My wife, not as much. But it’s not because she doesn’t try. I’m pretty sure I’ve shown her every Anderson flick and we usually have some pretty good discussions after each viewing. Deep down I like to think she actually has an untapped appreciation.

But we’ll leave that for another time. Wes Anderson movies are special because without fail they always feel refreshingly different from anything else in theaters. His latest film is no different. From the very first frame of “Isle of Dogs” we know we are watching an Anderson picture. The stop-motion animation (ala 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the slightly offbeat music, and the almost instant deadpan humor are unquestionably Andersonian. It instantly fits right into his spectacular comic movie catalog. So why am I hesitant to fully embrace this film in the same way I have his others?


Now don’t get me wrong, “Isle of Dogs” is another fascinating Anderson experience that (like most of his films) begs for multiple viewings to fully appreciate the richness of the visual and thematic language. Once again we find the filmmaker creating and inhabiting another wacky quasi-real place within his own wacky quasi-universe. Japanese culture lends its influence to Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki City but that’s as far as the similarities go. Anderson doesn’t work within the real world. He only borrows from it and speaks to elements of it.

In “Isle of Dogs” the conniving cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs a dystopian not-to-distant-future Japan with an iron fist. Exploiting a dog flu virus outbreak, the authoritarian mayor banishes the entire dog population to Trash Island. Among the dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), the best buddy to the mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). But Atari will have none of it. He sneaks away and flies a rickety mini-plane to Trash Island to find his canine companion.

After crash landing Atari is taken in by an eccentric pack of pups led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rest of the group is voiced by a fun assortment of actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum as the scene-stealing gossip of the group. They venture across Trash Island to find Spots while back home a youth protest against the Mayor’s doggie decrees is led by a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), one of many outcasts found throughout the story.


As the movie moves forward you can’t help but be smitten by the superb animation and art direction. The vivid detail in both the backgrounds and the characters (both human and hairy) are quite stunning. And so often it’s the gorgeous yet quirky visuals that spur some of the film’s bigger laughs. But normally it’s Anderson’s dry, offbeat, deadpan humor, cleverly balanced throughout his movies, that carry them. Here it isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, in the final act it’s fairly sparse. And as the pieces all-too-neatly fall into place, I found myself not knowing how to feel about the ending.

In some ways how Anderson tells his story is more fascinating that the story itself. “Isle of Dogs” is a technical delight both visually and in its use of sound. The huge and talented cast offer up superb voice work and they all meld seamlessly into Anderson’s handsomely idiosyncratic world. It’s another reminder that Wes Anderson is a meticulous master of his craft. Yet from a story standpoint I can’t help but feel ever so slightly conflicted. And whether looking at it as a message piece soaked in political metaphors or simply as a story about a boy and his dog, I still left with the same uncertainties. Maybe I just need to give it another view. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cat person.



REVIEW: “Icarus”

ICARUS POSTERWhen watching Bryan Fogel’s now Oscar-nominated “Icarus” I couldn’t help but think of Morgan Sperlock’s “Super Size Me” but with performance-enhancing drugs replacing McDonalds. At least that’s how it starts. But the further it goes Fogel’s documentary (originally meant to show the effects of PEDs) inadvertently becomes an stunning exposé on how the recent Russian doping scandal was brought to light.

Filmmaker, playwright, and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel set out to show how PEDs enhance athletic performance through experimentation. But he also aimed to see if he cover his usage and pass an anti-doping test. Over several months he injected himself with a series of steroids and growth hormones and documented the results.

Fogel’s experiment was first overseen by Don Catlin who founded the first anti-doping lab in the United States. But Caitlin grew uncomfortable with how it might effect his reputation so he connected Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s national antidoping laboratory. Grigory walks Fogel through a intensive PED regiment and reveals his process for avoiding a positive drug test.

Through their experiment the two men develop a close friendship and Grigory begins sharing the details and inner workings of Russia’s elaborate state-ran doping scheme. He unveils startling information about the Russian Olympic teams and the involvement of the Russian government. Fogel quickly learns he has stubbled into something far more significant and potentially earth-shattering than his original subject.


As “Icarus” moves forward it makes a substantial shift from fairly mundane to thoroughly riveting. The film starts slow as Fogel spends a bit too much time documenting the first stages of his steroid experiment and how it impacts his performance in the Haute Route cycling competition. But it takes an entirely different form the moment Grigory enters the picture.

Fogel comes across as genuinely overwhelmed by the flood of shocking revelation and his film does a great job conveying that nervousness and uncertainty. The sheer magnitude of the scandal and the wide-reaching impact of Grigory’s willingness to go public adds a level of intensity akin to an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller. And despite its slow start, “Icarus” sucks you into the elaborate and dangerous web of scandal that shook the international sports community to its core. At the same time it shines a bright light on the political powers who will use anyone, whether it be Grigory or the hundreds of Olympic athletes, to accomplish their will. And miraculously Fogel just happened upon it.



2017 BlindSpot Series – “In the Mood for Love”


With such a passionate, seductive title, “In the Mood for Love” may tempt you to believe it is something it’s not. The film’s English title is based on “I’m In the Mood for Love”, a song made famous by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole among others. But unlike the song’s alluringly romantic sentiment, the film has a much more cynical perspective – cynical yet still intensely romantic.

There’s a key line in the film where a character asks “It was so nice then, wasn’t it?” In many ways that’s the question from the start. Early on the film conveys a feeling that we are looking back in time – that we are gazing on what might have been. Technically we aren’t, but writer and director Wong Kar-wai’s crafty approach leaves us wondering. Elements of time do play into the story and the aching hearts of the two main characters intensifies the more time passes by.


The film features popular Asian stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Their story begins in the crowded, changing 1962 Hong Kong. Both are stable career people. Leung plays a reporter named Chow while Cheung plays an executive’s assistant named Su. They end up moving next door in the same tight apartment building. Everything seems pretty stable except for one thing – their marriages. As it turns out their spouses are having an affair together and that discovery serves as the catalyst for their unique relationship.

Wong Kar-wai’s hypnotic story structure elegantly drifts back-and-forth between dreamy and bruising reality. There are no dream sequences – only soothing interludes in tune with the narrative’s continuity yet feeling almost otherworldly. It’s here that the camera steals the show. Scene after scene features Kar-wai’s masterful blend of lyrical and visual.


The story moves at a deliberate but meaningful pace. Su and Chow are two bruised souls who in each other find an outlet to reckon with their pain and feelings of betrayal. They role-play in an attempt to figure out who made the first adulterous move. They rehearse the best way to confront their cheating spouses. Yet during all of their time together they are determined not to commit the same sins. Ironically it’s a misunderstanding of this pledge that proves to be their biggest hurdle to true healing and happiness.

As I mentioned “In the Mood for Love” is intensely romantic but painfully so. There is a continual aching from title screen to end credits. It’s emphasized through the film’s mesmerizing cinematography and composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s entrancing “Yumeji’s Theme”. Wong Kar-wai keeps everything moving at his pace and with his two main characters as the focus. We never once see the faces of the adulterers. We see their backs and hear their voices but that’s it. So many movies like to put the cheaters in the spotlight. This film is much more interested in the real people left in their wake.



REVIEW: “Infernal Affairs”


Back in 2006 Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” grabbed a lot of attention. It received universal acclaim and would go on to win four Oscars including Best Picture. For many it also brought attention to the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama “Infernal Affairs” – the direct inspiration for Scorsese’s “The Departed”. Scorsese would later say “Infernal Affairs” was an example of why he loved Hong Kong cinema.

“Infernal Affairs” was a critical and box office hit when first released winning seven of its sixteen Hong Kong Film Awards nominations. Over time it has gained a global appreciation and has influenced a number of prominent filmmakers. Much of its impact is due to a riveting script featuring two rich, intersecting storylines and a near flawless pacing. Once it starts it keeps you locked in for the duration.


Following the same timeline a young police cadet is sent to infiltrate a local triad while a young gang member is sent to infiltrate the Hong Kong police department. Ten years pass and both men climb the ranks to higher and more trusted positions. Chen (Tony Leung) is a top dog to triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) but has grown tired of undercover cop life. Lau (Andy Lau) has become Sam’s top insider within the police department. As both feed more information to their bosses it becomes evident to each they have a mole that needs exterminated.

What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse as one tries to root out the other. The Alan Mak and Felix Chong screenplay impressively weaves together its two narrative threads while steadily building towards its inevitable explosive conclusion. And while action is a component of their story, Mak and Chong are much more interested in moral dilemmas and inner conflicts. They deal personally with themes of identity, loyalty, and suffering – specifically a continued state of suffering.

You could say suffering is the main theme. The film begins and ends with two Buddhist verses which speak of a “continuous hell” and the actual Chinese movie title is translated “The Unceasing Path”. Chen and Lau are trapped in their own unending personal hells with no discernible escapes. It’s a concept the movie explores to great effect and all within a riveting, tightly-wound crime thriller.


The casting of charismatic leads Tony Leung and Andy Lau energizes the movie even more. Both give focused, understated performances that earned them critical acclaim. But that’s no surprise. By that time both actors were immensely popular and have since been established as two of Hong Kong’s most successful and bankable movie stars. They have very little screentime together but the scenes they do eventually share serves as a most satisfying payoff.

“Infernal Affairs” is recognized by many as one of the signature Hong Kong movies of its era. It’s easy to see why. It features a highly original crime/police story brimming with drama and tension. The small bursts of action we get are thrilling and the film is shot with an impeccable attention to tone. But the characters are the story’s lifeblood and everything the movie puts around them reveals more of the struggle within them. It’s an unexpected ingredient that separates the movie from the bulk of action movie fodder.