Director Barry Jenkins summons James Baldwin’s spirit in his adaptation of the author’s 1974 book, “If Beale Street Could Talk” by immediately quoting him onscreen: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” For Baldwin, Beale Street
doesn’t just run through Memphis, Tennessee; it runs through the DNA of
African-Americans, a symbol of our shared experience in these United
States. Although we are not monolithic in thought, we are all beholden
to the issues Baldwin interrogated and challenged with the words he
spoke and wrote, issues like racism, injustice and so on.
History at large is written by the victors, but Black history is
protected and passed on by our storytellers, the folks—famous and
not—whose life lessons filled in the blanks for what was so often
missing from, or corrupted by, the general narrative. The stories of our
ancestors’ trials and tribulations form a generational artery that can
never be severed so long as there is someone left to tell the tale.
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout “If Beale Street Can Talk” is a wise one. We feel Baldwin’s gaze whenever the director and his cinematographer James Laxton
execute the director’s trademark of having his actors look into the
camera. The lovers at the heart of this story are technically staring at
each other—and by extension, at us—with a devotion that is as tactile
as the image itself. Like all love stories, this one occasionally takes
fluttery flight, triggered by the gentlest and most subtle of gestures
and emotions. But even at his most romantic, Baldwin never let the
reader fall too deeply into the starry-eyed ether; the barbed scorpion’s
tail of harsh reality remains ever-present, waiting to strike at any
moment and break the spell. This realism is rendered in such
matter-of-fact fashion that it becomes smoothly woven into the narrative
The first words we see are by Baldwin, as are the first words we hear. Tish (KiKi Layne,
making a stunning feature debut) utters a sentence you can find on page
four of the book: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody
they love through glass.” The beloved person under glass is Fonny (Stephan James),
her boyfriend and the father of her unborn child. Fonny is incarcerated
for a rape he did not commit. Each time the film visits him in prison,
we’re reminded of the cruelly taunting symbolism of Baldwin’s line.
Glass is transparent to the eye but impervious to the touch; a lover’s
embrace is so close and yet so far away.
But there is no
“woe-is-me”-style posturing in these scenes. Instead, Fonny and Tish
find a semblance of normalcy tinged with sadness and elevated by hope.
Sometimes the duo even laugh at situations that arise, sharing the
gallows humor entrenched in the lives of the oppressed or downtrodden.
This kind of dark humor snakes its way through “If Beale Street
Could Talk,” sometimes finding itself in a release of relief, other
times getting caught in one’s throat when situations suddenly become
tense. This film knows that suffering and joy are strange bedfellows,
opposites that are quite often prone to finding each other, sometimes
within the same beat.
Thankfully, Fonny is not kept behind bars for the length of the film,
as the retelling of his love story allows Jenkins to fiddle with the
timeframe. We see the evolution of Fonny and Tish, first as rebellious,
somewhat antagonistic children and later as devoted soulmates. In those
latter scenes of burgeoning affection, Jenkins orchestrates a sense of
pace and timing that, abetted by Nicholas Britell’s excellent score, makes the viewer swoon. There’s a woozy affectation to these moments—as Alan Jay Lerner
once wrote, it’s almost like being in love. So whenever the narrative
shifts back to Fonny trapped behind that glass, the result has a
shattering effect on us.
Surrounding the leads are their
respective, supportive families. Played by a murderers’ row of superb
character actors led by the brilliant Regina King,
the parents and siblings of Fonny and Tish are as memorable and
well-drawn as the main characters. We meet Tish’s family first. Her
parents, Sharon and Joseph (King and Colman Domingo, respectively) and her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris)
hear about Tish’s pregnancy first. The sequence unfolds in meticulously
crafted moments that almost feel sculpted by Jenkins and his actors,
none of whom are afraid of the awkward pauses that would realistically
inhabit this type of discussion.
King plays this scene as if she
already knows what her daughter has to tell her. When Tish calls to her
mother before pausing to formulate her thoughts, Sharon’s “yes, baby?”
response is so delicate, so impeccably rendered that we’re stunned that
King could wring that much maternal love out of two words. Parris adds
even more power to the moment. “Unbow your head, sister,” she says with a
fierceness meant to instill pride. The bond between these women feels
unbreakable, a testament to the actors who build it in such a short
period of time.
Ernestine also serves as a bit of comic relief in the extremely tense
meeting that takes place once James decides to invite Fonny’s parents
over to share the news. Fonny’s parents are played by Michael Beach and the always welcome Aunjanue Ellis. They are joined by Fonny’s sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).
While the men get along like a house on fire, there’s a palpable
tension amongst the women, who seem to tolerate one another less
robustly than the men do. The Hunt women clearly think they’re better,
and Tish’s pregnancy will give them something to gloat about for sure.
this parental meeting is the novel’s most memorable scene, Jenkins’
casting reveals itself to be very clever, especially if you are familiar
with the actors. Beach is always shorthand for somebody trifling,
Domingo is boisterous yet no-nonsense and Ellis is a master at quickly
defining her pride-filled characters. The Hunts are a Sanctified bunch
who will immediately inspire nods of recognition for anyone with
Sanctified relatives, though Mr. Hunt is definitely not a strict
follower of this religious doctrine. When things come to a vicious boil,
it’s one of those moments where big laughs give way to even bigger
shocks. Though Jenkins tones down Baldwin’s verbal vitriol, the scene
lands just as effectively as it does in the book.
Fonny and Tish
have their own memorable scenes together, from their first night of
lovemaking to their attempt to rent an apartment in a neighborhood whose
renters do not want them there. This latter scene features Dave Franco
in a landlord role that at first felt like stunt casting (the critics
at my screening audibly groaned, in fact). But he, Layne and James
create this ebullient, magical scene of pantomime that in lesser hands
would come off as silly and trite. It’s the film’s most joyful moment.
But again, we know what lies ahead for Fonny, so an underlying sadness
is also present.
Though “If Beale Street
Could Talk” is a series of vignettes, it holds together better than
most films of this type. Each separate piece is tethered to the dual
running threads of its love story and its tale of injustice. Though
there are White cops in the latter story who are clearly villainous, the
mistaken rape victim is also a person of color who has escaped back to
Puerto Rico to deal with her trauma. This development sends Sharon to
Puerto Rico to attempt to bring her back so she can exonerate Fonny.
Before trying to find this woman, Sharon contemplates how she should
dress. This scene unfolds wordlessly, yet King plays it so physically
well that no words are necessary. There’s an unapologetic Blackness to
her thought process as she decides whether to wear a wig or her natural
hair—it’s the hairstyle equivalent of code-shifting—and what she settles
on seems right, at least in that moment.
“If Beale Street
Could Talk” leaves the viewer with feelings of anger at the fate
society forces Fonny to accept, but it also conjures up some optimism
for his and Tish’s future. This isn’t a happy film but it isn’t a
hopeless one, either. The most striking thing that you’ll take with you
is that Baldwin’s novel was written 44 years ago, but it’s just as
timely now. Not much has changed for people of color, which probably
wouldn’t surprise the author. And yet, he’d demand we not give up. This
film powerfully conveys that message. The struggle is real, but so is
the joy. We live, we laugh, we love and we die. But we are not gone. Our
story continues, carried onward by our storytellers.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Saturday, March 23, 2019
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” presents the history of Fred McFeely Rogers, Presbyterian minister, children’s advocate and the most beloved Republican since Abe Lincoln. Like Honest Abe, Mr. Rogers was known for wearing a specific article of clothing and his ability to sweet talk a Congressman or two. From 1968 to 2001, Mr. Rogers kept millions of little ones out of their parents’ hair by offering a half hour program designed to counter the cartoon violence and frenetic pacing of practically every other kids’ show on the air. On PBS, he sang, offered advice and worked a cat puppet whose feline vocal tic drove my mother absolutely insane. 15 years after his death, the heroic endeavors of Fred Rogers are finally being celebrated on the big screen.
One of the many “stand up and cheer” moments in Morgan Neville’s enchanting documentary, at least for me, is when cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes his first meeting with the man who will forever be known as the proprietor of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma. I felt vindicated, because when I was a kid, Mr. Rogers terrified me too. He made me nervous, a condition exacerbated by my cousin telling me that he was actually a serial killer. According to her, Mr. Rogers lured people on his show and then decapitated them with the Museum-Go-Round.
Whatever Mr. Rogers was up to, watching his show made me uneasy; he was just too mild-mannered, too quiet and too calm. That felt odd, because the environment of my upbringing was anything but calm and quiet. My sister thought he was magical, though, proving that old adage about girls figuring out things long before boys do. Eventually, I came around to her way of thinking, and it only took 24 years before I realized just what it was that made Mr. Rogers so beloved and so effective.
More on that later. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” puts to rest many of the most common rumors about Mr. Rogers. It does so in the same blunt yet understated way that its subject dealt out information to kids. The “torso full of tattoos” rumor is addressed by showing Mr. Rogers swimming his daily mile in the local pool. To my chagrin, there’s no mention of on-set violence featuring buildings from the Land of Make Believe, but the film makes up for that by revealing the inspiration for the puppet who lived inside the Museum-Go-Round. It’s a hilarious moment that shows that respectable Mr. Rogers could also be mischievous—and petty!
Rather than rely on celebrities or viewers espousing what Mr. Rogers meant to them, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” makes judicious use of a few people closest to the man or his neighborhood. These include his wife, Joanne and their children plus castmembers David “Mr. McFeely” Newell, François “Officer Clemmons” Clemmons and Joe “Handyman” Negri. Negri in particular makes the neighborhood set sound like a riotous party, but everyone leans into the idea that, under Mr. Rogers' sweet exterior was a true radical. And maybe even a clairvoyant: In a clip from the Neighborhood’s first week on the air, the Land of Make Believe’s “benevolent monarch” puppet King Friday XIII issues a proclamation to build a wall to keep “undesirables” out!
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” makes this “he’s a radical” idea credible. After all, a troublemaking idea existed in the titular song that Mr. Rogers sang to the kiddies at the beginning of each show. Here was a White man inviting everyone to live in his ‘hood, regardless of color. “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” he sings, a sentiment that wasn’t shared by most Americans in the still-segregated era when "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" premiered. (Eddie Murphy’s brilliant parody, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” excerpted here in a brief clip, seizes upon this “Fear of a Black Neighbor” notion and runs with it.) But Mr. Rogers’ true genius was showing by example, and Neville highlights two memorable instances of this.
The first is Mr. Rogers’ early appearance before Congress on behalf of funding for LBJ’s newest creation, the Public Broadcasting System. Facing an adversarial Senator Pastore, who had already made up his mind to pan PBS, Mr. Rogers makes his argument by simply reciting the words to a song he had written for his show. Pastore folds immediately. “You’ve just earned your $20 million,” he says. You wouldn’t buy this in a Jimmy Stewart movie—and God help us if this had to play out in today’s Washington D.C.—yet you can find this fascinating footage on YouTube.
The second instance of Mr. Rogers leading by example occurs with the character of Officer Clemmons. As an African-American, Clemmons was at first hesitant to play a cop on the show, but he realizes the importance of kids of color seeing a friendly, familiar-looking face as law enforcement. Even more importantly, he participates in a bit where Mr. Rogers basically gives the finger to the notion of segregated swimming pools by inviting Clemmons to join him in a very small wading pool. Neville intercuts this scene from the show with footage of White lifeguards pouring bleach into a pool where Black kids were swimming.
Clemmons also figures in an incident where Mr. Rogers wasn’t so enlightened. Someone from the show discovered that the then-closeted at work Clemmons had been to a gay bar. “I had a good time!” says Clemmons, who was then told that any future bar visits would result in his termination from the show. I can only imagine which Land of Make Believe puppet got tasked with informing Clemmons that Mister Roger’s Neighborhood did not have a Castro District. (I hope it was Henrietta Pussycat saying “meow meow gay bar meow meow nuh-uh meow meow fired!”) But at least Clemmons informs us that Mr. Rogers “eventually came around” to acceptance.
“Love is at the root of everything,” Mr. Rogers tells us in an early clip, “or lack of it.” Like his fellow puppeteer and PBS colleague Jim Henson, Fred Rogers used puppets to deliver much of his message. His first puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, serves as an animated avatar between segments because, as Mrs. Rogers points out, Daniel was an evocation of her husband’s childhood feelings of insecurity and his need to be loved. It’s hinted that Mr. Rogers was bullied as a heavyset kid—he was called “fat Freddie” and picked on, which may have led to his insistence in adulthood that a child’s feelings were as important as any adult’s. Folks are quick to point out, however, that while Daniel represents innocence, Mr. Rogers also does the voice of King Friday XIII, who clearly represents that adult need to always get one’s way.
Looking at “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with adult eyes is rather fascinating. You notice that there’s a clear distinction between imagination and reality—we’re never lead to believe that the puppet segments are anything but pretend, for example. Mr. Rogers never talks down to his viewers, nor does he really sugarcoat uncomfortable things like anger or death. He’s very matter of fact, and his manner was deliberate, constant and repetitive. Which leads me to my moment of Mr. Rogers clarity.
Many years ago, I’d come home from my Wall Street job in a state of great agitation and upset. I was stressed out, worn out and miserable beyond measure. I absent-mindedly turned on the television and went into the kitchen to make dinner. For some reason, my TV was on PBS and I could hear Mr. Rogers talking from the other room. Despite paying only half an ear’s worth of attention, I suddenly realized what it was that earned the undying love of kids like my sister: Mr. Rogers made you feel like someone gave a damn about you. He said you were special. He did NOT, as the jackasses at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal claimed in hideous failure-blaming articles, promise you success or glory. He just told you that, no matter what you looked like, how able you were or how much money you had, that you had value.
I stood in my kitchen listening to this message, which I of course should have already known as an adult, and I started to cry. I tell you this because I had the same reaction at the end of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I sat in the critics’ screening room holding my notepad up to my face so that nobody would know I was sobbing. Now, if someone like me, whose childhood memories of Mr. Rogers involve rumored mass murder sprees, could have this reaction, you can only imagine what this film will do to you if you’ve always loved this man. Bring Kleenex. Lots of it.
Friday, March 22, 2019
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Great action movies develop a rhythm like no other genre. Think of the way the stunts in “Mad Max: Fury Road” become a part of the storytelling. Think of how “Die Hard” flows so smoothly from scene to scene, making us feel like we’re right there with John McClane. Think of the dazzling editing of “Baby Driver” and the way it incorporates sound design, music, and action into a seamless fabric that’s toe-tapping. It’s obviously incredible praise to say that “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” reminds me of these films. It’s got that finely-tuned, perfect blend of every technical element that it takes to make a great action film, all in service of a fantastic script and anchored by great action performances to not just work within the genre but to transcend it. This is one of the best movies of the year.
For the first time in this franchise, director Christopher McQuarrie has made what is basically a direct sequel to the previous film, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Wasting absolutely no time, “Fallout” drops viewers into the narrative, getting the important details out of the way so the action can get started. So many action movies spend forever with monologuing villains and extensive set-ups. But there’s no fat on this movie, even early on, where action so often takes too long to get to the “good stuff,” and definitely not late when the movie is intense enough to leave you exhausted.
A group called the Apostles wants to create chaos. That’s really all you need to know. They have a belief that suffering leads to peace, and so it’s time to unleash the pain. They have been working with someone clearly on the inside at IMF code-named John Lark and have conspired to obtain weapons-grade plutonium to create three dirty bombs. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to get the plutonium back, but there’s a ghost haunting him in the form of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the villain from the last film who Hunt left alive instead of killing. The head of the Syndicate has been passed around intelligence agencies, looking for information on the IMF Agent-killing group, but he’s also a part of this new plot to end the world.
As the movie opens, Hunt is tasked by his boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) to go to Paris to find John Lark before he buys the plutonium. He is handed a sidekick by Alan’s superior Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) in the form of the brutish August Walker (Henry Cavill). Sloan isn’t sure she trusts Hunt or Hunley, and so wants one of her own men on the crucial mission, someone she knows will do whatever it takes to complete the mission. There’s a thematic undercurrent through “Fallout” as to how much one should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good—the classic spy flick question of killing someone you love to save the lives of millions you don’t (it’s the action movie equivalent of “The Trolley Problem”). The implication is that Hunt is too protective of those he loves, while Walker loves no one, and the movie vacillates in fascinating ways as to which modus operandi is better for a super-spy. Hunt is even described as the ‘scalpel’ to Walker’s ‘hammer.’
This dynamic duo heads to Paris—and are joined before long by familiar faces like Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson)—and, well, things get deadly fast. “Fallout” is one of those excellent action movies that works whether you pay attention to the plot or not. It is one of the most streamlined and fast-paced films in Hollywood history, moving from one set piece to the next. Don’t worry. There’s a plot. And it’s actually an interesting one that feels both timeless and current in the way that it plays with loyalty and identity. But McQuarrie and Cruise are keenly aware that they can’t lean too heavily on the plot or people will lose interest. We don’t need speeches. And so the dramatic stakes of the set-up are pretty much enough. Nuclear bombs, a double agent or two, a homicidal mastermind—now go!
And, man, does “Fallout” go. Roughly seven of the ten best action sequences of the year will be from this film. There’s a wonderful diversity in action styles too from a skydiving nightmare to a car chase to, of course, a “Run Tom!” scene to the already-famous helicopter sequence. All of them feature an intensity of movement that we hardly see in action movies anymore. Critics have already compared the film to “Fury Road” and I think that’s why—the fluidity of motion that you see in both films. The great cinematographer Rob Hardy (“Annihilation”) and editor Eddie Hamilton (who did the last movie as well) have refined the action here with McQuarrie in such a perfect way. We rarely lose the geography of scenes—which is so common in bad action—and often feel like we’re falling, speeding, or running with Hunt. The audience I saw it with was gasping and nervously laughing with each heart-racing sequence. See this one with a crowd. And as big as you can (some of the footage was shot in IMAX, and it’s worth the upcharge).
“Fallout” isn’t the kind of film one often gets pumped for in regard to performance, but even those are better than average here. It’s fascinating to see how Cruise is finally allowing his age to show a little bit, especially in early scenes with Cavill, who looks like a tougher, stronger model of Ethan Hunt. Cruise's latest version of Hunt stumbles a few times and his punches don’t land with the force of Walker’s. It instills more relatability in a character who would have been less interesting as a superhuman spy. And the supporting cast is uniformly strong, especially Cavill and Rebecca Ferguson, who has the screen charisma of someone who really should be a superstar by now. Let’s make that happen.
t’s easy to get cynical at the movies. With eight sequels in the top ten last week, more and more people see the Hollywood machine as just that, something that spits out product instead of art or even entertainment. Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is that it destroys cynicism. It truly does what so many people have looked for in entertainment for over a century—a chance for real-world worries to take a back seat for a couple hours. You’ll be too busy worrying how Ethan Hunt is going to get out of this one to care about anything outside the theater. It's a rare action movie that can do that so well that you not only escape but walk out kind of invigorated and ready to take on the world. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is one of those movies.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Friday, March 1, 2019
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is a delicious pastry of a movie, a lighthearted fantasy in which a winsome heroine overcomes a sad childhood and grows up to bring cheer to the needful and joy to herself. You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile. Audrey Tautou, a fresh-faced waif who looks like she knows a secret and can't keep it, plays the title role, as a little girl who grows up starving for affection. Her father, a doctor, gives her no hugs or kisses and touches her only during checkups--which makes her heart beat so fast he thinks she is sickly. Her mother dies as the result of a successful suicide leap off the towers of Notre Dame, a statement which reveals less of the plot than you think it does.
Amelie grows up lonely and alone, a waitress in a corner bistro, until one day the death of Princess Diana changes everything. Yes, the shock of the news causes Amelie to drop a bottle cap, which jars loose a stone in the wall of her flat, which leads her to discover a rusty old box in which a long-ago boy hoarded his treasures. And in tracking down the man who was that boy, and returning his box, Amelie finds her life's work: She will make people happy. But not in any old way. So, she will amuse herself (and us) by devising the most extraordinary stratagems for bringing about their happiness.
I first began hearing about "Amelie" last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where there was a scandale when "Amelie" was not chosen for the Official Selection. "Not serious," sniffed the Very Serious authorities who decide these matters. The movie played in the commercial theaters of the back streets, where audiences vibrated with pleasure. It went on to win the audience awards at the Edinburgh, Toronto and Chicago film festivals, and I note on the Internet Movie Database that it is currently voted the 54th best film of all time, and hasn't even opened in America yet.
I am not sure "Amelie" is better than "Fargo" (No. 63) or "The General" (No. 87), but I know what the vote reflects: Immediate satisfaction with a film that is all goodness and cheer--sassy, bright and whimsical, filmed with dazzling virtuosity, and set in Paris, the city we love when it sizzles and when it drizzles. Of course this is not a realistic modern Paris, and some critics have sniffed about that, too: It is clean, orderly, safe, colorful, has no social problems, and is peopled entirely by citizens who look like extras from "An American in Paris." This is the same Paris that produced Gigi and Inspector Clouseau. It never existed, but that's OK.
After discovering the box and bringing happiness to its owner, Amelie improvises other acts of kindness: painting word-pictures of a busy street for a blind man, for example, and pretending to find long-lost love letters to her concierge from her dead husband, who probably never mailed her so much as a lottery ticket. Then she meets Nino (the director Mathieu Kassovitz), who works indifferently in a porn shop and cares only for his hobby, which is to collect the photos people don't want from those automated photo booths and turn them into collages of failed facial expressions.
Amelie likes Nino so much that one day when she sees him in her cafe, she dissolves.
Literally. Into a puddle of water. She wants Nino, but some pixie quirk prevents her from going about anything in a straightforward manner and success holds no bliss for her unless it comes about through serendipity. There must be times when Nino wonders if he is being blessed or stalked.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet has specialized in films of astonishing visual invention but, alas, impenetrable narratives ("Delicatessen," "The City of Lost Children"). He worked for Hollywood as the director of "Alien: Resurrection" (1997), placing it, I wrote, "in what looks like a large, empty hanger filled with prefabricated steel warehouse parts." With "Amelie," he has shaken loose from his obsession with rust and clutter, and made a film so filled with light and air, it's like he took the cure. The film is filled with great individual shots and ideas. One of the best comes when Amelie stands high on the terrace of Montmartre and wonders how many people in Paris are having orgasms at that exact instant, and we see them, 15 in all, in a quick montage of hilarious happiness. It is this innocent sequence, plus an equally harmless childbirth scene, that has caused the MPAA to give the movie an undeserved R rating (in Norway it was approved for everyone over 11).
It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. "Amelie" takes those chances, and gets away with them.