“If Beale Street Could Talk”

James Baldwin’s 1974 novel comes to the screen with Barry Jenkins of “ Moonlight” (reviewed Nov.18th, 2016) writing and directing. I was disappointed in the absence of present day connection. Thirty-five years of stagnant progress in Black male incarceration rates is socially catastrophic. Why not add some current names to those languishing for trials and falling back on plea bargains? Jenkins would probably say there were too many. A love story that relies only on our empathy infuriates more than enlightens. I wanted to scream “Beale Street can talk…let’s hear it!”

There is anger, but it is just touched in the film. Much of the anger comes between two Black families, the Rivers and the Hunts. Our narrator Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) shares her love story. It is slow-going. There are walks in Washington Park, flashbacks to toddler bathtub play, transfixed gazes, and hours of lovers’ ennui. An almost trance-like first sexual encounter leaves Tish pregnant. The father,Fonnie Hunt (Stephen James) is falsely accused of a violent rape and jailed. Tish is left to relay her plight and seek help for Fonnie.

While her family is the epitome of love and acceptance, Fonnie’s mother and sisters are haters of the first order. Fonnie’s mother, played Bible-straight-haughty by Aunjanue Ellis, tears into Tish, “ I always knew you‘d be the destruction of my son.” She goes on to hope that the baby shrivels in Tish’s womb. Here, she is forcibly slapped in the face by her husband.

In constrast, Tish’s mother radiates a joyful faith. ”Get the good glasses…We are drinking to new life.” easily morphs into “Love is what brought you here. You trusted it then, trust it now.”

Regina King plays Tish’s wise mother. She has a lovely scene were she plays mid-wife to Tish’s water birth. She watches Tish and her grandson bond by giving them just enough space. King has strong emotions to display. I loved the scene were she fidgets with a wig readying herself to meet a Puerto Rican go-between on Fonnie’s behalf. Her lines spoken to the runaway rape victim are desperate: “ Do you think I came here to make you suffer?” and King delivers before falling to anquish. Likewise tender moments are garnered by Tish’s father, Joseph, (Coleman Domingo)as he cradles his pregnant daughter, makes her tea, and places his strong hands over her swollen stomach.

Director Jenkins likes the close-up, and a soft and hazy pallet. One of my favorite scenes has Fonnie dreaming of his sculpture work, hammering away in creative splendor, and missing his whetting stone and Tish in his arms. The fact that his innocence is not a defense rankles. Looking at someone you love through a prison screen glass is made soul-wrenching. While trial dates are postponed, Fonnie yells and then apologizes to Tish. “Do you know what is happening to me in here?” translates easily enough to the same jailhouse sexual abuse Fonnie’s friend Daniel alludes to.

The use of music as integral to life produces a memorable score. Hopelessness is never apparent. A “can do attitude” has both grandpas fencing garments. Fonnie works as a short-order cook and in a tool shop. Tish tries her luck at the perfume counter. Friends help. A bodega proprietress stands up to a rascist policeman in Fonnie’s defense, a restaurant manager gives Fonnie and Tish a white-tablecloth meal and the dance floor, and my favorite kind-person segment is when Levi shows the couple an available loft and helps Fonnie, for Tish’s benefit, move in imaginary appliances.

Harsh lives viewed through romance has me thinking that Jenkins, like Levi, ”loves people who love each other.” I was just up for a little more than doe-eyes and a series of slow, massaging scenes trying to sooth the effects of a rascist country. Love conquering all should not be race exclusive.

“Vice”

The message is clear. The American people were hooked when Vice-President Dick Cheney took over as the most powerful VP in American history. This cynical and humorous bio-pic never loses sight of this truth. And the truth is told in the most creative ways by incredible actors.

Christian Bale has Cheney’s stare and smirk down! Add the heavy gold watch on that thick wrist that can flick and cast, and we have our metaphor for power. Beware of the quiet man. He watches, waits, and then strikes. Give that man (no matter that he was kicked out of Yale for drinking and fighting) an ambitious wife, Lynne Cheney ( Amy Adams) and we have the MacBeths. One of my favorite scenes being their Shakespearean bed plotting. Adams, too, is brilliant. As a take-charge-goal-setter, Adams lights up the screen, even as her old family demons keep her fighting for control.

A cast never looked more like the people they are portraying. Steve Carell as the crude talking Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as the clueless George W. Bush, and Tyler Perry as Colin Power, and LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice will impress. But more impressive than the acting and the physical appointments is writer Adam McKay. Half National Lampoon satire and half Michael Moore diatribe, this film is heaven for liberals about the hell of our political scene.

McKay uses a catchy format of narration. Midway through the film, we intuit that the young man speaking is Cheney’s heart donor. Bogus credits roll after a half hour, and we wish this was the end of our story. In Michael Moore fashion, this film asks Americans if they were sleeping or just working such long hours that we chose not to think about our government. Yet, Cheney is portrayed as a ghost~a powerful one.

A dark comedy, “Vice” shows Cheney working as an intern for Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld tells Cheney that two DUIs came up on his clearance papers: “ I took care of it. You owe me.” As Rumsfeld’s lackey , Cheney becomes a servant to power as Rumsfeld rises to serve in the Nixon White House, becomes Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford ( 1975-77) and under George W. Bush ( 2001-06).

In one sequence, Cheney tells his daughter that if you have power, people will try to take it away from you. Much is made in the film about Cheney’s championing of Unitary Executive Theory. In its most extreme form, Congress and the Federal Courts can not touch the President. Others argue that Commander-in-Chief refers to military and National Security matters only. McKay shows the Cheneys as power bandits.

Through the use of conservative think tanks, the repeal of balanced reporting laws, and pundits like Rush Limbaugh, McKay ferrets us through the history of the rise of the Right. When a snippet of Ronald Reagan’s speech “ Let’s make America great, again” we are meant to wince. Like in McKay’s film “The Big Short” ( reviewed here Dec. 20, 2015) he ferrets out the money trail to Halliburton and Cheney’s CEO connections and the resulting 500% increase in the corporation’s stock.

”Vice”’s visuals are stunningly clever. I loved the stack of unwieldy porcelain cups and saucers ready to topple. The tasseled loafers, the way Cheney buttons his jacket, his saunter with briefcase under his arm, all mesh with power and the horrible history of 9/11, the Iraq War, the take down of Saddam Hussein, and the rise of his replacement, ISIS. In one memorable scene, we see Alfred Molina as a waiter serving up entrees of torture to Dick and his guests. The Guantanamo archive back-up is deactivated and Cheney says ” clean to work.”

The ending song from “West Side Story” with its lyrics ” I like to be in America, Okay by me in America” follows Dick Cheney speaking to the camera: ” I will not apologize for keeping your family safe.” There are no heroes in this film, only ruthless power brokers and a nod to Cheney’s public acceptance of his daughter’s lesbianism. Incriminations reign and it is hard to be entertained by them. “Vice” is about vice.

“ Mary, Queen of Scots”

It may help one’s enjoyment of screenwriter Beau Willimon’s movie “Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018 ) if you brush up on those Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth personages before you enter the theatre. Having not read the book on which the screenplay is based, John Guy’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”, I do not know how much the first thirty-five minutes conform. But, they are deadly, cold, and dark, and that includes the screen. This being said, as one sorts out the two Tudor Marys, one being “Bloody”, and our star, Mary Stuart ( Saoirse Ronan), the film picks up and splendid acting ensues.

A brief factual history helps. Mary Stuart ( 1542-1587) is tolerant and portrayed as such. She was beheaded, and Director Josie Rourke begins here. The rest is flashback.

Our Mary is not to be confused with Mary Tudor (1516-1558) “Bloody Mary” (so called by her Protestant opponents) daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Nor is she to be confused with Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married Louis XII of France in 1514.

Our Mary Stuart married a French King,too. And we see, via the flashback,a young eighteen-year-old widow after the death of France’s Francis II. The scenes where Ronan plays coy with her ladies-in-waiting are meant to stress her youthful sexuality, her playfulness, and lack of hautiness. She soon is swept away by her cousin’s amorous intentions and marries a second time. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley,( Jack Louden) is father of her son, James. In 1557, a year later, Lord Darnley is murdered by the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. As plotted by Queen Elizabeth’s make regents, he becomes Mary’s third husband. The Queen and her lords believed that they had to separate this marriage between two Catholics.

Margot Robbie is amazing in her supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I. She must protect her crown, and a Papist must not again sit on the throne. Her overt confidence, interwoven with self-effacing admittance of jealousy and the belief that Mary is the better woman, is well-scripted.

Mary is just as perceptive. Ronan just as brilliant in her portrayal. Her missives fly for the cousins\ sisters to “resolve our destinies”. She is honest, strong, and able to tell her husband that he is not her master, even at eighteen. Later, when Lord Darnley ( her second husband) sleeps with a man. Mary dismisses him from her bedchamber, but tolerantly tells him that she “can not fault him for his nature.”

The back and forth screen time between Mary and Elizabeth further separates any meshing of womanly accord. When they finally meet in person, we are taken by the weight of both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s decisions. Mary will not declaim her people though she asks for Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth and her regents believe that they must control Mary’s claim. When Elizabeth’s advisors propose civil war in Scotland to aid their cause, she tells Mary, “ I choose to be a man”.

Willimon’s television-drama sensation “House of Cards” ( 2013-2017) shows that he understands the political arena, and at forty-one, he does not dispute that woman have had it rough. The “Me, Too” movement shines through in his revisiting of history. In one card playing scene, a knife is put to Mary’s pregnant stomach. This is where men think her power grows. By the way, my favorite visual was the shadow of Mary’s bountiful profile.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” takes one to a period I don’t wish to return to, though I loved the four ladies praying at Mary’s bedside. Basically, any woman thinking and planning is seen as whimsical and foolish by “wise” men.

Mary endures gossip, name-calling, and subterfuge. She is called a “polecat”, betrayed by her half brother, the Earl of Moray ( James McArdle), and humiliated by at least one husband. Other male personages seem to be fuzzily identified. John Knox is played by David Tennant, and advisor, William Cecil, is played by Guy Pierce. Both are good in their parts, but a knowledge of English history would assuredly help in following the historical arc.

Queen Elizabeth controls her conscience by rolling paper into flowers and embroidery. She muses that “ when we are dead nothing matters”. Her sigh of “How cruel men are!” thrusts the sub-theme forward. This film seems to champion Mary Queen of Scots’ reputation. Guillotined, Mary is poryrayed as loyal, dutiful, and tolerant, rather than ambitious. She believes that to relinquish the throne is against God’s will.

We wish Queen Elizabeth did not yield so to her male regents’ bridle. When she burns her artful paperwork, she symbolically succumbs to a man’s world. The red flowers melt into blood between her legs. Another nicely graphic touch, yet makes one think that only women who give birth are true women. Robbie beautifully and understatedly emotes that “we could do worse than put her (Mary) on the throne of England.”

The second half of the film is far superior to the first. I loved the thatched wash house scene, where the pock-marked Queen plays peek-a-boo with the lovely Mary. Both women seem utterly alone. Robbie, again delivers remarkable lines: “ Your gifts are your downfall…I was jealous of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood”.

Elizabeth was forty years on the throne. She thought women ruled better without discord, but her signing the death knell for a despairing, but resolute, Mary did not finish the deal. Mary’s son, James, became James VI of Scotland and James I of England after Elizabeth’s death. Oscars for the female leads is here reason enough to see “ Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018), and revisiting the possibilities of historical-could-have-beens is fun, too.

“Bohemian Rhapsody”

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a perfect film and a lovingly rendered bio-pic. The alternating use of close-ups and panoramic views seem to distil the essence of the man/boy and performer, Freddie Mercury. Don’t miss this paen to the band “Queen”.

From his cats to his arm waving stage prance, we get to know the young graphic designer as he writes song lyrics and sings his heart out. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, like any twenty-something, he seeks freedom to be who he is. This means a gentle, parental rebellion, and later an admission of his bi-sexuality.

Actor Rami Malek deserves an Oscar for his role as Freddie Mercury. Passion for music and connection pulses through every frame. “ Can Anybody Find Me Someone To Love”, “We Are The Champions”, and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” enthrall. “Love Of My Life” as tender as you will see it done.

Malek is supported by a superb cast. The band: guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy),and bassist John Deacon ( Joe Mazzello) are developed just enough for you to care about them. Their frustration is understandable; their anger palpable, and their love for Mercury raises this film to a true legacy piece, even as one band member reverts to Shakespearean insults like “ You treacherous piss flap”. I, also, appreciated the “angry lizard look” costume comment.

Lucy Boynton, as Mercury’s forever girlfriend, develops a Mary Austin one can believe in. The scene at the dinner table with her deaf father is memorable. On the other end of the spectrum, the same goes for the villainous Paul, played by Allan Leech. Paul is known as the snake who tried to break up the “Queen” family. His attempted isolation of our star has Freddie blaming himself and calling Paul a fruitfly that feasts on rotten.

Mercury’s mixed genres and refusal to revert to a formulaic core shows both his genius and the joy of creating. His world tours are flashed on the screen: Rio, Osaka, Perth etc…When Mary is left alone and asking what Freddie wants from her, we sigh at his answer: “Almost Everything.”

Writers Anthony McCarten and Peter Monyan have done a good job distilling twenty some formative years into a musical bio-pic. I loved the close-up of the Rolls-Royce hood ornament, the mic, and rings and studs. Directors Brian Singer and Dexter Fletcher show Mercury’s flaws, but focus on his revolutionary soul~ a real plus. John Ottman is an editor who knows how to pace both action and emotion.

The depth of character displayed was more than I was looking for. Mercury’s aside to Mary, “Being human is a state that requires anesthesia” was enough explanation. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s lover, seems like the embodiment of Freddie’s father’s mantra of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. His “Come and find me when you decide to like yourself” rocked for our rock star. Dead from AIDs at forty-five, Queen’s “Carry on, Carry on” will have tears rolling down your face. “ Bohemian Rhapsody” ranks in my top five films for 2018.

“ The Favourite”

Unlike “ The Lobster” ( reviewed here June 19, 2016 ) and “ The Killing of A Sacred Deer” ( Jan. 26, 2018), the new Yorgos Lanthimos film is not written by him. Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are less ambiguous in intent;and therefore,the theme of “The Favourite” is much easier to discern than Lanthimos’ other films. The nilhilistic elements softened.

His new film is a parody of sorts about power and self-interest. “How goes the kingdom?” comes in second to “How goes me?”. Self-indulgence is rampant. The sub-text may be “entitlement sucks”. “The Favourite” leaves the entitled wallowing in self-pity, anyway.

Part historical period piece, “The Favourite” centers on personal relationships and how these relationships impact the larger world, especially when our actors are women balancing world power. Our setting here is early eighteenth-century England. The last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne is in her six-year-reign ( 1702-1707 ). Olivia Colman embodies the gout-ridden dyspeptic, who has not been able to produce an heir though she has been pregnant seventeen times. She comforts herself with cages of rabbits, one for each lost child.

Her childhood friend, Sarah Jennings Churchill, an ancestor of Winston, wheedles her way into becoming “Keeper of the Privy Purse”. Rachel Weisz continues her work under Director Lanthimos in the part of the wily Sarah, now The Duchess of Marlborough. We see her handling the affairs of state as well as the Queen. Sex and nostalgia are used to stay in favor.

Conflict begins when Sarah’s poor cousin, Abigail Hill ( Emma Stone ) rides into court hoping for a secure position. Competition ensues as both vie for being the Queen’s best bud.

Abigail begins as a scullery maid and her colleagues gloat in her mistakes. When she oversteps her station, we see her taking “ six of the birch” and sharing soap on a rope to cleanse her stripped and whipped back.

Hazy natural light meshes with candlelabra glow to give viewers tapestry delights of manor house grace. There are plenty of close-ups and fish-eye views of cupid-bow lips and wheel-chair races. Bathing in chocolate, throwing persimmons at naked men, and dancing between venison puffs and pineapples highlights the excess. When the war with France is equated with a party, we understand selfish displays and the toll.

Lanthimos is king of the visual. The cinematography of
Robbie Ryan is a joy. Horseback riding never looked more freeing even if the gallop ends with pulling mushrooms for a fungal paste to be slathered on the Queen’s swollen legs. Ryan’s camera‘s whip-pan movement is both stylized and modern. Sixteen century estates are panoramic yet intimate. Fish-eye lens give close-ups a character-penetrating feel. Movement and light are used beautifully.

The bunny squashing and the superimposed rabbits over the faces of our female lovers is creepy and wierd, but it works as oddball humor that is emotionally affecting. Likewise, the fabulous score underscores each character’s movement, both physically and emotionally. ( My one critique being the final- almost country western- song as the credits rolled. What was that?)

The dialogue is sharp. Lady Marlborough’s “Let’s shoot something!” And the Queen’s “ Rub my legs.” belies the manipulation and palace intrigue. Once Abigail “wins” and the Marlboroughs are banished, we are left with ermine studded garb, duck liver, and no ecstasy whatsoever.

In the final shot, Queen Anne’s loveless face equates with sad meaninglessness. Abigail produces one tear and one nostril drip for her trouble, and the bunnies just keep copulating. Prepare for creative debauchery of the female sort with a sad/funny tone akin to our times.

“Green Book”

A more pedestrian movie revolving around a Southern road trip in a 1963 Cadillac you will not find. The first twenty minutes are spent setting up the character of our Italian driver/bodyguard. It is slow going.

Our driver is Tony Vallelonga ( Viggo Mortensen ). Mortensen is good, very good, as the rough-around-the-edges Italian family man, who teaches the erudite, black virtuoso pianist as much about life as he, himself, learns about culture.

The film picks up once we meet the PhD.( Mahershala Ali) who needs a driver/protector. We hear about Nat King Cole being dragged from the stage during a performance in the Deep South and beaten. We know that Tony doesn’t drink from the same glass a black man has used, even after it is washed. Eyebrows are raised when two black plumbers are in the kitchen with Delores, his wife. Out of a job, Tony rejects doing “ things” for the mob. Will he be able to retrieve his pawned watched, and pay his mortgage by playing road manager for a black classical pianist, who speaks eight languages?

The interview and the bargaining for compensation and job detail gets the film finally on track. Director Peter Farelly, Tony’s real son, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Currie have written the screenplay. It is some pretty shallow story-telling. Steinways, Cutty Sark, and homosexuality mark our musician with loneliness and cultural isolation. His “identity crisis” does not play well. Ali’s one tirade seems off point. Prejudices are detailed on all fronts. Hanover, Indiana does not fare well.

Race relations in the early sixties were as bleak as the decades before. The film’s title “ Green Book” refers to the compendium of motels, hotels, and eateries where blacks could re-energize without becoming frustrated by refusals to host their needs. “Vacation without aggravation” is the euphemism used.

Based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, the film
gives the uninitiated a glimpse into the discrimination and civil rights abuses suffered by many. Epithets like “coon”, “ greaseball”, ”spook” and “dago” fly.

Tony’s eating habits, his getting around rules, and his calling Chopin “ Joe Pan” are minorly entertaining. He dumps trash and places the bin over a water hydrant in order to park nearer to his venue. He spits pimento cheese tidbits into his napkin and places it back on the serving tray.

The letter writing sequences are cute to a point. Dr. Shirley helps in the romance and spelling department as Tony writes the letters requested by his wife, Delores
(Linda Cardellini). You will not be surprised by the doc driving, the policeman helping, or the second knock at the door. You may be surprised by the thirty second close-up of Baby Jesus’s face, and the call to then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The bromides that “ dignity always prevails” and “you never win with violence” drew my yawns. “ My world is blacker than yours” is a tad insulting in light of the Raleigh sharecroppers standing aghast at the black man being chauffeured.

The “Green Book”’s theme is really about growth, and the pleasant idea that if two people ( no matter how different) spend eight weeks together ( in truth a year and a half), relationships blossom and understanding ensues. This feel good transformation is a crowd pleaser with a pat ending. I am just not one of the crowd.

“ Beautiful Boy”

A family split apart by drugs is not fun to watch, but this is a film that should be seen for its empathetic value.. In 2017, over 10,000 lives were lost in the United States due to crystal meth use. This film does not show most of the grungy side effects, but it does provide facts on brain neural function decline while skipping the rotting teeth. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen has just the right objectivity to frame the true story of the dynamics of a family in pain without shocking us with ravaged bodies.

Based on the memoirs of San Francisco journalist David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” begins with the father seeking help in understanding what this drug is doing to his son. Steve Carell tries to be stoic as he asks a drug counselor ( Tim Hutton) what he can do to help his son, Nic. ( Timothee Chalamet). Through a series of flashbacks, the film gives us a history of fatherly love of the unconditional sort.

Sweet episodes of Carell singing John Lennon’s “ Beautiful Boy” to his own son at age four mesh into memories of father /son surfing, biking, and sharing experiences. They talk. They hug.

Events have not been perfect. There has been divorce and two siblings,ten years younger, vie for parental attention. Stepmother Karen, played beautifully by Amy Ryan, supports her husband and loves her stepson. Tension arises while protecting their younger children. Her artist easels and canvases eventually are crammed into Nic’s room which make him feel pushed out. When a druggy girlfriend and Nic break into the house, Karen chases them but gives up in a puddle of fraught sobs.

Chalamet’s interplay with his young siblings is some of the most affecting. When the six-year-old asks if Nic is on drugs again, we wince. The family turning lights on and off has symbolic meaning. Like all drug addictions, this is a roller-coaster ride of hospital calls, disappearances,in-house treatment centers, and relapses and recoveries. Nic sees the hopelessness in the process. When David mimicks his counselor’s bromide that “ relapse is part of the process of recovery”, Nic chides in with “ Dad, that’s like saying crashing is part of piloting!”

The editing of the first part of “Beautiful Boy” is perfectly nuanced, but then it is as if the editing team went on vacation. Signs of depression, isolation, heavy metal music, experimentation, and fear and anxiety of high expectations are touched upon. Hedonic excuses of “I felt better than I ever have” sink into more lies and hiding. “Taking the edge off stupid reality” has its draw backs in rainy searches, group sessions, internet tutorials on injecting safely, and dark poetry, and wild handwriting.

When Carell begins lunching with users to learn more of what his son is experiencing, we know he is going to snort to feel his son’s euphoria. Monsters are back two-fold. The young children, Daisy and Jasper, are the only ones who don’t seem to know of the single digit success rate for meth addicts. Nic’s biological mother, Vicky( Maura Tierney) gives her best, as does Nic’s AA sponsor, Spenser.

I have warned my three friends who have been through this ordeal not to see this film alone. Seeing a family from the rear view mirror is just too much. The pee specimens, the morgue visits, the vomit are dirges enough. When Nic says “ I am addicted to craziness. You are embarrassed. Mom should have gotten custody. You try to control everything”, the audience sighs. And when Carell says, “ I trust you, but we need proof” as he hands Chalamet the pee jar, we acutely understand Nic’s wry comment: “ That’s about as contradictory as it gets.” The film’s ending leaves us feeling the same way.

An endnote:
Film viewers, you will miss the tone of this memoir if you leave before the poem by Charles Bukowski, “ Let It Enfold” is recited by Nic. If you jump up and walk out, you have lost.