29 Days of Romance, Review #7: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

29 Days of Romance, Review #7: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

 

If Beale Street Could Talk
IMDb

Directed by: Barry Jenkins. Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: December 25, 2018.

The prologue to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from a 1974 novel by James Baldwin, set up my expectations for the film well. “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America is born on Beale Street…” it reads. “Beale Street is our legacy. Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader [viewer] to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”

This is a great introduction to the story and set up my expectations that the film is more about the character’s experiences, and the black experience, than anything else. It’s a love story surviving through hate, about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James). Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and Tish is pregnant with his baby, and Tish and her family try to prove his innocence.

Wrongful conviction movies are one of my favourite kind-of films and while that’s going on in Beale Street, the film takes a different kind-of approach to it. Through the film, it accurately portrays that it is an unjust system and there’s no winning against it. More importantly, it depicts the world as being unjust. The legal parts of the film where the characters try and prove Fonny’s innocence are solid but few and far between. That’s because it’s about the love story between Tish and Fonny.

This part of the film is beautiful. The chemistry between them shines through and these are strong performances from KiKi Layne and Stephan James that carry the film adequately. They’re star-making performances, but Stephan James also seems like he could be a strong character actor, too, but he’s held his own as the lead role, like when he starred as Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race. Here, both of the starring performances are quiet and reserved, and the drama here is never loud, either.

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Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk. (IMDb)

Layne’s voice-over narration that adds context to the character’s experience is a highlight throughout the film. The narration is consistently lovely and her voice is so soft that it’s really endearing. The performances all feel quiet throughout, and others in the cast shine, too, especially Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. She won an Oscar for the performance and it’s deserved, in two key scenes, when she fights for Fonny near the end of the film and close to the very beginning when the family gathers Fonny’s family and they tell them that Tish is pregnant. This scene is also the strongest in terms of dialogue and is one of the only times that the drama is explosive and close to shouting. It’s fair to say the film peaks for me in this scene because there’s so much power in the cast’s words in this scene. One more thing about Regina King, she makes the best of her screen time, and I thought Beale Street only got better when King was on-screen.

Director Barry Jenkins brings a great vision to this beautiful, timeless story. The film isn’t always eventful because it’s very talky and just about humans loving each other, and it’s not often flashy. There’s almost always meaning and power in its dialogue. It made the experiences of these characters easily understandable, even though I could tell the significance of some scenes went over my head. I loved the meaning I found in the beating of the film’s drums and I’d love to read the novel. Speaking of drums, the score by Nicholas Britell and its use of jazz is stunning, never interfering with the story or overpowering the performances, only enhancing the experience.

Score: 80/100

 

 

29 Days of Romance, Review #3: On Chesil Beach (2018)

29 Days of Romance, Review #3: On Chesil Beach (2018)
On Chesil Beach poster
IMDb

Directed by: Dominic Cooke. Starring: Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Anne-Marie Duff. Runtime: 1h 50 min. Released: May 18, 2018 (USA release).

On Chesil Beach stars Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan as a couple, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, respectively, on their wedding night in 1962 England as their idyllic romance collides with societal pressure as they inch towards the consummation of their marriage.

There’s a charm to On Chesil Beach that is at first romantic and then very awkward as the couple gears up towards sex for the first time. It’s not played for comedy, but there’s a lite feeling of comedy in the dialogue often (there’s one laugh-out-loud moment as Florence reads a sex guidebook).

The narrative structure is also intriguing here as we are “mostly” with the couple as they’re at a hotel by Chesil Beach and we get flashbacks into their relationship as their romance builds. Some of these flashbacks don’t feel completely necessary so the film occasionally feels slow.

The big thing that keeps it from becoming boring is Saoirse Ronan. Her performances can elevate any film and that’s no different here. She sells the awkwardness and tension in the sex scenes and she also sells the general compassion of her character. The chemistry between her and Billy Howle, who is also very good, shines through any slow pacing.

Howle, by the way, also sells the anxiety of their consummation. I think the best part of the film is the contrast of how charming and free-spirited their romance seems until there’s just the huge anxiety of sex, where they’re both just terrified.

They share great moments together, especially when Florence cares for Edward’s mom, Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), who suffers from a brain injury. This makes for one of the film’s best moments that shows the difference in their characters: Florence is so genuinely good with people, and Edward often doesn’t know how to deal with his mother’s condition.

On Chesil Beach article
Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach. (IMDb)

The film deals with sensitive subjects, too, as the film eventually inches closer to character studies of these two characters rather than only being about their romance. That’s the most interesting part for me as we learn more about their characters and who they are as people and how the societal pressures make its way into their romance.

The story isn’t always captivating because it arguably feels simplistic. Ronan and Howle’s performances elevate this above its story, especially their romance and their characters. I just didn’t like some character actions and how one decision can shape your life, but if I had read the novel (or novella, if that’s what it’s considered as it’s only 166 pages), I would have liked this better because I would have expected the very real-world third act.

The characters feel realistic throughout though, and that’s why the film is good even if I didn’t love the ending. The dialogue is also very good and a 10-minute conversation on Chesil Beach is the big highlight because that’s when the dialogue is at its finest and the drama is at its sharpest. The film obviously stays true to its source material, too, as Ian McEwan adapts his own novella, and Dominic Cooke brings it to life well in his directorial debut, especially in the beach scene. Nothing makes it feel quite like an “idyllic” romance, though, more than Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, which looks so nice because the locations are so lovely.

Score: 70/100

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018)

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018)

 

The Grinch poster
IMDb

Released: November 9, 2018. Directed by: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely, Rashida Jones. Runtime: 1h, 26 min.

When I went to see “Overlord” in November, I overheard a mom saying to her kid “Are you excited for your first movie?” Knowing how cool it is to see your first movie at a theatre, I was bummed he was seeing something as mediocre as “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” for his first movie at the theatre.

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is the third adaption of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! where Benedict Cumberbatch voices the titular Grinch in a version that doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the story.

This time, The Grinch isn’t particularly feared and is just seen as meaner than the average Who. He still doesn’t like Christmas, so when the Who’s bring in a gigantic Christmas tree, he hatches a plan to put an end to their happiness: Steal Christmas.

Illumination Entertainment’s animation style fits Seuss’s style, especially his inventions which the animation brings to life well. I like their vision of Whoville, but the animation is the only good part of the film, even though it makes Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) look like a Martian with her pigtails sticking up in the air, and the character design’s similar to “Despicable Me.”

As for the story, there’s just not enough plot for a feature film. It’s just told with very little creativity, and there are no Jim Carrey kind-of antics to distract from the lack of story.

The Grinch featured
Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (IMDb)

Cumberbatch is fine as the Grinch, but he’s not terribly memorable. Nothing about this film is memorable, and the main source of laughs come from the Grinch’s cheery neighbour (Keenan Thompson) and the Grinch’s dog Max and an overweight reindeer, and the Grinch trolling the citizens of Whoville made me smile, but those moments were the only times I did.

Pharrell Williams’ monotone narration also does not help matters of entertainment. Since you already know which direction is going, I was getting antsy for the Grinch just to steal Christmas, but it feels like it takes forever to get there. There just aren’t many interesting characters to watch in this one, as the Grinch and Cindy Lou’s interactions are extremely limited until he makes his Christmas heist.

Even then, it’s a bit of a cliche way for Cindy Lou to meet him – setting up a Rube Goldberg trap to try to catch Santa Claus so she can ask him for something selfless.

We know about the Grinch’s loneliness and we know that he steals Christmas and that his heart grows three sizes, but this version doesn’t delve into any kind of new backstory or anything interesting, for that matter. And it was just kind of weird seeing a version where the people aren’t afraid of the Grinch. But for this version, the filmmakers just unfortunately don’t do anything to make it memorable.

Score: 50/100

 

Hold the Dark (2018)

Hold the Dark (2018)
Hold the Dark poster
IMDb

Released: September 28, 2018. Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale. Runtime: 2h 5 min.

After the death of three children suspected to be killed by wolves, wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is hired by Medora Sloane (Riley Keogh), the mother of the latest missing boy to track her son down in the Alaskan wilderness, or at the very least kill for the wolves for vengeance.

In “Hold the Dark,” Core takes the job to try and help find the boy and give a family closure. He understands and respects nature, and he’s remorseful about hunting and killing a wolf and writing about it. Medora wants the wolf to suffer. To that, Russell replies: “Natural order doesn’t want revenge.”

As for everyone else, revenge is on all their minds. The only one who wants that more than Medora is her husband Vernon, played with a menacing calm by Alexander Skarsgård. It’s the kind-of blankness that’s unpredictable – he could be emotionally vulnerable one minute, and then just relentless the next. He’s introduced in a memorable fashion on his tour in Iraq (the film is set in 2004).

Hold the Dark featured
Jeffrey Wright in “Hold the Dark” (IMDb).

I thought this might be something like Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” but don’t make that same mistake of thinking that. This is a genre-bending piece in a league of its own in terms of uniqueness. The only real similarities there are the wolves and the frozen tundra, and James Badge Dale. Here, he plays Donald Marium, a city cop in the town of Emery that’s close to Keelut, the small village where the disappearances occurred. He’s like the face for the mainland, and the people in Keelut like to be left alone. Medora thinks of Keelut as truly Alaska, as she says about Anchorage “that city is not Alaska.” Vernon’s friend named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) is one of the most memorable characters here as someone with a dislike for outsiders.

The mystery of the film is capable, and twists in the first act really made the screenplay unpredictable. Frankly, some of this was hard to think of what direction it was going in because some of it just went way over my head. Macon Blair’s writing is smart, but the characters are so complex it’s hard to fully understand their psyches and their darkness. But they help paint a cool look at human nature. They are intriguing characters that deal with their grief in their own unique, intense ways, but I had more questions than answers by the end of it all.

The story didn’t completely work for me, but the cinematography (by Magnus Nordenof Jønck) looked great and the performances from everyone are truly top-tier, especially from Jefferey Wright, who captures his character’s loneliness and remorse well.

No matter how strange or bizarre the film becomes, it’s grounded in realism. That’s something I love about Jeremy Saulnier’s style. His films always feature violence that’s brutal and raw (at least with “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”) – and with William Girardi’s dark source material, he has a lot to work with in terms of violence. A mid-film set piece is the film’s best scene, and the carnage in it is bonkers. This is my least favourite film by Saulnier – but that’s not a bad thing.

Score: 65/100

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (2018)
Eighth Grade poster
IMDb

Eighth Grade. Released: August 3, 2018. Directed by: Bo Burnham. Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Runtime: 1h 33 min.

I like Bo Burnham, he’s funny. He got his start on YouTube in 2006 posting funny songs from his bedroom (like “New Math,” which makes math fun). He helped me with fractions with lyrics like “having sex is like doing fractions; it’s improper for the larger one to be on top.”

It’s 10 years later and he’s made something universal with his directorial debut Eighth Grade, a film that’s been helping me through an anxious time – which is way more important than fractions. The film stars a delightfully awkward and convincing Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, an eighth grader just trying to survive her last week of middle school.

Kayla’s an average eighth grader, and you’ll likely see a lot of yourself in her. Every time she sends a cringe-y text or tries to be nice to people who want literally nothing to do with her, you’ll want to stop her. (I still wish someone would stop me from sending a bad text half the time).

I saw myself in Kayla, especially her anxiety of worrying what people will think of her as she goes to a popular kid’s pool party. She describes anxiety as the “butterflies you get while waiting in line for a rollercoaster;” but that’s how she feels when she isn’t doing anything. A character named Olivia (Emily Robinson) helps Kayla through some of these moments, and these scenes are charming.

These messages are what make Eighth Grade‘s story timeless for any viewer, as Kayla’s anxiety and doubts can happen at any point in your life. Because of this, it’s not a film you just watch; it’s one that you experience and remember (even as adult viewers, since we’ve gone through eighth grade too).

Bo Burnham was always a clever guy, but here he shows great understanding of adolescence and the current generation growing up. Eighth Grade is personal, intimate, and so good. Kayla doing YouTube videos feels a lot like how Burnham himself started out – and sprinkling her videos throughout the film as narration is smart storytelling. Elsie Fisher as his star was also great casting, because she’s so convincingly awkward during her YouTube videos, giving life advice to people like her, advice which she tries to use for herself. Her character is relatable, and Fisher herself is very charming.

Eighth Grade featured
Director Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher (IMDb).

Kayla looks like an average teenager, complete with acne and everything. And that’s so refreshing. Fisher becomes Kayla; it’s heartbreaking, heartwarming, and often just crushingly awkward watching her navigate middle school’s struggles and life’s ups and downs – especially romance. It’s entertaining when she sees the object of her affections, Aiden (Luke Prael), and Enya’s “Sail Away” plays on the soundtrack.

Her supportive father is also such an amazing character, played memorably by Josh Hamilton. He’s trying his best…even if Kayla wants nothing more than to listen to music rather than listen to him.

The trend of great father monologues (like in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird) continues with “Eighth Grade.” It’s another great moment; and when I’m bawling in the theatre I always wonder how they deliver the lines without crying. I can barely get through an argument without crying. Kudos to you, Josh Hamilton.

Kudos to everyone, really, and especially Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher. Burnham makes the ordinary feel so entertaining. There’s a full range of characters, so even if you don’t relate to Kayla’s specific situation, you’ll likely relate to someone else. I’m a lot like Kayla and I’ve been like Gabe (Jake Ryan, playing an equally awkward youth who tries to befriend Kayla) multiple times in my life. Burnham writes a solid film and as an all-around full view of Kayla’s world and immerses us completely in it.

Score: 90/100

This review originally appeared on The Movie Buff.

The Meg (2018)

The Meg (2018)
The Meg poster
IMDb

Released: August 10, 2018. Directed by: Jon Turteltaub. Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson. Runtime: 1h 53 min.

The Meg is one of those movies that is just fun to review, almost like a stamina test for how long you can go without using a shark pun.

Jason Statham plays Jonas, a deep-sea rescue team member who goes back in the water to save a submersible stranded at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The Mana One has made a discovery of an unknown ecosystem underneath the assumed bottom of the trench, which is a cold cloud that separates an ecosystem from the rest of the ocean. The characters stranded in the submersible are attacked by a 75-foot shark… *Jason Statham voice* The Megalodon!

There’s a lot of action right from that rescue in the visually cool underwater area, and it gets wilder after the Meg escapes. The degrees of the cloud shouldn’t let it escape, but the Meg, uh, finds a way.

I like that the filmmakers go back to the prehistoric age to find a foe that can challenge Jason Statham. It’s like they know no bad guy or modern shark can match him. “Meg versus man isn’t a fight, it’s a slaughter,” Statham says about the Megalodon.

Secretly, the Megalodon thinks the same thing about facing Statham. He’s just watched all The Transporter films and he’s ready. He even started to watch The Transporter Refueled but turned it off after 20 minutes when he realized it was a reboot. The Meg knows his tricks and won’t be charmed by his British accent.

Statham’s good in a movie that’s purely summer fun. I liked his character arc of everyone assuming he’s the one who leaves people behind, and he has a good chemistry with oceanographer Suyin (Bingbing Li). Her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) is adorable and gets a few chuckles.

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Jason Statham in The Meg. (IMDb)

The giant shark looks good and its colour is based off a great white, just one that’s been bulking up at the gym. Visually, the film’s decent, and we can see most of the action underwater. It feels long at nearly two hours and most of the action is stuff you’ve seen before but with a giant shark.

It’s not paced amazingly, but it has a charm about it and the characters learn quickly that a bigger boat isn’t going to help them because they’ll need a cruise ship. Their better weapon is their knowledge of Shark Week.

The deep-sea rescue missions are tense, and the action scenes pack a memorable bite. (I got 437 words in before a shark pun!) This just knows it’s a shark movie on steroids and embraces it, and it works. Some of the writing’s clever, too, as characters monologue with their backs turned to the ocean and you just totally expect them to get mauled like that certain someone in Deep Blue Sea.

Besides the action, it has some good character moments and a good cast of characters. Rainn Wilson (The Office) joins the party as billionaire Jack Morris who funds the Mana One. It’s nice that Dwight Schrute’s beet farm and bed and breakfast really took off. I’m sure he made all his money and then realized “marine biology beats beets” and switched fields. Jokes aside, he’s good as the dick-ish Morris.

Everyone in the cast has something to do for the most part. Though, when they’re gone, there’s so many characters that it doesn’t really matter. They’re all pretty good, from Ruby Rose playing Jaxx (her characters are so edgy I’m surprised they haven’t all been named Jaxx), to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as The Wall.

You know you can’t take a movie completely seriously when there’s a character called The Wall. Come to think of it, it’s a missed opportunity that this isn’t The Wall vs. The Meg, because that sounds like the main event.

Score: 70/100

Skyscraper (2018)

Skyscraper (2018)
Skyscraper poster
IMDb

Released: July 13, 2018. Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han. Runtime: 1h 42 min.

Comedy director Rawson Marshall Thurber teams up for a second time with Dwayne Johnson after 2016’s “Central Intelligence. This time, it’s for his first action film “Skyscraper.”

Will Sawyer (Johnson) is now a security expert on assignment in Hong Kong assessing the safety of the world’s tallest building, the Pearl, at 225 stories tall, built by ambitious architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Sawyer’s brought in to make sure that the residential floors are as safe as can be.

He’s given a tablet that can control the building remotely, and when the building is set ablaze by a gang of mercenaries (led by Roland Møller), Will’s framed for it. He wants to clear his name – but first needs to get into the building because his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and children Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) are still in the building right near the fire.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer well. He’s a strong family man and Johnson brings his usual charisma. The film opens with his character as an FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader on his last mission as an explosion leads him to losing his leg. This is about 10 years before Hong Kong and he sports a prosthetic leg for the rest of the film.

He discusses it with one of his old FBI buddies, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), in the film, but talks about the mistake of not knowing the man had a bomb, but the bad luck led him to meeting his wife. Neve Campbell plays the wife well, but their chemistry’s nothing special. Will’s family is his drive.

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Neve Campbell and Dwayne Johnson in “Skyscraper.” (IMDb)

All that aside, a main criticism for the film is that it’s a lot like Die Hard.” It’s fair and inevitable, especially because of the villains and general concept, but I saw more similarities to “The Towering Inferno.” It has similar scenes where characters must get across things to escape the blaze, and it’s like an extreme version of that film for modern audiences. I won’t spoil anything about the villains, but I’ve really liked Roland Møller in everything I’ve seen him in.

The film’s predictable but I liked the ride. I also liked the setting of the film, The Pearl, which makes Nakatomi Plaza look like a normal house in comparison. Attractions like a three-story rainforest and spinning turbine things on the outside of the building are featured on the Pearl. The wonder of the turbine attraction made me think of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” The Pearl’s architect Long Ji is Wonka and his skyscraper is his chocolate factory.

There’s a pearl on top of the skyscraper that looks down on Hong Kong like you’re just in the sky, or like you’re looking down from Heaven, as Long Ji puts it. Most of the Pearl’s unique attractions feature into the film’s biggest set pieces. A few of these made my palms sweat which I thought made the “Skyscraper” have enough edge-of-your-seat thrills for one watch, despite it being predictable.

Score: 63/100