"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A Beautiful mess of a movie that is gorgeous to look at but story wise is derivative and dull, making it difficult to sit through.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is an adaptation of the James Baldwin story of the same name that follows the travails of two African-Americans, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the perils of young love in a racist New York City of the 1970’s. The film stars Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephon James as Fonny with supporting turns from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry .

If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkin’s much anticipated follow up to his 2016 Best Picture winning Moonlight, is another in a long line of disappointments on the very bumpy ride of cinema in 2018.

Based on the James Baldwin story of the same name (which I have not read), If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful mess of a movie. It is at once visually stunning yet also narratively pedestrian and culturally juvenile.

Let’s start with the good news. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers an impeccably lush and cinematically vibrant aesthetic to the film. Laxton’s camera engages in an exquisite dance with his subjects while painting the world of the film with a delicate and ethereal palate that is not only gorgeous to behold but narratively profound. Laxton’s work on Moonlight was equally sublime and dramatically insightful, and with If Beale Street Could Talk, Laxton has shown himself to be not only a master craftsman but a powerful artist.

Sadly, Barry Jenkins script never lives up to Laxton’s stirring cinematography. Jenkins inability to write efficient and effective dialogue and build a coherent and compelling narrative make If Beale Street Could Talk a frustratingly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying film to watch.

When Jenkins (and Laxton) flashes back and focuses on the blossoming first love of Tish and Fonny, the film crackles with life. The chemistry between actors Kiki Layne (Tish) and Stephon James (Fonny) in these flashback scenes is palpable, and Laxton superbly bathes them in gorgeous light, shadow and color as he lets the viewer see the characters as they see each other, through the prism of unabashed love.

It is when the film shifts to the present moment and its drama of “legal peril”, which is decidedly stale and stultifying with cringe worthy dialogue to match, when the wheels come of the cinematic wagon. An example of which is that there is a scene between Tish and Fonny’s families that is so poorly written, poorly directed and poorly acted that it was like watching kids put on a play…a very bad play…in their basement.

The “legal peril” storyline is so trite, hackneyed and derivative it seems like it was lifted from an episode of Law and Order or some equally awful television show. Anytime the focus of the film shifts to the legal story and its adjacent narratives, it serves as little more than an irritating distraction.

The film is equally abysmal when it tries to convey a political or socially conscious message. When Jenkins tries to use the movie as a statement on race in America, it reveals itself to be, at best, painfully adolescent in its cosmology.

Ironically, in its social themes, If Beale Street Could Talk is as much an unnuanced distorted Black view of America as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is a unnuanced distorted view of America through the White perspective. Both film’s are little more than wish fulfillment and fantasies driven by archetypes deeply embedded in the American psyche. In the case of Dirty Harry, it is the archetypal Righteous Gun Slinging Vigilante, who is part of the system but operates outside of it to protect Whites from those lawless “others”, most notably Blacks (think of the “you feel lucky” scene, where Dirty Harry points his .44 Magnum in the face of a “Black criminal”).


In If Beale Street Could Talk, the thematic archetype is one of the Righteous Victim (think of Fonny as the young Black criminal with Dirty Harry’s .44 in his face), who is oppressed by the system and must operate outside of it in order to survive it. In this way, If Beale Street Could Talk is social justice/victimhood porn and propaganda, which on its surface claims to be about speaking the truth of the Black perspective in America, but in reality is about reinforcing and strengthening the victim archetype and narrative.

What is striking to me about this aspect of the film, is that it also reinforces the racist tropes that fueled the Dirty Harry era to begin with and which eventually led to Clinton’s infamous crime bill in the 90’s which further criminalized Black men. For instance, the lead character Fonny which, along with Tish, is whom the viewer is supposed to identify with, and yet when we first learn about Fonny, he commits a crime, theft. Fonny’s lawlessness is not even given a second thought, but in the narrative structure of the film it subconsciously undermines the audiences connection to him to a devastating degree. This is not some personal revelation from me, this is just Cinema 101: Basic Storytelling and Character Development.

The same is true of the other Black men in the movie, all of whom are equally lawless and all of whom commit crimes. Fonny’s father steals from the docks, and his pseudo father in law not only steals but beats the hell out of his wife…and yet these men are supposed to represent “regular Black men”.

Add to that Fonny’s friend Daniel who is fresh out of prison, and just like Fonny claims he is entirely innocent of the charges against him. Apparently Fonny and Daniel are the two guys who really didn’t do it…even though we’ve already seen Fonny commit a crime and Daniel’s sketchy reputation precedes him.

While all of the Black men in the film are criminals, none of them take responsibility for their criminality. The crimes they commit are all the fault of the system that is screwing them, thus demeaning these men even further as they are deprived of any and all agency. This is the Victim archetype in full bloom, where no matter what the character does it is never their fault. This is an extremely unsatisfying quality in a cinematic Hero, as it simply castrates the Hero and asks the audience to pity them rather than relate or project on to them. It also does not allow for any catharsis on the part of the character, and that in turn doesn’t allow for any catharsis on the part of the viewer, which results in a psychologically frustrating movie-going experience.

Consider other Hero stories where the Hero is brought down by a corrupt system…movies like Braveheart, where William Wallace ultimately loses, but he goes down swinging, screaming “Freedom” at the top of his lungs as he is torn to shreds. Or think of a parallel for the Fonny character to maybe the best known Hero story of them all…Jesus Christ. Jesus is persecuted, just like Fonny, but the key to the Jesus story is that he has agency and chooses to be crucified….thus becoming Christ. Jesus is the empowered form of the Victim archetype…which is the martyr, who is victim by choice. The choice here is the important thing as it means the Hero may suffer a terrible defeat but he still maintains his agency. In contrast, the perpetually disempowered Fonny is just laundry being tossed and turned in a washing machine, who never chooses but always loses.

In terms of the criminality of the characters in the film, there are other contrasting examples, think of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The mobsters in those movies do awful things to people and yet audiences relate to them and embrace them as “Heroes” of the story, why is that? The reason for that is because those characters, from Michael Corleone to Henry Hill, embrace their criminality. They maintain their agency and don’t claim to be victims of the system, instead they are gaming the system.

These details in the DNA of If Beale Street Could Talk may seem minute to the less sophisticated viewer, but it is these specific elements that can make or break a film and its narrative in the unconscious of the audience. In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, these subtle archetypal issues deter viewers from fully accepting and embracing the characters, story and film.

It isn’t just the Black men who fair poorly in If Beale Street Could Talk, as White men are portrayed as truly devils in this movie. White men are sexual predators (again, the inverse of the Dirty Harry movie where Black men are predators) and are inherently evil, from a lecherous perfume shopper to a cop who is so consumed with racial hatred he comes across as more than a little insane. For the White characters in this movie, just like Black characters in Dirty Harry, they are entirely devoid of nuance and are absurd caricatures. Even White characters we never see are predators, as there is one who impregnates a poor Latina women and then leaves her with nothing, and then maybe even returns to rape her.

It is for these reasons that If Beale Street Could Talk is just as insidious and insipid as the blatantly racist Dirty Harry movies.

As for the acting, Stephon James and Kiki Layne are glorious in their falling in love sequences. Laxton’s camera holds on their loving gazes for extended periods and their love for one another is tangible in these shots. But when they are asked to do more than just look longingly and lovingly at one another, the two stars lose much of their power.

James is a charismatic screen presence, but he seems rather limited when it comes to the more static shots. James is unable to compress his magnetism and dynamism when he is contained in such a confining space and he loses his power because of it.

Kiki Layne is quite engaging during the dreamy love sequences as well, but she too falls well short when things get much more complicated. Layne’s strong suit is her ability to seem to be overcome by her wonder for the world, but when the world stops being wondrous, she stops being interesting and starts being wooden.

Regina King does solid work as Tish’s mom, but she is hamstrung by being stuck in the intolerably mundane legal drama portion of the story, and while she is a compelling actress, none of her scenes are particularly noteworthy.

If Beale Street Could Talk, which may be the second most mis-leading title in the history of cinema right behind The Never Ending Story because Beale Street is never seen in the movie and all the action takes place in New York (I am kidding, the title is explained in the opening, but still…I found it funny), is another in a long line of films that underwhelmed in 2018. Barry Jenkins (and his cinematographer James Laxton) has a distinct and luscious visual flair to his work, but his storytelling and character development need serious work. Therefore I can only recommend this film to the most committed of cinephiles who would want to see the cinematography on the big screen. For everyone else, there is no reason to see this in the theatre, but if you stumble upon it on cable one night or on Netflix, feel free to check it out if you like, and tell me if I am wrong or not.

In conclusion, if Beale Street could talk, I’d tell it to shut up because while it talks a lot and does so in a beautifully melodious and mellifluous visual voice, it actually doesn’t say a whole hell of a lot, and what little it does have to say is so vapid and vacuous that it has no value whatsoever.

©2018

We the Animals: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A derivative childhood trauma drama that is a pale imitation of other better movies.

We the Animals, written by Jeremiah Zagar and Dan Kitrosser (based on the book of the same name by Justin Torres) and directed by Zagar, is the coming of age story of Jonah, a young boy growing up with his two brothers in a tumultuous family deep in the throes of working-class poverty. The film stars Evan Rosado as Jonah with supporting turns from Raul Castillo (Paps) and Sheila Vand (Ma).

We the Animals is another in a long line of recent films about the difficulty of growing up in modern America, particularly when poor. Just off the top of my head I can think of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project. I am sure there are more I am forgetting, but probably because those other films are forgettable.

We the Animals follows the same blueprint as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project but also flirts with some of the same topics as this year's indy darling Eighth Grade. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild it tries to capture the magical imagination of a child under duress, and like Moonlight it tries to bring to life the struggles of one who is "different", and like The Florida Project, it eschews formal narrative structure in favor of a more free-wheeling story-telling that attempts to expose poverty as it really is, and like Eighth Grade it explores the minefield that is sex in pornified America.

If We the Animals had come out five years ago, it might be noteworthy because of its subject matter and style, but since it came out now after the aforementioned cavalcade of similar films, it feels decidedly derivative. There is nothing in We the Animals that we haven't seen already and done either slightly or distinctly better. 

Director Zagar uses an impressionistic style to convey the inner life of Jonah, and those parts of the film are easily the best. Zagar and his cinematographer Zak Mulligan's use of animation, a floating camera and dynamic framing make the film at times visually stunning. Mulligan's ability to uniquely frame the mundane and turn it into something of depth is exceptional, and he captures some exquisitely beautiful shots.

Sadly, the film is not entirely impressionistic, in fact, the majority of the film (about two-thirds) is more stylistically conventional, and this is where the film struggles, so much so that it scuttles the entire ship. Mulligan's intermittent Malick-esque camera work brings life to a script that is dead on arrival and that fact is only more accentuated when the film tries to actually tell a story.

The cast of newcomers and unknowns does their best, but the acting is pretty underwhelming. Lead actor Evan Rosado is a charismatic kid and he pops on camera, but he is very limited in range and what he is able to do as an actor at such a young age.

Raul Castilla and Sheila Vand fall flat as Paps and Ma, and needed to be much better than they were for the film to really take off. Both of their performances were too one-dimensional for my tastes, and lacked an inner life. To be fair they certainly weren't aided by the rather shallow script.

We the Animals still could have pulled it off despite its cinematic imbalance but it makes a fatal error in its final act. There is a twist, hinted at throughout but which becomes explicit in the last quarter, that turns the film from an experimental-impressionist cinematic exploration into a rather banal piece of faux-edgy arthouse moviemaking. This plot revelation had significantly more artistic merit and integrity when left unstated, and by forcing the narrative to conform to such a conventional, 21st century after-school special theme, the weighty pretensions of profundity surrounding the film collapse and we are left with a movie that is resoundingly unsatisfying dramatically.

At the end of the day, because of the similarly themed and styled films that have preceded it, We the Animals feels trite, contrived, manufactured and manipulative to the point of exploitative. While director Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan certainly show flashes of talent throughout, because of a weak script and cast, along with Zagar's uneven approach, the film never coalesces into a coherent and worthy piece of cinema. Sadly, We the Animals is not worth the time and effort to go see it in the theatre, but fret not, if you want to see a film about minority children growing up in poverty, you have a plethora of other options from which to choose.

©2018

Call Me by Your Name: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. There is no need to ever see this mess of an art house poseur. 

Call Me by Your Name, written by James Ivory (based on the book by Andre Aciman) and directed by Luca Guadagnino, is the story of 17 year old Elio as he comes of age in a northern Italian town in 1983 and deals with his attraction to Oliver, an American Grad student. The film stars Timothee Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver and has garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Chalamet).

There are times when film critics, in a conscious or unconscious bit of virtue signaling, confirm their bias by endorsing a movie for what it represents culturally or politically rather than for what is actually there on the screen. Such is the case with Call Me by Your Name where many critics desperately yearn for the film to be an artistically poignant, deeply romantic, gay coming-of-age story and therefore declare it to be so (the film has a 96% Critical Rating on Rotten Tomatoes)…when the stark reality is that Call Me by Your Name is a mannered and pretentious art house charlatan that instead of being romantic is stultifyingly pedantic. It is also a breathtakingly dull, overly long, flaccid, trite and abysmal cinematic affair that fails on every single level. This film is only remarkable for being completely devoid of drama, substance or craft.

In a story that should be chock full of external obstacles for the star-crossed lovers to overcome, all obstacles have been removed and with them go any hope for drama. An example of a missing obstacle is that there is absolutely no prejudice on display towards the gay lovers, only overflowing and unquestioned acceptance by everyone on-screen. The film should have opened with Mr. Roarke and Tattoo dressed all in white, welcoming Elio and Oliver to Fantasy Island, at least that would've made the fact that there are no threats from the old-school Italian town folk or from protective parents or jealous girlfriends at least somewhat believable.

What these obstacles would have provided the film were higher dramatic stakes. If the love between these two men is forbidden or dangerous, then every look, every gesture, every-thing between them requires more and more courage and every slight detail takes on greater and greater significance. With the removal of all obstacles between the two lovers, all we are left with is two guys pondering whether they should sleep together or not. The film attempts to make this back and forth sexual questioning a slow, sensual burn, but it ends up feeling more like a botched execution where everyone is wincing waiting for the condemned to stop twitching and hurry up and die already. 

A logical issue that arises with the absence of obstacles is why set the film in 1983 in the first place? The context back then was that the AIDS epidemic was starting to take off and coming out as gay was a bold, Herculean task of courage and being exposed as gay a perilous threat? If the filmmakers are just making a "hey...should we fuck?" movie about two gay men, why not just set it in 2013 instead of 1983 where those threats are greatly reduced to the point of being dramatically insubstantial just as they are in the film? 

In terms of the story having no conventional drama due to a lack of external obstacles, I can be all in on an unconventional narrative or dramatic structure like that, for proof look at my reviews of Terrence Malick's films…but the difference between a Malick film and Call Me by Your Name is that Malick's films are exquisitely crafted and overtly carry a much deeper metaphorical and archetypal meaning than just the libidinous and romantic yearnings of a horny 17 year-old. Call Me by Your Name has no deeper meaning and is cinematically rather listlessly and shoddily patched together.

For instance, visually the film is as tepid and flaccid as the storytelling. Never has the northern Italian countryside looked so flat, muted and devoid of texture…which to the film's unintended credit, does match the drab drama and characters inhabiting the plot. Add the dismal cinematography to the cloying and insipid soundtrack and you have a rather unpleasant cinematic experience churned out by director Luca Guadagnino. 

As for the acting, Timothee Chalamet plays Elio and does…fine. I didn't find his performance to be earth shaking or even very remotely noteworthy never mind Oscar nomination-worthy, but it certainly isn't terrible. Chalamet is comfortable on-screen and to his credit doesn't shy away from the sexual situations presented him in the film. The problem with Chalamet though is he is not exactly a commanding and powerful on-screen presence, and his lack of magnetism and dynamism makes him a tough sell to carry a movie with a run time of over two hours. In some ways Chalamet's Elio feels like the boy who wasn't there, like a ghost wandering through a movie set, which isn't actually a knock against him as an actor, only one against him as a leading dramatic figure who has to carry an entire film. To be fair, Chalamet is young and certainly holds the potential to grow into a more powerful and dynamic actor in the years ahead.

Armie Hammer plays the older grad student Oliver and never quite captures the essence of the role. Hammer's Hollywood history is interesting, at first they tried to make him into a movie star with The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE…that failed miserably. Now they are trying to make him an "actor" with The Birth of a Nation and Call Me by Your Name…and that is failing too. Hammer is certainly a movie-star handsome guy, but his biggest issue is that he either suffers from a charisma deficiency or he underwent a quadruple charisma bypass, either way…he has less charisma than a Cigar Store Wooden Indian. Hammer just never feels entirely at home on-screen in his films and that continues with Call Me by Your Name

Hammer has no doubt gotten numerous opportunities in the film business due to his family connection and his passing visual similarity to another blond haired idol, Robert Redford, but what Hammer desperately lacks is Redford's command and mastery of craft. Hammer is at a crossroads of his career, and if his performance in Call Me by Your Name is any indication, he has a long and bumpy road ahead of him. 

Since I found the film to be so monotonous and dull, my mind wandered throughout the viewing. At one point I stopped to consider that in our current #MeToo moment with all of the accompanying sexual politics that go along with it, would this film be so well received by critics and Hollywood if Elio was a 17 year old girl having sex with Oliver the older man? I couldn't help but think there is some weird double standard in play here where a film celebrates what basically amounts to statutory rape of a teen boy just because it is a homosexual relationship. The fact that no characters in the film, or critics or people in Hollywood, felt that there was something at the very least morally questionable, if not downright disturbing, about a man who looks to be at least ten years older, having sex with a 17 year old, which in some jurisdictions is statutory rape, is pretty alarming. I can't help but think that if this story were between an older man and a 17 year old girl than it would have been attacked and shunned.

In conclusion, Call Me by Your Name is a film that suffers from comparisons to other gay-themed films like Brokeback Mountain and last years Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight. Both Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight are such vastly superior films it is ridiculous to even think of Call Me by Your Name in the same category, but the subject matter lends itself to comparisons. If you want to see extremely well-made films about homosexual love and desire, please skip Call Me by Your Name and go watch the masterful Brokeback Mountain or the flawed but compelling Moonlight.

And no matter what any other spineless, virtue signaling film critic says, trust me when I tell you that not liking Call Me by Your Name does not make you a homophobe, it makes you an honest connoisseur of film with impeccable taste. Call Me by Your Name is critical fools gold, and is a total waste of any true cinephile's time, money and energy. Not only should you skip this lethargic, lackluster, lifeless, listless and languid sack of apricot shit in the theatre, you should skip it on Netflix or cable as well. To Call Me by Your Name and the critics who adore it I simply say…"Later".

©2017