Bryan Tyree Henry

If Beale Street Could Talk

28/01/18

After the meteoric success of 2016’s Moonlight (only his second attempt at direction), Barry Jenkins could probably have chosen any subject he fancied for his third feature. As it turned out, he’d already begun developing If Beale Street Could Talk at the same time as his Osar winner, adapting it himself from a groundbreaking novel by James Baldwin, so of course it was a logical step to move straight on to that. Set in the early 1970s, it’s a stylish slow burner that centres on the doomed relationship of two young people.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) has known Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) since the two of them were kids. She’s the youngest daughter of a loving and supportive family and is still based at home, while he’s become more of a loner, living in a rundown basement where he’s trying to establish himself as a sculptor. (His work, it must be said, is spectacularly underwhelming). When romance finally blooms between Tish and Fonny, it seems almost inevitable that they will end up as man and wife – but when he is wrongfully accused of rape and sent to prison, she discovers that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child; and all their hopes for the future come tumbling down around them.

Jenkins takes his own sweet time over the narrative, skipping back and forth in chronology to hone in on key points in the couple’s relationship. We also spend time with Tish and Fonny’s respective parents and in particular, we focus on Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King) and her increasingly desperate attempts to prove Fonny’s innocence by travelling to Puerto Rico to confront the poor woman who has mistakenly identified Fonnyas her assailent. King’s performance has garnered the film a ‘best supporting actress’ Oscar nomination, along with Nicholas Britell’s score and Jenkins’ for best adapted screenplay. But this is essentially Tish and Fonny’s story and the two leads play their roles with absolute conviction.

There’s a rich, languorous intensity about If Beale Street Could Talk that really takes us inside the central characters, revealing everything we need to know about them and the way they relate to each other. If the glacial pace occasionally palls – the scenes where Fonny reconnects with his old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) could have benefited from a little pruning – this is nonetheless a considerable achievement and something that in these times of short attention spans, we are rarely witness to. This puts me in mind of the films of the late, great Douglas Sirk, who worked in a similar way.

I love the film’s brutal honesty, refusing point blank to offer us anything resembling a convenient conclusion, pointing out that real life rarely comes with such luxuries attached – and for a young black man in America, justice is a commodity that’s very hard to find.

This may not be the absolute knockout that Moonlight was, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing and beautifully directed film that deserves the widest attention.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Hotel Artemis

25/07/18

Set in a dystopian, near future Los Angeles… boy, if only I had a tenner for every time I’ve started a review with that line… there exists a secret location that’s kind of like BUPA for criminals. Basically, bad people become members, they pay their dues every month and, when they find themselves all shot up and in urgent need of medical attention, this is where they come to recuperate. The joint is run by The Nurse (Jodie Foster), once a valued member of the caring profession, now a hopeless alcoholic with a penchant for repairing the trickiest of wounds. You need a new liver? No problem! She has a 3D printer that can make you one! She’s ably assisted by Everest (Dave Bautista), a veritable man-mountain who’ll do anything for her but, she’s not a happy bunny,  haunted by something bad in her past, something we occasionally catch unsettling glimpses of.

Into this pressure cooker setting comes Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his brother, Honolulu (Bryan Tyree Henry), who – after a bank job has gone belly-up – are badly wounded and struggling to survive. (In case you’re wondering about those names, characters are called after the holiday-themed rooms in which they are installed.)

But things are more complicated than usual. A problem with LA’s biggest water supplier has kicked off violent riots on the streets, so even getting across town is problematic. Once safely in the building, Waikiki meets up with his ‘friend,’ Nice (Sofia Boutella), an assassin who makes her living from bumping off VIPs, sharing the kill with her employers via a camera embedded in her head. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living, right?

And then, in comes The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum), who, as the name might suggest, is LA’s most powerful gangster and also, it turns out, the man who set up the Hotel Artemis in the first place. So nobody is going to keep him out, right? Problem is, for a very important reason, he’s the last person that Waikiki and Honolulu want to meet up with…

Writer/director Drew Pearce’s futuristic film is an assured and intriguing piece of cinema. It may have all the trappings of a sci-fi movie, but it’s much more about the characters and the way they interact with each other. The complex storyline generates plenty of tension and there are  some fine performances from an ensemble cast. Foster is particularly good, submitting a brilliant character study in the lead role that makes me wish she’d act in more films. The setting too, with each room styled around a different theme, is memorable. Perhaps inevitably, in the final reel, events descend into violence, but this too is well-handled and doesn’t outstay its welcome. More sensitive viewers may wish to glance away from the screen at key moments.

So, that’s the Hotel Artemis. Well worth booking into for a short and occasionally enthralling city break. Just don’t expect to come out in one piece.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney