“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.

“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.

“Maria by Callas”

One-hundred and so minutes of letting Maria Callas tell her story through personal letters, archival film-strips, interviews, and arias lets us understand more about the Greek-American operatic sensation. Maria tells us that she was pushed into her career by her mother and later by her husband, who both rejoiced in the glow of her fame. She sacrificed having a family for her career. Maria talks of destiny, undramatically.

Callas was born in New York in 1923. Her father changed his name from Kalogeropoulos to Kalo. She furthered the change to Callas, but she grew up as Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos in Brooklyn. The family was caught in Greece during the war.

Maria Callas is direct, forthright, and comfortable with herself. Her strength is balanced by her vulnerability. Her childhood and early student days are not detailed. She tells us that she lied about her age to get into the conservatory in Athens. She was thirteen, not the required seventeen. Her mother was ambitious and strict. Maria was only allowed five minutes in front of the mirror. Her teacher Madame Elvira de Hidalgo defines her a a hard worker with expressive eyes. Hidalgo used one method “bel canto”. The voice was kept light, flexible, and penetrating. Maria’s Greek debut was in 1941. Her American in 1945. We hear nothing about the use of tapeworms to control her weight. But much is revealed about her friendship and nine-year love affair with Aristotle Onassis.

Callas calls Onassis “Aristo”. Her interview with David Frost shows her charming, sincere, and spontaneous. She calls Onassis the “finest of friends.” Maria describes him as ” full of life” and then ” the source of life”. She left her husband for Aristo, who made her feel feminine and liberated. She describes Onassis as boyish, generous, and never petty. The paparazzi hounded them.

After he caddishly abandoned her for a marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, Maria was devastated. She quit the stage for four years. Unrequited love was more than the stuff of opera. Her letters to Aristo speak of him being “her very breath”. When he did return to her admitting that his marriage to Jackie was a mistake she replied with a truthful twinkle in her eye that it was her mistake. She reflects that she put a man on a pedestal. Her affair a failure: her friendship a success. She tells Frost that one must have no resentment. One must forgive.

Callas loved France. Paris in 1963 was respectful of her fame. “People let you be. They leave you alone~don’t smother you.” Callas spoke beautiful French and beautifully of the French. In 1975, Callas saw Aristotle for the last time in his hospital room in Paris.

Director Tom Volf places music in the forefront. Chronologically, we see aged video of performances in Florence 1952, Milan 1954 & 1957 ,New York and Chicago 1956. Her performance of Bellini’s ” Norma” zeroes in on her upset fans. Callas’ bronchitis cut the second act even with Bellini in-house.

Rome in 1958 has her dubbed a tempestuous tigress. We see her with flowers in her arms in Lisbon, a prima donna of pure electricity.

Callas’ ardent fans see her mostly in winter colors of white, black, and tomato red. Poodles are her pets of choice, and she surrounds herself with all sizes. Her eyes flash as she tells us that she likes to cook, and collect recipes. Operatic star Joyce DiDonato reads Callas’s words when her own voiceovers were not found.

Callas’ forty-year career, from her spat with Rudolph Bing and the MET to powerful and riveting performances, stand against her Tosca in longing, fire, and grace. Callas died in Paris of a heart attack in 1977. She was just 53. Her “scandals” seem vindicated in this documentary. In her own words:” I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not a devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.”