The new film by Oscar-nominated director Barry Jenkins plays right into the New York Film Festival’s style guide. If Beale Street Could Talk is a lushly created, gorgeously crafted work of art. At times the style outweighs the storyline, but most people looking for art films won’t care. The same can be said about a lot of the slate at the 56thannual New York Film Festival: Visually transporting but lacking in the consistently engaging storytelling that can add pep and momentum to what’s on view.
If Beale Street Could Talk (***) There was something so fresh about Moonlight. The subject matter, cast, plotline, strong production elements and understated direction put it in a class all its own. Looking back on it, most viewers will remember the narrative first, distinct characters second and the behind the scenes production elements last.
The opposite is true for this new endeavor by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who directs this adaptation of the James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk. This project, which Jenkins wrote, won’t be remembered for its innovative plot. Instead, audiences will never forget the sumptuous cinematography (James Laxton), lush musical score (Nicholas Britell) and the evocative production design that seamlessly set mood, tone and time period. Jenkins is no longer just a filmmaker, he is an artist.
Shrouded underneath the exemplary but heavyweight production elements is an ever so slight love story about a young black couple, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), who fall in love and set out on a life journey. Their relationship takes several twists and turns. She becomes pregnant and they endure racism, police malfeasance and wrongful incarceration in 1960s New York City.
The film pulls you back into the ‘60s, but what’s on view never looks real. It’s like you’re being placed in someone’s extremely well art directed dream. You feel detached from the characters’ challenges and you’re missing the gritty feel of a James Baldwin novel.
The one exception is a vibrant scene when the families of the couple meet and all hell breaks loose. The conversations, dynamics and in-your-face dialogue put the ghost of Baldwin in the room. Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) are trying to break it their future in-laws (Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Beach) and their offspring (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) that Tish is going to have their son’s baby. In a very huffy voice, Mrs. Hunt says, “My daughters won’t bring home no babies for me to raise.” The very feisty Ernestine responds, “That’s because no one will f—k ‘em.”
Jenkins is adept at pulling solid performances from his cast. In particular, he gives Regina King room to take center stage. As Tish’s concerned mom, she tries to find evidence that will free her son-in-law. King turns that role into the performance of her career. Style over substance makes this film imperfect. The acting is a great equalizer.
Noteworthy NYFF Films
At Eternity’s Gate (***) The enigmatic life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who struggled with mental illness, has been the subject of many bio films (Loving Vincent, Lust for Life, Vincent & Theo). This latest interpretation, by painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), focuses on the last days of Van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) life as he is financially and emotionally supported by his brother Theo (Rupert Friend, Hitman: Agent 47) and mingles with fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Issac, Operation Finale). The script, by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and Schnabel, loosely gathers together the bits and pieces of Van Gogh’s downward spiral. During the late 1880s, his output is prolific but appreciated by few as he struggles with bouts of insanity, rehabilitation and relapses in Aries, France and then finally in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
Schnabel accentuates the visuals, films prolonged instances of the artist running through fields, drags scenes on longer than necessary and gives Dafoe and Issac dialogue that doesn’t always fit the time period. He is far better at making the relationships—friendships, sibling love—feel deep and rich. Dafoe looks like the artist and captures his spirit. The pacing is off (editors Louise Kugelberg and Schnabel) and some parts could put an insomniac to sleep. However, stick with the film, and your stamina will be rewarded. At Eternity’s Gate, which is named after the final painting Van Gogh created while in an asylum shortly before his death, leaves a lasting emotional impression.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (**1/2) There’s a gleam in the eye of the thin, cocky, squirrely-faced singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). He’s smiling because he can outdraw larger burly men twice his size. The craziness of this vignette gives hope to audiences that the eccentric filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) have struck pay dirt again. They have, but with a few lapses. More vignettes follow in this Western themed film, but only one has the same precision as the Scruggs mini-story: In the segment “Near Algodones,” a bank robber (James Franco) faces a hanging, and haphazard events stall the inevitable. It’s very clever. The rest of the chapters that follow have good ideas (gold digging, wagon train, stagecoach ride) that are under developed. However, the beautiful cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel, Amélie) and rousing musical score (Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) are excellent throughout. When Scruggs croons, “…when a cowboy changes his spurs for wings,” you will smile.
Cold War (**1/2) Oscar-Winning Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) conceived, wrote and directed this oddly affecting love story about a chorus girl and a pianist. He (Tomasz Kot) plucks her (Joanna Kulig) from a stage musical and decides to make her a star. He nurtures her, develops her limited talent and turns her into a chanteuse of note in Poland and later Paris. Meanwhile World War II erupts around them and over the course of their relationship politics and prison collide. The direction is fine and nuanced adding a touch of romance in so many scenes. Cinematographer Luckasz Zal captures the love affair in gorgeous black and white. The era is set impeccably and the two lead performances are attractive to watch. Eighty-eight minutes roll by and the dirge-like pace (editor Jaroslaw Kaminski, Bikini Blue) zaps the fun and life out of the tale.
The Favourite (****) If you’re tired of those boring royal British films and want to see the genre turned upside down, this dark, nasty bit of debauchery and revenge sex will leave you gasping for air. The setting is 18th century England. The very sickly and insecure Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, The Lobster) reigns. Lacking the will, courage or brains to handle day-to-day governing, she depends on her lady-in-waiting, Sarah (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner), to run the palace and the country. It’s a nice, easy arrangement, with some Sapphic fringe benefits. Then one day, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up, destitute and in need of a helping hand. Sarah gets her a job in the kitchen with the servants. Little does she know that her cousin is far more ambitious and conniving than she. Sexy, venomous treachery ensues. This bit of embellished history, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, doesn’t spare the audience the indignities, backstabbing and bed-hopping that went on back then. Fact? Fiction? Five minutes into the film you won’t care.
Considering the period, setting and genre the most unlikely director in the world for this exquisite-looking art movie is the very eccentric (hard-to-stomach) director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). He has harnessed his formerly uncontrollable urge to make sick, esoteric films and put his weird but undeniable talent to good use savaging British royalty. He sets and keeps a glib, depraved tone (a la Ken Russell’s The Devils) from beginning to end. And does a wonderful job guiding the exceptional tech crew: Robbie Ryan, cinematographer; Fiona Crombie, production design; Caroline Barclay art direction; Sandy Powell costume design. The cast creates twisted, indelible performances. Add in perfect editing by Yorgos Mavropsaridis and an entrancing musical score and two hours roll by in what feels like a few minutes. Storm the palace and take no prisoners.
Private Life (***) When she first appears on screen, you might look at her and think, “I know her. She was on Saturday Night Live—or something like that.” But no, the comic actress you’re eyeing is that crazy actress from the Bad Moms movie franchise; the one who took those comedies over the edge. Same deal with her whacked out Chrysler Pacifica commercials. It’s Kathryn Hahn, and for this very endearing romantic family comedy/drama, she turns the cray cray up another a notch. Rachel (Hahn), a despondent, neurotic New York woman (is that redundant?), is having trouble getting pregnant with her life partner Richard (Paul Giamatti). IVF? They’ve tried everything and are at their wits end until their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) moves in and the couple hatches a plan.
The creative genius behind this sweet and amusing endeavor is writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) ,who makes an aging couple’s quest for having a child a very intriguing and compelling premise. Jenkin’s script gives Hahn juicy dialogue. Rachel comments on a former co-ed who is an egg donor: “She has BA in cinema studies. No wonder she’s selling her eggs. She can’t get a job!” Your heart goes out to the couple and the incessant, wry humor makes it worth the effort. Molly Shannon (SNL alumnus) as Sadie’s mother turns in a surprisingly bitter and caustic performance as the mom who is aghast at her in-laws’ relentless quest. Everything works about this film except for a dubious ending that makes the couple look less sympathetic. A crowd-pleaser.
Shoplifters (**1/2) The Shibata family lives by their guile in Japan, which is a nice way of saying they‘re petty thieves, with a passion for stealing from stores. There is no shame in their game. Dad (Lily Franky) has taught his surrogate son (Kairi Jyo) his livelihood, with no guilt whatsoever. One day they find a little girl (Miyu Sasaki), who has been abused, on the streets and take her in. The well laid out setup—rickety home, poor neighborhood and lively clan who lives off their grandma’s gov’t check—makes you think their brushes with the law and experiences with irate shopkeepers will lead somewhere. It doesn’t. Director/writer Hirokazu Koreeda makes a mildly powerful statement about living in poverty and finding creatives ways to survive. Performances by the entire cast are decent but not a revelation. Cinematography, editing, set design and other production elements don’t stand out. But don’t get in the way.
Roma, Wildlife, High Life and other films on the NYFF slate attest to the festival’s keen eye for art films.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.