If Beale Street Could Talk

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephen James, Colman Domingo, Tayonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King

Director: Barry Jankins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


One of the most extraordinary things about If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is how specific its story is to the experience of these characters and yet how universal the emotions and themes that it conjures feel. Like in Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight, which found such aching beauty in the tormented life of a gay, African-American man and his harsh upbringing in the rundown, drug-infested slums of Florida, Beale Street taps into the sensuous depth of feeling and severe social-political realities of its story to craft a profoundly poetic work of cinema. This is a story about a young man who is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit and of his bride-to-be in her desperate attempt to clear his name, but the film is also so much more. It is both a love story and a coming of age story, a striking portrait of the realities of being black in America and a song of light and colour that transcends both time and space. Through intimate, lovingly composed camerawork, the generous democratisation of its time-jumping story across different perspectives and the depiction of such racially-charged themes as housing discrimination, police bigotry and unjust incarceration, what Jenkins has created is a magnificent and moving picture that, above, all is about love, loss, grace and faith.

Literally speaking, Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee, and is remembered as the place where such legendary black musicians as W.C. Handy, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters invented the blues. According to the Baldwin quote that opens the film however Beale Street is, to him, the street in New Orleans where his father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were all born. “Every black person born in America” he says, “was born on Beale Street”. Beale Street refers to any street in the USA, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or Harlem, New York,” where African-American people lived and died, loved and lost and built enduring communities where they could be free, happy and black. The same opening quotation also talks about “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. Thus the film, just like the novel its based on, endeavours to tell a story set mainly in Harlem, just one of the countless hidden stories that occurred within the Beale Street of 1970s New York. The story is fictional and yet it speaks to truths that Baldwin, Jenkins and the other residents of Beale Street have lived and learned over the course of their own lives. It is a story rooted in its time and place yet seems to be about the world entire, such is the legacy of Beale Street.

This particular story is about 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her sweetheart Fonny (Stephen James), a boy she’s known since they were kids together, who is behind bars and awaiting trial on the charge of rape, a crime which we’ll soon learn he could not have committed. Tish is pregnant and determined to get her husband-to-be home before the baby is born, but that prospect grows all the more unlikely when Fonny’s accuser, a Puerto Rican woman who picked him out of a line up, flees the country. Without her, the case is reduced to Fonny’s word against that of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), the cop who claims to have seen him fleeing the scene and whom we learn harbours a grudge for the young man. We don’t learn all of this straight away though because the film adopts a non-linear approach to the story and starts off in the middle with Tish visiting Fonny in jail to share the special news with him (“I hope that nobody ever has to look at anybody they love through glass” she muses in voiceover). We then follow her home where she breaks the same news to her family. Her parents Sharon (Regina King, fantastic every second) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Tayonah Parris) are worried about her future but promise to support her no matter what. The same cannot be said for Fonny’s family whose God-fearing mother Alice (Aunjanue Ellis) condemns Tish for conceiving a child out of wedlock.

While the film jumps back and forth in time and switches perspectives, the focus throughout remains on the love between Tish and Fonny. As we follow Tish we travel back in time with her to a simpler and happier stage when she and Fonny were childhood friends discovering something that hadn’t been there before (or maybe it had been, they just hadn’t seen it). When the two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, there is a certain radiance that engulfs them. The whole world feels warmer and softer when they’re together and we can feel it as well in the bright colours exuding their warm glow and the intimate ways in which Jenkins’ frames the couple, favouring close-ups that lock squarely onto their faces as if the film were trying to break the fourth wall. Sometimes the film goes even deeper than that, focusing on their eyes and mouths with everything else out of focus. There is a love scene that the two share which feels far more tender and dreamy than it does voyeuristic because it was discreetly and lovingly captured by a director who loves people and knows how to photograph their beauty. The love between Tish and Fonny isn’t lustful but spiritual; it’s as if when one stares into the eyes of the other as they make love, they can see right into their very soul.

The reality of the world they live in however means that they cannot simply live their lives as two souls in love. Whether it’s moving into a cheap apartment in a converted warehouse because most New York landlords are unwilling to rent a place to a black couple or happening to get on the wrong side of a racist cop in a chance encounter, the world will not abide the purity and grace they share as a black couple. When Fonny is arrested, it’s a given that the justice system is ready to fail him at every turn. In their effort to clear Fonny’s name the family turns to a lawyer they cannot afford and even use what little money they can raise to send Sharon to Puerto Rico, hoping against hope that she might track down the absconded woman who accused Fonny of this crime and persuade her to drop the charge. The brutalities of the prison life that people like Fonny are subjected to are also made clear to us, not through the explicit and graphic depiction you might expect in an episode of Oz, but through a sombre monologue delivered by Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend of Fonny’s who spent a year inside after being convicted on a similarly trumped-up charge. Beale Street could very easily have been a bleak film; the story it tells is furious and tragic and its ending is at best ambiguous. Jenkins however finds hope and beauty wherever he can and the film he has made is a deeply rich and emotionally resonant one.

★★★★★

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn


I remember when Kingsman: The Secret Service came out, it was the blockbuster that nobody saw coming. Even though it was based on a popular comic book series and had a good director and cast attached, it just wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential smash hit franchise. Then it came out and took everyone by surprise. It was fresh, it was tongue-in-cheek, it was thrilling, inventive, and over-the-top, and it did a good job of satirising and paying homage to the campy spy movies and TV shows of the 60s and 70s. There were parts of it that I didn’t like, but the film was fun enough that the negative aspects didn’t bother me all that much. This time around the sequel has to contend with something that the first film didn’t really have to: audience expectation. People wanted to know where the series was going to go next, how they were going to top the antics in the first film, and how they were going to justify bringing Colin Firth back from the dead. That’s a tall order for any movie and The Golden Circle proved not up to the task.

A year after the first film, the Kingsman Secret Service is still going strong and Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) has stepped into his mentor’s role as Galahad. While on holiday in Sweden with his girlfriend Crown Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), a volley of missiles destroy Kingsman’s secret headquarters and other bases of operations. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only survivors and must find out who attacked them. They follow the Doomsday protocol to a distillery in Kentucky and cross paths with Tequila (Channing Tatum), a redneck who proves more than a match for Eggsy in combat. It turns out that Tequila is an agent of Statesman, a sister organisation from across the pond, made up of rowdy American cowboys to complement the dapper English gentlemen of Kingsman. The pair meet and team up with Champ (Jeff Bridges), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and learn that they also have Harry (Colin Firth) in their care, alive but with no memory of who he is. Together they learn that global drug dealer Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is behind the attack and make it their mission to foil her evil scheme.

The trouble Kingsman finds itself is something you see very often with comedy sequels. Oftentimes with the first film the concept itself is part of the joke and the amusement comes from seeing how it works and what they do with it. If the concept is something that we haven’t seen before then the movie can create humour by either meeting or subverting our expectations. Now, with the sequel, we’re in on the joke. That’s why it’s not enough to just do the same thing again; if the film is unable to come up with a new idea, then it must come up with a different take on the old idea. Kingsman tries to do this with Statesman, an American counterpart to Kingsman, an idea with a lot of potential that the movie never lives up to. There is so much that they could’ve done. We could have been treated to some interesting and funny comparisons between these British and American archetypes, we could have been offered a British commentary on US culture, the film could even have done away with the British spy game entirely and tackled a more characteristically American genre like the Western. The only Statesman who ends up having any kind of a prominent role in the story though is Whiskey (god, it pains me to write that extra ‘e’!). Tequila, Ginger Ale, and Champ are all sidelined so that the movie can instead offer us more of what we saw in the first film.

The return of Colin Firth has proven to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand I did enjoy seeing him resume his role as Galahad and his reunion with Eggsy did allow the film to retain and develop their relationship, which was the emotional core of the first film. Their scenes together in this film work well as Eggsy attempts to reach the Harry that taught him everything he knows and inspired him to dedicate his life and skills towards something worthwhile. On the other hand, Galahad’s death allowed the first film to establish serious stakes for its characters and bringing him back might have cost the sequel more than it bargained for. Now the stakes are gone, and with it the film coasts along without any real sense of tension or suspense. In the film’s very first bit of action when Eggsy battles a foe on a high-tech taxi through the streets of London, it felt more like a cartoon than a thriller because I never believed that Eggsy was really in any danger.

Some of it works. There’s a good joke here and there, a couple of decent action scenes (though nothing in the same league as the Baptist church massacre) and there’s even quite a moving moment near the end (one that continues the John Denver trend of 2017). But none of it is as fresh or as good as it was the first time around, which makes the parts that don’t work all the more glaring. The tone is all over the place, falling short off the line between silly and serious that it used to have. Yes, going over-the-top is part of this franchise’s M.O., but there’s edgy and then there’s ‘edgy’, and if you don’t know when to stop you’ll end up with a scene that turns sexual assault into a gag at the victim’s expense. The movie does follow its predecessor’s example by featuring a weak villain, but at least Jackson was trying in the former’s case. Moore phones it in so much that her CGI robot henchdogs felt real in comparison. Overall The Golden Circle will probably work well enough for those who loved the first film unreservedly, but for me the film’s positive qualities were not enough to outshine its negative qualities this time.

★★

The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.