The Two Reviews: If Beale Street Could Talk and Alita: Battle Angel

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Annapurna Pictures)
Directed by Barry Jenkins. Featuring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo and Diego Luna.

If Beale Street Cold Talk, based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, is a romantic drama set within a backdrop of early 1970s racial relations in New York City. It is another film from the past two or three years in which ‘alternate’ narratives are making serious inroads into mainstream cinema. A young black man, Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James), is in prison for a crime he did not do (or likely did not do), and his loyal and caring girlfriend Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Layne) regularly visits him. The film cuts back in time to when he was outside and they were developing a loving relationship and planning a future together. The pace is slow. Often scenes linger for six or seven minutes, usually to fit some piece of mood music. Although some cinema-goers may find this a bit boring, I found that once you went with the flow it had a nice feel to it – the camera holds a shot on a face and you feel more present than a distanced observer. And more than that, it is in sync with the slowly developing relationship between the two at the centre of the narrative.

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Though this is a love story, and it is unmistakably so, its underlying theme is the brutal racism built into the system of justice that impacted thousands of innocent families. Unlike almost any other film that deals with this subject matter, it does things very differently and is very commendable, if at first unusual. The injustice and the racial vilification takes second place to love. Two people, no matter what the world throws at them, are in love and conquer or endure hardship because of that love. It is slow and lingering. There are no flash cuts of loud protests, clashes on the street, squealing wheels tearing around a street corner, or gunshots going off. This is ordinary everyday life.

Apart from Fonny and Tish, there are numerous other characters who all add an interesting dimension to the narrative and who also blur the lines between righteousness and aspiration. The performances are all splendid but I will single out Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon. She goes to extraordinary lengths to help her future son-in-law. Her performance from supportive mother and calm and collective mother-in-law,  through to desperate and despairing is worthy of notice. But to be fair, she is helped enormously by an intelligent script. When she travels to Puerto Rico to talk to a rape victim, the power of the violence  and the need to do everything to escape its memory is devastating. Injustice and its brutal consequences are used by the police to create another.

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Cinematography (James Laxton), especially the beautiful portrait shots, are well done. But I think the music by Nicholas Britell is one of the great features of this film. It is quite unconventional but definitely mood-setting and lingering. My feeling is that director Jenkins very deliberately filmed around pieces of music, so that the entire film is a kind of orchestral (or Jazz-soulful) piece. You know, like Swan Lake or the William Tell Overture. But very modern. This film is slow and it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is well-made and it has complexity.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019, 20th Century Fox)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Featuring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Skrein.

Alita is a part-animated futuristic metallic-action film. It is based on the Japanese manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. It is directed and produced by some of the stand-out masters in sci-fi and fantasy cinema. Robert Rodriguez, known for his often stylish and lavish-fantastical scenes and characters, directs and James Cameron and Jon Landau produces. Young teen Alita (Salazar), a cyborg but with a human brain, is found on a scrap heap and repaired by cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz). He gives her a superhuman capacity of speed, agility and strength. She re-emerges into a world of futuristic mayhem, where no shortage of cyborg bounty hunters roam the streets in search of ‘criminals’, and who generally work for a sinister overlord and master manipulator.

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This film basically took a backseat while Cameron got on with making Avatar in the late 2000s. But it is not nearly as interesting or as realistic. The problem – only a very slight, major problem – is that the film never makes up its mind as to weather it is a children’s story or a young adult mega-mash-up robot film. It’s awkwardly in between, and is probably too violent for children. So adults have to sit through puppy-eyed Alita as she fights a robot, then a cyborg (sort of a robot), then another robot, then another cyborg and then…another robot-thing. Holy Moly! It becomes increasingly ridiculous and actually a bit boring. And there are too many scenes with a poignant but laughable moment (Lord of the Rings-style). I couldn’t wait to get out of the cinema.

What’s good about the movie? Nothing much. If you like robots fighting, it is a terrific film. The animation is quite well done. Umm…well, that’s about it.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2/5

 

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