If Beale Street Could Talk
Few could have predicted that Moonlight would become the cultural, critical, and commercial phenomenon that it did, but after winning Best Picture in 2017, the already acclaimed film shot up to instant classic status. Director Barry Jenkins had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, so he decided to tackle James Baldwin’s seminal novel about a romance between Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) and the false accusation that lands Fonny in prison. The result is Jenkins continuing to prove why he is such a notable director.
Despite the story revolving around a court case, the actual plot is more introspective and personal: focusing on moments and sequences in the central relationship rather than a clear three-act structure. This style of storytelling did keep me at an arms distance from being able to understand the structure properly, as well as making it hard to get invested in the central conflict.
But what keeps the story interesting is the social commentary that feels remarkably current, whilst also putting us in the past effectively. Fonny is accused of a rape that he did not commit, recalling how African-Americans are often stereotyped as criminals and how they were commonly falsely accused of crimes back in, before and after the 70’s. The characters that get across these themes are also likeable and rather 3-dimensional, especially Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), the actual victim, who is shown to be genuinely traumatised by her rape but also a cog in the flawed American justice system.
The acting and direction are both excellent as to be expected, as Stephan James and Kiki Layne are excellent and have great chemistry. Regina King as Sharon, Tish’s mother, does a great job and there are some effective cameos from other notable character actors, with the best ones being Dave Franco and Pedro Pascal. The standout sequence is a chillingly vague monologue from Daniel Carty (Bryan Tyree Henry). Jenkins brings even more of a dream-like atmosphere this time around and manages to effectively use close-ups, voice-over narration, long takes and slow motion appropriately.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a strong romantic drama that shows that Jenkins is not a one-trick-pony. Though his style of storytelling is slightly distancing, he makes up for it with strong acting, emotion and direction.
After Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón has decided to return to his home country of Mexico to tell a more intimate, autobiographical story than any other film in his career. The plot is extremely simple, revolving around the life of maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the family she works for. As a result of this simplicity, the film chooses to take a “fly on the wall” approach to its storytelling. You know nothing about any character’s past and everything that happens in the story are things that would happen in real life. This perspective creates a film with a consistently unpredictable structure.
No film in 2018 had quite the same level of realism and atmosphere that Roma has, only heightened by the lack of music. The first half is eventless, but the second half is almost a non-stop tragedy, with some harrowing and risky sequences. Despite this, the story ultimately has a very positive message at it’s core about investing in positive relationships vs toxic ones and the nature of family.
The acting is fantastic, especially for first time actors. Yalitza Aparicio might show signs of amateurism, but she is still incredibly convincing. Just as good if not better is Marina de Tavira as Sofia, the mother, who shows a remarkable amount of range that goes from mean to sympathetic. The various child actors also deserve credit for being natural and realistic, with no weak performances to speak of.
The real shining aspect is Cuarón’s direction. Every shot is perfect and despite the small scale, they all feel expertly planned. This is due to his trademark long takes, a technique that has always worked in his favour, but here is used through constant panning shots. This style of cinematography could get repetitive, so thankfully there are other long takes that are still or only move in one direction. Finally, the black and white look is beautiful and makes the story feel like a distant memory.
Roma is another success for Alfonso Cuarón and a good sign that Netflix aren’t totally bankrupt when it comes to releasing quality cinema. The entire film is a clear labour of love from Cuarón to his past and the result is impressive on a storytelling and filmmaking level.