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Movie Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street…whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York,” reads the title card that begins director Barry Jenkins’ ”If Beale Street Could Talk .”

The quote is from a 1974 James Baldwin novel, which Jenkins has adapted himself for his first film since 2016′s “Moonlight.” The story is, loosely, about a pregnant woman, Tish (KiKi Layne, a phenomenal breakout) and her partner Fonny (Stephan James), who has been wrongly jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish and Fonny are both achingly young and beautiful, full of promise and hope even amid all the institutional obstacles and injustices that they face in daily life in 1970s Harlem, like not being able to rent their own apartment, or buy groceries at the local mart without being reassessed by a police officer.

Their future, however, is dashed when Fonny is jailed because a woman across town has wrongly identified him as her rapist. Tish has to tell Fonny she’s pregnant through a glass window. Somehow, at least at first, the circumstances aren’t enough to break their spirits, although there is the sense that both are just putting on a brave face for the other.

Back at home, Tish’s family celebrates their daughter. Mom, Sharon (Regina King in a powerful performance), sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and dad, Joseph (Colman Domingo), open up the sherry, put on a record and call Fonny’s family over to continue spreading the news.

There are three wholly unforgettable scenes in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and the electric showdown between Fonny’s religious and snobbish mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and Tish’s family is one of them. Another is a stirringly haunting monologue from Brian Tyree Henry, which unfortunately is really his only significant scene in the film, and the third is Sharon’s heartbreaking talk with Fonny’s accuser. All are well-worth the price of admission

Not everything works totally, in between these barnburners there is a lot of sleepy down time (still gorgeously shot and scored) and a few moments that just don’t quite work the way they probably should, like Dave Franco as an empathetic Jewish landlord who just loves love.

The film plays more like a free verse poem than a traditional narrative, jumping back and forth between moments chronicling the origins of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, and Tish’s struggle to prove Fonny’s innocence in the present.

Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton (“Moonlight”) use close ups, and straight on shots of his actors looking right into the camera as though they are speaking to the audience and daring them to notice. It’s startlingly impactful and bold, like the perfectly bright clothes costumer Caroline Eselin has chosen to help flesh out this world and its characters. Does anyone use colors as perfectly as Jenkins does? Whether it’s a red leather booth or a yellow coat, everything in his frame is there for a reason, and every shot is like its own beautiful painting come to life.

The whole production makes the film a transporting experience, heady and intoxicating, but perhaps the most important ingredient in bringing it all together is Nicholas Britell’s elegantly subtle and heartrending score.

“Moonlight” is a hard act to follow, and while “Beale Street” might not quite reach the heights of Jenkins’ instant classic of a best picture-winner, it is its own kind of marvel, lovely, transcendent, heartbreaking and as smooth as its jazzy soundtrack.

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” an Annapurna Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language and some sexual content.” Running time: 119 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.


MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian

Tom Cruise: Your TV Settings Are Likely Wrong

Tom Cruise is here to talk to you about ... your TV settings. The actor (wearing his Top Gun: Maverick gear) filmed a PSA with director Chris McQuarrie about a feature of high-definition TVs called video interpolation or motion smoothing. It’s meant to reduce motion blur when you’re watching sports, but if you’re watching a movie, it makes everything look ... weird. “Many people can’t quite put their finger on why the movie they’re watching looks strange,“ McQuarrie says in the video; people often refer to it as “the soap opera effect.“ Ars Technica explains it thusly: “Your Hollywood blockbuster movie will look like a 1970s BBC TV series.“ (The site has a great explainer if you want the nitty-gritty on how it works.) Cruise’s plea: To make sure you’re watching a movie the way the filmmaker intended, turn the setting off.

The problem? Most high-def TVs come with the feature automatically turned on, and it can take a series of complicated steps to turn it off. Directors called out the same setting last year, with one noting a common series of steps: “MENU>PICTURE>ADVANCED CONTROLS>REALITY AUGMENTATION>MOTION LIQUIDITY>FLUID FRAME RESTORATION.“ Cruise and McQuarrie’s recommendation? Just search online for “turn off motion smoothing [your brand of TV here]“ and then follow the steps. People are loving the PSA: “You’re doing god’s work, Tom Cruise,“ reads one sample tweet. And at Hot Air, Allahpundit writes, “This is simultaneously the most trivial, and most useful, PSA to come out of Hollywood in decades.“

Movie Review: ‘The Mule’

Both tender apologia and vigorous justification, Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” is a deeply, fascinatingly personal meditation from the 88-year-old director who, like his aged drug mule protagonist, has spent a long time on the road.

“The Mule” is the indefatigable Eastwood’s second film just this year, following “The 15:17 to Paris,” a distinctly undramatic dramatization of the thwarted 2015 train attack, starring the real-life heroes. Eastwood isn’t playing himself in “The Mule” — far from it — but it’s hard not to appreciate, and be moved by, the film’s many echoes for the filmmaker, acting for the first time in one of his own since 2008′s similarly self-reflective “Gran Torino.”

That he finds such intimate dimensions in the story of Leo Sharp is a testament to both Eastwood’s knack for pared-down elegy and to the lean script by Nick Schenk that envisions larger American themes within its geriatric drug courier.

Sharp was arrested at age 87 with 104 kilos of cocaine in the back of his pickup while en route to Detroit. Little in the World War II veteran’s appearance suggested his secret identity. Sharp, it was discovered, was among the most prolific regional smugglers for the Sinoloa cartel. The hard-to-believe tale was recounted by The New York Times’ Sam Dolnick, an article that’s been adapted here.

“The Mule” takes plenty of liberties with Sharp’s story — Eastwood’s smuggler is named Earl Stone, and is a Korean War vet — just as it has found curious parallels for its star. Some of them are silly. Some are profound. But rarely does “The Mule” — for better and worse — not reverberate with Eastwood’s own mythology in intriguing, if sometimes painfully awkward ways.

Eastwood’s Stone is a celebrated horticulturalist whose specialty is the daylily, a fragile flower that blooms for 24 hours a year. In the film’s early scenes, we see him, dressed in a seersucker suit, dishing out jokes while being fawned over by fans. Eastwood has made celebrity a regular subject, (the Capt. Chesley Sullenberger of his “Sully” resented the spotlight). But the director has found his most peculiar metaphor for his own fame in a horticulturalist who wins at the daylily equivalent of the Oscars.

But Stone’s lily farm runs into hard times. Dolling out cash to his Hispanic workers, he mutters, “Damned internet. It ruins everything.”

Like “Gran Torino” (also penned by Schenk) there are plenty of such old-man lines in “The Mule,” some delightful, some less so. We learn that Stone has long been estranged from his bitter ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and his equally furious daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, the director’s daughter), though his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) has kept the faith.

To help pay for Ginny’s wedding, Stone follows a tip that leads him to a non-descript auto shop. Cartel members put a bag of drugs in his beat-up Ford pickup, hand him a phone and tell him to respond to any call or text. “Text?” he replies. After reaching his destination, Stone finds a wad of cash in the glove compartment.

Many more trips and more kilos follow, and the legend of the smuggler known as “Tata” (grandpa) begins to grow, attracting the attention of the cartel kingpin (Andy Garcia). At the same time, a DEA investigation (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena co-star as agents) is closing in. But they, too, aren’t immune to the superficial ways of the modern world, and are pressed to make “a splash” for politicians and press.

Baked into “The Mule” is a sense of changing America squeezing out the regular Joe. Stone has occasional encounters — giving a repair suggestion to a lesbian biker, fixing a tire for a couple he refers to as “Negroes” — that seem intended to show he’s a good ol’ guy, even if he doesn’t know the politically correct lingo. “The Mule” isn’t unconcerned with racism, but these scenes are really just for a laugh. Worse, I found, was scene that parodied the anxiety of a Latino man wrongly pulled over by the police.

A film about an old white guy working for a Mexican cartel called for more curiosity to those around Stone. There isn’t a Hispanic character (or woman) in “The Mule” that rises above a stereotype, an irony considering Stone’s success is predicated on not looking like a typical smuggler.

And yet there’s still a potent, classically Eastwood parable here about eking out a little bit of freedom in an America that seems to always be tightening the noose. Even the low-level cartel guys get a new, unforgiving boss.

And as “The Mule” ambles toward its conclusion, it draws closer to Stone, and maybe to Eastwood’s legacy, too. Much of the movie measures temporary pleasures (from a motel threesome to the fleeting bloom of a lily) with long-term guilt. When Stone makes a reckoning with his ex-wife and daughter (Eastwood’s late scenes with Wiest are the best in the film), it’s hard not to wonder if Eastwood (whose expansive family attended the film’s premiere) is channeling his own misgivings over a nonstop career. “I thought it was more important to be somebody out there,” he says, “than a damned failure in my own home.”

“The Mule,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity. Running time: 116 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Movie Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

History paints them as fierce rivals. Mary Queen of Scots paints Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and her cousin, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), as frenemies hobbled by the cruelty of men in a conflict that comes to threaten Elizabeth’s crown. Four takes on the film, which carries a 74% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes:

  • “For intrigue, rivalry, betrayal and bloodshed, Mary’s story is hard to beat—and often hard to follow.“ Good thing for “Ronan, as well as Margot Robbie in an arresting turn as a wretched but wily Elizabeth, who keeps us watching even as the twists in Mary’s narrative become increasingly, almost maddeningly complicated,“ writes Rafer Guzmán at Newsday, giving the “handsome” film 3 stars out of 4.
  • AO Scott calls it “consistently interesting even if it’s not always convincing.“ But “there is enlightenment as well as pleasure to be found in the full and complicated sexuality of the film’s characters,“ Scott writes at the New York Times, noting “students of Scottish history may be surprised to learn that the fate of the nation was partly decided by an act of cunnilingus.“
  • First-time film director Josie Rourke gets high praise from Richard Lawson. “Placing her actors and guiding their light with gorgeous results,“ she “does enough to both honor and reshape the hallowed mold to keep things interesting,“ he writes at Vanity Fair. Ronan is equally impressive, giving “a commanding, expressive physical performance.“ “Robbie is a bit wobblier, if only because she seems to have trouble with her accent.“
  • Monica Castillo gives Robbie higher marks, saying she “plays the paranoid and tortured queen well, using a tense, nervous energy against Ronan’s cool and cutting performance.“ Writing at, she also compliments the “oil painting-like cinematography” and “regal costumes.“ She concludes Mary Queen of Scots is “entertaining” even if “it doesn’t always work.“

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