KiKi Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk (Photo: Annapurna)
The weather outside might be frightful (at least to those with aversions to whooping coughs and soaked shoes), but the multiplex roster can be so delightful.
True, early January is often the stomping ground of the studios’ tax write-offs and/or dreadful-looking projects (e.g. 2014’s The Legend of Hercules, 2016’s Monster Trucks, this week’s Keanu Reeves vehicle Replicas), and I suppose that’s why God invented Netflix. On the other hand, stir-crazy movie lovers can always head to one of the numerous award contenders that opened in New York and Los Angeles late last year and are now making their way across the rest of the nation. Upcoming weeks will see the national launches of such Oscar hopefuls as Destroyer and Stan & Ollie; in the meantime, here are three worthy efforts expanding this week.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Barry Jenkins
STARS KiKi Layne, Stephan James
If Beale Street Could Talk is the best of the batch, and the only one of the trio likely to snag any Academy Award nominations. Writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose 2016 effort Moonlight nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture, matches his previous at-bat with this exquisite adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.
KiKi Layne delivers a lovely performance as Tish, a Harlem resident who’s pregnant with the child of her fiancé Fonny (Stephan James). Thanks to the machinations of a racist cop (Ed Skrein), Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and Tish and her family do everything in their power to prove his innocence.
Reuniting much of the key behind-the-scenes personnel from Moonlight (including cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell), Jenkins has fashioned a film that rarely raises its voice, even as the rage regarding a grotesque miscarriage of justice informs its every move. All of the performances are exemplary, with particularly notable turns from Michael Beach (currently playing Manta’s pop in Aquaman) as Fonny’s father and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend.
Yet the MVP is clearly Regina King as Tish’s mother, a strong-willed woman who goes farther (both literally and figuratively) than anyone to clear Fonny’s name. King’s been a personal favorite since the 1990s, when she first caught my eye in John Singleton’s 1993 drama Poetic Justice, and it’s nice to see her winning awards by the bushel for her work here. She deserves them.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Mimi Leder
STARS Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer
In movies as in life, timing is everything, and it might have been better for On the Basis of Sex had it been released a couple of years ago or a couple of years from now. As it stands, this dramatization of an early chapter in the life of Supreme Court dynamo Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes on the heels of last summer’s RBG, a comprehensive work that not only made Oscar’s shortlist in the Best Documentary category (it’s one of 15 finalists, from which five will be chosen for a nomination) but also proved potent enough at the box office to rank as one of the all-time top 25 nonfiction features.
Yet judged on its own merits, On the Basis of Sex is entertaining and even important, trekking the progress of Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) as she fights discrimination first at Harvard Law School, where she’s one of the few women in attendance, and then in the real world, where she eventually becomes involved in a case with the potential for landmark reformations.
Jones doesn’t look much like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the hunky Armie Hammer looks even less like the roly-poly Martin Ginsburg, her eternally supportive husband. But that scarcely matters, since both performers (particularly Jones) bring the proper mix of earnestness and eagerness to their roles.
The film itself may be conventional but it’s also captivating, and it culminates with a courtroom showdown that offers instant satisfaction yet also doesn’t erase subsequent history. After all, you’ve come a long way, baby, but, alas, the arduous journey is really only just beginning.
BEN IS BACK
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Peter Hedges
STARS Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges
It ain’t nepotism when it’s the right choice. That’s certainly the case with Ben Is Back, which finds writer-director Peter Hedges handpicking his own son to star in the title role.
That would be Lucas Hedges, a rising talent who’s appeared in three Best Picture Oscar nominees over the past two years. A nominee himself for his supporting stint in Manchester by the Sea, he deserves a Best Actor nod this year — one that likely won’t materialize. Because as excellent as Hedges might be in Ben Is Back, he’s even better in Boy Erased, and the presence of two powerhouse performances in one calendar year always runs the risk of splitting votes and coming up empty.
Nevertheless, he’s the best thing about both movies — this is particularly true with Ben Is Back, in which he portrays a recovering drug addict who takes it upon himself to leave the rehab center and return home for Christmas. His presence makes his stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) and his sister (Kathryn Newton) uneasy; his mom (Julia Roberts) is also unsure of the situation, but she does the most to support Ben and provide him with the “tough love” he requires.
Ben Is Back is stronger during the earlier passages when it focuses solely on the family, and it threatens to steer off course when it changes tactics to follow Ben’s nocturnal activities as he reluctantly becomes involved with the druggies and dealers who formed his former social circle. But the excellent work by Hedges (and, yes, Roberts) keeps this sobering picture from wandering too far into the haze.