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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the last year’s most beautiful, most well-rounded, and most enriching cinematic experiences—and it begs to be seen on a big movie screen. Based on the James Baldwin novel, and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), it’s a stirring family drama focusing on young black couple Alonzo, aka Fonny, and Tish (played by Stephan James and KiKi Layne), in the 1970s.

Within the first few minutes, we learn that Tish is pregnant, and Alonzo is incarcerated. He’s jailed for a sexual assault against a woman—a crime he vehemently denies. While he awaits trail, Tish remains loyal, and must inform her family of her pregnancy.

The extended scene during which Tish tells her parents and, subsequently, Fonny’s family that she is pregnant hits all kind of notes. It runs the gamut of emotions, setting up the rest of the movie. It’s also where Regina King begins to shine as Sharon, Tish’s beautifully, unconditionally supportive mother. This is the beginning of a performance that is gathering much-deserved awards. A Supporting Actress Oscar nomination seems inevitable, and King would be the front-runner.

King isn’t alone in the magic department: Colman Domingo is terrific as Tish’s good-natured dad, as is Teyonah Parris as Tish’s strong sister, Ernestine. The pregnancy-revelation scene is capped with a sudden turn of emotions as Fonny’s family has a much different reaction, led by the religious mom, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Jenkins and company take us from comfortable to extremely raw in a flash—and it feels real. In fact, Beale Street doesn’t contain a single moment that doesn’t feel genuine.

We see Tish and Fonny’s relationship and eventual engagement through flashbacks. They’re childhood friends who become lovers, with their sweet courtship tinged by tragedy, because we know Fonny sits in jail. He has an alibi and many witnesses to his innocence, but he’s a black man living in Harlem in the 1970s. One would hope that Fonny has a chance for a future raising his child outside of prison walls, but the odds are not in his favor.

A scene during which Sharon travels to Puerto Rico in an effort to persuade Fonny’s accuser to recant her story is Beale Street’s other emotional bomb; it’s where King further cements her status as 2018’s Best Supporting Actress. Nothing King has done before will you prepare you for what she does in this film. It’s a career-altering performance.

As the film’s central actress, Layne holds the movie together with a steady, strong performance. James breaks hearts as an imprisoned man who still manages a joyful smile when he hears he’s going to be a father, but definitely shows signs of strain as his situation worsens. As ensembles go, Beale Street is one of 2018’s best.

On top of some of the year’s best acting, Beale Street scores big points for its cinematography by James Laxton (who also shot Moonlight). This is one of those films in which every damn shot is perfectly done and beautifully crafted. Nicholas Britell provides a score that is exquisite in every way and is every bit as effective as Laxton’s camerawork. Britell also composed for Moonlight; Jenkins has assembled a mightily consistent team. I can also sing the praises of its art direction, costuming, soundtrack choices and more.

Moonlight was a very good movie, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a great movie—a masterpiece, in fact, in a year that produced a few. Jenkins is quickly establishing himself as one of our finest directors; he’s a poetic visual artist who has full command of his cast and script. It’s an extreme pleasure to witness this brilliance.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing at theaters across the valley.

I missed A Simple Favor during its theatrical release—and it’s a film that provides many pleasant surprises.

This is director Paul Feig’s follow-up to his execrable Ghostbusters, and quite a change of pace from his straightforward comedies (Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat). While this is also classified as a comedy, it’s a dark comedy along the lines of Heathers, with a nice Hitchcockian mystery at its center.

The criminally underappreciated Anna Kendrick stars Stephanie, a widow and mom who finds herself essentially nannying for new friend Emily (Blake Lively). Before long, Emily goes missing, and Stephanie slowly but surely starts to replace her as a mother and wife. Emily is believed to be dead … and then things start happening.

Kendrick is funny as the confused mom who tries her best to have a career (she has a semi-popular video blog) while harboring some dark secrets. Lively does career-best work as the alternately mean and nurturing friend who can’t stand her humdrum life.

A Simple Favor is a welcomed return to good filmmaking for Feig. Thank god he won’t be commandeering any other films featuring proton packs.

A Simple Favor is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sandra Bullock lends her supreme talents to a Netflix movie that’s become a media sensation—even though Bird Box features a bunch of overused horror gimmicks mashed into one, messy entity.

Malorie (Bullock) is a gloomy painter (they show Bullock only painting the black background to make it look authentic), going through the motions and dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), takes Malorie to the doctor for a checkup—shortly after seeing a strange report on TV about masses of people killing themselves in Russia.

While visiting with the doc (Parminder Nagra), all hell starts to break loose in the hospital and, especially, on the streets. It appears as if people are seeing some sort of entity and deciding it’s far too much for them to handle, so they kill themselves in creative ways (stepping in front of buses, bashing their heads into windows, walking into fires, etc.). Malorie manages to navigate through a hellish urban landscape before winding up trapped in a house with a few others.

Up until this point, the film looks promising. The street-suicide scenes are genuinely scary, and flash-forward scenes show Malorie trying to find some sort of safe haven with two children while they all wears blindfolds to avoid seeing the killer vision. Those scenes work OK, although they are a play on last summer’s A Quiet Place, with characters prohibited from seeing rather than making noise.

Alas, the movie hits a total dead end once Malorie goes in that house. It’s pretty much the same scenario as that remake of Dawn of the Dead, right down to the pregnant women and shopping scenes.

John Malkovich is one of the house survivors, and he’s just doing a variation on his usual John Malkovich thing. After witnessing the death of his wife, he gets Malkovich angry, yelling at Malorie in that deliberate, pause between the words kind of way. (“You … are the reason … she … is dead!”) The average male would be curled up in a fetal position bawling his eyes out after witnessing such a thing, but Malkovich just gets pissed, Malkovich-style. I was laughing, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the desired reaction from filmmaker Susanne Bier.

As for the other survivors, there’s a young punk, a female cop, another pregnant woman, an older mom type and a Malorie love interest. While Bullock is trading lines with most of these folks, it’s clear they are obviously outmatched, especially in some of the moments that seem more improvised. They shouldn’t be in the same room with Bullock, who is top-notch despite the hackneyed scripting.

The title of the film refers to a shoebox Malorie keeps birds in as a monster alarm. This makes no sense: It’s established that if you are outside, and you look, you will inevitably see “the monster” that will make you off yourself. Why put a bunch of birds through hell? There’s no escaping the monster, who inevitably shows up within seconds of you opening your eyes. A bird chirping is just incidental.

The scenes with Bullock and the children on the river, while not all that original, are nonetheless, riveting and tense. Much of this is due to the excellent child actors; their characters are simply named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). The expressions they make while Malorie lectures them on how one stupid move could kill them are heartbreaking.

There is one thing totally amazing about Bird Box: BD Wong, who plays one of the house survivors, is 58 years old. The man looks like he’s 35! As for the movie itself, I credit Netflix for doing a great job of hyping it and Bullock for acting her ass off—even when the material drifts into dreck.

Bird Box is now streaming on Netflix.

Netflix is on fire, with the arrival of the extremely popular (if not that great) Bird Box, and Bandersnatch, this strange little curio from the makers of the anthology series Black Mirror.

Some kids of the 1980s might remember an arcade game called Dragon’s Lair, where you made choices for the game’s protagonist, and different scenarios played out. Bandersnatch is similar, but the different plot threads are wildly varying, with most of them being quite well written and entertaining.

Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) plays Stefan, a video-game creator who pitches an idea for a game, Bandersnatch. He winds up working for a company (or maybe he doesn’t, depending on your choices) making the game, and what happens while he’s working is up to you. Choices appear on the bottom of the screen, and you get to pick the scenarios.

There are about five hours of material in all, and the movie has its share of nastiness and gore, so you might not want to play with the kids. It’s not mind-blowing stuff, but it is surprisingly effective given its gimmick. I thought it was fun.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is now streaming on Netflix.

The latest DC effort, Aquaman, is middling fun for about 20 minutes—and then it becomes one of the worst films of 2018.

It’s the typical DC garbage can of a film—proof that Warner Bros. has learned almost nothing about making a good comic-book movie since Christian Bale took off the cowl. (Yes, Wonder Woman was good—but it’s the lone exception.)

Jason Momoa returns as big, tattooed, beefy Arthur, the dreamy son of a Lost City of Atlantis queen (Nicole Kidman) and a lowly lighthouse-keeper (Temuera Morrison). He finds the queen washed up on the rocks and takes her home, where she promptly eats his goldfish. (Baahahaha! What a laugh riot! She ate his pet fish!) She gives birth to Arthur, and the origin story part of the movie is well on the way.

We see a few more moments in the young fish-man’s life, including a moment when Arthur is bullied in an aquarium; he gets a tiger shark riled up to the point that it almost breaks through the glass and kills his entire elementary school class. (That would’ve made for an interesting twist.) Momoa eventually shows up in full party mode, and it looks like we could be on our way to some goofy fun.

Alas, like Zack Snyder before him, director James Wan shows that he doesn’t know how to keep a leash on his epic, and this thing goes bonkers in a bad way. After Arthur teams up with Princess Mera (Amber Heard), she of the Little Mermaid hair, they go on some sort of intercontinental trek to find a lost trident, with haphazard locations constantly being captioned at the base of the screen (Rome, the Sahara Desert, the Valley of the Brine, Atlantis, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., etc.).

The search for the powerful trident that will make Arthur the king of Atlantis is but one of many insipid plotlines. There’s also King Orm (Patrick Wilson, looking like he placed last in a Colorado Rockies mascot-costume contest), Arthur’s half-brother and full-time asshole, who is trying to claim the Atlantis throne while threatening war with the Surface People. (That would be us.)

Orm has some sort of alliance with pirates led by the one who will become Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Black Manta is one of Aquaman’s main adversaries in the comics, but here he is, more or less, a side note, with Wan straining to make the character meaningful among all the chaos. The movie has a formidable-enough villain in Orm, but Wan and the scriptwriters felt the need to make Manta a factor—and the result is a nearly 2 1/2-hour movie with way too much going on for it to make any sense. I thought Steppenwolf was the worst-looking DC villain of all time, but here, Manta looks like a reject from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters rather than something from a big-budget Aquaman movie.

Visually, this is yet another movie that thinks it’s Avatar, and that’s never a good thing. In other words, we get a lot of blue mixing with fluorescent colors. (I did like the great white sharks with saddles on them.) It’s yet another Warner Bros. DC movie with spasmodic, cheap-looking CGI in many of the action scenes. The look of this film is far from awe-inspiring.

An embarrassed-looking Willem Dafoe shows up as Vulko, Arthur’s mentor, and is saddled with the film’s silliest line. (“The king has risen!”) Dolph Lundgren gets another late-2018 role (after Creed II) as another underwater king who just sort of stands around as his special-effects hair waves in the water. Julie Andrews has a “fall asleep and you will miss it” voice cameo.

Aquaman can’t decide if it wants to be Avatar 2, or The Mummy Returns … AGAIN! or I Got Muscles, Attitude and I’m Underwater 5 or Creed III: I’m Old and Wet Now. The undeniable charms (and, admittedly, glorious hair) of Momoa can only go so far.

When it comes to comic book movies, Marvel still reigns supreme—and DC doesn’t have a clue.

Aquaman is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Casting Emily Blunt as the iconic title character in Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel 54 years in the making, proves to be a stroke of genius.

Casting Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role of Jack, a character modeled after Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the original classic … well, not so much.

Blunt plays the role with her own, sensible spin—not by any means copying what the great Julie Andrews did more than a half-century ago, but offering a practically perfect variation on the infamous nanny. Miranda sports the same cockney accent (though it’s not nearly as gloriously, wonderfully bad as Van Dyke’s) and plays a lamplighter in London instead of a chimney sweep. His part of the film feels like a giant missed opportunity, because while he can sing and dance up a storm, he isn’t funny. Van Dyke was funny.

The result is a movie that has a lot of charm, and some amazingly good sequences, with Blunt powering us through. When Miranda does a Hamilton-like rap in the middle of one of his numbers, it all feels a little off, as do many of his moments.

The movie takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression; the two Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), are all grown up. Michael, who has lost his wife, is raising his children alone. He’s taken a job at the bank where his dad used to work, but he’s way behind on the mortgage, so the very bank he works for is set to repossess his house. The problems have distracted him as a parent … so in flies you-know-who on a battered kite during a stormy wind.

As soon as Blunt shows up, the movie becomes fun. Blunt is a different Mary Poppins, yet she very much is Mary Poppins. And, man, can she sing and dance. This is most evident in a dance-hall sequence to the new musical number “A Cover Is Not the Book,” where she performs some nice vaudevillian dance steps alongside, yes, DANCING ANIMATED PENGUINS! Blunt sings the song with a cockney accent that puts Miranda’s to shame, and she out dances her co-stars, both animated and live. It’s moments like this that make Returns very much worthwhile.

Because the film is so good for substantial stretches of time, the strange, sloppy moments really stand out. Director Rob Marshall has made some stinkers (Into the Woods, Nine) to go along with his one, genuinely good film (Chicago). Some of the staging in his films, this one included, go from tightly choreographed and impressive to sloppy and unfocused within seconds. There are shots in this movie I’m surprised made the final cut. They look like a dress rehearsal.

For every brilliant sequence like the animated journey into a porcelain bowl (one of two scenes combining live actors and animation), there’s a baffling sequence, like one during which people get really jazzed about riding a bicycle—and there’s just too much of Miranda singing into lampposts. The whole time Miranda was on the screen, I was thinking stuff like, “Christian Bale would’ve been better in this role, because, ya know, Newsies, right?” I suggested this to my Disney partner in crime via text after the movie, and she basically told me to shut the fuck up.

While I might’ve been sitting on the fence regarding this film as it headed into the final turn, my attitude went full positive when none other than the man himself, Dick Van Dyke, all beautiful 93 years of him, showed up as a helpful banker. He not only shows up but gets on top of a desk and dances better than anybody in the movie. It’s only a few seconds but, I’m telling you now, they are some of the best seconds any 2018 film has to offer. Pure nostalgia heaven!

Mary Poppins Returns might be uneven, but lovers of the original will appreciate its honest and semi-successful attempt to recapture the Poppins magic. As for Blunt, she’s miraculous, effectively cancelling out any of the film’s shortcomings.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing at theaters across the valley.

While Tom Holland’s live-action Spider-Man character remains in limbo due to that infamous Thanos finger snap (even though we know another Spider-Man film starring Holland is being released next year, which is a bit of a giveaway), Sony Pictures has upped the ante on the Spidey franchise with the eye-popping, all-around-ingenious Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one of 2018’s greatest cinematic surprises.

While there have been awesome superhero movies, and terrific movies based on comic books, this might be the best “comic-book movie” ever made. No movie has ever captured the rush of reading a great comic book like this blast from directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman. They go for broke with a mixture of visual styles—hand-drawn and computer-animated—that magically splash across the scene. The story is pretty great, too.

Miles Morales (the voice of Shameik Moore) is trying to adjust to a new, upscale school after winning a scholarship. He’s away from his big-city friends and getting some guff from his well-meaning police-officer dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who wants him to appreciate the chance he’s been given. Miles’ uncle (the ever-busy Mahershala Ali) keeps him grounded, encouraging him to continue as a graffiti artist. On one of their painting excursions, Miles is bitten by a strange spider and then, well, you know.

He eventually crosses paths with the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Chris Pine). As the plot would have it, parallel-universe portals open and allow in a whole fleet of different Spider-Men, Spider-Women, Spider-Pigs and Spider-Robots. That group includes Peter B. Parker (the invaluable Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (a mishmash of Spidey and Porky Pig voiced by John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her robot—and, best of all, Nicolas Cage as the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir.

So Miles is one of many Spider entities on hand to go up against Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), whose corporation is responsible for the time-hole rip. The reasons why are convoluted but discernible if you pay close attention. As with any good comic book, the movie is stacked with action, plot threads and many twists and turns.

I’m not a big comic-book collector, but I did go through a phase where I was reading graphic novels (often compilations of a comic series), and a few artists really grabbed me. I loved the artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz in an Elektra: Assassin series he did. Much of the art in Into the Spider-Verse reminds me of the work of Sienkiewicz and those like him; it’s comic art with a nice level of depth. Spider-Verse, to me, plays like every frame is a page out of those awesome graphic novels, edited together into a movie. There’s a slight jaggedness to the flow of the film; there’s almost a stop-motion feel to it at times. The film nothing anywhere close to a boring visual moment.

The movie is also very funny, poking fun at past Spider-Man movies and taking advantage of Johnson’s comic timing. Lily Tomlin voices a very different Aunt May, who is like Batman’s Alfred with a little more edge. Yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo. When this is coupled with his animated cameo in this year’s Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, it’s clear Lee made some pretty great, unusual cameos in the year he left the planet.

While I enjoy Tom Holland as the live action Spider-Man, this sort of animated offering is more up my alley. I want more Spider-Verse. This is surely one of the best movies of the year, and the best Spider-Man movie to date. In fact, it’s one of the best animated films ever made. Yeah, it’s that good.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Matt Dillon is all sorts of horrifying as the titular character, a serial killer in 1970s America, in The House That Jack Built.

He’s an architect; he has OCD; and he’s a killer who likens his work to art. He describes his murders to an off-camera inquisitor (Bruno Ganz) as if they were symphonic masterworks. The allegory is a bit heavy-handed, and the satire is a little more than obvious. At times, it plays a lot like the book version of American Psycho. (The book was nastier than the film.)

Director Lars von Trier, who is seemingly getting nastier and stranger with every film, has always been quite the provocateur. This marks a slight comeback from his awful Nymphomaniac movies, although it doesn’t compare to his best work (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist).

The main reason to see The House That Jack Built is Dillon, who delivers one of his best performances as a very complicated, very sick dude. The final act of the movie is its best, as Jack completes a journey that takes him to a hot place, including an impressive ride on the river Styx. Dillon and a supporting cast that includes Uma Thurman and Riley Keough make this worth seeing.

Von Trier makes good-looking movies, but he gets a little carried away sometimes, and this one is quite insane. He seriously needs to make a movie about puppies and rainbows, and calm things down.

The House That Jack Built is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Five years after his Oscar-winning Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón returns with a decidedly different film in Roma. On a smaller—but no less effective—scale, Roma is a moving tribute to the female servant Cuarón grew up with during the early 1970s in the Mexico City suburb of Roma.

Cuarón, who claims 90 percent of the movie is based on his childhood memories, tells the story from the female servant’s point of view. Renamed Cleo and played by Yalitza Aparicio in an astonishing, heartbreaking performance, Cleo is the glue holding the family together as their philandering patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), abandons them.

The remaining family consists of four children, mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother Teresa (Verónica Garcia). They rely heavily upon Cleo, who responds with a dedicated, steadfast grace—no matter how tense the situation gets.

The situation worsens when Cleo becomes pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts-obsessed, criminally selfish man who should have the first letter of his name replaced with a “V.” Fermin is so despicable that he makes Antonio look like an absolute sweetheart.

So Cleo and Sofia are left alone. Sofia’s personal matters always happen in the background; we only get brief snippets of conversations and occurrences that allow Cleo and the family to know the father is not coming back. The abandonment of Cleo by Fermin, however, is handled in a far more blunt, and repeatedly awful, way.

Sofia has a few moments when she almost unravels, lashing out at her children and Cleo. She has a kind heart, but the pressure is almost too much to take, and it shows. On the contrary, Cleo goes through it all without becoming a burden on anyone. She carries her baby full-term, tending to the family’s children and supporting Sofia. Cleo rarely shares her personal feelings—but she does speak out in a few choice moments. Those moments are devastating.

The movie covers about a year in the life of the family, and it’s a slow build. Filmed in black and white, its every shot is a beautiful thing—which is amazing considering that Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer for the first time on a feature film.

Much of the movie happens in slow pans. It isn’t very wordy, and it adheres to a certain level of reality that could be taken as mundane at times. It’s daringly simple and somehow majestic at the same time. There are some grand-scale moments; a sequence depicting a violent student uprising is visceral and taut, while a near tragic-event on a beach is frighteningly real and fills the screen. Yet most of the movie is made up of little moments that string a life together—a dog hopping up on a dress, a kid asking for Twinkies, a car rubbing alongside the car port’s walls because it’s too damned wide, etc. Halfway into the movie, you’ll feel as if you’ve been living with this family.

Aparicio’s performance is truly remarkable. She’s in nearly every scene; she gives us one of the year’s most memorable characters—and somehow, this is the only IMDb credit she has. She will break your heart. When she tries to sit down for a second to watch a TV show, when she faces a troublesome birth on her own, when she’s yelled at for missing a few of her daily tasks … I repeat: Aparicio will break your heart.

Roma continues what it is turning out to be a breakthrough year for Netflix, which has given the movie a limited big-screen release before making it available for streaming. This and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers are proof that the service has become a giant purveyor of original cinema goodness.

Roma is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 14.

Director Ben Stiller gets serious with Escape at Dannemora, a Showtime series based upon the real 2015 escape of two dangerous convicts from prison in upstate New York.

Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano are perfect as Richard Matt and David Sweat, two nutballs who get prison employee Tilly Mitchell (a terrific Patricia Arquette) to help them break out, therefore initiating a mammoth manhunt—the results of which I won’t give away here.

Matt, Sweat and Mitchell formed a very unconventional love triangle that goes to some pretty strange places. (As of this writing, four of the seven episodes have aired.)

So far, the show is pretty damned good. Stiller can’t resist the temptation to be funny on occasion, but this show is proof he can put together a great drama, too. Del Toro and Dano are equally good, each getting a chance to explore their dark sides. (No surprise: Del Toro’s dark side is a little goofier.) The series garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Limited Series and Best Performance By an Actress in a Limited Series for Arquette.

Thankfully, I’ve forgotten how this story actually turns out, so I will watch until the end and see who lives and who dies. As prison dramas go, this one is a keeper—and proof that Stiller has another whole side of his career that he can explore.

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