By John H. Foote
WHITE BOY RICK
Detroit has always looked and seemed dirty to me, not a great place to visit. When going south of the border, we have always breezed through the city fast, as it just never felt safe, or offered anything I was interested in. My Red Wings play there, some major artists were born there including Francis Ford Coppola, but to me it has looked filthy and grimy, I have zero interest in being there ever again. This film is set in eighties Detroit when the city was going through a particularly hard depression, another reason to stay away, there is always something wrong in Detroit.
Except for drugs.
Drugs were plentiful.
It seems that in the most impoverished places, drugs are always plentiful. I do not know which came first, the depression of the city because of the drugs or the drugs because of the depression of the city.
Fifteen-year-old Ricky does not have an easy life and lives in a very dysfunctional family. His father, Rick (Matthew McConaughey, is a licensed gun salesman, though the silencers he sells with them are highly illegal. The police watch him carefully and he knows it, and is reasonably careful to walk a straight line. His daughter is a junkie, and eventually disappears with her boyfriend, but his young son remains at home and is soon selling the silencers he takes from his father to a rough gang selling drugs. The FBI takes an interest in young Ricky and soon he is walking both sides of the law, working for them as an informant and buying drugs, and quietly doing his own thing. He works himself into the inner circles of the gang and is soon friends with the top men who trust him as one of their own.
But when the FBI closes in, a close friend of Rick’s comes to his home and suddenly, without warning, shoots him, leaving him for dead. Gut shot, the injury is critical and the boy is rushed to the hospital and surgery is performed. Rick Sr. shows up and for the first time, the overwhelming a father has for his children seems to wash over him. He tells the FBI they have done this to him, and they agree they need to help him, but a blind eye is turned. Eventually charged with several crimes, Ricky recovers slowly and awaits trial. In that time his father finds his strung-out daughter and brings her home, cleans her up by locking her in a room and letting her get clean. Slowly the boy realizes that his father truly does love him, and a deep friendship evolves.
Yet nothing seems to go young Ricky’s way, even when the gang is busted for selling drugs he is still in terrible danger of going to prison.
McConaughey is exceptional in the role of the father, Rick, delving into the character with an abandon we have not always seen in the actor. I know, I know, he won the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club (2013) but I was not impressed with the performance. When he is on, as he was years ago in A Time to Kill (1996), a major performance, he is among the finest working, easily walking the line of an actor with that of a movie star, very much like Paul Newman did. Here he gives a great performance, gritty and raw, tough and yet heartbroken. Watch his eyes when he holds his grandson for the first time or realizes his daughter needs him more than ever. There is a deep love there, something we rarely see in characters in this world.
As Ricky Jr., young Richie Merritt did not convince me all the time. It is a decent enough performance, but in the company seasoned pros like McConaughey, or the two FBI agents Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, he simply cannot hold the screen with them. He has his moments, the scenes where he enjoys the spoils of his efforts, his wide smile when realizing he has been accepted by the gang as one of them, are beautifully acted. However, he struggles when being seduced by the mob boss’ wife, in any scene with his father and in the sequences, too short with his grandparents, portrayed by the brilliant Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie.
In the key role of his sister, Dawn, actress Bel Powley makes quite an impression with her dark energy. The withdrawal sequences are as expected, harrowing, and when finally clean she shines with life.
Dern and Laurie are all but wasted, and the great Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty much wasted in her supporting role as the FBI agent. She and Rory Cochrane just have so little to do.
Directed with Scorsese grittiness by Yann Demange, the trouble is that he lacks the artistry of Scorsese. That said, he is getting there.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Barry Jenkins is without question a major filmmaker. His film Moonlight (2016) shockingly (or not…) won the Academy Award for Best Picture and earned the filmmaker an Oscar for his sensitive, haunting screenplay. Ironically he is back at TIFF with Oscar winner Damien Chazelle, who guided the extraordinary La La Land (2016). Jenkins took Best Picture for his film, Chazelle took Best Director for himself as well as the Directors Guild of America Award and countless other awards. Chazelle is here with First Man, the hotly anticipated Neil Armstrong biography.
I was thrilled that Moonlight (2016), a tiny independent film made for under two million dollars won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It told me that the members of the Academy are watching the films more closely these days, and are focusing on cinema with a story. SInce 2010 the winning Best Films have been The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Birdman (2014), Spotlight (2015), Moonlight (2016), and The Shape of Water (2017), all exceptionally story driven films. Within the fickle Academy the times are a-changin’…and it is long past time.
The trouble with the follow-up film to your breakthrough film is that one, all eyes are on you, and two, it is rare that the film following a great success will be anywhere near as good. Some get lucky, Coppola did with The Godfather (1972) which he followed with The Conversation (1974), Spielberg certainly did following Jaws (1975) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Paul Thomas Anderson did following Boogie Nights (1997) with the astonishing Magnolia (1999). However, more often than not, the follow-up film does not achieve what the previous did.
That is certainly true of If Beale Street Could Talk, made with exquisite care and craftsmanship, acted with deep feeling, but so slow it is agonizing. Seriously, this one drags on as though the running time was the rest of eternity, and while I was very impressed with the superb performance of the great Regina King, it was not near enough.
Once again Jenkins places his camera on the black experience in America, exploring family and dysfunction with his probing screenplay and sensitive, spot-on direction.
Tish (Kiki Layne) is nineteen and pregnant by her boyfriend Fonny (Stephen James) who is about to be imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Accused of rape, it appears because he is black he must be guilty. The film does a beautiful job exploring the deep love between the two, but all the hardships that come with loving someone, being with them. In the case of Tish, the deck seems stacked against her every step of the way. She is, fortunately, a strong, willful young woman with the support of her loving mother all the way. In the films finest performance Regina King is filled with soul and wisdom as her mother, understanding better than anyone the path of a black young woman and giving her girl the smarts to chart her course carefully. Yet challenges meet her every day, just as they do Fonny, bringing the struggle to both and only their love to sustain through it all. Eventually, it is left to her mother to make the decision as to just how far she will go to assure her daughter has a future and a happy one.
Jenkins has an unflinching eye as always when exploring the Black Experience in America, as clear as that of Spike Lee in his earlier work. There is an honesty there that cannot be denied or, frankly, ignored. Though a romantic film, the fact it is filled with such jarring truths take it to a different level, with no Hollywood fantasy to bail the young lovers out and take them to greener pastures. The problem with the film is the pacing, it just seems to drag on and on and on until I was to the point of not caring about the characters! Luckily the performances were good enough that that did not happen.
Regina King seems a good bet for an Oscar nomination, as the actress gives a towering performance, but beyond that I do not think this film is the towering achievement that Moonlight (2016) so clearly was.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.