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Award Winner and More in Theaters This Weekend

George Wolf George Wolf Award Winner and More in Theaters This Weekend
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It is a slow week, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the movies. The film our own Columbus Film Critics Association deemed best of 2018 opens this weekend, as well as a horror movie that will never receive that kind of press.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by George Wolf

Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the ambitious goal of translating the work of a beautifully complex writer to a cinematic narrative. By respecting the material with a stirring commitment to character, If Beale Street Could Talk meets that goal with grace.

Based on the novel by James Baldwin (and the first English-language adaptation of his fiction), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans.

Tish (KiKi Layne in an impressive feature debut) and “Fonny” (Stephan James, from Selma and Race) are a young couple in Harlem who embraces their unexpected pregnancy while struggling to prove Fonny’s innocence in a rape case.

As the surface tension is driven by the potentially dangerous chances Kiki’s mother (Regina King) takes to clear Fonny’s name, smaller, more quiet moments around the neighborhood cement Baldwin’s incisive take on what it means to be black in America.

Baldwin’s writing – a mix of brutal honesty, brilliant clarity and weary outrage – is understandably daunting as a film adaptation. Themes which breathe with life on the page can come to the screen in an awkward rush and land as heavy handed melodrama.

Jenkins, whose early script got the blessing of Baldwin’s estate even before the triumph of Moonlight, brings an elegance to the story which fits comfortably. A poetic camera, authentic characters and tender, fully realized performances—especially from the glorious King—weave together to sing the praises of Baldwin’s prose in hypnotic, and often heartbreaking fashion.

Amid a story of grim realities and American resilience lie bonds of love and family that the film never loses sight of, even in its most sober moments, which may be the most miraculous aspect of If Beale Street Could Talk.

It is a film without illusions, but one that carries the unbowed spirit of it characters on a deeply felt journey that honors its origins.

Grade: A-

Escape Room

by Hope Madden

Man, I really liked Escape Room back in 1997 when it was called Cube.

Director Adam Robitel, who managed to do something fresh and upsetting with his 2014 feature directorial debut The Taking of Deborah Logan, here contents himself with borrowing … lifting…no, this is downright larceny.

In Vincenzo Natali’s underfunded but groundbreaking Canadian horror, Cube, six strangers—each with unique skills and backgrounds—find themselves trapped in a building and must unravel each room’s puzzle only to escape to the next room/deathtrap.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailer for Escape Room, but Robitel and screenwriters Maria Melnik and Bragi F. Schut have certainly seen Cube.

Cripplingly shy brainiac Zoey (Taylor Russell) is one of a handful of random strangers to receive a puzzle box in the shape of a cube. Let’s just assume that’s a nod toward the film’s source material and not a different, terrible ripoff of Hellraiser.

By solving the puzzle, Zoey—and, sprinkled all over town, others—win the opportunity to attempt the most elaborate escape room ever constructed.

Actually, the architecture is weirdly familiar.

If you can get past the plagiarism and lazy theft–please add Final Destination and Saw to the list of the aggrieved—you will note that Russell and the entire cast performs quite well. Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) impresses as a bit of a badass, while Nik Dodani endears in a small role and Tyler (Tucker and Dale vs Evil) Labine is adorable, as is almost always the case.

Many of the set pieces are pretty cool, too. One upside-down billiards room bit, in particular, holds your attention. But the game cast and sometimes fun sequences can only overcome the film’s weaknesses for so long.

Even if all these antics are new to you, the film’s predictable climax and disappointing waning moments are bound to leave you feeling that this movie could have been better.

It was once.

Grade: C-

Liyana

by Rachel Willis

“Once upon a time, there was a girl….”

That girl is Liyana, a fictional character brought to life by the children living at Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, a home for orphans in Swaziland.

During a storytelling workshop at the children’s home, author Gcina Mhlophe guides the boys and girls through exercises that allow them to imagine a collective story. Together, they weave a tale of a young girl facing enormous challenges.

Directors Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp focus primarily on five children, Phumlani, Nomcebo, Sibusiso, Mkhuleko and Zweli; their voices are the ones we hear throughout the film. By keeping these five at the center, we’re given a chance to get to know their personalities. Each tells the story in their own way. While the plot is the same, the details are unique to each child.

As the creative narrative unfolds, the audience is given glimpses into the lives of the children at Likhaya Lemphilop Lensha. We learn that many of the details of Liyana’s life reflect the children’s realities. HIV takes both of Liyana’s parents; her twin brothers are kidnapped in the dead of night by three vicious men. But Liyana faces each tragedy with determination; her hope and her fearlessness reflect the inner feeling of the children telling her story.

Liyana’s story is brought to life through a combination of the children’s words and gorgeous illustrations that animate the narrative. The film’s strengths lie in this weaving of the day to day realities of life with the vibrant story the children narrate.

The film’s most moving moments are when we’re allowed to spend time with the children. Watching them work in the garden, herd cattle, dance and play games is when the documentary shines. Though the children’s story is wonderful, it might have been a more powerful film if the directors had struck a better balance between fantasy and reality.

However, the indomitable spirit of children is the heart of the film. All of them have faced adversity, sadness and despair, but each has hope and it shines throughout the documentary. Liyana celebrates that wondrous courage. 

Grade: B+

Read more from George and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to a weekly roundup of film reviews on the podcast SCREENING ROOM.

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