Film reviews: If Beale Street Could Talk | Alita: Battle Angel | The Lego Movie 2 | All Is True | Boy Erased

Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk
Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk
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Love triumphs over adversity in If Beale Street Could Talk, but director Barry Jenkins asks awkward questions of a society seemingly intent on crushing the human spirit

If Beale Street Could Talk (15) ****

Alita: Battle Angel (12A) **

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***

All Is True (12A) ***

Boy Erased (15) ***

Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins makes good on that film’s deserved best picture Oscar win with If Beale Street Could Talk, a ravishing adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name about a young black couple whose love for each other is tested by a social system rigged against them. Kiki Layne and Stephan James star as Tish and Fonny, friends since childhood whose relationship has deepened into the sort of all-consuming passion that will bind them inexorably together no matter what life throws at them. And life, as the film quickly makes clear, is going to throw plenty at them. Set in New York in the early 1970s, the film introduces us to Fonny as a 22-year-old prisoner, doing time for a crime we’ll soon come to understand he didn’t commit. Nineteen-year-old Tish, meanwhile, is pregnant with his child, a revelation greeted with ecstatic joy, even as Tish is forced to share the news with Fonny through thick prison glass during visiting hours. Their irrepressible joyfulness is the first sign that as pain-filled as their story is going to be, the film isn’t going to confuse grit with gravitas. Mirroring Baldwin’s non-linear structure, Jenkins jumps around the timeline of their lives to create an expressionistic portrait of romantic and familial love, with flashbacks showing us Tish and Fonny constructing the foundations of a bohemian existence together, and present day scenes showing Tish’s family (led by Regina King as her forceful mother) banding together with Fonny’s father to fight for his (Fonny’s) freedom. The juxtaposition of these two timelines gives the film a political kick, underscoring the way this couple’s freedom to live the life they want is compromised by a system in which breaks are few and far between for people with their skin tone – a point Jenkins makes more devastating by periodically including montages of photographic reportage to place the injustice perpetrated against Fonny in a wider historical context. But while the film is a love story and a tragedy, it’s not a tragic love story. Tish and Fonny’s love for each other transcends their circumstances. They’re not the film’s tragic characters; that role falls to America.

With James Cameron focusing his energies on making multiple sequels to Avatar that no one but him seems to be interested in, his other long-gestating sci-fi extravaganza, Alita: Battle Angel, arrives courtesy of Robert Rodriguez almost 20 years after Cameron first announced his involvement (he remains on board as producer and co-writer). Sadly, whatever appeal a live-action manga film might once have had has been rendered obsolete by two decades of Matrix rip-offs that have more to offer than this derivative teen fantasy about an amnesiac female cyborg (Rosa Salazar) discovering she’s really a formidable warrior. Motion-capturing the title character allows Rodriguez the opportunity to give this synthetic humanoid big anime eyes, but her cartoon-like features just look odd and increasingly creepy among the live-action cast, especially when she’s transformed into a more sexualised and compliant teen – the sort of girl who can kick serious ass, but will do anything for a boy. Mahershala Ali, Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connolly pop up in thankless roles to explain aspects of a plot that mostly involves seen-it-all-before riffs on a ruined dystopian society divided into the haves and the have-nots.

Amusingly, the release of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part seems to have been accidentally timed to mock and satirise everything in Alita: Battle Angel, right down to the adolescent mindset that thinks post-apocalyptic adventures are inherently cool. Picking up after the meta-twist of the first film revealed that the animated action was really a reflection of a kid playing with his collector-father’s glued-down Lego sets in the real world, this sequel sees Bricksburg become Apocalypseburg as that same kid – now five years older – finds his own desire for boyish order being disrupted by his little sister’s determination to run roughshod over his Lego sets with her Duplo bricks. The ensuing animated mayhem and relentless deconstruction can get a little wearying, but there are some decent gags and the returning voice cast (including Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett’s brilliant turn as Lego Batman) ensures everything is still kind of OK.

All is True sees Kenneth Branagh return to Shakespeare with a sweet-natured late-years biopic of the Bard, scripted by Ben Elton and directed by and starring Branagh himself in the lead. It revolves around Shakespeare’s attempted retirement following the destruction of the Globe theatre, but gradually reveals itself to be a compassionate film about grief as the Bard and his family confront the death of his young son, Hamnet, 17 years earlier. It’s a patiently but compellingly told story and Branagh gives a typically generous performance. Judi Dench and Ian McKellen co-star.

Covering similar territory to Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased takes on the abhorrent process of gay conversion therapy in a well-meaning but slightly clunky drama from writer/director and co-star Joel Edgerton. That said, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) does some strong work as the gay teen trying to please his religious parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). - Alistair Harkness