Marchant at TIFF, Day Five

September 11, 2018

TIFF 2018: Day 5

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Films: 3
Best Film of the Day: ROMA (pictured)

If Beale Street Could Talk:  I was one of seemingly few critics at TIFF two years ago who wasn’t thoroughly won over by Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. I thought the first two segments were exceptional, but I took issue with the third act for various reasons. It didn’t make me doubt Jenkins’ talent as a director, but I wasn’t as hyped up for his follow-up film as many others were: It turns out, I should have been. His new film, based on the James Baldwin novel, is filled with intimacies and humanity that are absolutely undeniable. We meet Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) at a crucial moment in their lives. Life-long friends now in their 20s, they are about to turn the switch from platonic best friends, to fully committed lovers. Eventually, we come to realize this moment was actually in flashback. Since that heralded moment, Fonny has been arrested and put in jail for a crime he provably didn’t commit, but not before getting Tish pregnant, an eventuality that leaves them both exhilarated to be starting a family and deeply disappointed that they must do so with Fonny behind bars. As the families are both notified – Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) are thrilled, as is Fonny’s father (Michael Beach); his devout mother (Aunjanue Ellis) far less so – they all begin the work of trying to exonerate him, but with little money and facing a system of justice in the early ‘60s even more bent against them than the present, they are facing a gargantuan task. Jenkins isn’t so much interested in the story, per se, though it is a valuable through line for his theme, than the small interactions between his doted upon characters. With such concern and care to show the grace and love between the couple – seriously, in its own way, it’s every bit as obsessed with the idea of True Love as The Princess Bride – we can’t help but fall for the two of them as well. Jenkins has a soft touch with his actors, which tends to elicit breathtakingly sharp and nuanced performances. The pairing of the great Baldwin and Jenkins turns out to be a perfectly poignant one: They offer the same sort of generosity of spirit that infuses every line and every scene on the page.

Climax: You can’t go to a Gaspar Noe film and not expect to be provoked. Like a small, somewhat bratty child, he will get your attention one way or the other. There are times this technique is shockingly effective – ten years after seeing Irreversible, I’m still haunted by its brutal depictions – but failing that, his voice becomes shrill and irritating, the kind of thing you shut down in your head, despite the amount of strobe lights and booming music he may be employing to woo you. His new film is perhaps the purest (and most facile) distillation of Noe’s artistic sensibility: A slow descent into hell. We start with a dance troupe readying a travelling production with a spirited rehearsal; we end with something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting: writhing, suffering bodies, blood, bodily fluids, a haze of smoke, and bright colored lights, with Noe’s camera turning entirely upside down for the last 15 minutes or so. Essentially, the film’s opening salvo, an extended, single-shot of the dance rehearsal with fascinatingly aggressive choreography, is the highlight reel. From there, nearly everyone drinks spiked sangria and everything gets louder and less coherent. There are simple stock stories stuck on the dancers – one wants to sleep with all the women, a young gay man crushes on him anyway; a brother and sister pair seem to have a more … complicated relationship than is generally legal; the choreographer locks her small son in a supply closet to keep him safe and promptly loses the key – but they are just small post-it notes stuck arbitrarily on Noe’s conception of the characters. If one wanted to compare the artistic pretensions of men and women, watching this empty-calorie Unhappy Meal alongside Madeline’s Madeline, the Sundance-beloved piece from Josephine Decker, would be a fascinating study.

ROMA: From the very beginning of his career (Sólo con Tu Pareja) back in 1991, Alfonso Cuarón proved to have total command of the camera, creating luscious, indelible and complex images that held you fast in place. Once you started viewing one of his films, you couldn’t tear your gaze off the screen. With this film, which just finished winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival last week, he’s absolutely outdone himself: Not a frame goes past that isn’t filled with images, ideas and details, conjuring up a specific time (1970/71) and place (Mexico City), while focusing on the particulars of one upper middle class family, whose patriarch, an esteemed doctor, has just decided to spurn in favor of his mistress. This leaves the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and her two maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) to contend with the couple’s four children. Cleo has her own story, made pregnant by a lout (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who abandons her, but while the film uses the family as a touchstone, Cuarón fills his frame with all sorts of other bits and pieces of the era – revolutionary protests, comedic TV shows, dogs, cars, news broadcasts, marching bands, people being shot from canons, and all sorts of other people going about their business in the edges of the frame. It’s like watching vintage Fellini, with its crackling energy and vitality leaping off the screen. Shot in gorgeous black and white, with Cuarón acting as his own DP, he’s never made a more visually sumptuous film. In one scene, Cleo walks around the main rooms of the house, switching the lights off, and Cuarón’s camera stays fixed in place in the dead center, circling around with her until it comes to a 360º halt; in another, a teeming waiting hall of a hospital is filled with expectant patients and all sorts of extraneous activity before you notice Cleo in the lower right edge, having been there the entire time. His screen is alive with such vivid detail, you derive an enormous amount of information almost incidentally, which, if you think about it, is exactly what it’s like in the real, non-cinematic world. Like Terrance Malick, he’s expanded a cinematic language that better resembles the way our brains take in and map information. It’s an astounding artistic feat. If his previous film, Gravity, was an extraordinary technical achievement, this film utilizing next to no CGI, is every bit as noteworthy.

Tomorrow: I begin with another of the most hyped films of the festival, Damien Chazelle’s First Man; then switch gears for the Jacques Audiard western The Sisters Brothers; possibly take in the Slovenian youth detention drama Consequences; and then close out the evening with a screening of Shane Black’s The Predator.


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