TIFF18: If Beale Street Could Talk

If this movie review could talk it would say: wow. And also: thank you.

How is it possible that Barry Jenkins is making GOAT movies right out of the gate? Is he for real?

If Beale Street Could Talk is about a love story, interrupted. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are young lovers and the world is theirs as they fall in love inside their bubble. He’s respectful, she’s adorable, they’re so in sync their clothes begin to match, the colours mirroring each other as they walk hand in hand in a highly-saturated stroll through the park, the perfect date that just happens to end at prison, where she drops him off. Alonzo is going away for rape – a crime he didn’t commit, not that the justice system particularly cares. Beale Street is both love story and tragedy at the same time.

The most powerful thing about this film, and indeed about James Baldwin’s original work, is how little shock we see from either family – and both families, and their community, rallies around them. And of course they’re upset, they’re devastated, and they should be angry and incredulous, but no one seems all that astonished that such a MV5BMjMxMWQ5MjctN2MwMC00ZGY1LWJkNWUtNmUwOWFmYzAyNWJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE4NTE0NjU@._V1_thing could happen, because of course they’ve seen it happen before. So they swing into action, because they know the drill. Though they have little money, they will fund-raise and do whatever it takes to work the case themselves because they know whatever lawyer’s appointed to them will be inadequate (though he’s actually not painted as a bad guy, interestingly), and that the system is rigged is against them. They aren’t wrong.

I said earlier that this was a love story, interrupted. Thanks to director Barry Jenkins’ genius, that’s true on more than one count. First, the literal one, where the two lovers are separated just as she’s discovering they’re pregnant and would have made a home together. Through flash backs we see their love story, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its sweetness, but every scene is tainted by our knowledge of where it ends up. Jenkins obviously has a respect for the poetry of Baldwin’s prose. He uses it as a bridge between scenes, uniting flashbacks which almost seem dream-like with the harsh realities and razor-precision detail of their present day (1970s). The interruption is an opportunity for Jenkins to show how lyrically he can manipulate time as well as genre. Because for every pause he takes to explore a character and make note of some sweet detail, this story is also infused with a greater cry for social justice. This Beale Street could be any Beale Street. Alonzo could be any black man. And the system of oppression, which is not limited to crime and punishment, applies just as much today as it did then. This is a cry meant to be heard across generations.

James Laxton’s stunning cinematography helps establish not just breathtaking film, but black culture itself, the streets coming alive and vibrant under his lens. The way Jenkins plays with colour astonishes me, the virginal whites, the lust-drenched reds; somehow this movie is everything a movie can be. It’s everything. And this is only Jenkins’ third feature. The costumes are perfection. The set design is perfection. The way the camera talks to us, showing us where to linger, communicating hunger, or desperation, or separation. The emphasis is masterful but never gets in the way of itself.

Beale Street’s ensemble cast is the beating heart of this film, with James and Layne both claiming rights to future stardom. Their fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are terrific as well, but for me Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) was the real standout. She is fierce and unwavering. The scene in which she confronts Alonzo’s accuser is deeply affecting, and it’s because of King, of the layers of emotion playing out on her face. I couldn’t look away. Notably, I also thought the mother in The Hate U Give (played by Regina Hall) was the best part of the movie, so I’m not sure if black moms are having a moment, or if it’s Reginas specifically, but watch out, they’re coming. Jenkins puts together a cast that becomes the fabric of his film. There is no detail too small to have escaped his love and attention. This is one of the better adaptations I’ve ever seen on film, and possibly the best. It works on so many levels at once you don’t even see the train coming until it hits you. It’s hard to outdo yourself when your last film won Best Picture, but Barry Jenkins is a director not to be fucked with.

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TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

TIFF18: The Sisters Brothers

Murder and machismo, that’s what you’re in for when you sit down to watch The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli Sisters are a couple of guns for hire. They care deeply about maintaining their bad reputations, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as they keep working for The Commodore, a fearsome and violent man.

Their next mission, should they choose to accept it: kill Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who’s got something The Commodore wants. A professional scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already tracking him, and once located, the Sisters Brothers ride in for the dirty work.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the brothers – Phoenix the younger brother, Charlie, but natural leader of the two. He’s more violent and more gung-ho. Reilly, on theMV5BNWE3MDAwMDgtZGY0MS00OGM3LTk4MzEtYjIxODZkMDc0NGY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1496,1000_AL_ other hand, gives Eli a slightly sweeter disposition. He dreams of retirement but remains in the game to keep watch over his brother, who’s a drunk always looking for trouble, and always, always finding it. Eli pines for a woman who was kind to him once. He laments the fate of his pitiable horse. He cuts his brother’s hair.

When the foursome finally meet up, Herman isn’t the villain everyone anticipated, and his commodity proves irresistible to anyone who hears about it. But if his body and potion aren’t offered up to The Commodore in a hurry, there’ll be hell to pay. With allegiances divided and a different ending standing tantalizingly before them, what will the Sisters Brothers choose, and how will the body count be affected? Because there WILL be a body count, make no mistake on that.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a book I absolutely adored and passed around to nearly everyone I know, by  Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. John C. Reilly also read it and loved it, and he optioned the book in 2011; he produces this film alongside his wife, Alison Dickey, an indie film producer he met on the set of Casualties of War when she was an assistant to Sean Penn – they’ve been married for over 25 years). They’ve tapped French director Jacques Audiard to helm this shoot-em-up western, and Audiard gives it a sensibility that’s weird and eccentric. Not your typical western, not your typical anything. It’s as funny as it is violent, and both characters and story break out of the genre frequently enough to surprise you.

The acting is great. Riz Ahmed especially gives Herman’s character a bit of a twist, colouring the movie with a slightly more optimistic or meditative vibe. But of course the film belongs to Reilly and he knows it. Though I wish we would have spent a little more time with Eli alone, away from his brother’s influence, deeper into his psyche (flashbacks, I suppose, would have been nice), there’s still something very special going on there, something half-sweet (Eli is still a bad man), half-innocent, half-introspective, half-other-worldly. These aren’t necessarily the kind of cowboys you’re used to but I enjoy the genre’s subversion, the clever hacks that elevate it to something unique and fun to watch. DeWitt’s novel is quite good and I urge you to read it. But unlike many adaptations, this film captures some of its surprising warmth. Despite the Sisters Brothers being contract killers, we find a fair bit of compassion for them as they unravel the traumas of their past and seek a path forward, perhaps not quite forged in enlightenment, but in understanding, and from a need to do and be better.

Charlie and Eli are a some of the most interesting characters to come out of the western genre. Charlie simmers with anger. Eli ooze regret. The brothers bicker like an old married couple but they have each other’s backs when needed – and if often is. But no matter how much sympathy we’re feeling for them, Audiard doesn’t shy away from the fact that the guns on their hips are used to commit murder, for money. Their morals are for sale to the highest bidder. It makes them complex, and eminently watchable.

 

TIFF18: Hotel Mumbai

On November 26, 2008, 10 members of a terrorist organization stormed Mumbai, targeting multiple busy, touristy places for maximum impact. They set off bombs and shot wildly into crowds. They entered the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and kept guests there hostage for four days. Many died. Hotel Mumbai is the story of that hotel’s siege, and of the people trapped inside, waiting to die.

MV5BMjMzMTAyMDEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODQ5NTQ0MTI@._V1_Arjun (Dev Patel) is part of the wait staff at the prestigious hotel restaurant. He misses out on serving one of the night’s big spending VIPs, Vasili (Jason Isaacs) when it’s discovered by his boss that he forgot his proper shoes at home. Guest is God, Arjun is reminded, but instead of going home for the night, he borrows ill-fitting shoes and will spend the next 4 days regretting it deeply.

Beautiful Zahra is also dining among the guests that evening, newly arrived in Mumbai after a shotgun wedding to David (Armie Hammer) and the subsequent birth of their child. David is awestruck by the hotel’s luxury, but as they cower behind an upturned table when the shooting starts, the thread count of the tablecloth hardly matters as the new parents panic about the status of their newborn in an upstairs suite with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Hotel Mumbai is tense pretty much from its second or third minute, and it never lets up. It’s difficult to sustain such a pace – difficult for actors, for film makers, and for the hearts of all who watch. 125 minutes is a long time to be hanging on the edge of your seat, jaw clenched, barely remembering to breathe. But the cast collectively does such a good job reminding us that these are real people: people tired from travel, people just trying to earn a pay cheque, people just wanting to make it home alive to their families and friends who are watching events unfold at home, helplessly.

The stakes are of course very high as Hotel Mumbai does not flinch away from the unspeakable violence. The script of course dials up tension with the addition of a baby who could cry at any moment, giving them away to killers with no conscience. But for me it was the hotel workers, people who are paid a pittance to treat their guests like actual gods, who could have escaped themselves but chose instead to stay behind to help keep their guests safe. That said, I did wonder why, out of the 164 people dead and 308 wounded, the film chooses to focus on 3 white people, possibly the only 3 white people there. Does director Anthony Maras not trust that I will be sufficiently horrified by the deaths of brown people?

I’m a little squeamish about what this means. The movie criticizes the Indian government for inadequate resources and features a throw-away white English lady who accuses her rescuers who “speak their [the terrorists’] language” and wear turbans, of being terrorists themselves. Is this enough commentary on the inherent racism of such a movie? This story should be about the many Indian men and women who died that day, and the Indian heroes who helped others to survive. But it’s hard to believe in that premise when the camera lingers longingly on action hero Armie Hammer, while brown people fall behind him, like extras in their own movie.

TIFF18: Boy Erased

Jared is a good guy. He goes to church with is parents, where his father is the pastor. He plays on the high school basketball team. He’s kind to his girlfriend. But when he gets to collage, the world isn’t quite so good to him in return. He makes fast friends with a fellow runner, but that leads to a surprise sexual tryst one night that the other guy can’t live with. So, he tries to destroy Jared’s life, forcibly outing him to his deeply religious parents.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) respects his parents (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) so he goes to gay conversion camp as instructed, in the hopes that they can turn him straight.  Conversion therapy is nuts. I mean, it just is, on principle. What kind of whack jobs really believed this would work? And what kind of whack jobs wanted it to? It would almost MV5BMjQ4MDM0MjMxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTkzNzY1NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1555,1000_AL_make a handy queer dating service, as it is probably the biggest concentration of homosexual folk any of these kids has seen before, if it wasn’t so nasty and abusive. That’s what it really boils down to. The head instructor, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), blames your “problem” on some member of your family who made you gay. He wants you to pick someone to focus your anger on. He wants you to learn to “act” “straight” (did you know that the triangle is the straightest shape?). He focuses on behaviour – if you stop playing football, you are no longer a football player. Problem solved.

I mean, this whole thesis feels strangely out of date. Why is Hollywood still trying to convince people that gay is okay? I think societally we’ve moved past this point, except all these scripts that have been languishing for years are only now getting produced, and they’re already obsolete. You have to check out indie cinema to see some truly of-the-moment lgbt themes. But okay, gay conversion therapy is a horror. Of course it is. But the thing that’s great about Boy Erased is that Jared is such a strong character. Everyone and everything in his life is trying to make him feel wrong and ashamed and dirty, but he doesn’t. When he confirms to his parents that he thinks about men, he knows it goes against everything they believe, but it doesn’t seem like he’s internalized that self-hatred. It can’t be easy, in that house particularly, to know that his very being is not only repugnant but blasphemous to the people he loves most. And yet when he consents to the therapy, it’s for them, not for him. We never get the sense that he believes he needs to change. And that’s kind of astonishing to see.

Eventually Jared need to come to terms with disappointing the people he loves. And maybe he’ll need to cut out the people who are adding toxicity to his life. Those are hard choices, but they’re the right ones. This movie is really more about his parents needing to learn that they’re the idiots, and they’re the ones in need of education and re-conditioning. But while Nicole Kidman, in all her church lady big-hair, bejeweled glory, sort of comes around, there’s not a lot of remorse on the part of Russell Crowe’s character. And that’s where the movie falls short. Jared is surprisingly at ease with himself but the movie doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Director Joel Edgerton, perhaps unsurprisingly, spends more time on his own character, than he does on the ones with real influence in this story.

Boy Erased is a good, competent little movie that will fail to make a big impression.

TIFF18: The Hate U Give

It’s a sad sign of the times that police shooting an unarmed black man seem to be one of the unofficial themes of TIFF’s 2018 program much like tennis was last year.

Starr Carter (a sensational Amandla Stenberg) lives in a poor black neighbourhood but goes to school in an affluent white part of town. Starr Version Two- the censored version of herself that her friends see- can’t quote hip hop lyrics like her white friends do all the time because “when they do it, they sound cool. When I do it, I sound ghetto”. Moments after reconnecting with a black childhood friend at a party in her neighbourhood, the two are pulled over by a white police officer which quickly and tragically ends with her friend getting shot and killed.

Not only does Starr now have a lot of grief and trauma to work through. Her once compartmentalized life has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated as she- the only witness to the shotting- starts getting pulled in every direction. Everyone, from the kids at school to the local gang leader (Anthony Mackie) to Starr’s cop uncle (Common), has an opinion that they’re not shy to share and some are all too happy to resort to threats and even violence.

Whereas Reinaldo Marcus Green’s excellent Monsters and Men was a thoughtful and nuanced indie, The Hate U Give works a lot harder at being accessible to a more mainstream audience. Our introduction to Starr’s life and the world around here is often funny and Starr and her family are immediately easy to like and root for. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt one bit either. Things are obviously a lot less fun once shots are fired and Starr’s friend is killed but The Hate U Give is still the kind of movie that seeks to entertain while it makes us think and feel.

The Hate U Give hooked me much quicker than Monsters and Men did. Monsters and Men needs time to sink in. It doesn’t aim for big dramatic scenes and speeches like The Hate U Give does. The Hate U Give pays a bit of a price for its more mainstream approach. Because it always feels like a movie albeit an extremely effective one. Some parts seem a little too contrived while others are a little over-simplified.

There’s a place for both movies. Monsters and Men was a great conversation starter is a mostly satisfying and cathartic emotional experience. It’s just that I fell in love with this movie over the first half or so and somewhere along the way I lost some enthusiasm for it.

TIFF18: Papi Chulo

Sean the weatherman has a meltdown on the air, so he’s sent home for some mandatory personal time off. His partner left him recently, and left a large, unpainted circle on their deck to boot. Pretty, soft-hands Sean (Matt Bomer) is out of his element in the hardware store. He buys the paint with help but the actual painting doesn’t go well, so the next day he trolls the lineup of available day workers and brings home Ernesto.

Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) doesn’t speak English and Sean doesn’t speak Spanish. Odd couple alert!

The thing about this movie is, it sounds pretty light and predictable. And it is. But that doesn’t do it justice, because in fact it was one of my favourite movies at the festival. And maybe that’s because 90% of the movies I saw were depressing as shit and this one comes with a hint of optimism. But it’s the movie that I needed without knowing I needed it, and I felt like a life line.MV5BMTg1ODNhODQtMTQ3YS00OTY4LTk2OGItZDExZTNiM2VlMWU5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQ1MTYzNzY@._V1_

 

Poor Sean. His friends and coworkers see him floundering and all agree that he needs to talk to someone, but to Sean, the act of doing so is the same as admitting that he’s alone and things are bad. He can’t. But he does find himself opening up to Ernesto. Ernesto who continues to be paid $20 an hour for “painting” finds himself hiking the canyons instead, and posing for Instagram pics. Although it looks like friendship, Sean is using Ernesto in at least 2 strange ways:

 

  1. As a therapist. A therapist who is easy to talk to because he can’t understand him, thus there is no fear of judgement.
  2. As a replacement boyfriend. Sean has Ernesto doing couple-y things, like renting a boat to row around the lake, and going to parties where he lets everyone assume they’re dating.

It’s not a great pretext for a relationship of any kind, but it’s done with such sweetness from both sides it’s hard to condemn…until it inevitably escalates. But your heart aches because on some level we all understand this awkward reaching out, the inability to call it what it really is, the denial and the loss that motivates it.

Matt Bomer is very vulnerable in this, he teeters between faux-cheeriness and complete abandon and at times we’re scared for him because he feels like our friend and we see him spinning out. Alejandro Patiño is great too – the perfect mix of skeptical and concerned. I love these two together so much that I don’t want the movie to end. I don’t want Sean to get better, to outgrow a friendship I understand is toxic for him. This movie makes me selfish because it has entertained me and sustained my soul during a dark day of movie watching. Papi Chulo is a huggable movie, perfect for watching in bed with a big bag of pretzels.