The Curzon Report: TIFF 2018 #2

Our Man in Toronto, Damian Spandley, is back… in Toronto, sending word of the best films soon to play on Curzon screens. In the screening frenzy that is TIFF 2018, Damo (as he is affectionately known) reports on the highlights straight from the festival.

Keep up with Damo’s reports here on the Curzon blog, the first of which can be found here in case you missed his trip to the moon with Damien Chazelle’s First Man.


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight cast a silver light across Toronto two years ago and went on famously to win Academy Awards for Best Picture (eventually), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali). Now he’s adapted James Baldwin’s much-loved 1974 romantic novel set in the racial pressure cooker of period Harlem and Lower East Side, New York City. So no pressure then!

It’s fair to say expectations were high, given the dizzying heights of Moonlight. If Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama sounded like a clarion call for a new era in Black Cinema, then it’s fair to say that If Beale Street Could Talk is more a bold and classy consolidation as opposed to new ground covered. Baldwin’s is a tough novel to transform to the screen, particularly given the eloquence and rhythmic jive of Baldwin's prose, which gives the story a captivating ‘beat’ quality. Of what I’ve read of the novel (about two thirds), a tale of two young lovers wrenched apart by racial injustice at the hands of 1960s New York police, Jenkins’ film is a pretty faithful adaptation, with even the timeline structure mostly intact. And Baldwin’s use of rhythm is there both in spirit and form, recreated in a syncopated editing style and the lifting of dialogue right off the page.

  If Beale Street Could Talk  (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Where the filmmaker can make a difference is in coaxing evocative performances, with authentic and heartfelt turns from the two young leads, as well as supporting cast. And for those expecting a bit more Barry than Baldwin for their buck, If Beale Street Could Talk works best when it breaks free of the novel towards cinematic expression; moments that as a combination pay tribute to Spike Lee (non-exclusively), particularly in the use of face-on head shots that stare into camera, one or two uses of split screen and an evocation of period through music and archive photography.

  If Beale Street Could Talk  (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

  If Beale Street Could Talk  (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If I have one small gripe it’s that the couple in the novel are not conventionally attractive and the Baldwin’s community are poor and shoddily dressed. Jenkins chose to cast beauty and dress his players in stylish, brightly coloured clothes of the period, reinforced by the withdrawal from page to screen of all negative references to looks and clothes.


GREEN BOOK

Featuring another Moonlight alumnus and Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali, and set in the ‘60s, a little earlier than If Beale Street Could Talk, comes a true story and a film with a big personality, Green Book.

As a man who’s built his career on lack of political correctness, it’s beyond surprising to see Peter Farrelly behind the camera of this heartfelt and enjoyable ‘60s period race drama and road movie. A boorish and casually racist Italian American bouncer (Viggo Mortensen), struggling to make ends meet, takes a job driving a highly educated black pianist (Ali) on a tour of the deep south - on a trip of obvious daring, both in the contrast of the men’s personalities and backgrounds, and in the dangers of black privilege on display in the US segregated states of the period. It’s also interesting in that the son of Mortensen’s character wrote the screenplay.

  Green Book  (2018)

Green Book (2018)

The eponymous ‘Green Book’ was a travel - or more appropriately ‘safety’ - guide for black tourists travelling through the south and looking to avoid trouble. The film conforms pretty squarely to the narrative type of ‘different creed’ buddy movies and at times the journey towards racial understanding is over-simplified; but the script is razor sharp and laugh-out-loud funny, and both men are exemplary in their performances. You genuinely root for them and draw pleasure from their on-screen chemistry.

  Green Book  (2018)

Green Book (2018)

Ali oozes class and good manners, with a sense of vulnerability and loneliness (and he surely must play piano to pull off the musical scenes), but Mortensen steals the show as the oafish, hot-headed but loveable Tony Lip, in a big bellied performance that combines elements of his gangster persona in A History Of Violence with the humour and self-improvement of My Cousin Vinny. A genuine crowd-pleaser.

Both films above will feature in Curzon programmes in January 2019.


The Curzon Report

Catch up on past editions of The Curzon Report, covering the Toronto, Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals