TIFF Diary, Day 1: 'Loving,' 'Magnificent Seven,' 'Salesman,' 'Jean of the Joneses'
Linda Holmes is filing dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival. These movies will see wider release in the coming months.
It's a challenge to make a compelling drama about a civil rights case that produced a result now taken for granted: Loving v. Virginia established that it was a violation of the U.S. Constitution for a state to prohibit interracial marriage. Such a film can seem like one big nod of agreement over how terrible a thing was that we don't do anymore, and that doesn't always make for a strong narrative.
June 1967, when Loving was decided, was really not so long ago — we're only about twice as far from the Loving decision as we are from Home Alone 2. But writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) takes a personal approach to the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested in 1958 in Virginia, where they lived, after getting married in D.C. where it was legal. His interest in the close-up view of their marriage, and how it was complicated and challenged by a decade living under Virginia's antimiscegenation statute, helps keep the film out of the realm of the distant historical parable. There are more angles here than there is even time to fully explore: how does Richard's position as the white person in a 1958 American interracial marriage intersect with his position as the husband in a 1958 American heterosexual marriage? How are they differently affected by their case?
Nichols stays right with the Lovings, following them from their marriage and arrest in 1958 until their Supreme Court victory nine years later, with refreshingly little screen time devoted to court proceedings. Their initial arrest is frightening for the anger with which it's carried out; Nichols presents local law enforcement as not only racist and opposed to interracial marriage but also irate at the Lovings' very defiance. What emerges in this telling of the story is that arresting a couple asleep in their bed is not only about racist ideas regarding marriage and family but about the very tendency of power structures to exert power to prove they still have it — and to crush even the smallest, most personal, most bothering-nobody rebellion before it can take root. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are just right as Mildred and Richard, who rarely have the kinds of conversations they would have in most films of this kind. What doesn't need to be made explicit is not made explicit: they don't talk about why they don't divorce because it's evident that they never would; they don't talk about letting go of living in Virginia because they never could.
Despite the dramatic limitations of such an unambiguous good guy/bad guy dynamic, it's a good and thoughtful film, with a nice and unexpected turn from Nick Kroll as the Lovings' inexperienced but tenacious first constitutional lawyer. Michael Shannon, too, shows up briefly in a perfect little stretch as the Life photographer who took some of the most famous photos of the Lovings. Resonances with recent debates about same-sex marriage and with issues of race are abundant. It was not that long ago.
The Magnificent Seven
Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) rounds up Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and more for a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which was itself a remake of Seven Samurai. In the early going, the film is carried by Washington and Pratt's laid-back charisma, even as townsfolk say silly townsfolk things like (if I recall correctly) "We are simple farmers!" while recruiting them to round up a gang and help defeat an evil robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who has taken over their little town with the help of a small army of brutes. More guys join the squad, eventually including Hawke as a one-time military sharpshooter and Byung-hun Lee as his buddy; Vincent D'Onofrio as, in one character's words, a bear dressed like a person; Martin Sensmeier as a young man sent away from his Comanche tribe to find a new path; and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as an outlaw Washington's warrant officer was looking for to arrest but now is looking to hire.
There's an appealing caper-movie feeling to the scenes where more and more colorful characters enter the picture — it feels like Oceans 11 or, heck, The Muppet Movie. And the preparation by an inexperienced town for battle with what's expected to be a large army of bad guys is a lot of fun, too. (I will avoid two Home Alone references in one day, but just barely.) Unfortunately, while it's obviously a gunfight movie and lots of gunfights are to be expected, it eventually can't rise above the sheer weight and repetitiveness of not only its shootings but also its stabbings, slashings, stranglings, hatchetings, and so forth. If one gunfight kills ten people, then the next has to kill 50, and the next has to kill hundreds, and eventually, numbness settles in. The film is much longer at two hours and 12 minutes than it needs to be, and there's little reason for it except to make room for the body count. It's hard not to feel like you want to watch these guys be cowboys together in a movie that's maybe 30 percent less punishing. It eventually reaches for emotion and a backstory for Washington's righteous stand against Sarsgaard, but frankly, it's exactly the backstory that movies like this always have, so don't hold your breath to be surprised.
A note: This film is rated PG-13. That fact alone should set off a public debate over a ratings system under which you can kill hundreds of people in gruesome ways and be PG-13 as long as you tell the dangerous lie that killiing can be bloodless, but if you say the wrong swear word one too many times in a love story, you get an R. This has to stop; this is ludicrous, and this film is a living, breathing (killing, murdering) embodiment of the problem made (bloody, tattered) flesh. You don't have to be offended by anything in particular to recognize that any ratings system that would thumbs-uppily send a 15-year-old to The Magnificent Seven but balk at sending one to Mike Birbiglia's kind, creative Don't Think Twice (which landed an R) has much to answer for and should be sent back for revisions.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) returns with another story about a marriage. Here, Emad and Rana suffer a frightening break-in at their Tehran apartment, which eats at them in different ways. At the same time, they're appearing together in a production of Death Of A Salesman, so they're required not only to live in their marriage, but to live in a fictional one in front of strangers every night. It's hard to talk very much about the story without revealing things you're better off not knowing, but Emad's desire to respond to the intrusion and do something about it, and Rana's inability to fully explain what happened, start to pull at the trust between them. Emad (played by Shahab Hosseini, who won Best Actor at Cannes) wants to pursue the perpetrators more than Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) does.
Farhadi isn't really focused on the break-in itself as much as he's focused on the relationship and on the ways that small miscommunications create cracks between people and those cracks only get worse as trust starts to erode. Every strange event in the film proceeds credibly based on what we know about these characters, who lose their bearings bit by bit as their neighborhood literally (no, literally) begins to collapse.
Taut domestic dramas like this play such a limited role in the American filmmaking that makes its way to my eye that their pleasures are, for me, largely the province of festivals and other times spent on the work of filmmakers outside the country. The irony, of course, is that there's a long tradition of domestic dramas in American film and theater — Death Of A Salesman, for instance. But here, Farhadi takes the very simple concept of a couple negotiating a marriage and adds the classic movie-plot element of the intruder as well as the experimental feel of showing snippets from the play as Emad and Rana perform it, and comes up with something quiet and compelling.
Jean Of The Joneses
It's always a real delight to find a talky, pleasantly shaggy ensemble film at the end of a festival day; on my first day, it was Jean Of The Joneses. The first feature from writer-director Stella Meghie, it follows Jean (the terrific Taylour Paige), a young writer (The New Yorker has called her "a cultural wunderkind") adrift after a breakup and dithering on her second novel. She adjourns to the house of her grandma to be with her family of women: grandmother Daphne (Michelle Hurst), mother Maureen (Sherri Shepherd), and aunts Janet (Gloria Reuben) and Anne (Erica Ash). When a man unexpectedly shows up and dies in the doorway (it's a long story), the family has to figure out how to proceed, which winds up exposing some family secrets and challenging Jean to move beyond spying on her ex-boyfriend and not writing her next book.
Into the middle of all this comes a young paramedic named Ray, played by Mamoudou Athie — who recently played Grandmaster Flash in Netflix's The Get Down -- giving one of the most effortlessly charming performances by a young male romantic lead I've seen in a while. Ray likes Jean from the beginning, and a funny hallway encounter between Athie and Sherri Shepherd is the kind of little scene that could have been nothing, but the chemistry and the timing make it sing. The cast is strong and the performances are specific, not to mention the fact that sadly, there are times when it feels like you can go days even at some film festivals and not see this many good roles for black women in American movies. It's interesting, too, to watch a scene in which Jean resists, in her small writers' group, the tendency toward writing stories about what she considers the classic literary topics for young black writers, like slavery and poverty. It perhaps goes without saying that slavery and poverty are sometimes classic topics for young black filmmakers as well; Meghie's choice to do an ensemble family story about relatively well-off black Brooklynites may well be the result of a similar impulse.
There are a few bumps in the script — there isn't quite time to fully build either a story about a long-lost family member or the story of Aunt Janet's marriage, so both feel a little underserved, ultimately. But those are small grievances about a film that's warm and funny and thoughtful about people, and one that deserves to make it out of the festival with some hope of being seen. There are people waiting for this movie. I was one.
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