by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 1: Nomadland, One Night in Miami, American Utopia

September 14, 2020
Credit: TIFF

Nomadland

Having just taken the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Nomadland begins its journey towards Oscar gold. That’s admittedly a flip assessment of a film that takes to the fringes of American life: Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction work of the same name, the film surveys a demographic of older American workers who hit the road after their lives were decimated by the 2008 recession, though it focuses mainly on Fern, a tenacious, sixty-something widow and lifelong worker played by Frances McDormand. But pointing out Nomadland’s awards-season aspirations — after its fall-festival run, it will be distributed by Searchlight Pictures in December — is at least one way of accounting for its diffuse, rather incoherent vision, which is all the more unexpected given the assured, parable-like simplicity of director Chloé Zhao’s previous film, The Rider. Here, McDormand’s Fern partakes in what we are reminded is a long tradition of American itinerants and drifters — a tradition that the film rightly questions, observing her stubborn, at times individualistic pride alongside the allure of the open road. But with its clumsy dramatic embellishments (a pro forma love interest) and kitschy, faux-lyrical interludes (aided and abetted by DP Joshua James Richards and composer Ludovico Einaudi), Nomadland is a reminder that ambivalence is not at all the same thing as complexity, and that in avoiding one tired convention, one might simply end up indulging in another.

To the extent that the film succeeds, it is due to Zhao’s attention to oral storytelling traditions, which have informed all of her directorial work thus far. Across the film, there’s a keen attention to the spoken word, and for a time, Nomadland even looks as if it might play out as a series of swapped stories and covert confessions, a set of tales told by the fire. (As one man opines to Fern, a good way to know a place is through AA meetings.) Likewise, though Fern is no on-the-road Kerouac figure, she nonetheless displays an affection for poetry, which in the film’s most successful scene, she passes on to a young, lovelorn, Wisconsin-born drifter. That Zhao eventually pivots away from this glancing raconteur’s approach is no fault in itself. That she does so by developing a would-be romance between Fern and fellow nomad David (David Strathairn), thereby creating a conventional conflict between domestic companionship and itinerant solitude, is more cause for concern. The issue, though, is not so much what Fern eventually decides, as that the film so inelegantly tries to force a decision to begin with. A closing card dedicates Nomadland to “the ones who had to depart,” so it’s a bit odd that the film’s sense of urgency seems to dissipate as it unfolds. By the end, even Fern’s decision seems not to matter much, leaving one to wonder instead about those for whom the life-or-death necessity of taking to the road is really no choice at all. Lawrence Garcia


One Night in Miami

The strength of Regina King’s directorial debut lies largely outside of her influence. Rather, One Night in Miami generates what power it does from its complex and painful portrait of the imperfect and impossible options afforded to Black Americans during Civil Rights-era America. For better and worse, this adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play retains the repartee-heavy style of its source material, featuring the differing (and, in some cases, antipodal) ideologies of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. The fictional narrative is inspired by a real event — on February 25, 1964, the four real-life friends congregate following the then-Cassius Clay’s upset championship victory over Sonny Liston — and proceeds to imagine an evening not of carousing, but of painful philosophizing on the plight of African Americans and specifically the moral obligation of Black men in positions of power and cultural influence. This angle is particularly relevant in 2020: not only are black athletes and celebrities speaking out against systemic injustice with an urgency unseen since, well, Muhammad Ali, but the film also follows on the footsteps of Netflix’s The Last Dance, in which Michael Jordan’s relationship to black activism features heavily (King’s film similarly shares a deep spiritual kinship with O.J.: Made in America).

In retaining the debate-driven fundament of Powers’ source material, King relies heavily on viewer expectations of resolution. In this way, One Night in Miami draws on the modern American drama tradition of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams: we know there will be no agreeable adjudication, but watching the course to that conclusion play out, with linguistic acuity, is both intellectually stimulating and necessarily agonizing, particularly as a refutation of a neoliberal American society taught to applaud minor progress in the face of persistent and aggressive inequity. Here, that is accomplished by siloing various competing ideological responses to systemic racism — militant resistance, economic freedom, assimilative excellence — to the four principals, allowing them to explicate to each other, first with confidence and even aggression, and then with increasing desperation, making palpable the inconceivability of finding a way forward in a society so set against them.

What prevents One Night in Miami from fully excelling, then, is that it does little to distinguish itself as a film in its own right. There are suggestions of a confident directorial voice: in an early scene, after introducing the larger-than-life personas and dropping a title card twenty minutes in, King slows things down for a powerful pre-fight prayer shared between Malcolm X and Ali, the deep bass recitations of the men suggesting a weight of conviction that lies outside the scope of religion. And later, following Ali’s upset, the camera keeps cutting back to a dynamic overhead shot that captures the boxer’s team trailing him across the square ring in celebration, their collective movement like the train of his robe whipping past. But once the film settles into the rhythms of the play’s conversational gymnastics, all cinematic distinction prostrates itself to the project’s theatrical origins. The result is often powerful and certainly necessary, but there’s an incongruousness that prevents One Night in Miami from fully realizing the righteous, complex anger it should so rightly possess. Luke Gorham


David Byrne’s American Utopia

In the midst of the annus horribilis of 2020, with the US still being ravaged by a global pandemic, all manner of racial strife, a severe economic crisis, and a supremely mendacious and inhumane presidential administration lording over it all, releasing a film entitled American Utopia would seem to be a bitter, ironic joke. That this is in fact not the case is a testament to the singular achievements of the work’s creators, director Spike Lee and musician David Byrne, who have crafted one of the most transcendent experiences to be found on any size of screen this year. American Utopia is based on Byrne’s Broadway show of the same name, and in the hands of Lee, cinematographer Ellen Kuras, and editor Adam Gough, it becomes a thrilling cinematic experience: the camera swoops above, underneath and in between the performers, affording a unique and electric view that would be impossible to experience as an in-person spectator.

Byrne made his previous indelible impression on cinema as frontman for Talking Heads in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, arguably the greatest concert film ever made, and so it follows that some elements of American Utopia can’t help but be interpreted as conscious callbacks to that earlier masterwork. It opens, just like Demme’s film, with Byrne alone on the stage, only here he’s singing his opening number “Here” to a plastic model of the human brain, marveling in song about its intricate connections and functions. Afterward, Byrne observes that babies have more neural connections than adults, and he defines growing up as the process of losing neurons, paring down to our precisely-sculpted identities. The songs that follow constitute a continuation of that narrative, exploring what is lost in this maturation process, and especially in our connections to fellow human beings. The gradual introduction of Byrne’s band also recalls Stop Making Sense, here eventually revealing the 11 musicians accompanying him. However, this is no mere backup band; they are equal collaborators and co-stars with Byrne, all barefooted and dressed in an identical style of blue-gray suit, a toned-down analog to the iconic big white suit of Stop Making Sense

The musical selections in Lee’s film combine tracks from the American Utopia album with some Talking Heads favorites: notably “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place,” and “Born Under Punches,” among others. However, the film’s visual and emotional centerpiece comes not from a Byrne composition, but from a rousing cover of Janelle Monae’s blistering protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which exhorts the listener to say the names of Black people murdered by police and other self-appointed authorities: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and “too many others,” as Lee plasters on the screen in red letters at the end of the sequence. Lee supplements the song and performance with an incredibly moving montage of photos of these martyrs to racial injustice, some of them held by their surviving loved ones. From here, American Utopia quickly moves into its conclusion, with Byrne and his collaborators stepping off the stage, performing an ecstatic rendition of the Talking Heads classic “Road to Nowhere” as they dance among the audience. At the end of this joyous, life-affirming experience, we’re left with hope that the road to nowhere will lead to a much better destination than the one we’ve all so far been forced to travel. Christopher Bourne


Akilla’s Escape

Akilla’s Escape begins with a long montage sequence of archival photos set to the pulsating vibes of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Punky Reggae Party.” It’s essentially a brief history of Jamaican politics in the second half of the 20th Century, with the rise of Michael Manley’s PNP (Peoples National Party) and its embrace of democratic socialist principles, as well as the violent struggle that sprung up around this populist movement. There’s archival footage of Castro (Manley normalized relations with Cuba), as well as a headline trumpeting “CIA & Seaga Destabilize Maley’s PNP,” referring to Manley’s chief rival, Edward Seaga, and his Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). Invoking America’s dark history of destabilizing burgeoning socialist nations, and assisting in coups and assassinations, is a lot of history to pack into the opening credits of a movie, particularly when it has virtually nothing to do with what follows. After a brief prologue set in New York City in 1995, in which we meet a 15-year-old Akilla (Thamela Mpumlwana) and discover that his father has died under mysterious circumstances, we skip forward to present-day Toronto. Akilla is now a middle-aged man, played by Saul Williams, who runs a greenhouse that grows weed. Marijuana is about to become legal, and Akilla wants out of the game, refusing to work for the federal government and large corporations that are moving in to take over these now legitimate operations. Akilla goes to meet with his bosses and interrupts a robbery in progress. He manages to knock one of the thieves out, while the others escape with their ill-gotten gains. When Akilla discovers that the incapacitated robber is just a young boy (he’s named Shepherd, and is also played by Thamela Mpumlwana), it triggers flashbacks to his own youth, with teenage Akilla struggling against his abusive, militant father, who happens to run a large gang that is involved in both drugs and, it is insinuated, political killings. 

It’s all frightfully cliché, with amateurish acting and occasionally incompetent direction from Charles Officer. The film resembles nothing so much as an early 2000s direct-to-VHS thriller, with a patina of social consciousness slathered on top. Williams, a talented musician known for starring in the 1998 Sundance winner Slam, as well as his poetry and political writings, strikes an imposing figure on screen, but is entirely hampered by a mediocre script. The film stops cold when characters are forced to deliver dry exposition, and Officer blocks and frames conversations in standard shot-counter-shot, sucking all the energy out of these scenes. Officer fares better in the more laid-back flashback sequences, aided immeasurably by the ferociously talented Mpumlwana, who plays both young Akilla and Shepperd as coiled bundles of barely-contained rage. The film clearly wants to make a statement about cycles of violence, with Akilla desperate to save this boy and, by extension, himself, but the film is flat and generic in execution. Mashing together a gangster story and a coming of age story gives each short shrift; instead of commenting on and enhancing each other, it’s just two sets of clichés for the price of one. Daniel Gorman


180° Rule

After the international success of Asghar Farhadi’s socio-familial, “realist” dramas, there were a litany of Iranian films that tried to copy the winning formula of his work. It’s certainly a trendy schematic, but one that already feels worn-out. Unfortunately, Farnoosh Samadi’s debut feature, 180° Rule, is yet another in this lineage, one which adopts the narrative mechanisms and recycles the themes, tone, and mood of About Elly and A Separation in an admittedly simpler, low-key approach — there are fewer twists and less self-conscious complexity and filters its story through a distinctly feminine lens. The plot centers around an Iranian middle-class couple, Sara and Hamed, who, without any obvious problem in their marriage, seem to have become cold and distant with each other. When Sara decides to attend a wedding (in a northern province of the country) with her young daughter against her husband’s wishes, it’s not hard to predict how this act will lead to tragedy, and how the wedding celebrations will shortly turn into mourning. It’s at this point that Farhadi’s influence is most keenly felt: recurring motifs of culpability and grief abound, truths are concealed, and his familiar fascination with the concept of being both guilty and innocent at the same moment is invoked (the film’s title refers to the notion of shared judgment, from different perspectives). All of this allows Samadi to toss her characters into the turmoil of personal suffering and domestic lawsuits, including a minor subplot about a student who attempts suicide after an unwanted pregnancy which functions as a sort-of mirror of Sara’s struggles. 

 The problem with 180° Rule, then, is that it proves so difficult to say much about Samadi’s directorial instincts. It’s a perhaps unfairly harsh criticism to lodge against a debut work, but the film is too content to work from an outmoded template, never aspiring to more than rotely going about its script and keeping everything in plain sight for the audience. Samadi’s film lacks any expressive layers, and its few attempts at composing interesting mise-en-scène are executed with a superficial exoticism (such as in the wedding scene). Put differently, very little here feels authentic. But if cribbing Farhadi is the desired stratagem here, then attempting to emulate the director’s ability to coax deeply naturalist performances from his casts would help matters; instead, in Samadi’s film, this is where things get even worse. The performances are frustratingly inert: there is no chemistry developed between these one-dimensional characters, with the leads content to alternate between faintly mumbling dialogue and indulging in actorly histrionics, frequently building scenes around crying, quarreling, screaming, and physical fighting. But even this falls flat, and instead heavy make-up is leaned on as a means to express the state of a character’s misery and melancholy. Indeed, Samadi exhibits this instinct for shallow sentimentality throughout most of the film, nowhere more egregious than when Sara’s young daughter sings an old, nostalgic Persian song immediately before a tragic accident. Samadi’s film was programmed to TIFF’s Discovery section, and there’s a deep irony in that: 180° Rule is a film that does nothing if not try to reinvent the wheel. Ayeen Forootan

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