'If Beale Street Could Talk' wraps Toronto in a loving embrace, while 'High Life' and 'First Man' probe new frontiers

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in the movie "If Beale Street Could Talk." (TIFF)

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is underway (Sept. 6-16), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there on the ground, seeing as many movies as possible and keeping a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from Day 1 to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

There are more than a few love stories being told in Barry Jenkins’ exquisite new movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which had its world premiere Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. First and foremost, there is the romance of 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), who grew up together in Harlem and have recently become engaged, sometime during the early 1970s.

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There is also the steadfast loyalty that binds family members together, even under the direst circumstances. Tish is loved most ferociously and unconditionally by her mother, Sharon (a magnificent Regina King), who intervenes forcefully on Fonny’s behalf when he is falsely accused of rape and thrown in jail, just a few months before Tish realizes she is pregnant with his child.

But “If Beale Street Could Talk” might just as well be described as a love letter to the color spectrum — to the ravishing visual possibilities of gold autumn leaves and dusky-blue New York streets. It’s about Jenkins’ love for his myriad influences, among them writer and civil-rights activist James Baldwin, who wrote the 1974 novel on which the picture is based, and filmmakers including Douglas Sirk, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai.

Wong, in particular, is all but enshrined in this picture’s cafe interludes and dreamy whorls of cigarette smoke, shot in heart-stopping slow motion. Are you in the mood for love yet? Jenkins’ movie will put you there.

This referencing of some of our finest cinematic artists isn’t some pretentious affectation; it’s crucial to the way Jenkins sees his characters and the world they inhabit. It positions his vision of black lives and black cinema within a democracy of global images, giving “Beale Street” a sensibility that is both erudite and egalitarian.

The Wong influence (among others) loomed just as heavily over Jenkins’ 2016 film, “Moonlight,” a lyrical masterpiece about a shy young black man growing up gay and poor in Miami. That movie — which, like this one, was shot by cinematographer James Laxton — played here in Toronto two years ago, after which it became a critics’ darling and won the Oscar for best picture.

To say that expectations were high for Jenkins’ follow-up would be putting it mildly; to make too much of those expectations would be a mistake. “If Beale Street Could Talk” isn’t “Moonlight,” and it isn’t trying to be. It’s more ensemble piece than character study, a study of devotion and constancy rather than loneliness and neglect.

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The story jumps around in time, freely interweaving social history and personal memory. Its slow-building emotional crescendo is dispersed among a rich and memorable array of characters, vividly acted by Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis and Brian Tyree Henry, among others. (Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal and Dave Franco are also excellent in small supporting roles.)

Notably, the politically barbed empathy that crept up so subtly around the edges of “Moonlight” has here burst into full, forceful bloom. Jenkins uses old archival photographs and Baldwin’s own indelible words to reflect at length on the turbulent history of black life in America, on its cruel legacies of racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration, of which Fonny has become the latest victim. He contrasts these harsh black-and-white images with his own lush-hued portraiture, often shooting Layne and James head-on and lighting them as though from within, offering the viewer an X-ray into their very souls.

There are times when the lyricism falters, when Jenkins’ vision feels momentarily stretched beyond the limits of what it can properly express. But that might be another way of saying that his love for his story and his subjects has temporarily burst the boundaries of the medium, as well it might. There is a powerful tension at work in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” between the harsh, unsentimental realism of its story and the optimistic, even utopian glow that Jenkins and Laxton throw around their characters, as if they were urging us to see the world both as it is and as it could be.

That tension finds perfect expression in a final shot that I won’t give away, except to note that it achieves a wondrously harmonious balance: distanced yet intimate, heartbreaking yet restorative, a reminder of the goodness we can and must find in every moment, and of the injustice that makes goodness necessary.

Robert Pattinson in the movie "High Life." (TIFF)

“That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

I heard someone mutter those words on the way out of the world premiere of Claire Denis’ “High Life,” which is not only not the worst movie I’ve ever seen but also easily one of the best movies I’ve seen here in Toronto. That a fellow audience member had more or less the opposite reaction was cause for neither surprise nor alarm; on the contrary, it reminded me that one viewer’s hyperbolic anger can be a reliable indicator that a masterwork has presented itself, or at least something very special.

And I get the anger, up to a point. Denis is one of our greatest living filmmakers (and another of Jenkins’ major stylistic influences), but if you’re new to her work, the elliptical syntax and dreamlike intensity of her filmmaking might well leave you feeling perplexed — or seduced, or a queasy mix of both. Denis’ forays into the darker recesses of human experience — check out her savage 2013 noir, “Bastards,” if you have the stomach — don’t just rattle or disturb; they can make you feel as if something has blotted out the sun. Even her lighter movies cast a disorienting spell, leaving you feeling as if you’d tumbled down a hole or overdosed on psychotropics.

Speaking of which: “High Life” is a trip and a half. It’s a strange, transporting and disquietingly intimate drama set almost entirely in outer space, aboard a dingy space craft that bears witness to intense scenes of physical and sexual violence. As such, it’s not necessarily the first Denis film I’d recommend you see.

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Then again, for adventurous newbies, it might be the ideal gateway drug: It’s the director’s first English-language production, it stars Robert Pattinson, it features spare but astoundingly lovely visual effects, and its story, while nonlinear in construction, is entirely comprehensible compared with, say, her enigmatic 2005 film, “The Intruder.”

Pattinson — going from strength to art-house strength — plays a space traveler named Monte, though few people actually call him that. He is referred to as “Daddy” by an adorable infant girl who, as the movie opens, appears to be his sole companion on board a ship flying well beyond the limits of our solar system. Flashbacks reveal an earlier and not always happier time, when Monte shared the ship’s cramped quarters with a crew of misfits and crooks, some of them death-row inmates, who agreed to be cast into space as part of a government science experiment.

Juliette Binoche plays a controlling, vaguely sinister doctor who is obsessed with human reproduction, with ensuring that even in this singularly unpromising environment, human life survives. What that means, practically speaking, is a system of routine sperm donations and artificial inseminations from which Monte, the on-board “monk,” abstains from participating. But his self-control seems to bring out the baser instincts in his crew mates — except Tcherny, played by a terrific André Benjamin — as the ship bears them onward toward a distant black hole, a destination that takes on ever more kinkily suggestive overtones.

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I won’t say too much about some of the ship’s more intriguing on-board amenities, or the degree to which the movie juxtaposes a story of rampant sexual predation with a mood of simmering erotic tension. “High Life” can be brutal and breathtakingly perverse as only a Denis film can be. But perhaps even more disturbingly, that brutality is undergirded by real warmth and tenderness, particularly in the scenes of Monte raising the baby, whose provenance is one of the film’s gradually unwinding mysteries.

One shot in particular briefly references, and deranges, the Star Child sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As you watch “High Life,” its aura of doomy isolation might also remind you of science-fiction classics like “Stalker,” “Silent Running” and “Alien,” to which Denis has responded with her own singular, staggering leap into the void. She’s a marvelous filmmaker, which is to say that nothing human is alien to her.

Ryan Gosling in the movie "First Man." (TIFF)

In Toronto, and also in theaters all over the world, “High Life” will likely command a mere fraction of the audience for another astronaut drama, “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s portrait of Neil Armstrong and his 1969 walk on the moon. The picture stars Ryan Gosling, who previously starred in the director’s 2016 musical, “La La Land,” and his performance as Armstrong is a fascinating exercise in self-containment.

It’s a thoughtful, self-effacing star turn that feels true to our understanding of Armstrong as the least showy, least demonstrative of heroes — someone who, although forever associated with one of the most famous sentences broadcast around the world, did far much more than he said. (The movie was adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s Armstrong biography.)

Gosling sets the tone for a movie that takes the most out-of-this-world true story imaginable — and daringly, even radically internalizes it. “First Man” offers a compressed history of the U.S.-Soviet space race, of the behind-the-scenes workings at NASA during the 1960s and the resistance it encountered from the government and the public, especially after early tests resulted in the deaths of some of Armstrong’s colleagues.

But our focus remains almost entirely on the man himself: We register his discomfort with the spotlight, his unshakable focus on the upcoming Apollo 11 mission, his quiet mastery of the mechanics of space travel, and most of all, his unarticulated grief over the death of his young daughter, Karen.

The impulse to cast an epic voyage in intimate, personal terms is an excellent one, though I must say that I like the idea behind “First Man” more than I ultimately like “First Man.” Much of the picture is shot in intense closeups with a juddering handheld camera, a choice that evokes NASA’s rickety and experimental early technology (“making models out of balsa wood,” in the angry words of Armstrong’s wife, Janet, played by a fine Claire Foy). It’s an intriguing but wearyingly monotonous visual decision that, up until the moment of the actual moon landing, doesn’t always flatter the Imax format in which the movie first screened for Toronto audiences.

That actual moon sequence, however, is astonishing: After so much muted imagery, the picture drops us into a spectacle of such stirring, screen-filling grandeur, it’s like watching Dorothy open the door to Oz for the first time. It must be said too that the sequence shames the imbecilic controversy that sprang up after the movie’s premiere screenings at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, regarding the filmmakers’ decision not to depict the actual moment when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon.

Chazelle has actually framed this part of Armstrong’s journey with enormous visual care. Contrary to the remarks of various naysayers (among them Sen. Marco Rubio) who chose to denounce a movie they hadn’t even seen, you do see the flag, standing clearly and visibly on the moon’s surface. But the meaning of that shot is entirely in the way Chazelle frames it, the way he shows this emblem of U.S. pride being overshadowed, even dwarfed, by the vastness and desolation of this new frontier.

Whatever its missteps, “First Man” represents a principled attempt to reconsider what heroism looks and sounds like, to think beyond the reductive rah-rah parameters that have led so many to confuse jingoism with art. Armstrong, we’re told in scene after scene, didn’t trumpet his accomplishments or call attention to his own greatness. The movie’s detractors might be expected to understand that. But, of course, they’d actually have to see it first.

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