Monday, December 24, 2018

Giant Missteps: Roma and If Beale Street Could Talk

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.

During the credits of Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white memory picture about growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, an invisible hand splashes bucket after bucket of water on the tiles of a walled-in terrace attached to the home of a well-to-do family in a neighborhood known as Roma. After the second inundation, a rectangle of light, jagged at the top as if someone had carved a small hunk out of it, appears in the middle of the frame – presumably a piece of sky, as a tiny plane passes through it. It’s a remarkable shot, though Cuarón (who photographed the movie, as well as directing and writing and, with Adam Gough, co-editing it) never explains exactly what we’re seeing – is there a skylight up there? – and we can’t tell what it’s supposed to mean. This quote from the filmmaker from a Variety interview might help: “Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” I said it might help: the liquid is water, not paint, and it reveals the crack rather than attempting to cover it up, and anyway whatever pain is associated with the past for Cuarón presumably resides inside that house, not in the sky above it. Anyway, why should we need to read an interview with him in order to guess how the hell we’re supposed to read this image, which he lingers on for the entire credits sequence? Sitting through Roma, we certainly know one thing: we’re supposed to believe we’re watching art. It’s meticulously made, without a single scene that feels like it wasn’t planned carefully beforehand. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a spontaneous moment where you sense that one of the actors improvised a reaction and Cuarón kept it in the film because it surprised him or because he loved the performer. Roma doesn’t unfold, so we don’t get wrapped up in it; it presents itself to us and we’re there as witnesses to the artistry of its compositions. It’s deadly.

The invisible hand belongs to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two Mixtec (indigenous Mesoamerican) young women employed by the family as domestics, and the movie’s protagonist. During this year, 1971, which is tumultuous for the city (which survives an earthquake and a student protest that turns violent when the police are called in) and for her employers (the father runs off with his mistress), Cleo gets pregnant and her boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), abandons her. Cuarón seems to think he’s making a neorealist movie, but it’s too arranged and the cinematography is too burnished for neorealism, and it’s set in a bourgeois environment. Presumably the pregnant maid without a husband or the prospect of one is a nod to De Sica’s great Umberto D., but that unfortunate young woman (Maria Pia Casilio) knew that as soon as her boss found out she was expecting a baby she’d be tossed out on her ear. Cleo nervously announces her predicament to Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who hugs her and assures her that she won’t have to go through her pregnancy alone and then finds her a good doctor; when Cleo goes into labor in the middle of a department store during the riot (it’s the Corpus Christi Massacre), Sofia’s mother (Véronica García) stays with her as they struggle against the paralyzed traffic to get to the hospital. Bad things happen in the movie, but it’s bathed in the soft light of nostalgia, and Cleo comes across as a Madonna figure, not merely pure of heart (she appears to have no faults) but so heroic that, though she can’t swim, she wades into the surf to save two of the children when they nearly drown. She’s as burnished as the photography.

Playing a role without any qualities except endurance, industriousness and heroism doesn’t do much for the actress. Aparicio is very sweet, but that seems to be the quality Cuarón cast her for; it isn’t the product of real acting, like Linda Cardellini’s sweetness as Viggo Mortensen’s wife in Green Book. Aparicio does get to do some acting in the harrowing childbirth scene – easily the best scene in the film – though it’s mostly reacting. Still, she has more to play than anyone else in the cast. The supporting women, including Nancy García as Adela, the other maid in the family, are drawn two-dimensionally; the father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), barely appears at all, and when he does, in an expressionistic sequence where he negotiates the narrow terrace in his outsize automobile, Cuarón doesn’t show us his face, using distorted clips of the car and his cigarette to represent him. (We get it: Antonio is remote from his family and before long he’ll disappear from it entirely.) Fermin seems like a good guy at first: when Cleo breaks the news about the pregnancy he tells her how excited he is. But then he makes himself scarce, and when she tracks him down through his cousin (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza), Adela’s beau, he’s become some kind of martial arts fascist who screams at her for lying about his paternity. None of the four kids in the family is given a character to play; I guessed that the youngest, Pepe (Marco Graf), was meant to be a version of the juvenile Cuarón because he likes to play dress-up and he’s the one who listens outside the door when his mother, who has lied to the children that Antonio is in Canada on business, reveals the truth to someone on her bedroom telephone. And it’s Pepe who is most affectionate with Cleo. (Cuarón dedicated the film to Cleo’s real-life counterpart.)

It’s amazing that Cuarón, who I would say has never before directed a single uninteresting frame of film – Cuarón, whose last movies were Children of Men and Gravity – could have fumbled so badly here. Even the earthquake sequence is unexciting, and there’s a forest fire scene in the mountains (where Sofia brings Cleo and the children to visit relatives) that contains odd, surreal details that are baffling like the image behind the credits. Maybe he got so enraptured by his own childhood memories that they cut him off from his own instincts. Even the choice to shoot in black and white was a mistake: we want to see the vibrant colors of Mexico City in the early seventies, and of Cuarón’s childhood. No one remembers his childhood as a neorealist movie.

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk.  

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is filmed in color, a kind of tremulous, overexposed color that has a strange, muted richness. (James Laxton lit it.) And from the moment the movie begins, its look is the only thing about it that doesn’t feel utterly wrong. Jenkins, who made the marvelous, one-of-a-kind coming-of-age picture Moonlight, brings the same intimate, romantic style to this venture, but this time it feels forced and awkward. To be fair, at least half the problem is the material, James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a nineteen-year-old Harlem girl named Tish (played in the movie by KiKi Layne) who discovers she’s pregnant as soon as her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) gets thrown in jail when a white cop with a grudge against him frames him for rape. Baldwin’s prose can be declamatory and it’s often right on the verge of affectation, but in Beale Street he goes over that line, and the book lacks the emotional complexity of Go Tell It on the Mountain or Another Country or his unforgettable short story “Sonny’s Blues.” And instead of working through it in dramatic terms, Jenkins just worships at the altar of the novel, replicating entire scenes and chunks of dialogue. (He does alter the ending.) The movie is stillborn, and in the scenes where it addresses the racial injustices borne by African American men and women it literally stops dead while Jenkins interpolates photographs.

After seeing Stephan James play some electric exchanges with Julia Roberts on the otherwise unimpressive TV show Homecoming this fall, I was excited to see what he might do in a leading role under a director with a proven gift for working with actors. You can see this actor is talented, and he fights to make his dialogue sound natural. But what on earth was Jenkins thinking? I don’t think there was a single performance in Moonlight I didn’t like; in Beale Street there’s not a single performance that works – including, finally, James’s. Occasionally someone breaks through, but only briefly. Regina King (as Tish’s mother, Sharon) has a good silent moment when, having traveled all the way to Puerto Rico to hunt down the rape victim (Emily Rios) and beg her to recant her claim against Fonny, she looks at herself in the mirror, trying to decide how she wants to come across. Brian Tyree Henry, as Fonny’s best friend Daniel, gives a vivid reading of the character’s account of the time he spent in jail on a trumped-up car theft charge. Otherwise the acting hovers between compromised and phony, and even actors I’ve admired in other circumstances, like Aunjanue Ellis as Fonny’s high-and-mighty mama and Finn Wittrock as his well-meaning lawyer, come out on the phony side. Rios is just awful; so are Ed Skrein as the racist Officer Bell, who sniffs at Fonny like a malicious bloodhound, and Dave Franco as the kindly young Orthodox Jew who’s willing to rent a loft to Fonny and Tish after other white landlords have turned them down flat because he’s pro-young love. Admittedly it would have been an accomplishment for any actor to make Franco’s lines sound unembarrassing. This movie and Roma are the biggest disappointments of the Christmas season.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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