Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Bad Boys (1995)

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Ah yes, the glorious return of TBT continues! So I actually had this idea at one point where I’d possibly substitute this month’s batch with an entirely new idea: I’d call it ‘Masterpiece May.’ It would focus on films most people regard as classics. But because I couldn’t get my shit together in time, I bailed on the plan. Maybe one day something like that will happen, but for now we have more Throwback Thursdays to look forward to. We leave the music scene behind and enter into buddy-cop action-comedy territory with

Today’s food for thought: Bad Boys.

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Destroying the ‘hood since: May 19, 1995

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I don’t know what I was doing when Michael Bay’s outrageously fun Bad Boys debuted, but I wasn’t in a theater showing it, that’s all sure. At the end of 1995 I would be moving from the “great” state of Texas — my family’s Plymouth Rock having moved from England five years prior — to Tennessee (where I live now). I guess I was busy trying to get rid of the accent I had, a clinging to my parents’ rural Essex county dialect. No one would believe me now that I had one, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I never picked up on the Texan drawl having lived on the southern panhandle for half a decade.

Texas wasn’t all bad. It was where I saw my first movie in theaters — Andre — and where I was introduced to the world of Toy Story on the big screen. I missed a lot of good movies though, and it seems this would be included. Michael Bay’s Bad Boys is cinematic escapism almost at its finest. It’s big and bombastic, loud and obnoxious, sexy and exhilarating. I hesitate to call this a perfect escape because while this is arguably the best thing Bay has done thus far, especially considering it was his feature film debut, our adrenaline was nonetheless assuaged by Baymaggedon.

Bad Boys features Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two undercover loose cannon Miami detectives, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett respectively, who have four days to recover $100 million worth of heroin, originally seized from local Mafia and brilliantly snatched right out from under the Miami Police Department’s nose. Time being a factor, Mike recruits a friend named Max (Karen Alexander), who in turn insists her friend Julie (Téa Leoni) join her, to help scout out potential suspects, people who have seemingly come into a lot of money very quickly.

Bay’s directorial touch, a subtlety equivalent to that of an enraged Decepticon, has in recent times been scathingly criticized and more often than not it has been deserved. Bad Boys represents a habit-forming process but at least in this fairly breezy outing the “exposition-explosion-explosion-explosion-conclusion” is a structure more palatable than it is predictable given Smith and Lawrence’s mordant rapport. Still, let’s not give Bay too big an ego here. The end game fails to add up to anything more than your typical American action extravaganza: get the drugs/money, save the damsel in distress — Leoni’s call girl (wowee) becomes ensnared in Mike and Marcus’ operation after surviving a gang-related shooting that tragically claims Max’s life — all while looking (being?) indestructible the entire time.

In the same way I learned to outgrow my British accent, over time Bay has, purposefully or not, learned to strip away most of the enticing elements that made Bad Boys a romping good time. With his Transformers franchise, particularly the unabashedly bombastic sequels, if you are able to characterize the choreographed chaos as having any kind of personality, you have a rare talent. You’ll have to let me know your secret; how to distinguish the original from its fourth iteration (soon to be a fifth). The only term that flashes upon the marquee of my mind is ‘generic action flick.’ Bad Boys doesn’t have novelty working in its favor consistently but the performers transform (sorry) trademark action blandness into something thoroughly enjoyable through sheer likability. On the casting of Smith and Lawrence alone Bay deserves applause. (Or at least casting agents Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler.)

All of this is to say, what exactly? Do I regret not having been old enough to enter a theater playing this occasionally melodramatic buddy-cop action flick? Kinda sorta. Am I glad to have finally caught up with everyone else who has been singing its praises for years? Absolutely. Would I watch it again, or better yet — am I looking forward to Bad Boys II (and now, apparently, a second sequel)? Sigh. Yes, I suppose, but as far as the latter goes, I probably won’t rush to any theater to see that.

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3-0Recommendation: This mid-90s actioner is a solid Michael Bay film, although I suppose one should take that with a decent-sized grain of salt. It’s action-packed and well-acted, despite a clunky script and often stilted dialogue. But the pair of leads ensures most people, the ones who buy into Will Smith and Martin Lawrence at least, will have an enjoyable albeit mindless two hours of cinematic escape. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

TBTrivia: “I love you, man:” just before filming the ending scene, Michael Bay and Will Smith got into a lengthy argument about whether or not Smith’s character should tell Martin Lawrence’s character “I love you.” Bay wanted him to say it, but Smith held his ground. Within 15 minutes of having to film the scene a frustrated Bay told Smith “he didn’t care whether he said it or not,” but finally Smith did say it. This is the clip they used as the final cut. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviesongs.com; http://www.fernbyfilms.com

TBT: Home Alone (1990); Home Alone 2 (1992)

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Oh, ho ho what fun we have tonight on this, the last Thursday before Christmas itself! In trying to come up with a review for the ultra-classic Home Alone franchise, I knew I couldn’t really do one film and avoid the other (come on, just admit it. Home Alone 2 is more than a worthy sequel. . .), and so I’ve enlisted some help in covering my bases here. Mark from the fantastically-written and always informative Three Rows Back has kindly joined me in taking a look back at these days of innocence; when Macaulay Culkin had a career; when ‘Christmas spirit’ meant getting to run around the house with your pants off and setting booby traps; when being ‘home for the holidays’ took on a completely different meaning altogether. Mark has chosen to remind us of the greatness of the original, while I took on its only mildly-less classic sequel in the second half. Hope you guys enjoy this one, this week’s a lot of fun! 

Today’s food for thought: Home Alone; Home Alone 2.

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Release: November 16, 1990

[VHS]

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Home Alone, right?

As much a festive tradition as roasting chestnuts on an open fire and receiving socks from granny, Chris Columbus’ monster box office hit had a seismic impact on Hollywood and helped to usher in a gamut of family friendly flicks hoping to ride the wave.

The home invasion movie was hardly a new concept, but writer and producer John Hughes sought to lighten up this normally dark sub-genre with a pair of bungling burglars and a protagonist whose early years and cutesy smile disguise a natural aptitude for home security and a hunger for sadistic violence.

The kid in question is eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), who’s left to fend for himself in his palatial home after being accidentally left behind by his family when they fly to Paris for a Christmas vacation. While Kevin’s guilt-ridden mom (Catherine O’Hara) tries to get back home by any means necessary, the wee lad goes about protecting his castle from a pair of notorious burglars called the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).

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Although Culkin was a known entity to Hughes, having appeared in his 1989 comedy Uncle Buck opposite John Candy (who gets a cameo here as Gus Polinski — ‘the Polka King of the Midwest’), his casting in Home Alone was nevertheless a considerable gamble due to the demands of having to hold the audience’s attention for long periods with no support. It’s a test for any actor to pull this off, but when that performer is a kid the challenge is immense.

Culkin didn’t become the biggest child star since Shirley Temple for nothing, though. With a cherubic all-American face, cheeky attitude and natural on-screen confidence, Culkin is a perfect fit for the role of Kevin. He might not have the acting chops of many of today’s child actors, but when all he’s got to do is put his hands to his face and pull that over-the-top shocked expression now and again (and again) he doesn’t need to worry about it.

The film does a nice job early on of showing how an eight-year-old would probably react when left home alone. When he isn’t tearing around the house and eating big bowls of ice cream Kevin’s making his own entertainment, like sledging down the stairs.

Kevin must soon come to realise, however, just how important family is, especially at Christmas time. After wishing they would all just go away (his brother Buzz calls him a “flem-wad” and, when asked by Kevin if he can sleep in his room, is told: “I wouldn’t let you sleep in my room if you were growing on my ass”), he’s soon pining for them. He also learns the importance of not judging books by their covers, especially the slightly odd guy next door who actually turns out to be a kind old man.

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Life lessons aside, Home Alone is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon, with Culkin’s mannered performance complementing the Laurel and Hardy shenanigans of Pesci and Stern (it’s hard to believe this came out just a couple of months after Goodfellas, which saw Pesci portray a rather more unhinged bad guy).

The film spends a long time teasing the audience before letting rip with Pesci and Stern’s Wacky Races-esque attempt to catch Kevin (instead of the pigeon) in the final act. Needless to say, it’s the most entertaining part of the film, with a gleeful Kevin parading around as the blundering burglars walk into trap after trap and mutter indiscernible obscenities in the same manner as Dick Dastardly’s dog Mutley.

The violence unleashed is quite nasty in places, in particular when an iron drops on Stern’s head, which in normal circumstances probably would have killed him.

Criticising Home Alone is like taking candy from a baby; it’s easy but you feel bad about doing it. For all its faults – and it has a few – it’s a guilty pleasure you don’t feel too bad about indulging when the festive season comes around.

3-0Recommendation: Home Alone is one of those films that, when viewed under the right circumstances (ideally with the family on a sleepy Sunday afternoon), goes down as easily as apple pie. This isn’t a film made with cinephiles in mind; it’s a movie aimed at families about the importance of the family unit. Besides, if you watch it with a sibling you can always take inspiration from Buzz when it comes to classic put-downs. Flem-wad!

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”


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Release: November 20, 1992

[VHS]

Oh God, not again!

Isn’t this every parent’s worst nightmare, letting their son out of their sight for just two minutes and wham! — he’s on a flight to New York instead of Miami? I guess where insult gets added to the injury is the point at which the McCallister family recalls a similar disappearing act happening a mere two years ago, when Kevin failed to make it even out of the house with the family on their last Christmas vacation.

Still, Hollywood must cash in where they can on original ideas, and this time they take the home invasion premise and sort-of flip it on it’s head — ‘sort of,’ because this isn’t so much about protecting one’s home this time, as it is just having an opportunity to up the ante with the pranks. Admittedly, that’s the sole purpose of this sequel existing. The prospect of seeing the Wet Bandits facing another round of ridiculous traps set by the hands of someone a third their age proved to be too overwhelming a temptation for the execs at 20th Century Fox.

At this point, Kevin has proven himself as a remarkably resourceful little ten year old, and this time around he even had the sense to grab a hold of dad’s wallet, board a plane to a different city, and get himself set up in a nice room at the Plaza Hotel in the Big Apple. Suspending all disbelief for a while, this kid has become a professional at avoiding his family.

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While Kevin familiarizes himself with the likes of New York City, even making friends with a local toy store owner named Mr. Duncan and a weird pigeon-keeping lady, trouble is lurking around the corner yet again, as Harry and Marv have somehow tracked down the little snot that got away from them last time. What are the odds, finding the kid in this big of a town?

The contrivance and questionable conveniences of the storytelling which arise from a studio’s go-ahead for making a “guaranteed-to-be-popular” sequel reaches an all-time high here, but we can easily overlook this because we had a lot of fun in Home Alone. Logic should follow that the second should be a good deal of fun too. And it is, though the novelty of the premise does show some signs of wear and tear.

First of all, the general plot outline here is quite predictable. The final act, wherein Kevin’s dim-witted assailants find and attack him in his uncle’s townhouse, feels like the same blueprint as its predecessor, only with a few slightly different instructions to follow through on. Watch Home Alone 2 to see Marv get lit up by an open electrical circuit Kevin rigged to a random sink (his goofy-looking skeleton still haunts me to this day, in a very crappy 1990s-CGI kind of way. . .), or witness Harry barbecue himself alive after dipping his flaming head into a toilet filled with gasoline. Ouch.

And see, that’s the other thing about the follow-up. Do the stakes become too high in the writing? When do things go from funny to “alright, this little ten-year-old is actually torturing adults?” Are his actions righteous? Supposedly they are, because his attackers just won’t quit. However, one can’t help feeling that one of the things that are Lost in New York is the spirit of Christmas. What happened to this being the season of mercy?

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As far as comedy sequels go, though, one can do a lot worse than Home Alone 2. It still features America’s favorite ten-year-old (at the time) Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister doing what he does best. Pesci and Stern convert their bodies into one slapstick joke after another, a sacrifice that doesn’t go under-appreciated even after twenty-plus years.

As well, the general spirit that made its predecessor a smash hit is more or less present. Kevin learns that he does indeed need family to get by through the holidays, as much as they drive him up the wall and vice versa. At the end of the day, all’s well that ends. . .well? Yes. Because after all of these ordeals, the McCallisters finally are able to put aside their differences. So there is resolution this Christmas season. Extremely contrived resolution, but again. . .’tis the season to forgive and forget.

Speaking of, let’s forget about the beyond-depressing fact that there followed another three sequels after this film, none of which featured any of the original cast. Those who gave the green light to those ideas hopefully received nothing but lumps of coal in their stockings those years. For shame.

3-0Recommendation: It lacks a little of the charm and originality of the first, but still it’s undeniably good old fashioned family entertainment, especially if you’re wanting to stow away all the classics that made Culkin such a prominent success in the early 90’s. Movies like these, though, do beg the question — whatever becomes of former child stars? (I guess we should turn to Dicky Roberts to answer that.)

Rated: PG

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “You can mess with a lot of things, but you can’t mess with kids on Christmas.”


Once again I’d like to thank Mr. Mark Fletcher for participating in this week’s throwback, it was a lot of fun getting to read his thoughts on one of my personal favorite Christmas movies of all time. Be sure you all check out his site and show some love over there as well. Since this is the last TBT post before the holiday, make sure you all have a lovely Christmas/holiday season and I’ll see you next week, the 26th, for another edition of TBT. 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com