Molly’s Game(1/6/2018)

As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms.  I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery.  That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out.  This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous.  Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression.  The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You.  But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.

The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires.  As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury.  We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire.  Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.

One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one.  This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all.  Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages.  Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo.  Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are.  Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface.  Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.

Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power.  This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been.  The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one.  That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera.  There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.”  There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story.  The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good.  Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer.  At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.

Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay.  It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them.  Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside.  I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it.  Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now?  Probably not.  But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch.  And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.



Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.



This July I did something kind of out of character: I saw a Pixar movie (Finding Dory) in the theaters.  Don’t have some huge reason for this but it was a slow week, the damn thing was on track to become the highest grossing movie of the year, and I wanted to be “in” on the conversation.  Since then I decided that 2016 was maybe the year to change things up and try to keep up with the major animated movies of the for once, in part because these was starting to look like a banner year for animation and in part because I’m just generally trying to be a little more open minded about what I see in general recently.  I don’t know that I’m going to keep on doing this in 2017, but it’s mostly been fun this year and may well result in this being the first year where I have an actual informed opinion about the Oscar for best Animated Feature for once.  As such I also went to see Kubo and the Two Strings and caught up with Zootopia and the culminations seems to have happened this week when I went to see the latest Disney sensation Moana, which for all intents and purposes seems to be their spiritual follow-up to their 2013 blockbuster Frozen even if it takes place in a decidedly different environment.

The film is set in a mythical Polynesia, specifically a fictional island called Motunui which has been isolated for thousands of years by an ingrained taboo about sailing past the coral reef that surrounds the island.  There we’re introduced to a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the heir apparent to the island’s chiefdom.  Moana grew up listening to her grandmother (Rachel House) telling stories about how the island was isolated because eons ago a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a magical gem from the Earth goddess and unleashed a lava demon named Te Kā who took over all the other islands.  Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) thinks these are all just fairy stories but insists that no one leave the island just the same.  Moana however, has long yearned to go out to the sea and after an encounter with some ocean magic as a young child has long felt she had been chosen for some great task away from the island and thinks that her destiny calls after a seemingly magical petulance seems to set in on the island.  Taking a leap of fate she sails out to find Maui and force him to return the magical gem to where it belongs and bring order to the island universe.

Let’s talk about Frozen for a second.  That was a movie that the world seemed to go nuts for back in 2013.  It’s one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time worldwide, but its impact was felt in an even greater way than its box office tally would suggest.  Its songs became major box office presences, it inspired a billion think pieces, and by all accounts kids watched it like crazy.  It did not, however, become a major critical Cause célèbre like some of the better Pixar movies have, and there’s a reason for that: the movie is kind of flawed.  When I finally caught up with the movie I found it intriguing in its first third or so but thought it pretty clearly lost its way in its second half.  It wasted a lot of time with that stupid snowman, it had kind of a predictable love triangle, the rules of the magic in it were not well defined, and it ended with this dumb deus ex machine where sisterhood triumphed over adversity.  That said, I totally get why it was a success.  It did some kind of bold stuff (relatively speaking) in that first third and it was well executed and ambitious in a way that kids movies haven’t been recently.  It was this big bombastic thing that seemed to be triumphantly screaming “Disney is back bitches!” and I couldn’t blame the public for being excited for that.

Moana is clearly trying to pick up on the momentum from that project and build on its strengths.  The film is another post-third-wave-feminism princess movie that’s very interested in molding a traditional Disney fairy tale story in a way that addresses the various criticisms that were leveled at the studio’s previous output.  As such out protagonist, while still technically a princess I suppose, rejects that label and insists she’s simply the daughter of the chief and it’s heavily emphasized that this means she will in fact inherit that office and all the powers and responsibilities involved and it’s never commented upon that she will be a woman in that role.   Unlike Frozen, however, this movie is less interested in messing with the basic story formula.  That movie’s introduction of sister protagonists who are sort of forced onto opposite sides of a conflict was a neat little twist on what you’d expect from a Disney narrative while Moana opts for more of a traditional heroe’s journey adventure kind of thing.  It actually reminded me a lot of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings in that regard as both basically have their heroes stuck on their own and forced to pick up sidekicks and go on fetch quests.  Moana lacks that film’s neat stop motion animation and general samurai coolness, but it is a little more organic in the way its quest plays out and is better at hiding how episodic it is at times.

The film also followed Frozen’s lead in taking the form of a full musical like the movies of the Disney Renaissance era.  Frozen’s music was written by the musical team behind Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Morman” and Moana’s music was written by (among others) Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man who’s Broadway exploits have become so famous in the last year that even I’ve heard of him.  The soundtrack that he and composer Mark Mancina have come up with is, like a lot of things in Moana, obviously impressive while also feeling a bit calculated and formulaic.  There isn’t really a vocal showstopper here on a par with “Let it Go,” and the closest they come is a song called “How Far I’ll Go,” a show-tune that dutifully follows the “I Wish” formula of songs like “Part of Their World” without deviation and doesn’t really add a lot to the mix.  A lot of the rest of the music kind of sounds like it was recycled from The Lion King except with the African chants replaced with Polynesian chants… again all of this is well done and doesn’t really detract to much form the movie but I feel like it could have been done more creatively.  The numbers that really impressed were some of the film’s poppier and more comedic ones including a really amusing bit of Broadway lyricism called “You’re Welcome” performed by The Rock himself with amazing exuberance.  The other standout is a sweet glam rock song called “Shiny” performed by a giant crab voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement which has such a good pop hook that you don’t even notice that the scene it’s in doesn’t advance the story much and is basically filling for time.

So how does the film compare to the other animated films of 2016?  Well, I’ve already pointed out some of its similarities to Kubo and the Two Strings, which is in many ways less well written and structured than Moana but its milieu and ethos still probably appealed more to me.  Of the four movies that one is the most stylish and just generally the coolest and the one that felt the least need to throw in dumb comic relief for the kids.  Zootopia by contrast is probably the most original of the four and also the smartest, or at least the most relevant.  You certainly can’t accuse Disney of having coasted on a formula with that one, but out of the four it’s also probably the most prone to dumb comic relief and silliness.  There’s some cringe inducing stuff in that movie (Shakira, I’m looking at you) which does kind of make it hard for me to completely get behind it.  Of the four my favorite might actually be Finding Dory, which is certainly a movie that isn’t devoid of questionable comedy and structural contrivances, but more than any of the others it just felt like a real movie with some original ideas and resonant characters.

As for Moana, it certainly has a lot going for it.  The environmental animation is beautiful, especially in an early scene where some of the magic allows the water to be sort of parted in an interesting way as fish swim around it like the walls of an aquarium.  The movie also manages to be pretty witty and energetic.  There are a couple of dumb kiddie movie jokes here and there, but they’re not too bad for the most part, there’s nothing as consistently annoying as the snowman from Frozen anyway.  I guess you could say that the movie does almost everything right and have made a very entertaining movie that will certainly impress its target audience, but it’s going to have to start to take a few more chances if it ever wants to reach the heights that Pixar reached in the late 2000s.  I used to think that Pixar had picked up where Disney had left off back in the 90s but I’ve come to realize that what Pixar did and continues to do is actually pretty fundamentally different than what Disney has always been doing.  Disney is a company of entertainers and showmen while Pixar is a company of storytellers and filmmakers.  I tend to prefer the later but there’s certainly something to be said for a movie that taps into that old Hollywood moxie and gives the audience a fun journey to go on.


Manchester by the Sea(11/26/2016)


Some auteurs are pretty easy to describe in just a few words.  Alfred Hitchcock: maker of meticulously planned out Hollywood thrillers, usually about blondes in danger.  Quentin Tarantino: maker of witty but often violent genre exercises filled with homages and references to the pop culture of the past.  Spike Lee: maker of colorful and energetic movies about the black experience.  All of these one sentence descriptions are reductive and overlook key elements of all those filmmakers’ styles, but the fact that their work can be so easily generalized does say something about the extent to which they were able to put a distinct stamp on their films.  There are however some directors who are still certainly auteurs but who aren’t as easily pigeonholed.  For instance, Elia Kazan is certainly an auteur and given enough time I’m sure there are film scholars who can come up with any number of linkages between his films to prove it but I don’t know that there’s a way I could describe his body of work in a hundred and forty characters that would make him sound terribly distinct from most other directors and his style wouldn’t necessarily jump out as uniquely his at first glance.  Another director like this is Kenneth Lonergan who, like Kazan, got his start working in theater but became more widely known when he directed the 2002 film You Can Count on Me.  Since then he hasn’t been terribly prolific in part because he’s still been doing some theater work and in part because of the troubled post-production on his 2011 film Margaret, but his new movie Manchester by the Sea may finally cement his place among the top American filmmakers.

The film’s title refers to Manchester-by-the-Sea Massachusetts, a town of about five thousand people (Wikipedia tells me it adopted its unusual name to distinguish it from the nearby Manchester, New Hampshire).  However, the movie begins in Boston, where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has been working as a superintendent at an apartment complex.  Suddenly one day he gets a call telling him to return to the titular city because his brother has had a medical emergency.  When he gets there he learns that the worst has happened: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who had a heart condition, has suddenly died of a cardiac arrest.  His ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who had a history of addiction is out of the picture and this leaves Lee’s 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a parent.  To Lee’s surprise he finds that he’s been named as Patrick’s legal guardian by Joe’s will, a role he supposes he doesn’t really see himself able to fulfil in part because his hometown does nothing but bring back bad memories and living their again could force him to constantly be running into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a lot of baggage.

Manchester by the Sea reminds me a little of the great 2008 film Rachel Getting Married in that both movies are about characters who seem to have a rather stilted relationship with their families and you are quite sure what’s going on until something about their pasts is revealed about at the 1/3 point in their narrative.  This movie is a bit different in that it doesn’t contrast this apparent sadness against a joyful backdrop, although in an odd way it sort of does.  If I were to describe this movie’s plot in more detail it would seem like a very heavy piece of work, but in fact the movie is oddly kind of funny.  I certainly wouldn’t call it a comedy or recommend anyone go see it expecting it to be a laugh riot but the characters all have a sort of gregarious Boston rapport and consequently there are more laugh lines here than you’d expect from a story steeped in tragedy.  That is not an easy tone to balance but there’s something kind of insightful and true to life about it.  A lot of lesser movies about people with bad stuff in their pasts really lean into that and give themselves these really oppressive tones and have their characters being completely glum all the time, but in reality most depressed people are able to put on a functional face most of the time even if their being torn up inside and that’s sort of what’s going on with Lee here.

It’s been said in the media that at one point Matt Damon (who is involved as a producer) was tapped to star in this film, which is tough for me to picture given that he’s a bit too much of a movie star at this point to really be believable in something this raw and down to earth.  Casey Affleck by contrast is perfect; he has the same Bostonian authenticity of his brother Ben Affleck but in much less polished package that’s easier to buy in the role of an everyman.  Lucas Hedges is also quite the discovery as Lee’s teenage nephew, who also has to pull off that tricky balance of inward grief juxtaposed against an outwardly stable exterior.  Michelle Williams also does spectacularly in a small but pivotal role as Affleck’s ex-wife, and while Kyle Chandler isn’t exactly the most novel choice to play a stable small town father, he is convincing as someone who would be Casey Affleck’s brother.  The rest of the cast is also very well filled out, mostly with lesser known actors.  There are maybe a couple of Massachusetts accents here or there that are a little over the top and there was a cameo late in the film that mostly felt like a distraction, but otherwise this is one hell of an acting showcase.

It’s not terribly easy to talk about this movie because it’s hard to explain what it is that makes it so incredibly on point.  It’s just a movie that does everything so right.  It has a great script with quality dialog and which employs flashbacks beautifully, the cast is great, the location is interesting, Lonergan manages to keep things energetic without employing unneeded visual gimmicks, and the emotions are all harnessed perfectly.  There are so many bad and clichéd roads this could have gone down and I really admire how it manages to handle the material just right and never becomes either saccharine or pointlessly nihilistic.  It’s not the kind of movie that’s trying to re-write the language of cinema or make some kind of wildly profound statement, but the way the film digs deep into the lives of its rich characters id both affecting and rewarding.




As of late there has been a lot of talk in the critical community about the representation of minorities on screen and while this discussion has definitely done a lot of good, there have been some negative side effects.  This is hard to talk about without sounding like some “anti-political correctness” nut but to put it bluntly: I feel like the zeal to champion works that present the lives of minorities and women has led to a few movies maybe getting extra little boosts they may or may not deserve the lavish praise they get.  That’s not to say critics are going to praise every movie that happens to have minority characters (Tyler Perry, for one, has not benefitted much from the era of the woke critic) but all too often it feels like when a movie about a minority comes along that even comes to feeling like something worth championing certain critics just go over-board and start acting like the film is an instant classic when it may merely be good.  One of the more prominent examples of this recently was when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance amid the #OscarSoWhite controversy to rapturous applause and buzz only to seem a lot more flawed once everybody calmed down and took another look at it.  This is a shame because it’s led to me putting my guard up when critically acclaimed movies about certain subject matters come along.  For instance, last year when the movie Tangerine came out I found myself thinking “hmmm, it this really as good as they say it is, or is a movie about transsexual African Americans just too “relevant” for people not to love,” which unfortunately means I put off watching what was really a boldly made and highly entertaining movie.  Similarly I’ve got to say I was a little skeptical about Moonlight, a film about underprivileged African American homosexuals: was it the real deal or did the zeitgeist get critics to over-reach again.

The film follows a single character named Chiron through three stages of his life where he’s played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively.  In the first segment we watch Chiron as a young child interacting with a guy named Juan (Mahershala Ali), after running into him by chance.  Juan almost accidentally finds himself becoming a father figure to Chiron despite being a rather dubious role model himself.  In the second segment we see Chiron as an awkward teenager whose demeanor makes him an outsider in his school but who forms something of a tenuous friendship with a boy named Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in this segment).  That segment ends with something of a turning point in Chiron’s life and for the third segment we move into the characters’ late twenties where we find out the type of person the two previous segments have wrought.

The three segments of the film are about the same characters and do form a greater whole when taken together, but are surprisingly self-contained in some ways and could probably be recut into separate somewhat self-contained short films if the director had wanted to with each of the segments kind of having the structure and resonance you’d expect out of a literary short story.  The first segment (dubbed “little”) takes the interesting approach of beginning not with the film’s main protagonist but with a side character named Juan who will be absent from the other two sections of the triptych.  While not exclusively told from Juan’s perspective, many of the scenes in this section are told from his point of view, in part because he (being as he’s an adult) he’s easier for the audience to relate to and is aware of things that young Chiron is not.  The segment also serves as something of a sign of things to come as Juan, while well intentioned, is not necessarily the ideal father figure he initially seems.  The middle segment is probably the most conventional of the three, but also probably the strongest and shows the character at something of a turning point.  I’m going to refrain from talking about segment three, as it is the one that most goes in a direction you don’t expect but needless to say it is clear that that’s what the movie is leading up to for a reason.

In preparation for seeing Moonlight I watched Barry Jenkins’ first (and before now only) feature film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, and wasn’t really a fan of it.  That film, like this one, was very interested in depicting a facet of the black community that doesn’t get seen very often but didn’t really succeed at doing much of anything else.  It was a Before Sunrise kind of thing where two fairly affluent African Americans have conversations about gentrification and black identity while having a brief affair.  Emphasis on “conversations.”  That was not a movie that was interested in the “show don’t tell rule” and I could have gotten over that if the characters didn’t seem so mopey and passionless.  Moonlight isn’t devoid of moments that are a little on the nose, but it certainly employs more subtlety than that earlier effort and it’s a lot easier to connect with the characters and their tensions.  Also, I don’t know what Jenkins has been doing in the eight years since he made Medicine for Melancholy but he has definitely improved as a visual stylist.  The film has some very nice looking cinematography by James Laxton that really captures the Florida heat and Jenkins frequently makes some interesting choices in shot length and angle selection.

If I have any major complaint about Moonlight it’s one that’s kind of a backhanded compliment: it could be longer.  The film’s triptych format is interesting, but it leaves a lot of gaps.  The jump between the second and third segments in particular seems leave a whole lot of the character’s growth obscured.  Perhaps instead of three long segments I might have preferred four or five, maybe even six or seven segments following this character through multiple different ages.  This would have made the film resemble Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in many ways, and given how self-contained and quiet this character is that extra time would have been particularly useful in helping the audience understand him.  On the other hand this likely wouldn’t have been filmed over twelve years and switching actors that frequently throughout the movie might have been more than a bit jarring and cause a bigger disconnect.  Maybe it really is better that the film simply lets the audience connect the dots between each story segment, but I do still think there’s something missing here that I can’t quite place my finger on.  Either way this is a very strong effort that deserves the attention of anyone interested in this year’s better cinematic works.


Midnight Special(4/3/2016)


We as critics have something of a laundry-list of demands we have for our summer blockbusters/genre entertainments.  You know what I’m talking about: “don’t overuse CGI,” “don’t use shaky camera work as a crutch,” “have an original idea rather than basing your movie off of an existing brand,” “cast a seasoned actor/actress instead of a flavor of the week pretty face,” “don’t waste too much time on needless exposition,” “focus on character instead of mindless violence,” etc.  It’s to the point where a lot of critics are sick of making the same points over and over again and especially frustrating since audiences stubbornly refuse to turn the movies that make these mistakes into box office flops, thus perpetuating the trends.  Believe me, I complain about this stuff as much as anyone but the sheer predictability of these complaints is downright comical at times.  It’s to the point where I bet a lot of filmmakers have gotten it into their heads that as long as they avoid all those pitfalls they should be able to make the perfect movie, but all too often it just isn’t that simple.  Case-in-point: look at the new Jeff Nichols movie Midnight Special, which seems to be defiantly avoiding every one of the most despised trends of modern entertainment filmmaking and still doesn’t quite emerge as a solid victory unto itself.

Midnight Special opens in medias res with a man named Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run along with a friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).  We see that there’s an amber alert out on the kid and that Roy’s face has been circulating on television as the suspect in the boy’s kidnapping, but we get the distinct impression as an audience that the TV isn’t telling the whole story.  We soon learn that Alton has some sort of psychic powers that frequently make his eyes glow, allows him to pick up on radio signals, and occasionally causes him to make a psychic connection with people, among other undefined abilities.  This has made Alton the subject of great interest among a cult-like church that has mistaken the child for a prophet but he’s also being pursued by Homeland Security for all the usual reason that G-Men hunt down powerful entities in movies like this.  Roy, by contrast, just wants to bring Alton to this unspoken destination that he believed he’s destined to arrive at.

Midnight Special is set in modern America but you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance.  Everything about the film’s mise en scène seems to point to the 1970s and 1980s.  Most of the televisions you see on screen are SD tube televisions, the cars in the film look kind of old, most of the hair styles seem a bit out of date, and none of the main characters seem to own cell phones.  It’s almost to the point where it’s jarring when an HD tv shows up about mid-way through the movie.  All this may simply reflect the fact that these characters are driving through Texan backwaters but I think it has more to do with the era of cinema that Jeff Nichols is trying to evoke with the movie.  The film clearly draws from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its “race to the aliens” plotline and the way the government is trying to investigate common people’s interactions with science fiction entities while not exactly being villainous or heroic.  The film also seems to pull from John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman in the way it’s about a small group that’s going on a road trip while being pursued, and I suppose that the fact that a kid is in the middle of all this evokes E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and the somewhat forgotten 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L..

There isn’t really much to complain about from a filmmaking perspective with this movie.  Jeff Nichols proved a long time ago that he has a strong grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and his goal here is clearly to move into a more commercial space while maintaining his indie cred.  At this he does a pretty admirable job. The film reminded me a little bit of last year’s Ex Machina in that it doesn’t have a ton of special effects but when it does have them they look really good and the film also isn’t filled with a lot of obligatory action scenes for the purposes of selling it to a wider audience.  It’s clear that Nichols wanted this to be a science fiction movie that was rooted in ideas rather than spectacle… but that’s kind of the movie’s Achilles heel because I can’t say that I found the science fiction ideas on display in the film to be all that deep or original.  The basic setup, father-figure and child with special powers on the run from government MIBs, is hardly an original idea.  I mentioned D.A.R.Y.L. and Starman earlier but one could also liken this setup to the Stephen King novel “Firestarter” and its 1984 film adaptation and perhaps even to the recent video game “Beyond: Two Souls.”  I’m not sure that this movie really did a whole lot to add to the formula and given the movie’s retro style it can’t even necessarily say that its modernizing the concept for a new audience; it’s just derivative.

So this brings me back to the initial question I started with: “how does a movie that does this much right still fall short.”  The movie walks, talks, and acts like a movie I should like but at its core the thing seems empty to me.  Whatever is actually interesting about the science fiction here is pretty obscured by mystery and we aren’t really given enough to chew on and I also can’t say that I found any of the characters to be wildly fascinating or the story to be uniquely compelling.  It’s a movie that desperately wants to look like it’s substance over style but it isn’t, it’s style over substance, albeit with a different and more adult friendly kind of style.  That said, at the end of the day it isn’t a movie I want to come down too hard on.  The throwback style will give some nostalgic enjoyment to certain film buffs and it does at least hold together and flow pretty effectively scene to scene.  I just wish there was an actual memorable story to go along with the dignified style