Skip to main content

I'm me, man. I ain't trying to be nothing else.

Moonlight
(2016)

(SPOILERS) How quickly can you tell if a Best Picture Oscar winner is one for the ages? As often as not, they’re consigned disposable, crowd-pleaser status (The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo) or branded with the opprobrious idea that a plain underserving movie got garlanded (A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Crash). And, as often as not, there are pressing concerns dictating the choices the Academy members made on any given occasion, over and above what they simply thought was straight-up best (not to mention, in recent years, the skew of the tier system ballot coming into play). I have but one film left to see out of this year’s nine nominees, and as such I think I can now comfortably conclude that, while it’s a well-made movie, Moonlight definitely didn’t warrant the top honour. Structurally as problematic as Lion, with the same issue of differing levels of accomplishment in respect the performances of the lead character, it best illustrates Barry Jenkins’ talent as a director. And, of course, he didn’t win.


On a tonal level, Moonlight probably bares closest comparison to Manchester by the Sea, in terms of both being closely-observed character dramas. But even then, it’s much less beholden to calculated turns of plot, attempting as it does the conceit of a naturally unfolding narrative. Jenkins has taken on the influences of European cinema in their most permeating, expansive sense, such that he allows scenes and characters to linger and breathe, rather than being driven by the engine of where his story is heading. This is immensely beneficial in the first two acts – the picture is divided into three periods in Chiron’s life, each played by three different actors – but proves a stumbling block to the last, where the same approach, now without an externalised conflict and so reliant on a performer unable (or by the design of his character’s stoicism) to deliver, leaves it curiously flat and listless.


Chiron’s internalisation means that, particularly in the opening act, you’re unsure at first if Alex Hibbert is playing his part well or is rather as inexpressive as the character’s younger self. This doesn’t matter too much either way, as both Mahershala Ali (as the surrogate father Juan who passes through Chiron’s life, atypically of such narratives neither predator nor user but laden with a gnawing, unvocalised guilt over his own choices and a desire to redress them in some small way, a position that, for all Chiron’s rejection, surely subliminally influences his own future career choice) and Naomie Harris (as his junkie mum Paula, an impressively unsympathetic performance, and illustrative of the quality of Best Supporting Actress nominees this year) more than compensate in providing dramatic substance.


The latter’s most compelling scenes come during the second act, also by far the most commanding sequence, but Ali more than deserved his statuette for his sensitive portrayal of the dealer who supplies Chiron’s mother and encourages the boy to accept who he is (the biggest complement you can pay him is that you miss his presence throughout the subsequent acts). If there’s a problem here, it’s that the more emotional moments don’t quite play; Chiron confronting Juan and leaving when he knows the truth carries the marks of a performance that couldn’t quite be made in the edit.


On the other hand, Ashton Sanders’ teenage Chiron is an outstanding performance, carrying the impression of his younger self but with the intervening decade of bullying, unstable mother and closeted sexuality having weighed ever heavier upon him. The key to this passage is surely the universal recognisability of such rites of passage, however extreme in Chiron’s case, and the conflict, isolation and burden that accompany these formative years.


The strongest element of the third act is Andre Holland’s hugely winning performance as the adult Kevin, a character who has featured significantly in both previous episodes of Chiron’s life and represents his first (and only) gay encounter. But Holland’s heavy lifting is unable to rescue a meandering vignette in which Trevante Rhodes may be schematically justified as a buff incarnation of the still recalcitrant main character (all the better to hide your true nature beneath), but is unable to lend dramatic weight to his existence.


This Chiron seems to exist in a bubble of the filmmaker’s mind, and without evidence of how he lives, his existence (aside from visiting his mother and teaching an under-dealer the tricks of the trade, both of which feel rather schematic) there’s little to latch onto. The picture wanes and loses its impetus, even given that it offers the culmination of Chiron and Kevin’s arc, rediscovering each other and expressing their feelings openly, and with it the subdued observation that has been the cornerstone of Jenkins’ approach unravels.


At its best, Moonlight is an acutely insightful study of a passage to adulthood (in its way, charting the same course as another Oscar nominee, Boyhood, did a few years ago), powerful, affecting and intensely well observed, accompanied by a fine score from Nicholas Britell that has an almost Philip Glass quality (the classical influences here are generally better integrated than in Manchester by the Sea). The picture’s problem isn’t (as some criticisms have levelled) that it doesn’t have an ending, it’s that its third act lacks sufficient measure, that as its lead character takes control of his destiny, so his journey becomes less potent.


If Rhodes’ performance had matched Holland’s, Moonlight might have carried through, but after the dramatic crescendo of his teenage years, Chiron is left in a place of minimum impact, dramatically and in terms of audience investment. Doubtless Jenkins will continue writing-directing in whatever he does next, but most impressive here are his choices in the latter field, in particular sound design (silence is used to powerful effect in crucial scenes) and his willingness to explore character through unforced observation and mood rather than exposition or calculated dramatic incident.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…