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…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

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…

I have a problem with my liver.

Twin Peaks 3.6 Don’t die
The season resumes form with the sixth episode, and incongruity abounds – as much as anything in Twin Peaks is any more or less incongruous than anything else – from the most endearing to the most alarming. The latter of which is up there with the very nastiest nastiness witnessed in a David Lynch joint in the form of butcher for hire Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), the most alarming killer dwarf since Donald Sutherland led himself on a wild goose chase around Venice in Don’t Look Now.


Lynch’s use of music in Don’t die is both eclectic and exemplary. He concludes with Sharon von Etten crooning Tarifa over the credits, but it’s Ike going on a bloody frenzy to the innocuous and innocent sound of BluntedBeatz’ “I AM” Oldschool HipHop Beat that really sets the episode on edge. This is Lynch at his most visceral, immediate and palpably perturbing. You hear it before you see it, the screams of the first victim in Lorraine’s office, before the pint-…

I will beat you like a Cherokee drum.

Fast & Furious 8 aka The Fate of the Furious (2017)
(SPOILERS) Fun. Brio. That’s what any director needs to bring a sense of to the ever more absurd Fast & Furious franchise at minimum. Action chops are definitely up there, but paramount is an active affinity with how plain silly the series is. And it’s a quality F Gary Gray doesn’t really have, or if he does, he’s never shown it, previously or here. Even his action leaves something to be desired (his The Italian Job remake is far superior in that regard). Which isn’t to suggest there isn’t fun to be had from Fast & Furious 8/The Fate of the Furious, but it’s much more sporadic and performance-based than the previous outing, lacking the unbridled gusto James Wan brought to Furious 7.

But maybe I’m wrong about this. While I’ve seen every instalment in the franchise (only the once, mind) I haven’t followed it avidly in order (1, 4, 5, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, I think, only the first and last two at the cinema), although, it isn’t as if t…