Moonlight

This is a film that I was driven to see entirely because of the reviews, word of mouth and buzz surrounding it. The subject matter is so out of my wheelhouse as to be in another city not just in another neighborhood. It’s not that I am uninterested in stories about diverse cultures, but drug dealing and homosexuality seem like an odd mix, and the last time they were in a film I remember seeing was “Less than Zero”, which involved white suburbanites from economically well to do families, and I did not care for it almost thirty years ago, how would a much older and more cynical man be able to appreciate this?  As it turns out, pretty well. I can certainly admire the movie and I think I have found themes in the film that were there for us to discover, but I may have brought some of my own along with me.

For anyone unfamiliar with the title, it is a three part story chronicling the life a boy who grows to adulthood, with a lengthy stop over in adolescence. As a child, Chiron, is known as “Little” and his story starts when he encounters a man who becomes a mentor/savior/role-model. The curveball the film throws at us is that man is a drug dealer. Juan, is maybe the most sympathetic character in the whole film, but he is not a perfect person and if we can’t believe his story, nothing else in the movie will make any sense. Mahershala Ali is an actor I’m sure I have encountered in other projects, but never in a role as memorable for me at least as this. He is hard in the ways you expect someone in that profession is likely to be, but he manages to be a three dimensional person and not just a stereotype. One of the themes that I get from the film is that we all need to think about who people are and not just what they are. Juan takes an interest in Little almost by accident, but he sees some of himself in the child. His open minded acceptance of what Little might become seems at odds with the thug culture that is usually shown to us in movies, and it is that perspective that makes the film valuable. Even though Juan only exists in the first third of the movie, we will feel his presence for the rest of the story.

Little is put upon by school mates and his own mother, an excellent Naomi Harris. The harm that the drug culture can do to people who are not the users themselves will be evident to everyone. People who think it is a victim-less crime have never lived with or loved an addict.  Even at a young age, while his Mom appears to be holding it together, Little senses that something in his life is wrong. When your only role model is a compassionate man who also happens to deal death and misery to weak souls, you are bound to be conflicted. This whole film is a character study that plays out as if it were a stage drama. The pacing and dialogue feel thoughtful and deliberate, in a way that is almost antithetical to modern films. There is nothing in the film except one scene that could not be told on the stage. The framing of the characters and the use of the camera is not startling or inventive but it is efficient in focusing on the characters. The one sequence that would be difficult to do on stage however is a pivotal one that has implications in the rest of the film. Juan teaches Little to swim in the ocean when they visit the beach. It is a moment that is freeing to our main character, and it is the start of his realization that he can be many things, some of which he has not imagined yet.

Another example of the stagebound nature of the story is the use of three acts and the black screen transitions between the sections. Even though there are subtitles that identify our character by different names at each stage of his life, the numbering that accompanies those names just reminds us that this is a signpost for the next stage of the story. The middle section concerns the life of Chiron in high school. He is a quiet kid who is bullied primarily because he is seen as soft. Kids “gaydar” becomes a justification for petty humiliations and brutal shows of  machismo. Chiron had one friend other than Juan as a kid. Kevin is a bit of a nonconformist, who helps Chiron manage the world on occasion. Kevin however has his own weaknesses and those become devastating in multiple ways on his friend. This is the second major relationship of the three segments and it is the one that grows the most over Chiron’s life story. This is a movie that tries very hard to tell an authentic story about troubled youth without simply imposing a cultural stereotype in for the purpose of diversity. These characters, as unfamiliar to someone from such a different background as I, feel organic. This is a genuine story of a culture not a fable tailored to an ethnic group. That is the thing that I most appreciated about the movie.

The actors who portray the two growing boys throughout the lifespan of the film do a tremendous job creating personality for their characters. The three who portray Kevin move him from a light hearted second banana to a central figure in the life of his friend. The serious portrayal in the last sections necessary to sell the denouement of those characters arcs. Chiron, now known as Black, is portrayed by a man who clearly has devoted serious time to sculpting his body. The desire on the part of the character to redefine himself simply means that he molds himself into the most accessible form from his life experience. The physical differences are dramatic but the personality ticks and non-verbal references are all consistent which makes the transformation seem real again.

This is a very good character piece that is well acted and performed. The direction does emphasize the staginess of some of the conflict, but it never detracts from the story. We  can all learn to be a little more patient and thoughtful about the people we encounter or even simply read about if we take the time to see films like this. I can’t say it is one of my favorites, simply because as interesting as it was the first time, I don’t think it will hold the same level of fascination for me at least on subsequent viewings. There is much to admire in the film, but not much to love. It will earn and deserve many accolades, but I’m afraid that it will simply be a part of my movie history, rather than a defining point in that history. That’s just my take, some of you will be able to take away more.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This is the first of the Star Wars Universe films that I did not see on opening day. It’s not that I did not want to, but someone in the house had other commitments and the likelihood was that if I went without them, we would have had our own war on our hands. So in addition to avoiding spoilers for months, I had to avoid reviews, tweets, and tidbits of knowledge for an extra few days in order to make this experience more complete. I’m sure many of you have done the same kinds of things and believe me, I will stick to my no-spoiler policy for these comments, but I can say that this is probably my favorite of the Star Wars movies since the original trilogy was completed in 1983.  “Rogue One” feels like an integral part of the story, without having to rely on the characters we have from the other films. There is a small amount of bleed over, but for the most part this is a newly original part of the galactic battles taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Unlike last years “The Force Awakens“, this film occurs prior to the original “Star Wars“. It is not a repeat of the plot points from that film like Episode VII, it is however a supplement to the story that ends up deepening the events of the original trilogy and setting up a number of story threads that we have already seen completed in other films. One thing that is definitely true about this new film is that it may be the darkest of all of the movies with the possible exception of “Revenge of the Sith” which after all did include the murder of children as a plot point. At the conclusion of the film, there will be a realization about how dark this movie really is, that is only leavened by a call back piece of fan service that I think is totally justified.

The first third of the story introduces so many new characters, that it is a whirlwind to observe. Frankly, there were so many names and they were so hard to remember and distinguish from one another, that ultimately I just stopped trying.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our heroine, and whoever she is encountering at any given moment was the only character that mattered.  Character development here may not be as important as in the continuing story, since this is a stand alone film, but it means that some of the events that take place in the film will not have the emotional impact that they would in the longer running series. Believe me however, there are plenty of strong emotional elements, and if a character was not fully explored for this story, it is usually so that the plot and action could be kept moving. There are some characters however that manage to make a mark without much more than a unique look or ambiguous reference to the past. I suspect a fan favorite will be K-2SO, an Imperial Droid reconditioned to work for the rebel alliance. There is a great deal of humor in the lines and situations where that character is included, and the voice work of Alan Tudyk is just right for the part.

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is supposed to be a conflicted character, and his relationship with Jyn is an uncertain one. There are several moments of the film that are ominous because we don’t really know how his character is going to play things out. Jones is tough and unpredictable, while Luna is shady and enigmatic. In fact, there are elements to their two characters that I suppose are designed to represent the edge between the good and the dark sides of “the force”. About halfway through we get an answer, but it does not keep the two lead characters from having a continuing  substrata of tension and distrust.  It may also be the actor’s accent that made it difficult at times for me to pick out which character who was not present in a scene was being referred to. My ear for articulate pronunciation was hampered by my unfamiliarity with the sounds of his speech patterns. Another character that I quite enjoyed was Bodhi, the pilot, played by Riz Ahmed. While the characters exist more than thirty years apart, he seems to be the foreshadowing embodiment of the kinds of doubts that produce the new hero in Episode VII, Finn.

There are a half dozen or so characters who have appeared in another Star Wars film and show up briefly in this one. It is no surprise that Darth Vader is in the movie, his character was teased in the trailer. Some of the other recurring characters have only the briefest of moments in the film and are really just there for fan service, although that was totally welcome by me. Two or three of those characters however are a major component of the plot and one of them is the saving grace of what might otherwise be a very downbeat outcome for the film. One member of our group was a little resentful of this character being in the film at all, suggesting that a shadow or silhouette might have sufficed. I would strongly disagree. I think the choice made was exactly right and provides the emotional kick that the movie needs to make it fit in with the rest of the films. It will probably be a discussion point on a great many podcasts but I will not step into spoilers here, as tempted as I am to defend this choice.

Another thing that makes this movie feel like a tangential story to the original trilogy is the effort to make practical sets and effects a part of the film making. There is plenty of CGI to go around, but many of the environments are clearly real set locations and not computer based backgrounds. There were more animatronic  puppets and costumes in the film than in any of the prequel films and even more than “The Force Awakens”. Director Gareth Edwards, who’s  only previous work I’d seen was “Godzilla”, does a good job of making sense of the story given some of the convoluted plot elements and ambiguous characters a script cobbled together by four writers provided. In the long run, a lot of the movie works because Edwards keeps the story moving fast enough that we don’t have time to ask questions about motivations and history. The main characters are introduced with some efficiency, although  I think we could do with a bit more back story on Jyn before she is unceremoniously “rescued”.

Lets say that in the end there were plenty of space battles, heroic sacrifices and light saber lore to keep the audience happy. The surprises in the film are well earned and even the nods to the other stories that are included are not obnoxious, they are just enough to keep the legions of Star Wars fans engaged. “Rogue One ” has at least three great emotional beats that will make your throat choke up a bit. It also has a climax that next to “The Empire Strikes Back” is emotionally satisfying without being particularly happy.  The Galaxy is a pretty big place and there is room for a multitude of stories about the ride and fall of the empire. Just as happens in movies about WWII, there are some stories that cross paths, but there are others that take place simultaneously which can be just as compelling as a single thread of history. “Rogue One” may be a stand alone story, but it is also an outstanding story that fills in Galactic Rebellion history, without detracting from the main event. As a fan, I’m happy to say “More please”.

Christmas Movie Draft Poll

If you have not already voted on the Lambcast Christmas Draft Poll. please take a minute to go there and vote for my slate of films. I did not get the Muppets , Die Hard or Gremlins, but I do have a superior set of five to the other candidates.

http://www.largeassmovieblogs.com/2016/12/vote-for-the-winner-of-the-christmas-movie-draft.html

Just click on the picture and make Ralphie and George Bailey happy.

I have reviews up for two of my five films, you can look at those here.

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2011/11/arthur-christmas.html

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2015/12/krampus.html

Merry Christmas to all.

The Edge of Seventeen


WARNING!!! The above trailer is a Red Band, it contains extreme language.

This film is far more accomplished and thoughtful than it has any right to be. You might expect a large serving of teenage angst, served with a side of sexual exploitation and finished off with a dessert of sweet homilies. While it does have some common ancestry with the John Hughes films of the 1980s, “The Edge of Seventeen” has a far more realistic view of life as an adolescent than teen comedies usually manage. It also has a strange relationship that is central to the tone of the movie but not to the plot. The history teacher as confidant is a twisted but honest relationship with an adult that every seventeen year old ought to have. Maybe not with their teacher but with some adult figure in their life.

Hailee Steinfeld is Nadine, a bright, cynical and nice looking junior at her High School. She is however socially awkward and compensates with a bitterness that is only tempered by her life long friendship with Krista, played by another Hayley, Hayley Lu Richardson. When that friendship is threatened, Nadine finds herself at wits end, acting out in ways that she sometimes regrets but also speaking without the restraint that another voice usually provides her. Even in adulthood, a friend can be an influence on our behavior in both positive and negative ways. When the loss of a friendship occurs in the depths of adolescent angst, the consequences are likely to be earth shattering, at least for the kids involved.

 

Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig seems to get the mindset that is a seventeen year old girls. The world is against her one moment, and then incredibly great the next. Nadine is often a figure of sympathy but just as often, she is unpleasant and spiteful. That is the reason that her sparring matches with Woody Harrelson’s Mr. Bruner are so inspired. Harrelson is a High School teacher that is not really inspirational like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”, or sympathetic like Nick Nolte in “Teachers” (notice how dated my references are? Yeah, I’m old) , instead he is just an average man who has enough life experience to recognize a drama queen and separate it from a future tragedy. Instead of taking her suicide threat seriously and turning her emotional tantrum into an even bigger deal, he counters her with the same biting, sardonic attitude that she exudes. She may not recognize it, but he is a kindred soul who has managed to live life with some satisfaction, in spite of the bitter attitude he owns and can see reflected in Nadine. He has the advantage of having grown up. Not everyone reaches that degree of maturity, and it is Craig’s writing that lets us see that Nadine’s future does not have to be horrible, all she has to do is look at the guy in front of her.

 

Because Nadine’s story does have a bitter piece of tragedy in it, we are able to understand her anger a little more. That does not excuse the way in which she treats her Mother and Brother. These two characters are also imperfect, but they manage to grow a little in the course of the film. Kyra Sedgwick is Nadine’s Mother Mona. She is prickly and self centered and a little desperate. In other words, she is Nadine in thirty years. Blake Jenner is Darian, her perfect older brother. I saw Jenner earlier this year in “Everybody Wants Some!” . His character is not a antagonist, but Nadine wants to make him one. His big emotional scene near the end of the film felt really honest without goingover the top. Another great find in the movie is Hayden Szeto ( what is with all the first names starting with Hay in this movie). He plays a classmate of Nadines, who actually wants a relationship, but for whom Nadine is too blinded by her attitude to take seriously. He was terrific as a quiet kid with a lot more depth to him than anyone would notice, a common character in these kinds of movies but one that is probably as real as any other.

The film does have it’s share of laughs but it is closer in tone to “Pretty in Pink” than “Sixteen Candles”.  The bittersweet nature of growing up gets mixed with some outrageous moments of dialogue or action. There is a bonus animated sequence in the movie that also provokes both laughter and a sharp jab of honest teen age self righteousness. My daughter has a friend who saw this film and thought she was going in to see a teen comedy, and instead she said she saw a movie about a teenager. That’s a very fair assessment of the film. It is ultimately more serious than comedic, but those moments of humor are what help make the characterizations here acceptable. It is a bit strange that one relationship in the film can be managed with a simple text of two letters, but it is a credit to the director, that those two letters are so satisfying. That sort of thing happens a lot in the movie and it is what makes this film special.

Moana

 

Back in 1991, I took my two small children, 3 and 5 at the time, to see “Beauty and the Beast“. It was one of my favorite memories of their childhood and my fatherhood. They loved the movie and my oldest was so passionately involved that she cried out to warn Belle and the Beast when the villagers are led by Gaston in an attack on the castle. Three years ago, I saw “Frozen” and I imagined that little girls would love it much as my kids had responded to the ’91 film, and it seems they did. My youngest daughter, 26 at the time was unimpressed, and while I thought it was a fine film, it did not have the same impact on me as the early film did. Today I saw a movie that reminded me so much of that late November 1991 experience, I wished I had two small children to share it with. Nostalgia, not being what it once was, leaves me to respond to this movie mostly on my own. “Moana” is great.

Pins a got as a Premiere Stubbs Card Holder at The AMC Theater Today

I don’t think I even saw a teaser for the movie before we went today. I’d listened to a podcast or two where it had been discussed, and since I mostly avoid reading reviews until after I have seen a movie, this was really more surprise than I had anticipated. The look of the animation is marvelous. The characters are designed to accurately depict south sea island people and the characters of “Moana”, her father and grandmother but especially “Maui” are spectacularly authentic and beautiful. The opening sequence with Moana as a toddler, being called to the ocean is charming as all get out. Even the animated water tentacle that reminded me so much of the early CGI work in “The Abyss” had personality to it. The island home is lush and the people, songs and way of life are the sorts of things that drab landlubbers are going to dream of when they imagine escaping to a deserted island and retiring to the good life.

There are some of the same patterns of defiance, growth and independence by a young girl that I saw in the story of Belle 25 years ago. There is also a character song like in so many of these films, where the heroine sings of her dreams and obligations and the burden that she feels. So it might seem that the story is conventional Disney Princess territory. I think that’s going to be a cliche that gets used anytime a young girl is the featured character in a Disney story and I think it’s a little unfair. “Moana” is very different, especially in one of the most important ways. Unlike Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel and the rest, there is no love story here. Romance is not part of this equation, unless you count the love that Moana has for her island home and people. This is a very straightforward quest film with high adventure and a lot of humor built in, but there is no subplot about marriage or choosing the one you feel the most for. The writers of the story seem to have drawn heavily from Polynesian mythology, but almost certainly there are the usual Disney variations to keep the story on track and simplify the points being made. I thought it was a unique perspective and made the peoples of the area so interesting to me. There were some similar themes in “Whale Rider” from 2002.

Auli’i Cravalho is a nice discovery as the voice of “Moana”. I loved the line readings she gives as she practices the speech she plans on giving to Maui when she tracks him down. The greatest treasure in the film however is the presence of a man who might have at one time been a punchline in the film business, but today stands astride the movie world as a major star and an ambassador of goodwill from film makers everywhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has charisma oozing out of his whole body, and it fills the screen here, even though he does not appear on the screen and only his voice is used to act his character. The animators do their job to make Maui fun and interesting. He is a bit of a goat to begin with, but a very confident demi-god and able to ignore his own transgression, up to a point. His performance of the Lin-Manuel Miranda song, “You’re Welcome”, is right up there with “Gaston” and “Prince Ali” as odes to characters that are self inflated and hysterical at the same time. The use of tribal tattoos on his body to tell his backstory and his faults is a brilliant story telling trick that works very well for an animated feature. It’s one of the many things that reminded me of that soon to be live action film, just as the film makers in Beauty and the Beast found a way to make the story sing with the anthropomorphic furniture, the drawing on Maui’s body let us know more about the character without having to leave the main plot.

There are at least two very entertaining sequences where Maui and Moana have to work together to overcome adversaries. The Kakamora warrior attack will remind you of every Mad Max film. The chase across the ocean looks like something right out of “Fury Road”. While I was less impressed with the fight against Tamatoa, the jewel encrusted crab monster, it still had a number of clever bits to it and again, it shows the creativity of the film from a number of different points. There were times in which I felt I was watching something a little more strange than is expected from a Disney film. The Ocean voyage was sometimes reminiscent of a Japanese Anime film. There were some meta jokes about the whole “Princess” concept, and the focus on the two main characters was much more involved than the usual pack of side kicks and comic relief.

moana_ver4

 

This has been a particularly good year for animated features.

For once , Pixar is unlikely to be the favorite at Oscar Time. I might still give the edge to “Kubo and the Two Strings”, but “Moana” is a worthy entry and I thought it was very much more fulfilling than even some of the most financially successful animated films this year. If you have kids, take them and make it a special holiday excursion. Get them some popcorn, go Christmas shopping afterwards, and laugh with them over the jokes in this movie. I think you will be making a memory for them which will be something they can treasure decades from now. I wish I had grand kids that I could have taken to see this movie, but if you go because of anything I wrote here, it will be a little bit like I was there, taking you to see it. Merry Christmas memories to you.