Award-winning, high art and strange films

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’s second feature, Moonlight, describes a boy’s coming of age in a tough Miami neighborhood, but it is one of the quietist, most delicate, and most nuanced films ever made about becoming a man. Based on MacArthur-Award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film presents a moving triptych of experiences from the life of a boy trying to answer the question, “Who is you, man?”

In the first third of the movie, the main character, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), about 9 years old, is known as “Little” because of his size and tendency to be picked on. When he first appears, he is being chased by three older boys who want to beat him up, and he takes refuge in a boarded-up building. After they give up, he is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, who takes him to a restaurant and feeds him. When Chiron won’t tell his name or where he lives, Juan takes Chiron to the apartment where he lives with his girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe in her acting debut), who mothers the silent boy. In the following days, after finding out where Little lives, Juan and Teresa gradually get him to talk about himself, and offer him shelter when he can’t be at home. In a beautifully handled sequence, Juan teaches him how to swim. During this part the audience (and Little also) find out that Juan deals drugs to Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and Juan and Teresa try to explain to Little what the term “faggot” means; the boys at school have been calling him that even though he has no idea what it means.

In the second segment of the film, “Chiron,” the boy, now a gawky teenager, is played by Ashton Sanders, and Juan has disappeared. Chiron has found a friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and in an emotional scene about halfway through the segment, Kevin initiates Chiron into sexuality in a quiet way that reveals how starved Kevin is for emotion and physical contact. Kevin also urges Chiron to stand up for himself and fight the bullies in school, but then Kevin is persuaded to abandon Chiron, and in fury Chiron strikes out at the people who betrayed him and lands in trouble.

The third segment, “Black,” gets its title from a name Chiron was given in an earlier part of the film. Dealing drugs in Atlanta, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is a young man, heavily muscled from weight lifting and sporting a gold fence on his teeth. With his do-rag, muscles and gold jewelry, he resembles Juan, at least externally. Black goes to visit his mother, who has kicked the drug habit but stays at the recovery facility as paid help because she can’t trust herself to stay clean in the world outside. She apologizes to him for what she has put him through, and they embrace, but it is obviously too late.

In the latter part of this segment Black gets a call from his old friend Kevin (now played by André Holland), who is working as a short-order cook and waiter. He invites Black to drive down to Miami, and he’ll cook dinner for him. Black accepts. At the diner Kevin tells his friend about his life since they last met—incarceration, training as a cook, probation, a new daughter—and Black, as usual for his character, says very little. Kevin says he was reminded of Chiron by hearing a record someone played on the diner jukebox, and he plays Barbara Lewis’s sad “Hello Stranger,” with its fitting refrain, “It seems like a mighty long time.” A very moving romantic mood envelopes this scene, and Chiron goes home with Kevin, leaving the film quite open-ended but hopeful.

Moonlight is not like any other drug-dealing film, or like any other coming-of-age film, or like any other coming-out film that I’ve seen. It is honest about the grit and difficulties in the lives it portrays, but it also pauses to look at the beauty around them and combines the two into a unique mixture that manages to find some optimism despite all of the difficulties. It’s an emotional film that shows why all lives matter, not just black ones, but it offers a close-up view of one gay black male’s experience of coming to maturity in a way that most of us haven’t seen before. It turns the stereotypes into people. Moonlight was nominated for eight Academy Awards: best picture, best director, best supporting actress (Naomi Harris), best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali), best cinematography, best original score, best adapted screenplay, and best film editing. It won for best picture, best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali), and adapted screenplay.

Noctural Animals

High fashion mogul Tom Ford, whose fashion designs and marketing expertise saved Gucci from bankruptcy, launched his first film, A Single Man, in 2009; it featured a quietly powerful performance by Colin Firth as a closeted professor forced to deal with the death of his lover. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, keeps all the carefully framed photography, designer sets, elegant costumes and measured behavior one would expect, but injects rough West Texas landscapes, murder and pulp fiction action into the narrative where they fit. In fact, Ford has at least three distinct narratives in the film, and he moves confidently from one style to the other.

The director has adapted American novelist Austin Wright’s 1993 book, Tony and Susan, and the film’s title comes from the novel within that novel. The first narrative shows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the manager of an exclusive Los Angeles art gallery, whose marriage to financier Hutton (Armie Hammer) is failing. She is obviously unhappy in her relationships and her job, and he is moving from one affair to another while trying to keep his business from going bankrupt. Their modernistic glass and steel house, filled with expensive art, overlooks the city but is cold as a mausoleum (the ways art functions in our lives, and how it can be used, are underlying themes of the film). After presiding over an opening at her gallery, Susan receives a box, and she accidentally cuts herself opening it; inside is a book manuscript entitled Nocturnal Animals. It’s dedicated to her by the author, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her first husband, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. That night, alone in the house with Hutton jetting to New York for a “business” meeting, Susan starts reading the manuscript, and the film switches to the narrative of the novel.

In this story, Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal, this time with a beard that helps keep everyone sorted out), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), are driving along a two-lane West Texas highway at night when they are run off the road. The three thugs (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo), beat Tony unconscious, dump him on a side road, and kidnap the women. When Tony awakens, he finds his way back to the highway and flags down a police car driven by cynical cowboy detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). Shannon helps Tony retrace his steps, and they find the dead women’s nude bodies but not the thugs. Andes offers to help Tony get revenge, and the two start looking for the criminals.

At this point in the first narrative, Susan is so disturbed by the actions of the novel that she lays it aside, and she remembers her first marriage with Edward, the author of the novel. She eventually goes back to the novel and follows Tony’s pursuit of revenge until he finally confronts the major criminal. After she finishes the novel, Susan sends Edward an email and suggests they meet for dinner. That final scene brings together the three narrative threads of the film, the themes of art and revenge, and an answer to Susan’s question to her assistant: could one’s life choices add up to a single awful mistake?

Part of the attraction of the film exists in identifying the parallels between the narratives. Tony’s wife, Laura, has been made up to look like Amy Adams, and Tony, who has a beard, and Edward, who doesn’t, are both played by Gyllenhaal. A red couch figures prominently in two of the narratives, and at one point Gyllenhaal (in the novel) rises out of a bathtub in a cheap Texas motel followed by Adams rising out of the water in her expensive Los Angelas bathroom.

Each narrative has its own distinctive style, and interpreting the narrative is sometimes difficult when the style deliberately goes over the top. For example, there’s just enough of the “poor little rich girl” melodrama pattern in Susan’s art-obsessed life to undercut some of the sympathy for her, a fact emphasized by Carlos (Michael Sheen), the gay husband of an eccentric socialite (Andrea Riseborough), who tells her at a party, “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.” In the same way, the criminals often come close to being cliches, and despite the violence and pain they bring, their stances and dialogue verge on being second-rate stereotypes, more appropriate for cheap, fictional thugs (which, of course, is what they are) than for real killers.

This ambiguity is apparent in the movie’s most notorious scene, the images behind the opening credits. Several naked, grossly obese, middle-aged women gyrate, jiggle, and leer into the camera as they twirl batons and sparklers to mimic grotesque cheerleaders and burlesque dancers. The women, it turns out, are performing at an opening for Susan’s art gallery. Should the audience be appalled? Disgusted? Are the women parodies of art? Is there supposed to be a connection between these sad figures gyrating to stripper music and the rape/murders that occur in the novel? Or is Ford simply making fun of the level of contemporary art and ridiculing Hollywood’s obsession with the perfect female body? Does the fact that Ford is gay add another dimension to the scene?

The acting is excellent throughout with Amy Adams achieving her second acting triumph of the year (after Arrival). Gyllenhaal is excellent in both roles, Michael Shannon adds another creepy character to his repertoire, and Laura Linney almost steals the show in a brief scene as Susan’s mother, warning Susan that she will become exactly like her mother, whether she wants to or not.

Also worth mentioning is the score by Abel Korzenioski, a deliberately overdone but first-rate imitation of Bernard Herrmann, Phillip Glass and Douglas Sirk soundtracks. I suspect Hitchcock would have liked this movie a lot. Whether Nocturnal Animals is, as some reviewers felt, one of the best films of the year (I tend to agree), it is certainly one of the most interesting recent films, giving Tom Ford a second winner in two tries. (Michael Shannon was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.)

Doctor Strange 

Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators of Spider Man, and first appearing in comic book form in 1963, Doctor Strange has appeared irregularly in the Marvel Comics World, remaining at the outer edge of a cosmos that revolves around Spiderman, Iron Man, the Hulk, and, more recently, Captain America and Thor. As Marvel has steadily expanded its cash machine by refurbishing old characters in movies like Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy, it has developed a formula that, at its best, maintains a balance between humor and action, and, at its worst, reverts to reiterations of cities being destroyed and cries of “Hulk smash!” The better recent films have been origin stories about the lesser known superheroes, and that pattern continues with Doctor Strange.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a world-renowned surgeon, loses control of his Lamborghini Huracán while texting and crashes. With his hands shattered and his career as a surgeon ended, Strange seeks our a man who has recovered from paralyzing back injuries (Benjamin Bratt) and is sent by him to a place, Kamar-Taj, in the Nepalese city of Kathmandu. There he tries to contact a person called “The Ancient One,” who taught the paralyzed man how to heal himself. It should be noted that up to this point Strange has been an egotistical, condescending s.o.b., and when he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), they immediately butt heads, and she sends him on his way. He lingers in the street outside Kamar-Taj where he is counseled by Modo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) until the Ancient One listens again to his plea and agrees to teach him some humility as well as help him heal.

In some spectacular scenes she teaches him sorcery, for which he seems to have a natural affinity, but has less success in shrinking his ego or healing his hands. The bad guys in the mix are Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his henchmen who have stolen pages from a mystical book to open the door into an alternate universe where the evil Dormammu waits to take over the earth. While the overall plot breaks little new ground, its development is competently done, and a couple of clever twists add to the fun. About halfway through the film, Strange, still a fledging sorcerer, has a spell-flinging encounter with Kaecilius and is getting the worst of it until the Cloak of Levitation comes to his rescue (it’s the iconic red cape seen in every subsequent portrayal of Strange). In this conflict and later ones, the magic users bend time and space in ways that outdo the folding cityscapes seen in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The film eventually leads to Doctor Strange confronting Dormammu (also played by Cumberbatch) and overcoming him through sorcery and mental tricks.

The film is better than the average Marvel origin story for a number of reasons. The magic spells and sorcery lead to more interesting special effects than the typical Marvel slam-bang, and they are nicely done. The outcome of the conflict also is affected more by logic (albeit magical logic) than by who has the biggest biceps. Marvel keeps the humor that has crept into some of the more recent films, but Doctor Strange wears it lightly, and Cumberbatch knows how to handle it. Early in the film the Cloak of Levitation wraps itself around one of the bad guys and bangs his head against the wall until he drops, but later it comforts Strange by wiping tears from his face. Finally, he brushes it aside and softly says, “Oh, stop it,” the way one would speak to a dog offering comfort by licking your face.

The film gains enormously by having internationally known actors in the major roles. Cumberbatch, without his English accent, is excellent, and Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) is impressive as always, although he should have been given more to do. Director Scott Derrickson received some flack when he cast Tilda Swinton as the Nepalese Ancient One instead of the Tibetan old man in the original comic, but it’s hard to imagine anyone better than the Academy-Award-winning actress in the part. Marvel also apparently caved in to the concern that showing a Tibetan as the Ancient One would offend China, which is a BIG film market. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fine as the Ancient One’s lieutenant (and may appear more in the next episode), and Benedict Wong is excellent as the librarian sorcerer.

In short, Doctor Strange extends Marvel’s winning streak beyond Deadpool and should please anyone who enjoys comic book stories where the standard has been raised a couple of notches through original special effects, clever plot twists and excellent acting.

Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org

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