Movie Review – Moonlight

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Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins)

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Moonlight is an American masterpiece. Of films I’ve seen in the last ten years, I place it up there with The Master or The Witch, as a piece of cinema that is sure of itself on technical, thematic, and character levels. It tells a story that is primarily American, but yet not beyond connecting with people universally.

The film is told in three acts, each one chronicling a pivotal moment in the personal development of Chiron, a black youth living in Miami, Florida. We first glimpse Chiron (nicknamed “Little”) as he runs from school bullies and hides in a boarded-up tenement. It’s here he meets Juan, the head of the local drug sellers and the older man sees something inside this struggling kid. He takes Chiron to his home to meet his wife, Teresa, and they manage to get Chiron to share a little bit about his life. Later, Juan delivers Chiron home, and we meet the mother, Paula who knows what Juan does and attempts to shield her child from him. Later, we learn Paula is connected to Juan, and this knowledge shapes the relationship between Chiron and the man.

The second act catches up with Chiron in high school where the bullying has continued. Throughout both these acts, his one constant is his friend Kevin, a boy who doesn’t treat Chiron with the revulsion and hate the others do. It is made apparent that our protagonist is questioning his sexuality and finds himself attracted to Kevin and that attraction may be reciprocated. Their relationship comes to a painful conclusion in this act, and then we transition to adulthood. Here Chiron has made himself into the person he thinks he should be but is struggling with his past. This all leads to a reunion between himself and Kevin that will bring out their past and hint at their future.

I had to fight back the tears at two moments in this film. The final scene between Chiron and Juan is profoundly painful and the final scene between Chiron and Kevin is a release of emotions and honesty. The element of the film that I want to praise director Jenkins the most for was the refusal to have a villain. No one is the villain, but many people make horrible choices that hurt people. However, Jenkins chooses to reveal layers to these characters that make a reductive judgement of good/evil near impossible. Juan is a strong of example of this, and my overall favorite character in the film. He is responsible for crack cocaine being in the neighborhood and this business ends up having a direct adverse effect on Chiron. Juan is unaware at first and wants to be a father figure to this kid he sees in need of one. Chiron’s mother rightly suspects Juan is attempting to pull her child into the drug trade. But we learn more about her own connection to Juan and that becomes more complicated. Juan is not a villain but he is responsible for great harm in the community. The scene where he comes to this realization and then also has to admit it to young Chiron is heart-rending. This really highlights the idea that as often as we think we are the “hero” in our own story, we can so easily be the “villain” in another’s.

The acting throughout Moonlight is superb. Chiron is played by a succession of three actors: Alex R. Hibbert (Chiron at 9), Ashton Sanders (Chiron as a teen), and Trevante Rhodes (Chiron as an adult). It’s weird to say I was glad Rhodes didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar, but that is only because the character is a collective of three commanding performances. The only way to do justice would have been to have a single nomination for three actors. I have not read much about the production and rehearsal process but the synchronicity between these performances is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have to wonder if the movie was made sequentially so that Hibbert set the foundation of the performance, Sanders studied that and adapted, and finally Rhodes was a culmination of his own thoughts of the character filtered through these two others. As a result, Chiron is one of the most fully realized characters I have ever seen on screen. He is a living breathing person who I feel like I’ve met.

As a public school teacher, I’ve worked mainly in the inner city for the seven years of my career. As a result, I have worked with some young men much like Chiron. I have also worked with young black men who are happy and healthy and have very supportive families. So, I don’t think we should view Moonlight as a universal truth of the “black male experience” so much as it is about how masculinity is framed for so many black men. The scenes where Chiron sits at Juan and Teresa’s kitchen table eating food and refusing to speak has been a part of my life. I’ve sat across from young men who are so tormented inside at such an early age. Food is about the only nurture some of them get. I’ve watched young black men crying because they’ve injured themselves only to have their mother smack them over the back of the head and spit “Stop crying and being a pussy! Men don’t cry!” Even with my current year’s class, I have a young black male student who finds it deeply difficult to verbalize his frustration even when it is just the two of us talking. He didn’t want to say sorry to another student he upset in front of everyone because he’d been taught that would make him look weak and his status among his peers is more important to his livelihood than his conscience. This sort of toxic masculinity is what Moonlight is all about. And it’s why the brief glimpse we get of Chiron being able to stop tensing, stop holding himself back is so emotionally cathartic.

I had seen Barry Jenkins’ previous feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, and while it is a great independent character focused film, he has made a significant leap across all elements of filmmaking with Moonlight. This is going to be a defining American film and is going to resonate for many years to come. The intersection of LGBT people and People of Color can be a tough one. Growing up in the South, I have been an outsider and observer of this intersection, and the deeply religious pockets of the black community can be as brutally homophobic as their white counterparts. At the same time, I have seen same sex relationships between women accepted without much strife. It is when men reveal their nature as gay that fear boils up, across all communities. Power is assumed to be heterosexuality, and Moonlight shows that strength doesn’t come from a particular sexual orientation, rather a personal resolve and determination, aided by people in your life who show you what love can be.

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Movie Review – The Monster

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The Monster (2016, dir. Bryan Bertino)

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Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is ready to leave her mother and go live with her father. After growing up in the shadow of her mom’s alcoholism, the young teenager has had to raise herself and try to keep her mother alive despite overdrinking and the threat of drunk driving. Kathy (Zoe Kazan), the girl’s mother, goes through an emotional rollercoaster, unable to communicate that she is actually heartbroken that her daughter is choosing to leave. As they drive through the night, taking an old road off the highway that leads them through the dark woods, Kathy swerves to avoid a wolf that has run out into the road. The car’s axle breaks and they skid to a stop, trapped and waiting for help in the form of an ambulance and tow truck that they are assured are on their way. But something is watching them from the woods. Something was hunting that wolf and drove it into the road. Something is waiting to devour these two women.

The Monster is a tough one. There are some interesting ideas, and the acting is incredibly strong. But as a horror film, I think it fails to create an atmosphere of fear. The set up is rife for some really unnerving horror set pieces, but the director doesn’t seem confident in the monster or sure of what to do. Director Bryan Bertino is the filmmaker behind 2008’s The Strangers. My opinion of that film was that it handled the ambiguous nature of its horror pretty damn well but didn’t do much to help me care about its two protagonists. The Monster appears focused on giving us that needed character development but then delivers sloppy horror.

There are moments where the horror begins to emerge from Kathy’s lack of parenting skills, putting her daughter in dangerous situations and being generally stupid in the face of horror. The film is peppered with flashbacks detailing the most recent decline of Kathy to the drink. We see her struggle mentally and physically in the backyard trying to decide if she digs through the trash for the bottles she’s thrown out. We see Lizzy hiding car keys to prevent drunk driving. We see the two devolve into a screaming match of profanities as the daughter does not want her drunk mother attending her school play. It’s pretty obvious what the director wants us to feel about these characters and the actors work their asses off, but the direction seems to undercut or hold back the deeper emotional impact.

The Monster is a movie about the horrors of addiction, but I would argue it fails to make those horrors feel truly horrific. Where The Strangers is confident in its pacing and the slow build up of horror, Bertino feels clumsy and unsure through almost every step of The Monster. There is a really great movie here, a premise that can connect us to the characters and a horror that is left unexplained. But when all the pieces are assembled, and we view the final project, it just doesn’t add up to much of anything really.

Movie Review – The Blackcoat’s Daughter

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015, dir. Oz Perkins)

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A weekend break is here for the students at Bramford Academy, a girls’ boarding in the Northeast. It’s a snow-covered February weekend, and Kat and Rose find themselves stranded with neither of their parents showing up to collect them. The headmaster leaves them under the watch of two sisters that look over the school, but for the most part, the girls are left to their own devices. Kat has been having strange dreams about her parents dying and is convinced that is why they haven’t shown up. Rose has bigger things on her mind, worried about a possible pregnancy from a local young man. All throughout the school, though, there is a strong presence evil. And who is the mysterious young woman Joan who is hitchhiking her way towards Bramford?

I was floored by how good The Blackcoat’s Daughter turned out to be. From the opening frames, there is a concerted effort to build a dark atmosphere, anticipating the coming horror. The director chooses to spend time developing the characters and not through heavy exposition. Perkins understands that often spouted film advice of “Show, don’t tell.” While some reviewers are expressing their dislike of the movie due to its slow burn nature, I see it as the same structuring that made The Witch so lucky. We learn who Kat is, not some facts about her life, but about the core of her character and her values through her actions and interactions with Rose.

The plot of The Blackcoat’s Daughter is not anything beyond a traditional horror film or short story, but it is the way that the aspects of production build that horror through lighting, cinematography, and music that draw you in despite knowing that this story is going to end up in some incredibly dark places. The music, in particular, composed by Osgood’s musician brother Elvis Perkins, is heavy with low strings and the faint pained echoes and chants of humor voices layered underneath the despair.

The acting is quite superb and is a style I personally see as a great litmus test for the quality of an artist’s talents. The performances demand a certain quiet and subtlety and Kiernan Shipka as Kat stands at the front of the cast with a performance that is powerful beyond her years. Having come of age on Mad Men, a show I often cite for cultivating a more controlled and nuanced style of acting, she has definitely learned a lot about what a powerful tool the face can be, with some expressions conveying tons of emotional weight. Lucy Boynton as Rose is tasked with a difficult role, carrying most of the film’s dialogue and could have easily come across as a cliched “cold ice queen/bitch”. Instead, she bring complexity to a character who is going through a difficult time, worried about the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy and what they would do to her life.

The film is not something that will appeal to all viewers and rewards one who chooses to be patient and thoughtful while meditating on images or sounds. When the nature of the horror is finally revealed in the last act of the film, it doesn’t flinch from showing realistic depictions of violence, in this instance with a kitchen knife. The final image of the film is haunting one, a figure in deep psychic pain and someone we are left asking so many questions. Parsing through the events of the picture and asking what was real, what certain gestures meant, and what happens next for this lone survivor of the events who appears to live in an unending nightmare.

Green Room (2016, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

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There’s something dangerous about the woods. Yeah, the city is dangerous, but there’s something worse about the woods. You’re so far away from help. You’re isolated. The woods are cold and indifferent. So when the members of punk band The Ain’t Rights roll into the parking lot of neo-Nazi club plunked right down in the Oregonian forest there’s sinking feeling that hits your gut. I am ashamed to say I have not dedicated the time to watch Jeremy Saulnier’s previous picture Blue Ruin after hearing great things. Having seen Green Room, I must see this older film.

Green Room tells the story of a punk band that stumbles upon something they shouldn’t see in the back of a club. As mentioned before, neo-Nazis own the club and the band quickly become prisoners and involved in a brutal and violent standoff. Saying more would spoil the suspense of the film. The tension is built up beautifully through the moody ambient music of Brooke & Will Blair and the washed out cinematography of Sean Porter. Scenes are painted with pale green and blue ambiance and the tense drone that builds in the score. Right before all hell breaks lose all these elements come together and then explode into a nightmare.

The violence in Green Room reminded me a lot of Simon Rumley’s Red, White, & Blue. Harm to human beings is presented as realistically as possible, taking into account what actually happens to a body when hit with these sorts of traumas. There are many moments where you have to look away and the film doesn’t pull punches about who gets hurt and killed either. These are a group of young adults who aren’t trained to fight for their lives and they make the sorts of mistakes and show ineptitude with weapons that they truly would. I also loved the confidence of a couple characters going into extremely bad situations. That confidence is dealt with appropriately.

The acting is done very well with Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin heading up the cast. Stewart gives a great muted performance as the patriarch of this skinhead operation. He handles the band with just the right amount of calmness at the start, escalates as each side gets in their hits. Yelchin does a fine performance and is going for something very muted, unsure, and contemplative. You can’t watch his work now and not reflect on what we’ve lost. In the same way that seeing James Dean in Giant and East of Eden made me sad there weren’t films spanning decades featuring this actor, I feel the same way about Yelchin. I don’t believe we had truly seen his best work and films like Green Room show hints of that.

The supporting cast is excellent. Imogen Poots plays a local who ends up locked up with the band and brings a lot of physicality to the role that sold it. Her look and demeanor feel so real. The rest of the band does a great job, but it is the other neo-Nazis that are truly terrifying. Macon Blair plays Tad, the manager of the club and shows a lot of nuance. He’s not comfortable dealing with dead bodies and there’s a lot of unspoken and hinted at history that make him intriguing. Eric Edelstein plays an incredibly menacing skinhead that gets locked up in the room with the band. The stand out, though he is only on screen for a handful of minutes, would be Brent Werzner as Werm. He comes across a complete and total sociopath in his short screen time and is one of those people you pray to god you never meet in real life.

Green Room is a brutal story. But is is a very well told one. The narrative choices that are made help ratchet up the tension. Almost every moment of the film will leave you feeling the queasy, uneasiness, truly having no idea what horror is happening next. And this is definitely a horror film, not about the supernatural and not about a mindless slasher, but a horror story that preys on our fears of the big evil in the woods. This is what happens when you leave civilization and enter the realm of a vicious beast.