Review: Moonlight

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The quiet 2016 story of a young man’s journey of through life and that of self-discovery might just be the film of the year. Writer/director Barry Jenkins creates an atmosphere that is as colorful and unique as it is relatable to an audience anywhere in the world. Matched with wonderful cinematography, a needle drop soundtrack, and powerful cast of experienced and newcomers, Moonlight gives a new take on the story of coming out and growing up. A truly well rounded story of a full character that is tragically and beautifully presented.

The film is presented in three acts (Little, Chiron, and Black) which represent the names the main character was known as throughout his life. Chiron is a quiet and shy kid who is tormented by the other boys who chase him after school for reasons that become clear as time goes on. When Chiron (known as “Little” when he is a child who is played by Alex Hibbert) runs into an abandoned building, he is saved by a local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). A surprisingly nuanced and kind hearted man, Juan takes Little under his care until he can find out where the child lives, as Little refuses to speak. Juan let’s Little stay the night with him and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who the boy instantly takes a liking to. The two adults finally coax information out of Little, but not before making a lasting impression on the young introvert. So begins the true journey of this character, as we see him deal with his drug addicted and emotionally abusive mother Paula (Naomie Harris). The film works so well here as a by the numbers heart string tugger, but there is more and you should dig further as the viewing audience. Against this known surface narrative is a young man struggling not just with his sexuality, but more importantly how he fits into the world of masculinity. There are apathetic hyper-masculine characters and sympathetic nuanced ones. They push, pull, and shape Little with every interaction. Particular moments of male-bonding (having nothing to do with sexuality whatsoever) are moments that shine in the primary chapter. Finding where Little fits is his number one concern, and nothing works quite right.

The rest of the film focuses on the remaining and emotionally heaviest chapters of Chiron's story. The second act being his years in high school (now played by Ashton Sanders), where he must contend with his mother's addiction head on, and his first sexual experience, and the aspects of bullying. Peer pressure plays a large role here in not only defining Chiron but those around him as well. The daily torturous life that Chiron lives during the second chapter are the most cliché but are they are there because they are accurate. The film does a wonderful job of making Chiron's experiences as a gay man relatable no matter where you are on the sexuality spectrum. The awkwardness of self-discovery is universal and that is what makes the film transcend it just being a film about the LGBTQ community. It is representative of that community but it is so much more as well; a truly human story. The third act (this writer's personal favorite), takes a look at Chiron in his mid 20s (now played by Trevante Rhodes). An emotionally damaged young man who has been more influenced by his early childhood than we could have possibly expected. This chapter is quiet, striking, and romantic. Some of the best subtle acting and writing that I've seen in some time.

In the end, the film is simply a stellar example of what happens when a writer/director is allowed to pursue his or her true visionary passion. Barry Jenkins first film, Medicine for Melancholy, was received with mixed reviews, but Moonlight is no middling follow up. Powerful in its message, tremendous in its casting and acting, and shot incredibly well. There is something for everyone here, whether or not you are a part of the LGBTQ community this film speaks to the trials and tribulations of just growing up. A truly impressive work of art.

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Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

An actual account of the American slave trade is practically impossible to find. However, Solomon Northup, an educated free man who was sold into slavery did just that. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) goes all out to present one of the best on screen representations of the American slave era and its gut wrenching effects on those who were victims of it. This film stars an all-star cast lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o.

Beginning with the relative normal life of a free black family in Saratoga, New York the Northups were seemingly treated like everyone else around them. The father, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is beloved by others and they view him with a level of respect and admiration. All of this happening while the southern portion of the nation is ripe with the use of slaves from Africa. There is something particularly jarring about seeing Solomon and his family so happy and normal at these times. It feels out of place from the known history most are taught. However, life in certain areas was as it was portrayed in Saratoga in 1841.

Solomon made his living by playing the violin, and was offered money to play at a circus by two men, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. These men drugged Solomon and sold him into slavery. After drinking and eating with these men all night he awakens to shackles and endures beatings the very next day. The brutality and horror by which we see Solomon’s freedom be taken away is not only heartbreaking but incredibly frustrating. The notion that a human being could do this to another is unfathomable in today’s society, but it was so common place at the time. Solomon is shipped off to Georgia where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). However, before he arrives at Ford's plantation we get moments of the slave trade itself. The selling of slaves like animals or equipment was harsh. Watching mothers being separated from the children was a hard hitting narrative that McQueen touches on quite often. This scene prepared the audience for the emotional brutality that was to follow.

Solomon was not kept at Ford’s plantation too long before being sold into the hands of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps was a brutal tyrant in a time of many tyrants. He stands out in the crowd of despicable people in the film. He is described as a “breaker of niggers” before we even meet him. A man of religiosity and yet the purveyor of such pain and suffering, Epps plays well to the purposeful compartmentalization of Christian values and known slaver. Like many slave owners Epps had an affinity for a particular female slave. That woman was is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and she is one of the most profound characters I have seen in film. Dancing the line between pure innocence and unimaginable internal despair, Patsey is everything that Epps loves and hates. He feels that he must possess her in every possible way; simple ownership is not enough. Her beautiful onyx skin plays as a further contrast to who Epps is and what he wants. Solomon befriends this woman and their interactions are fascinating. She is looking for the fastest ways out of her situation, while Solomon works to tell her that she must endure; both pay dearly for their opposing views. There are no easy answers or even definitive ones, but all the characters are set on their path. When Solomon is given his opportunity to make it out, he takes it and others do the same. The idea of survival is challenged quite often with Solomon even stating explicitly, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

The acting performances in 12 Years A Slave, were the best I’ve seen this year. The cast featured an array of big names, rising stars, and relative unknowns all playing their parts in great harmony. Lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s Solomon Northup had purpose and a genuineness that isn’t often seen. The degradation of going from a free man to a slave was no simple task in showing, but Ejiofor did it was such vigor that at moments you lose him in the role. Michael Fassbender is one of the best working actors of today. He will certainly go down as one of the best that’s ever done it, and I honestly love the guy’s work. However, I hated his guts in this film; a true testament to his skill as an actor. He is deplorable, hypocritical, and down right vicious. With two leading actors putting some of the best performances of their careers I think they were ultimately overshadowed. Lupita Nyong'o delivered nothing shy of an Oscar award winning performance. She never let up for a second. Whenever she was on screen she stole the spotlight, even from Ejiofor and Fassbender. She is the gem of the film. From being exalted by Epps to the final outcome of their relationship she runs the gamut. Nyong’o was able to portray a woman who is the absolute product of her horrible circumstances. She plays the loved slave/doll and works to become more. She accepts her plight but not before making some understandable choices. I look forward to seeing Nyong’o in more stellar roles like Patsey.

In conclusion, director Steve McQueen was able to craft a film that respected and brought to life the true story of Solomon Northup. There will never be another detailed slave story quite like Solomon’s and there will never be a film with the level of impact, brutality, insanity, and reality quite like 12 Years A Slave.

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Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station The tragic retelling of Oscar Grant III's murder at the hands of San Francisco transit police is as timely as it is gut wrenching. The Ryan Coogler directed film works to establish a true face to the man yet works to balance out who he truly was. Never making Oscar out to be an angel or a saint, Coogler gives a real look at what the likely day to day is for a 22 year kid in Oakland trying to turn his life around. The film starts out with showing actual cell phone footage of the shooting of Grant. Setting the tone for what to expect in the final act. It had been a while since I'd seen the footage and the moment the gunshot happens I could feel my sadness arise. The footage played powerfully for anyone, but especially those who don't believe things like this happen. From there we are launched into the days before the shooting and we get a fresh look at Oscar's life. We see the relationship that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) has with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Their relationship is rocky at best with assertions of Oscar's infidelity and his selling and using of marijuana. Further establishing Oscar is no saint, but rather a guy who just can't get himself on the right path.

The film works to make sure as a viewer you know the entirety of who Oscar is and who he is working to become. As the day goes on we see this beautiful transformation in him. We've all had those moments of silence when the light just clicks on. For Oscar, the selling of drugs had no more appeal and getting a legitimate full time job and being a fully present family man was his goal. The change was gradual and never felt like it was hitting you over the head. As Oscar goes on we see flashbacks of his rougher days and more establishment that he is just a young man with faults. I've never seen a movie work so hard to kill any possible talk about false sainthood of a character except possibly Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Its a refreshing thing to see in light of the controversial events that happen in the film. The film is 90 minutes and the first 60 are devoted to getting to know Oscar and watching him grow and change. The last 30 minutes is completely dedicated to the events of the shooting and the turmoil that it puts his friends and family though. During the final 30 minutes I've never been so emotionally hijacked while watching a movie. Director Ryan Coogler does an amazing job in establishing and sustain a level of tension and grief throughout that latter third.

The film is a testament to what a young director can do when given material he really cares about. Coogler's passion can easily be seen in the way scenes are shot, and the intensity in which the actors are directed; this was clearly no walk in the park. The fantastic cast headed by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar was full of understated moments of real emotion. Jordan did stellar work to bring the victim's story to light. Showing the dark and light sides of who Oscar Grant III truly was. Melonie Diaz who played Sophina stood out as a beacon to Oscar's wayward ship. Diaz fit so well into this cast that at times you forget that any of them are even acting. Last but certainly not least, Octavia Spencer played the role of Wanda Grant, Oscar's mother. In what I believe is the most powerful performance, Spencer shined. Moments that seems so real that I can't imagine they weren't ad-libbed to a degree. Spencer's performance at times felt like the outpouring of a mother that I've known forever. Her work here should net her an Oscar nomination at a minimum. The rest of the cast was more than serviceable and took nothing away from the film. At the end of the day the film is highly important for many reasons. The sociopolitical times that we are living in makes this movie rise to the top, but the performances, cinematography, and fantastic direction make it truly a piece to see on screen. PLEASE go see Fruitvale Station.

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