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: Under the Skin

UnderTheSkin Based on Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Under the Skin is a science fiction character study starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien “woman” who preys on men in Scotland. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), the film is low on dialogue but heavy on imagery and message. Taking a unique view of what it is to be human and to understand the nuance of human interaction. This is accomplished via physical attraction through the eyes of an alien. When Scarlett Johansson acquires the clothing of a random semi-conscience woman she begins her explorative journey across Scotland to pick up single men. The film is one that never holds your hand and forces the viewer to glean more information than the average blockbuster science fiction movie does. Johansson’s unnamed character drives around random streets of Scotland doing her very best to attract men to come home with her. As you might guess this isn’t very difficult. The film plays to Johansson’s attractiveness in real life as well as her attractiveness in the film. Young men are willing to throw conscience to the wind for an opportunity with her. However, she doesn’t just choose any man, but rather ones who seemingly have no families. Numerous times she passes up men who mention they are headed home to their wives, family, or even roommates. Johansson is selective in her acquisitions. However, not until she meets a man who is very unique from all the others does she begin to see these men in a completely different light.

Transitioning from an automaton to a being of actual compassion begins to breakdown and ultimately destroy her world. She starts to try and understand and even conform to the norms of humans, but finds this to be an nearly improbable task. Even the most mundane of human activities give her pause. In the end, she is subjected to a moment of horror at the hands of a man and is destroyed because of it.

As I said earlier the film does its best to let the viewer draw a lot of his or her own conclusions. For me, there was no happenstance that the alien is a woman. Notions of attractiveness, agency, and violence were prominent messages throughout. Johansson’s attempts to pick up random Scottish men plays as a nice mirror image of what normal human interaction is, or is at least in western cultures. Men are generally seen as the aggressors or pursuers in these type of environments. Here, a woman has taken agency with the courting ritual and turned things on its head. Off putting to some men, but unsurprisingly they get with the program almost immediately. What she does with the men she seduces is strip them of their humanity. Much like some women have been known to feel after being treated as nothing more than a mere throw away object. The film works as a fascinating allegory for women’s treatment by men, and the devastating effects that those societal norms have created. An alien seeing men as nothing more than objects first and beings last is in a way the best way to describe the brutality towards women in the old world, and frankly the modern one as well.

The final sequence in the film is by far the most powerful. Johansson’s character reaches the end of her time on Earth at the hands of male brutality. She is separated from her true self (as others saw it), and is forced to bare everything to the world. A simplistic, yet beautiful moment of stellar film making in my opinion. Ending a story of a being that makes a full journey from emotionless to the truly compassionate. In the end, the film asks the most bold question: what matters more, who we present to the world or who we are underneath?

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Review: Newlyweeds

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The full length film directorial debut of Shaka King is a powerful mash up of a classic soulful narrative and subtle elements of stoner comedy. Newlyweeds tells the story of Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris) as they go through life as a couple with a serious ‘addiction’ to smoking marijuana. A smart film that has a lot more to say behind the haze of smoke.

Lyle and Nina’s story begins with the two laying together smoking, as they do quite often, and talking about their dreams and aspirations. Lyle works as a repo man for a rent-to-own store, while Nina works a children’s guide/storyteller for a local museum. The two pondering under the blanket of weed smoke about traveling the world becoming more enlightened. There is a moment while wearing a foreign tribal mask, Nina ponders the limited use of our brains. She expounds on the ability to unlock the other cultural regions of the mind. For anyone who has been around people who are high on marijuana or have been themselves this scene was not only familiar, but bizarrely comforting at the same time. Nina, a true smoker through and through. She does it when times are good and when times are rough. She is known to “smoke like a dude” when it comes to quantity. She is a character of privilege. Growing up in what can be ascertained as an upper middle class black family. She has seen foreign lands and yearns for those opportunities again.

Lyle, however, is a man struggling to push his way out of Brooklyn to somewhere better or at least different. His work as a repo man makes for some of the more comedic moments of the film. He stalks non-paying customers to the ends of the neighborhood. He even institutes costumes to make the moments more hilarious. He has the flaws of the common man while the endearing attitude of the classic film trope of a ‘man on a mission.’ Clearly a man who has never seen much further than the edges of Brooklyn, Lyle strives to be where Nina was. He dreams with her about one day leaving all of his life behind and unlocking that part of his mind; life experience. What is the rest of the world like? Can you make it there while still smoking and dreaming about it all day? These are the most pertinent of life’s questions for Lyle.

When Lyle and Nina hit a rough patch in their journey together this is where the heart of the film really lives. Nina’s breakdown without Lyle gives her character further depth and real world tangibility. She is heartbroken but her ‘addiction’ stays true. Lyle on the other hand goes completely off the rails. His true addiction is Nina and his withdrawal is severe. Amari Cheatom does an amazing job portraying this level of loss and desperation. Like all addicts he eventually has his moment of clarity. In the end, Lyle gets what he really needed and to a large degree so does Nina. Watching the two grow and develop as people feels more like watching friends over time than fictional characters. Whether they are marijuana smokers, drinkers, drug addicts, or just people living their lives there is a simplistic sense of familiarity with the Lyle and Nina. Their struggles, their neighborhood, their friends, their dealer, their lives are the perfect representation of the modern American experience.

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Review: 2 Days in New York

2 Days in New York

The follow up to the critically successful 2 Days in Paris (2007) brings us stateside but manages to hold on to its European charm. 2 Days in New York is a quirky romantic comedy written, directed, and starring Julie Delpy. Replacing the unforgettable performance by Adam Goldberg (Jack) is comedian, and indie movie newcomer, Chris Rock. Delpy has been called the female Woody Allen and to date I don’t think that is an outlandish claim in the least. 2 Days in New York is a great re-introduction into Marion’s (Delpy) manic world, and the inclusion of Mingus, (Rock) her new boyfriend.

When last we saw Marion she was working things out with Jack and the couple seemed to live happily ever after. 2 Days in New York opens with Marion confiding in Mingus that she is contemplating leaving Jack, and in classic Marion fashion she becomes single soon after. Like clockwork Mingus and Marion get together and that’s where the story really starts moving. After what seems like a fairly normal life together with their two kids from previous relationships, Marion and Mingus look like a typical New York couple. However, things begin to go off the rails when Marion’s father Jeannot (Albert Delpy - Julie Delpy’s real life father), her sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) and Rose's boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon) come to visit from France. When this group of Parisians gets to town its just a series of culture disasters. From the sensibilities that the French have with nudity to the assumption that an Indian guy is Kumar from the Harold and Kumar movies Jeannot, Rose, and Manu drive both Mingus and Marion up a wall. In the 2007 film Marion was constantly trying to keep Jack at ease in her native country. However, in the 2012 follow up Marion is constantly berating her family for their uncompromising French ways. Its nice to see they went in a slightly different direction and didn’t fall into the trap of rehashing the same material from the first film.

Chris Rock’s Mingus is as nuanced as Jack’s character. He is a normal guy thrust into an untenable situation. His life is going as planned until these people walk in and make him question Marion’s background and mental stability. Mingus is the vessel in which we see Delpy's well constructed world. I found myself thinking how I would react and it seemed pretty close to how Mingus responds. In the end, Mingus is the every man and Rock’s own personality shines through. At times, I would swear he was ad libbing and in a film like this it does/would work perfectly.

As a newcomer to the indie movie world, Rock did very well. Conveying a vulnerable side of himself, which made for an easy character to connect with. Julie Delpy once again shines as the de facto neurotic French woman. She drives you crazy with her manic moments but she is so endearing that those times just melt away. Albert Delpy, who is/plays Julie’s father returns and delivers at the same level he did in the previous film. His insatiable appetite for the bizarre and kink make him the perfect character. The characters of Rose and Manu are not as explored as I would have liked. I thought Rose’s character had such great potential but seemed to be squandered this go round.

I would definitely recommend 2 Days in New York to anyone. If you have seen the previous film than you owe it to yourself to finish out the story of Marion. The setting of New York made everything feel very comforting and personal, which played well when Marion and Mingus were in pre-Parisian invasion mode and added tension once their annoying house guests arrived. Go see 2 Days in New York and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have family like Marion.

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image via sofiaglobe.com

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

The lines between reality and fantasy are harshly drawn in most cases, however, in the mind of a child they can begin to blur. This notion is what makes Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild so appealing. At no point in the film do we really know if we are witnessing the imagination of a child raised in anarchy or the anarchy itself. The audience’s confusion allows them to empathize with the character of Hushpuppy in a deeper and more meaningful way.

Beasts of the Southern Wild involves a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who embarks on a life changing journey with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), as he is dying of an unknown illness. The relationship between the two is as manic, frightening, and beautiful as a vivid dream. They live in a southern Delta, which is clearly near New Orleans, in abysmal surroundings. Zeitlin makes obvious yet considerate connections between how chaotic their home life is as a mirror for Wink’s, and to an extent Hushpuppy’s, mental state. Wink suffers from mental illness of some kind and is an alcoholic, but this doesn’t slow him down from his fatherly duties. However twisted as they may seem Wink finds its necessary to bring Hushpuppy up to speed on surviving in the “Bathtub” (another name for the Delta they live in). From how to catch fish with your bare hands to “beasting a crab” Wink shows her all she needs to know. While no one would summarize his lessons as stellar moments in parenting they are some of the most heartfelt moments in the film. The early part of the film really shows you just how much Wink cares for Hushpuppy, and more importantly how much Hushpuppy idolizes her dying father.

While Wink is teaching our heroine some life lessons there is another story arc happening in the background. As her world becomes more hectic ancient animals called aurochs begin to be released into the world. These giant boar-like animals are the thing of a child’s nightmares. They are ever approaching, and as time goes on they grow in numbers and size. The collision between the aurochs and Hushpuppy is inevitable. Her madness filled life will eventually catch up to her and she will have to deal with it face to face. Zeitlin gives these aurochs no personality or anything to connect with. They are soulless monsters just over the horizon. Here you can see the most obvious blurs of reality and the dream world. The aurochs represent many things in the film, however, ironically they ultimately represent real life, and its inevitability.

The performances in this film were something to really see. Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy was some of the best child acting I have ever seen. At age 5 she brought a realness to the role. It felt at times she was just being filmed in her normal life. For a majority of child actors showing heartfelt emotion is difficult, however for Wallis it came all too easy. Dwight Henry’s portrayal of Wink was stellar. His manic swings in emotion were genuinely disturbing. I have to guess that Henry is a father in real life because he is able to emote in scenes with a sense of concern that is so pitch perfect for a parent to a child. His genuineness reminded me of Chris Parnell's role in Pariah. The rest of the cast is filled with emotional and very real performances. One thing that I generally don’t get into when I do reviews is cinematography. Its general bores people to tears so I just don’t bother. However, in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild I will make an exception. The movie looks simply beautiful. We were treated to tight shots of a southern Delta and flooded rivers. The transitions to and from reality was seamless. Anytime the aurochs were on screen they were larger than life and had a dream like presence due to their enormity comparative to their environment. All of this makes for not only an intriguing experience but a beautiful film. Go see Beast of the Southern Wild.

[easyreview title= "Review of Beast of the Southern Wild" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is a quintessential Wes Anderson movie. The look and feel of the movie is textbook to his style. Tracking shots and quirky music set the scene for a wonderfully enjoyable film set in 1965. Much like Life Aquatic we are thrown into the imagination of Anderson with his story of two kids who fall in love with each other and go to the end of the island for each other.

The story of Moonrise Kingdom takes place in New England where two 12 year olds meet and fall madly in love with one another. The kind of impractical yet beautifully innocent love only children can possess. There are no judgements or hesitations just pure admiration for one another. When the two agree to run away from their current dwellings, a household and a summer camp, respectively all hell breaks loose to try and find them. While the hunt is on to bring these two love birds back to their previous lives we get to watch two young actors really do exceptional work. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward really shine as Sam and Suzy. The scenes were they are camping and just enjoying the innocence of being together is great to watch. Suzy is a known problem child and has apparently some anger issues. While Sam is a foster child who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Here Anderson makes you realize that they are both bigger than their labels in the outside world and shows you who they have the potential to be given the right situation. As Sam and Suzy not only explore the island but their own relationship you can’t help but remember the first time you kissed a girl/boy and the awkwardness and excitement you felt. Their journey not only shows that moment but it's a representation of those feelings the entire time.

It sadly doesn’t take too long for Sam and Suzy to be found, and then the party is over, or so they thought. The last act of the film is the great escape. Escape from what? All of the adult relationships in the movie are fractured and broken in some way. The kids are basically trying to escape this life of fracture and go have adventures and not get stuck. With the help of his Khaki Scouts troop, Sam is reunited with the love of his life and they are off. Working with a quirky personality played by Jason Schwartzman who helps them on their way. This of course is all under the backdrop of a hurricane that’s coming unexpectedly. In the end, we get a very satisfying resolution to our story and the mirror of young love versus old love is forever removed. You can watch these adults (played brilliantly by Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand) try and separate this young love and fail but it speaks to their adult view of the silliness of so called puppy love. However, it turns out the kids show them how powerful that unbridled, illogical, and sometimes silly love can be.

[easyreview title= "Review of Moonrise Kingdom" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

* I purposefully didn't mention much about the adult actors in this movie because I feel like it would take a way the magnificent work performed by the kids involved. That's not to say we didn't get excellent performances by all of them.