Saturday, December 31, 2016

SHINE A LIGHT ON ME: a review of "Midnight Special"

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now let's see if I can get one more in just under the wire.

One of the very best things I love about the movies is that sense of discovery, the surprise, the unexpected qualities that make the overly familiar feel so excitingly fresh. One of the things that I hate about the movies--or better yet, the movie business in the 21st century--is how the over-abundance of the major big budget releases and the plethora of multiplex movie screens around the country that only show those films at the expense of any other films is more than troubling. The devotion to the weekend box office race has long outweighed attention to quality, especially when it arrives in considerably smaller packages, now making for a time when smaller, independent films don't even have a chance to find, let along build an audience. And that is even when those films are even released theatrically anymore.

In recent years, I have been intrigued by the film of Writer/Director Jeff Nichols who first grabbed my attention powerfully with the psychological/apocalyptic thriller "Take Shelter" (2011) and the Southern, Mark Twain influenced coming of age drama "Mud"(2012).

When I first saw the cryptic trailers for his follow-up feature entitled "Midnight Special," I was more than ready to see just what Nichols would serve next. But then, the film barely played in my city, arriving and departing in just one week's time. Now that is a profound shame, because after now having seen the film, I am very excited to point you firmly in its direction as "Midnight Special" is one of 2016's most surprising, thrilling, perplexing, mysterious, instantly captivating releases that I really think you would find yourselves happily sinking your teeth into as the cinematic world of Jeff Nichols is more than deserving of your attention.

At this point, I tend to provide you with a plot description but in the case of "Midnight Special," I strongly feel that the less you know the better for its overall effect will hit you more sumptuously by not knowing terribly much about it. Taking a cue from the aforementioned cryptic trailer, I will say the following to you..

"Midnight Special" stars Michael Shannon as Roy Tomlin who is on the run throughout rural Texas with his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as well as with his 8 year old son Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a child adorned with strange abilities, most notably blinding white lights that blast from his eyes.

Involved with the pursuit and the overall adventure within the film, Nichols features a Texas religious cult led by Pastor Cavin Meyer (Sam Shepard) raided by the FBI, the destruction of an Air Force satellite, the increased presence of Alton's fugitive Mother (Kirsten Dunst) plus a more genteel Agent (Adam Driver), and the metaphysical revelations found within an everyday sunrise plus even more.

Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special" is a chase film, a Father/son drama, a Southern thriller and science fiction adventure that essentially feels like the third act of a longer film in which we have not seen the first two sections. And to that description, this is an excellent storytelling tactic as the film opens with a combined sense of mystery and urgency as we are all thrust into a  high stakes adventures without really knowing who the participants are, their relation to each other, who is even chasing them and why.

All of these qualities--plus Cinematographer Adam Stone's rugged visuals and most definitely, Composer David Wingo's minimalist yet deeply intense score--instantly create a palpable intensity that is further compounded by the crispness of Nichols' writing and the no frills qualities of his direction, which often finds ways to nearly lull you into a certain relaxed state of mind just to rapidly pull the cinematic carpet out from under you time and again. For as many movies as I have seen throughout my life, I can easily that I have not jumped up in my seat with excitement and even honest shock as I did during this film, signifying that Jeff Nichols knows precisely what he is doing!

All of the performances are first rate with Shannon and Edgerton each performing strong, grounded work as taciturn Southern men thrust into an inexplicable escapade where their respective friendship and love for this special young boy provides "Midnight Special" with its firm emotional core which remains rock solid even when the fantastical occurs. Nichols also keep a tight rein on the special effects, only dolling them out when necessary, thus producing the mightiest effect, which is often surreal, frightening and filled with the precise sense of awe and wonder that is missing from most big budget CGI bombasts these days.

I really do not wish to say much more about this film as I just wish for you to take that chance and seek it out as it is now available on home video formats and it is even currently in the HBO rotation should you have that channel. Dear readers, Jeff Nichols is indeed the real deal, a serious cinematic storyteller that is displaying an increasing versatility and idiosyncratic artistic voice while flying completely under the radar--perhaps maybe too far beneath that radar in 2016 as even his second feature of this year, the inter-racial marriage love story/legal drama "Loving" has arrived and departed my city just as rapidly as "Midnight Special," and again despite the critical acclaim both films have received.

What a shame it would be for filmmakers such as Jeff Nichols to find themselves with less opportunities to creatively express themselves due to the unforgiving nature of the marketplace and the seemingly impenetrable wall of superheroes, sequels, prequels, reboots and so on and so forth.

Jeff Nichols possesses a most original voice and "Midnight Special" is truly one of 2016's most uniquely creative and presented films.

Friday, December 30, 2016


Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

I know!!! I know!!! I can't believe it either!!

I am certain that after just seeing the star rating, many to most of you will be thinking that I have completely lost my mind and am just an eternal grump for not being swept away by a film as fantastical as this one. Dear readers, please allow me to explain myself and please do keep reading and not turn away from me out of disbelief.

Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," his follow up feature to his outstanding, pummeling "Whiplash" (2014), is a cinematic triumph on many levels as it is a luxuriously executed musical fantasy that is worlds away from the gritty, independent feature that preceded it. It is a film that I have been itching to see for several months now due to the glowing advance reviews as well as based upon the initial trailers that made me feel that this would be a film that would fly straight to my cinematic heart of hearts. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I don't know...I am willing to concede that possibility. But when all was said and done, "La La Land" for all of its razzle dazzle and expertise lovingly upon display, I just was not moved terribly much.

Now, with its first sequence, "La La Land" had me enraptured. After beautifully displaying the vintage Cinemascope logo, Chazelle opens his film with an astonishing song and dance sequence set upon a bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles freeway. In what I think was one of the most extravagant unedited sequences I have seen in recent years the song "Another Day In The Sun" is movie musical euphoria, conjuring up the legacy of classic musicals of cinema's past with blazing colors, swirling cameras and a sea of singers and dancers merged blissfully in gorgeous choreography atop their cars in that aforementioned stalled traffic. It is truly one of the finest opening sequences I have seen in any film this year and it gave me high hopes for the remainder to follow.

Beginning in earnest, "La La Land" stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia Dolan and Sebastian Wilder, respectively--two struggling artists and hopeful dreamers longing to make their fame and fortune in their respective callings of acting and jazz music. Where Mia works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot while also failing to achieve successful auditions, Sebastian bounces from one piano playing job to another due to uncompromising artistic nature and purity to his craft.

After first encountering each other petulantly during the film's opening sequence, and again just as petulantly as Mia, wounded from another failed audition and skipping out on a plastic Hollywood party, finds herself in a bar and enchanted by chance Sebastian's lyrical piano playing--the very sort completely unwanted by his boss (J.K. Simmons in a sharp cameo) who immediately fires him just before Christmas.

Months later, after Mia catches up with Sebastian again, now forced to working as a keyboardist in a 1980's synth-pop cover band, the two grudgingly begin to officially meet and build their obvious attraction in a lovely duet song and dance sequence.

Of course, and in classic movie musical fashion, Mia and Sebastian fall in love and begin to share their dreams in becoming a famous, respected actress and jazz pianist/nightclub owner specializing in the preservation of pure jazz music. Yet, when pressures mount and dreams are compromised and threatened to be extinguished, will their love survive?

Look, dear readers, I feel powerfully that Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is indeed worthy of all of its accolades as they are exceedingly well deserved as he is indeed a filmmaker that has achieved an artistic growth not many other filmmakers are really able to pull off. Frankly, I am not terribly certain if I have seen something quite this sort since Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson debuted with his intimate, independent thriller "Hard Eight" (1996) and then took a quantum leap to the sprawling, wide screened 1970's epic of "Boogie Nights" (1997). "La La Land" shows that very same conceptual leap as its entire magical, more innocent tonality is a complete 180 degree turn from the brutal force of "Whiplash." Chazelle, with these two films, has certainly displayed himself as a filmmaker to take serious notice of as he pursues his future projects, whatever they may happen to be.

Chazelle is in complete command of his material in which he is superbly aided by Cinematographer Linus Sandgren who beautifully realizes the musicals of old, Composer Justin Hurwitz's vibrant, jazzy score (and to a lesser degree, the songs) and most certainly Mandy Moore's first rate choreography (not the singer but the dancer you may have seen on television's "So You Think You Can Dance"). And yet, I am certain that you are wondering, why didn't I greet this film with the same rapturous applause I heard at the conclusion of my screening?

Let me try to explain it this way. For me, the finest musicals that I have ever seen, from more traditional films like Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's iconic "Singin' In The Rain" (1952) and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story" (1961) or the more pop/rock musicals that I grew up with like Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973), Ken Russell's "Tommy" (1975), Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979), Alan Parker's "Fame" (1980) or even Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), happened to all be films that were completely transportive. Movie musicals that truly swept me away into their respective film universes and musical dream worlds so completely that I almost wished the real world could emulate what I had seen upon the screen with people spontaneously bursting into song and high flying dance numbers.

"La La Land," aside from the first sequence and despite how extravagantly presented Chazelle delivered his film--and there are several dazzling sequences--I just was not swept away at all. In fact, for me, the film opened on such a high note that I think the rest of the film had a bit of difficulty maintaining its momentum and peak, often falling short when I should felt more and more elevated.

Furthermore, all of those films (plus others I have loved) all contained songs that I was not only still singing to myself upon leaving the theater. They were all riveted into my memories sumptuously and long enough for me to obtain the soundtrack albums for me to re-experience them. With "La La Land," by contrast, while the songs themselves were definitely well composed and performed, often by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone themselves, the songs were not terribly memorable. Even now as I write, I am unable to recall even much of any melodies that I heard over the course of the two hour plus film. Now this criticism, is certainly more a matter of taste but I do think it does present a bit of a problem regarding the overall success of the film for me.

But the, there was an even greater ad more fundamental problem I had with "La La Land" and that could not be avoided or just subjected to a mater of taste. Frankly, the character of Sebastian is an insufferable hipster jerk.

If there was one area of "La La Land" that I felt fault with and one too big to be ignored it was indeed the love story itself, and I felt this way due to one especially large factor: one of the participants in said love story is and becomes such a self-righteous, self-important.narcissist that all I wanted was for Emma Stone's character to run as fast as she was possibly able from him. Now without spoilers, I understand that some of my issues are indeed weaved into the character of Sebastian as flaws for him to recognize or overcome but even so, I was so turned off by him that it derailed the romance the film was working overtime to build upwards.

There was a certain in-authenticity to Sebastian that just rubbed me the wrong way, especially with his devotion to jazz music, which is not a problem in and of itself, but from one sequence to another, Sebastian and his dreams of owning his own jazz club and remaining a jazz traditionalist during an age where jazz music is not being nurtured and properly cultivated to endure just struck me as smacking of a "White Male Saves Jazz Music" conceit that I felt to be troubling. Certainly, this feeling is steeped in the origins and history of African American composers and musicians that created jazz music but it also perturbed me that the character of Keith (very well played by John Legend), a former classmate of Sebastian who is now a successful guitarist and bandleader to the degree that he offers Sebastian a lucrative opportunity to  join his band, is the character who is presented as the ultimate sell-out where Sebastian musical integrity is severely compromised. Who knows if this was necessarily Damien Chazelle's intent, but this sense of cultural appropriation just did not sit well with me whatsoever,

To that end, Sebastian's sense of traditionalism, and integrity runs into becoming so self-serving and self-important that the character ends up suffering from a superiority complex (his "mansplaining" about jazz music is more than a little tin-eared and even annoying) that even runs against Mia's sense of artistic integrity. Again, some of this is indeed story driven but perhaps it was a tad too successful in its execution as their tension built to a point where Sebastian seemed cruel and therefore, Mia completely deserved much better, so much so that "La La Land" may have been better served by solely focusing upon Mia and her journey as the central story and maybe without a love story at all. Just think about it for a moment, a film about a young actress trying to break into Hollywood and it is a musical. That works all by itself and carries enough inherent drama, comedy, and flights of fancy to make a perfect musical without being saddled with a love interest who is really only in love with himself and his own desires. I know its a fantasy but when I am having trouble buying the fantasy, that is indeed a problem.
All of that being said, Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is a loving, earnest, honest, beautifully filmed throwback, much like Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius' silent film Academy Award Best Picture winner "The Artist" (2011). In fact, I will go on record right now with a prediction...I think that "La La Land" will not only receive an enormous amount of Academy Award nominations, it just may go on to win Best Picture as Hollywood loves movies about itself, especially ones as richly and as lavishly well made as this one. Regardless, I know you'll see it and most likely love it to pieces.

I just wish that I loved it as much as you did because, believe me, I really wanted to.


October 21, 1956-December 27, 2016

I am certain that at first glance, the title of this posting combined with a visual remembrance of actress Carrie Fisher, who passed away just three days ago at the age of 60, may seem to function as a disconnected pairing. But, please trust me, they are firmly connected in my mind and I will do my best to explain.

Dear readers, it was seven years ago on this date when I sat in my parents' basement during a Christmas visit and gave birth to this blogsite and I have to express to you that within those initial moments, I had never been so frightened, so nervous, to completely unsure of myself to even begin to share this seismically important piece of myself with the world.

Mostly, I was certain that not even one soul would care a whit about anything that I woud have to say, so why bother? And then, if someone actually did care enough, I was then certain that it would be wholly disregarded as badly written pap not worth anyone's valuable attention or time. And yet, thankfully, so very thankfully, I was proven wrong time and again by all of you--you beautiful people who have, for whatever reasons, taken the time and energy out of your very full lives to read even one word of what I have written. And now, officially seven years and a hair over 600 postings later, here we are, sharing this wonderful moment. I have said it time and again that my gratitude to you is bottomless and it holds true to this very moment and will continue to do so for as long as Savage Cinema remains in the world, for you are the fuel that gives me the energy to keep trying, to keep writing and to keep remaining brave enough to hit that "Publish" button one more time.

Thank you for all of your support, kind words and especially for keeping Savage Cinema as a positive space on the internet, an environment that still surprises me with its vitriol and unrepentant venom. I never want Savage Cinema to ever become a home of self-congratulatory snark, self-indulgent hipster irony and self-serving sarcasm. I wish to write as best as I am able about the medium that has given me such grand fulfillment for so very much of my life. And that is precisely what brings me to having this posting serve as a salute to Carrie  Fisher.

In 2017, George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) will reach its 40th anniversary!!! I know! I am just as stunned as any of you to place such a number onto something that has become such a pivotal piece of our popular culture that feels as eternal as it is timeless. It almost feels as if there was never a time when "Star Wars" was not a part of the world but on the contrary, there actually was such a time and I am old enough to remember it, much like a line in the sand signifying "before" and "after."

There is no way to ever express the following sentiment enough: "Star Wars" completely changed my life on May 25, 1977, when on that inaugural day, I saw the movie that made me fall in love with the movies as an art form. I was only eight yeas old and before that night, the movies were simply a fun outing for my well as a great place to get some delicious popcorn! But on that night, once that now iconic logo accompanied by John Williams' equally iconic fanfare blasted across the move screen in full 70MM and  Dolby sound glory, I was instantly transported, essentially having an out-of-body experience that deliriously made me forget where I actually was sitting until the movie ended, house lights went up, and I was wrapped in stunned silence all the way back to my family's car until my Dad looked at me and simply said, "May the Force be with you," to which I answered with a mighty, "YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

That night was the very first night when the language of the movies introduced itself to me and thus began to take me upon a journey that has endured powerfully for nearly 40 years through countless films seen and digested, filmmakers who revealed themselves as storytellers as brilliant as any novelist, critics and writers to help me process what I have seen and to further inspire me to think about films as art, and of course, that inexplicable magic that still occurs for me when those house lights darken and a shared communal experience with a roomful of strangers begins to weave its spell.

Movies, for me, are sources of travel...around the world, and into the soul and the spark of imagination itself. They are personal and epic. They are intimate and universal. They are dream worlds yet somehow, at their very finest, they are unabashedly real, regardless of how fantastical they may be.

With regards to Carrie Fisher, I will not use this post to speak to the entirety of her life and career, which included her prolific writing of books, performance pieces and uncredited script doctoring, continued acting and one-woman live performances as well as her fearless activism regarding mental illness and drug abuses by being so open with her own struggles. No, for the purposes of this posting, I honor and thank Carrie Fisher for the character she embodied so completely as she was instrumental for beginning my lifelong love affair with the movies.

What Carrie Fisher accomplished beautifully and brilliantly was to breathe such vibrant life into a character that only exists in dreams, Princess Leia is indeed larger than life and Fisher made her so real to me and even now, as I re-watch that film, I am transported all over again. Truth be told, when she made her first screen appearance as General Leia within J.J. Abrams' "The Force Awakens" (2015), it was a moment that instinctively brought tears of joy to my eyes as, again, I was transported to the moment where it all began for me.

As I think about Fisher and her time portraying Leia, I am still so amazed at how even at the age of eight, and being aware of of the entire enterprise as being "make believe" as its most elaborate, just how real it all was...and therefore, remains. To me, Carrie Fisher never really acted as or played Leis. She simply just was. It's weird to think that she was 19 years old when she first became Leia because to me, the character is as timeless as the film itself, and for that matter ageless. And it is that precise blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy that intrigues me to this very day about the movies. How the possibilities of what can be achieved are as endless as the imagination, and even better, the endless ways one can be inspired.

There was no way of knowing on that night almost 40 years ago, then when I first saw Carrie Fisher upon that movie screen that I would develop this particular passion that would furthermore bring me to the point seven years ago when I launched this blogsite. Her priceless contribution directly led me to the next movie and all of the movies thereafter, to all of the writers, critics, actors, filmmakers, composers, cinematographers and behind the scenes magicians who bring dreams to living dreams year after year, and without question, her contribution led me to this very moment--sitting at this computer, in celebration and gratitude for seven full years of writing and building Savage Cinema.

"Star Wars" would never had worked so brilliantly without the participation of everyone involved in its making and for that reason, Carrie Fisher's influence and artistry is undisputed. If one were to take her away from the film, the entire experience would crumble and it would have never become was it has endured itself to being. What Fisher accomplished has inspired more people than we could ever imagine and her essential piece of that specific process and product eventually allowed this very site to exist in the first place.

I would write these same words for Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and definitely George Lucas himself. But for now, it IS for Carrie Fisher, the definitive intergalactic Princess, who gave birth to countless inspirations and dreams and for whom I will be forever grateful, even as I elicit a sad sigh now that she too has departed our material world in this merciless year that has taken so very many from us.

So from the visions of first seeing Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, seeds were planted that grew over the course of 40 years and sprouted through me with Savage Cinema, which then traveled from me to you and then back again due to your feedback, your interest, your encouragement, your support and friendship. I thank you, I thank you, I thank you even more and humbly so, for without you, what would even be the point? And without Carrie  Fisher, it may have never happened at all.

For her, for all of you and for myself and my eternal love of the movies, I head into Year Eight with the same anxious anticipation for whatever will arrive next...just as I always have.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE LION IN WINTER: a review of "Fences"

Screenplay Written by August Wilson based upon his play
Directed by Denzel Washington
**** (four stars)

Denzel Washington is a national treasure!!

Honestly, who knew? Who knew back in the days when Washington was a cast member upon television's "St. Elsewhere" (1982-1988) and even moreso within his feature film debut in the unfortunate so-called racial satire, Director Michael Schultz's "Carbon Copy" (1981)--yes, I actually did see that movie--that inside housed a figure that would become one of the finest actors we woud ever be blessed to witness.

Certainly, he has charisma and unquestionable star power to burn--something he showcased from the very beginning. But, the depth, that transformative power, the blind siding force he would unearth time and again? I don't know about you, but back then, I never saw it coming yet once it hit me, it never let go, for what Denzel Washington has been able to achieve when he is working at his finest, the fullest of his powers, are performances that feel so lived in, so inside out that they feel to extend beyond mere performance and almost exist as channeling! Trust me, dear readers, if you have not seen Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), do yourself a favor and see one of the finest screen performances of all time--I would not steer you wrong with this one--that man should've won five Oscars for that work!

Now all of that being said, I have housed some criticism for Washington in recent years, some of which has been written upon this blogsite. Now there hasn't been anything approaching scathing if memory serves but I have been critical of some of his choices in recent years, which have leaned more heavily upon one sort of two-fisted action film or another and more often than not, films that clearly are not as razor sharp as I would assume Denzel Washington actually is within his real life. While I am certainly not within the position to begrudge Washington's professional choices, it is just when I feel his choices are beneath his immense talent that I tend to bristle.

With "Fences," Denzel Washington's third directorial effort after the strong "Antwone Fisher" (2002) and "The Great Debaters" (2007), as well as his adaptation of the the late August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award wining play (in which Washington starred on Broadway in the 2010 revival), Washington once again emerges and arrives as an unrepentant force of nature with a towering performance that is blistering to behold. Perfectly, the film which he has helmed is equal to his talents in front of the camera. Denzel Washington the director is not a visual stylist by any means and yet, there is no reason for him to become one when the humanity of the piece is the star, the heart, the soul and the intense focus onto which Washington places his considerable energies. "Fences" is a triumph, a powerhouse, an emotional steamroller that explores a certain slice of life with equal measures of empathy and intensity.

Set in Pittsburgh during the 1950's, "Fences" stars Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a 53 year old failed baseball player and waste collector who lives with his wife Rose (an outstanding Viola Davis--reprising her role in the 2010 Broadway revival) and who works alongside his best friend Jim Bono (an excellent Stephen McKinley Henderson).

In the neighborhood also lives Troy's mentally impaired brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), injured during World War II, teased by the local children, filled with all manner of Biblical allegory and who often visits Troy and Rose. Additionally, Troy is wrestling with the combative nature of his respective relationships with his sons, the adult Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous marriage, and now a struggling musician, and the teenage Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player with hopes of attending college, much to Troy's intense chagrin.

As Troy pursues a hopeful promotion at work while also confronting the future desires of Cory which run in conflict with his own wishes for his younger son, Troy rages against a world and life he fears has completely passed him by as the pains, choices and consequences of his past and present collide to create a potentially even more turbulent future.

In many ways, Denzel Washington's "Fences" serves as a companion piece to something like Arthur Miller's enduring, devastating classic Death Of A Salesman, but in this case, and keeping in lockstep with August Wilson's source material, "Fences" is fully representative of the African-American experience during the 1950's. Yet Washington wisely and often, ferociously devises of moments, scenes and dialogue designed to mirror the past and present day trials and tribulations of African-American life towards each other.  As previously stated, Washington's visual style is tempered and purposefully un-flashy, a technique that leaves all of the fireworks in Wilson's stunning, luxurious dialogue and of course, the excellent and exhausting performances by the film's entire cast.

Utilizing a series of Biblical, athletic and most certainly, the building and presence of a backyard fence as allegories and metaphors, "Fences" vibrantly illustrates the inner turmoil of Troy Maxson blasting outwards as he rallies against what he perceives as life's indignities--whether real or imagined--and all the while showcasing his inability to look beyond himself and his own desires regarding issues of justice and fairness.

In an odd way, Troy Maxson reminded me a little bit of Jackie Gleason's classic character Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners," albeit in a more tragic capacity. As with Kramden, Troy Maxson carries an outsized personality, or better yet, an outsized public persona that clearly over-compensates for his deeply run insecurities, faults, and desperate failings.

On full pubic view, Troy Maxson is the definition of boisterous. His voice, easily the loudest in the room, dominates all conversations as he spins one tale after another in what feels like a rapid fire stream of consciousness that also feels purposefully designed to continuously hold court to a nearly impenetrable degree. His body language is all swagger as he literally prowls through his domain conveying his self-presented immense physical strength as well as a sexual voraciousness towards Rose, as no man could ever love, and therefore, satisfy his wife as greatly and as completely as Troy Maxson. Even his tall tales are the stuff of ancient blues songs and mythologies, the man who tangled with the Grim Reaper and won and is forever ready for the re-match. And still, all of this behavior is skin deep as his bottomless rage sits immediately below the surface, ready to boil over in a moment's notice.

Whenever Lyons comes to visit on Friday evening's--that is, payday, course, Troy loudly bristles with the knowledge that Lyons is undoubtedly standing in his living room ready to ask for a financial h and out. Yet, once Lyons returns one evening to pay him back, the gesture runs completely against Troy's pre-conceived notions of the man Lyons actually is (or better yet, the man Lyons hopes for himself to be).

On a greater level, yes Troy was denied a potentially life changing opportunity to pursue his passion for professional baseball, but he is steadfast in his inability to admit to himself that his denial was most likely due to his age (as he was 30 years old at the time) and not his race. Because of this, he admonishes and denigrates the color barrier breaking accomplishment of none other than Jackie Robinson, proclaiming himself to being a better baseball player than Robinson could ever hope for himself to be. Troy's rage at the failed outcome of his professional sports career is indeed eating him alive and threatens to destroy the relationship with his younger son, Cory, whose own athletic achievements threaten to eclipse Troy's. But a little more on that subject in a bit...

Troy Maxson is a figure always looking for the greener grass and never the while realizing that the metaphorical grass in question is never greener, therefore he is never able to fully appreciate the achievements he has made or just how good he actually has it, with all obstacles existing as self-imposed. Regarding his career, his questioning of why Black employees always ride on the back of the garbage truck while the White employees are all able to drive the truck plays out in a surprising manner, from the actual outcome of his inquiries to the overall effect it has upon his relationship with Bono as well as himself. But since a career as a garbage man, a figure within the community who is able to provide for his family doesn't compare with the glory of fame and fortune through a baseball career,

Troy Maxson roars against any and all who have it better than himself, to those who have been given opportunities that have passed him by, to successes that others have received but not himself. To that regard, Troy Maxson is a figure that I believe that anyone within the working class of the past and/or present, and even regardless of race and gender, would and could easily relate with. Furthermore, I would even think that Troy Maxson is a character that really any of us could possibly identify with because we have all at one point or another lamented against our own losses and disappointments, especially when confronted with the successes of others. The problem with Troy is that he chooses to not realize any of his mistakes or when he does realize, it is too late and even then, Troy will somehow spin the situation to where he is perpetually the individual who has been wronged, ultimately continuing to fuel his rage against the world and even his family.

The painfully honest Father/son tensions as depicted in "Fences" possessed some moments which uncomfortably took me back to periods within my own life when I clashed with my own Father over our respective expectations and world-views. I think back to fights filled with brutally painful words and actions, and I am so very thankful that both of us have long regretted those times, times that have since been long forgiven for the betterment of our relationship as we age. Yet, for Troy and Cory, their tensions may prove themselves to becoming irrevocable as Troy's shadow looms so powerfully large, and Cory grows increasingly determined to step out from underneath it. With respect to the physically and psychologically damaged Gabe, he tiptoes around Troy almost in fear. And as for Rose, she is also forced to face her own choices and consequences regarding the life she wishes to have combined with the woman she perceives herself to be alongside who she still wishes to become, even within middle age.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are a formidable dream team, each eliciting performances that are honest, painful and devoid of any sense of Oscar baiting techniques although it would be a cinematic crime if these two performances were not two of the most heralded of the year. Washington in particular is majestic to regard as, utilizing an athletic metaphor, he is operating at the top of his game. He is clearly thrilled to have a character, story and dialogue of such caliber and quality at his disposal, as he roars through the many extended monologues with relish, fury and a sheer velocity, that forces us to keep up with the variety of changes in tenor, inflection and tonality. Just astounding.

Viola Davis, by contrast, and aside from one powerhouse of a scene, showcases her strength, dignity and even her own well worn flaws and regrets with a quieter more internalized pain and frustration that keeps your eyes and ears riveted towards her, especially when Washington is blasting through scenes. She fully transcends the caricature of the long suffering wife by creating a figure who functions as a full, living, breathing, three dimensional human being whose emotions and actions speaks to the role of African American women of the past and present with tremendous empathy and grit.

Denzel Washington's "Fences" is a veritable steamroller of a film that serves as an intimate family drama, a simultaneous ad sumptuously detailed celebration/lament for the life and existence of the African America neighborhood and at its core a blistering character study of a man who feels that he is single-handedly against the world yet he is always right and still contends to being so even when he is spectacularly wrong to a punishing degree. The skill, texture, command, humor, immense heart and full bloodedness of the material makes for outstanding adult drama and provocative cinema and it completely deserves your complete attention and it is easily one of 2016's strongest efforts.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

SPECTACULAR SUICIDE SQUAD: a review of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta
Screenplay Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Directed by Gareth Edwards
**** (four stars)

Outstanding!! Absolutely outstanding!!!

Dear readers, I have made no secret of my skepticism regarding this new phase of motion pictures set within the "Star Wars" universe, now that creator George Lucas has sold his company to Disney. I have worried about a possible decline in quality as I feared the prospect of solely raking in the commerce would outweigh the artistry and imagination necessary to create a "Star Wars" film. Additionally, as Disney's plans to release a new film once a year rather than once every three years as executed by Lucas' original six films, I have been fearful that the sheer ubiquity would threaten overkill and overall disinterest.

I also wondered if Director J.J. Abrams' wondrous and richly overwhelming "The Force Awakens" (2015), Episode VII in the on-going Skywalker saga set along time ago in a galaxy far, far away was even possibly a fluke, with subsequent entries bound to fall considerably short. And then, there is the idea of having stand-alone films being released in between the official saga entries, also the sheer ubiquity being a potential negative factor, but would these films also just exist as money grabbing exercises in nostalgia for the original trilogy, certainly not something really worthmaking movies over other than for box office rewards.

I know. I know. I have given terribly too much thought about this enterprise but like so many of you, "Star Wars" has meant so tremendously much to me throughout my life as George Lucas' original 1977 film was indeed the movie that made me fall in love with the movies and also like you, I just feel so protective of it and its legacy, hoping nothing will taint its power (Let's not get into Lucas' unfairly maligned prequel trilogy--I loved them. You didn't. Let's move on.).

With "Rogue One," Director Gareth Edwards' stab at Lucas' "Star Wars" universe yet the first to not exist as an official Episode but serve as a stand-alone feature, I was just more than ready to receive a film that felt to be made entirely for fans and not for any sense of storytelling, essentially making the precise type of film that Lucas  himself was never interested in making as a cinematic storyteller. I worried it would end up being a crass, soulless experience, like far too many big budget event movies these days and despite the intriguing concept and the equally intriguing trailers, I kept my hopes to a minimum as I expected to be let down.

How incredibly thrilled I am to have been proven so dramatically wrong!

Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One" is a richly spectacular experience, one that looks and feels firmly of the "Star Wars"  universe but has taken some smart, risky detours in its overall presentation and tonality that makes the film stand powerfully on its own two cinematic feet and very unexpectedly, the film works to a towering effect.

Briefly, "Rogue One" conceptually positions itself shortly before the events of "Star Wars-Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977), as the Jedi Knights are all but extinguished due to actions of Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones) and the Empire possesses an iron clad rule over the galaxy and is in the midst of completing construction of the Death Star.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a maverick captured and detained by the Empire but is soon freed by members of the Rebel Alliance who wish to recruit her to aid them in their pursuit of her long lost Father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the scientist who first engineered the plans for the Death Star and has since been a reluctant participant, forced to continue his devastating work under the command of the beleaguered Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

After grudgingly joining forces with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and soon becoming inspired by her former guardian, renegade freedom fighter and Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) plus mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), his sidekick, the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected to aid the Rebels, Jyn eventually discovers her purpose as she decides to covertly infiltrate the Empire to steal the Death Star plans and aid the Rebellion.

With "Rogue One," Gareth Edwards has made a self-contained "Star Wars" chapter that functions not only as a prequel to the original 1977 film but also as a sequel to Lucas' "Star Wars-Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith" (2005). Yet, what Edwards has accomplished so remarkably is to create the period within the "Star Wars" universe where the magical, mystical element of the Force and Jedi Knights are essentially relegated to the background and the fringes while placing the plights of ordinary individuals and warriors at the forefront. This tactic essentially honors the entirety of George Lucas' original conceit (and yes, that includes the prequel trilogy) of telling the tales of ordinary people who find themselves in the position to accomplish something extraordinary, thus becoming unlikely galactic heroes in the process.

With the more esoteric and even fairy tale elements of "Star Wars" stripped from the proceedings, this aspect frees Edwards to create a film that is decidedly more stark, tougher, grittier, and unquestionably darker than nearly any other "Star Wars" film that has arrived before now, while also remaining faithful to George Lucas' original conceptions and vision. In addition to elements of a heist caper, and a "Mission: Impossible" styled adventure, "Rogue One" powerfully functions as a true war movie starring a reverently spectacular suicide squad where the deliriously staged and ferociously paced aerial dogfights recall World War II films and the brutal skirmishes upon the jungle planet mirror Vietnam war movies.

On a purely visual level, "Rogue One" is a veritable triumph, where hand held combat footage merges beautifully with the graceful cinematography that we have become accustomed to with this series. Much has already been written about the film's final third which finds Jyn and her companions in the heat of their mission with the Rebel Alliance following suit against the wrath of the Empire and to that, I will have to add my voice in expressing that it is flat out sensational. While we now exist in a period where we are more than used to--and for some like myself, increasingly bored with--the protracted, extended, bombastic CGI drenched climax upon climax, Gareth Edwards miraculously avoids any such pitfalls by helming a war film of such sustained, relentless and wrenching intensity, where the stakes actually build upwards in power into sequences of audience cheering successes and tear inducing tragedies and even one sequence of flat out honest horror all culminating towards a conclusion that beautifully links directly to the opening moments of the original 1977 film. At times, even James Cameron's iconic "Aliens" (1986) came to mind for me--that is how strong Edwards has conceived and executed his film!

And of course, none of that grand achievement could even arrive without having delivered the story and characters first and "Rogue One" is filled top to bottom with a great new cast to become attached to and most certainly revisit. As the intergalactic Joan Of Arc Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones fully earns her stripes as a "Star Wars" heroine as she is completely armed with a commanding presence, a terrific physicality plus a haunted, cynical psychological quality that works extremely well when the film delves into her backstory and relationship with her Father plus her eventual realization of her life's purpose. Jones is aided superbly by the entire cast who all come equipped with a more grounded quality compared with the more operatic by way of 1930's serial aesthetic of the official Episodes, therefore giving "Rogue One" a certain sense of realism the series has not possessed up until this time. This is a risk that actually pays off better than it may seem as it does provide a certain visual link between the ornate dreamworlds of the prequels and the more lived in dilapidated environments of the original trilogy. Yet, conceptually, the pay off is even better.

"Star Wars" as we have known it for almost 40 years now, is a fairy tale, a myth, a child's storybook odyssey that utilizes archetypal figures and concepts to explore aspects of the human condition from choices and consequences, spiritual matters of faith and belief, and even allegories to political events and eras. With "Rogue One," and despite what any of the Disney top brass may express in the press, what we have in this film is the most overt political allegory and statement thus far for a "Star Wars" film and it turns out to be the very one we just may need to see in our increasingly turbulent and precarious times, post Presidential election.

Of course, Edwards and his team would have had no knowledge of the outcomes of our election and events thereafter during the filming but it is truly eerie how in tune with the current political and emotional landscape "Rogue One" happens to be, especially when some of us are wondering just how to carry onwards and fight for one's beliefs and for the common good in the face of odds that feel to be insurmountable due to the comparative amount of money, media, influence and political stronghold the opposition holds. Just as Saw Gerrera, Cassian Andor and Chirrut Imwe's words and actions inspire Jyn and her words and actions re-inspire in turn, "Rogue One" intensely explores the nature of grass roots rebellion for all of us within the audience as it shows how once people realize the amount of power they have once they band together, only then is true revolution and potential victory possible.

Honestly, what else is the name Saw Gerrera (a George Lucas creation for the animated "Clone Wars" television series) designed to conjure but the name of the real world counter-cultural revolutionary figure Che Guevara (and fully adorned with an almost Frederick Douglass hair style)? Furthermore, it is of no coincidence that this film carries the most multi-cultural cast of characters in a "Star Wars" film to date and how those particular individuals band together to rise up against a White Nationalist organization as depicted by the Empire. As speaking of the Empire, I also felt that it was an extremely savvy move to depict Orson Krennic's own struggles with his superiors, suggesting class issues within the fascistic organization, ultimately demonstrating that when push comes to shove, the Empire is a massive snake willing to eat its own tail in pursuit of complete power.

Yes, there is quite a bit of planet hopping in the first half of the film and seeing how the various parts connect does take some time, but every element contains its purpose and once everything snaps into place, we are all set for an onslaught that is bristling, captivating, exhilarating and terrifically exhausting to behold. And, I must say that as with "The Force Awakens," Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One" contains some of the most seamless and photo-realistic special effects of the entire series with ships, laser blasts, creatures and explosions all appearing to be so tangibly real!!

But perhaps the very best thing that I am able to say about "Rogue One" is that once everything was all said and done, what I desired to do the very most was to walk to the end of the ticket line and immediately purchase a new ticket to see it all over again right away. Out of a year of big budget films where most of them were derivative beyond belief and wholly underwhelming, "Rogue One" represented this style of film and filmmaking at its very well as it should because really, this is "Star Wars" we're talking about.

Can the new films keep up this tremendous pace and quality? I certainly hope so. But for now Gareth Edwards' astonishing "Rogue One" is one of my favorite films of 2016.

Friday, December 2, 2016


Just as it was one year ago with the massive anticipation for "The Force Awakens" (2015), Director J.J. Abrams' continuation of the Skywalker family saga, here we are again, all waiting with bated breath for the latest "Star Wars" experience.

This time around  Director Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One" subtitled "A Star Wars Story," marks the first time a "Star Wars" film has been designed as a stand alone feature, as well as one that essentially serves as a sequel to George Lucas' "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith" (2005) and a prequel to Lucas' game changing "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977)--albeit from somewhat of a sideways glance.

Granted, this film is a risky venture for the series, and I have to admit to harboring a healthy amount of skepticism to go alongside my excitement. Creatively by attempting to usher in a different styled "Star Wars" adventure. But even greater, as far as I am concerned, "Rogue One" does begin to threaten any sense of potential "Star Wars" overkill as Disney desires to release a standalone feature between the upcoming Episodes VIII and IX as well as also possibly just cashing in upon nostalgia as this film is returning to the so-called sacred territory of the original trilogy. But, what if it's good...or even great? We'll have to wait and see and yes, I will definitely be there.

Aside from another tale from along time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

1. "La La Land," Writer/Director Damien Chazelle's follow-up feature to his incendiary "Whiplash" (2014) is a full blown musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (teaming up on screen for the third time) and after seeing the raves it has already received from the film festival circuit, I am more than ready.
2. Stepping behind the camera as Director for the third time, Denzel Washington brings us "Fences," the film adaptation of the classic August Wilson play, in which he also stars alongside Viola Davis. 'Nuff said! 
3. "A Monster Calls," Director J.A. Bayona's adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel is something that has intrigued me, even as I have not even seen one trailer--and perhaps this will be best. The element of surprise contained in this story of a boy who is befriended by the presence of a large, frightening looking tree as his Mother is facing terminal illness may be most beneficial for having the the most positive viewing. No expectations...

And with that, these four films are more than enough to keep me busy for this last month of the year and even so, I would not be surprised if some of these features await wide release in January 2017. But, as always, please do send me your best and I will deliver mine in return. And I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

THIS TOO SHALL PASS...BUT WHEN?!?!: a review of "The Edge Of Seventeen"

Produced by James L. Brooks
Written and Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
**** (four stars)

It never ceases to amaze me that for a market that is driven by and fully caters to youth culture, that how little any material of any artistic worth is truly made for that very market. But, when something of high quality does miraculously arrive, I truly believe that we should cherish it and do what we are able to ensure the intended audience is able to receive the cinematic message.

This year, while we have been witness to the 30th anniversaries of both John Hughes' seminal "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), these two milestones are notable for so much more than any sense of nostalgia or the longevity of these works that have transcended generations of viewers an fans. What is also notable is that there was once a time in Hollywood when stories about teenagers could be easily produced for a mass audience and with a certain regularity.

Yes, most of those films were exploitative but once figures and filmmakers like Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge and unquestionably John Hughes arrived and changed the game, creating feature films that were equally personal, artistic and truthful statements to the adolescent experience, there truly was no going back to the mindless sex comedies of old, the very ones that treated their teenaged audiences as product rather than people deserving of having their stories told to themselves as best as possible.

Yet, long after what I always refer to as that "Golden Age Of Teen Films," essentially more than concluded with Crowe's stunning, aching "Say Anything..." (1989), films regarding and capturing the teen age experience became few and far between, regardless of quality. To think, we have been fortunate to have Hecklerling's "Clueless" (1993), Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Jason Reitman's "Juno" (2007), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012), James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" (2015) but do regard the time span of those films in relation to each other as well as to Hughes' oeuvre which collected all six of his teenage themed films in a scant three year period. Yes, it is better to have some than none at all, but I think you are able to discern of which I am writing.

At this time, I am thrilled and excited to not only add a new entry to the teen film genre, but truly one of the finest that I have been so fortunate to screen. "The Edge Of Seventeen," the debut feature film from Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig, not only completely fulfills the promise and high bar quality of the genre as set by John Hughes and other like minded writers and filmmakers, it proudly displays a multi-faceted, difficult and star making performance from Hailee Steinfeld and it is also one of the very best films that I have seen so far in 2016. Wizards, animated features and other big budgeted features are certainly all dancing around vying for your precious attention and dollars but do trust me, dear readers, when I try my best to point you in the direction of something truly special. "The Edge Of Seventeen" is indeed that special.

"The Edge Of Seventeen" stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a high school Junior caught in the seemingly bottomless depths of teen angst, social awkwardness and armed with petulant fury against the world, most specifically her Mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), with whom she has warred against since childhood, and her all-star, exceedingly popular and universally beloved older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).

When Nadine's best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) inexplicably and unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with Darian, Nadine falls into a rage filled emotional tailspin feeling more alone and unloved in the universe than ever. Yet, will the reluctant aid from her acerbic History teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and the honest attention from her admirer Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) an equally awkward classmate be able to break through her possibly impenetrable veneer?

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" exists as a film without a definitive story or plotline, and in this case to a powerful degree. Craig has devised a "slice-of-life" experience a character study of an emerging young woman attempting to make sense of a world she feels is entirely out of step with how she views it. What I adored so very much within this particular character study is that Craig was wholly unafraid to allow Nadine to become a completely unlikeable figure to regard, and even for long stretches during the the film. What she wisely understood with this conception is that it was unnecessary to have a heroine that one could always view as virtuous, therefore someone to root for, so to speak.

Try to imagine if you will John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" told completely from the perspective his his embittered sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey). Or how about Hughes' "Uncle Buck" (1989) as told entirely from the perspective of the enraged Tia Russell (Jean Louisa Kelly). With those descriptions, I feel that you can gather precisely which sort of cloth the character of Nadine is cut from, and it is indeed one that possesses quite the bite, brutal sarcasm and flat out vengeful meanness that serves as Nadine's protective shield as well as propels all who cross her from her path, threatening to make her the sole architect of her own misery--a quality of which Craig is most perceptive and critical.

As with Jason Reitman's pitch black "Young Adult" (2011), what Craig has accomplished brilliantly was to conceive of a character, in all three dimensions, warts and all, and allow the overall humanity of the piece to extend itself to whatever empathy we may hold towards Nadine. We do not necessarily need to like her. We just need to understand her. If we feel the need to throttle her, then so be it. If we feel the need to embrace her in order to tell her that while this time feels endless, it will not last forever, then so be it. And what Craig achieves so richly and beautifully are those very sentiments and so much more for all of us in the audience to feel simultaneously, making for a film that is undeniably tougher and pricklier than Hughes' more populist, fantastical odes to adolescence.

This specific quality of "The Edge Of Seventeen" also fuels the comedy and drama trust into Nadine's tentative and tension filled relationship with Mr. Bruner, who clearly gives it as good as Nadine dishes it out, making this one authority figure one that Nadine feels somewhat secure with, for why else would she intrude upon the solitude of Bruner's classroom lunchtimes on a daily basis and for that matter, why else does Bruner simply not throw her out of the door and into the hell of the high school hallways?  Never fear, dear readers, there is no implied attraction within this particular relationship. Woody Harrelson impresses greatly by depicting a teacher who indeed cares for Nadine's ultimate well being but definitely attempts to keep her at arms length as he conveys that wise and weary adult perspective that Nadine, by nature of her age, could not possibly attain just yet.

But, tremendous praise must be heaped profusely upon Hailee Steinfeld, who at last fulfills the promise of her talents as we witnessed in her stellar film debut as she more than held her own with a veritable command of stature and language in Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit" (2010). Steinfeld delivers a multi-layered performance of such humor, depth, perceptiveness, nuance, heart and soul as she brings Nadine to vivid life in all of her confusion, hurt, incredulity, and unfiltered wrath whether misguided, self-righteous or steeped completely in a truthful blend of existing as a perpetual misfit with emotional wounds both painfully real as well as wrongfully perceived.

Each relationship Nadine possess within "The Edge Of Seventeen," with her brother, Mother, best friend, Erwin, a longtime crush in Nick (Alexander Calvert) and even her Father (Eric Keenleyside), could all exist as individual films in and of themselves. Yet with the open hearted fearlessness of her performance coupled with Craig's excellent writing and direction, Hailee Steinfeld creates a character of great intelligence, wit and even compassion, especially when she is behaving at her absolute worst, and even dangerously self-obsessed as she is so consumed with her own troubles, she is unable to view the tribulations of everyone else around her. It is a remarkable balancing act and Hailee Steinfeld has proven without a doubt that she is equal to every single moment that has been given to her to portray this unique character.

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" is a beautifully insightful, entertaining and artful exploration into that specific time of life that often and painfully feels that it will have no conclusion. Where nobody could possibly understand you especially when you are even straining to understand yourself. It again showcases that teenagers are fully deserving of cinematic material that completely honors the lives in which they live and are trying to navigate themselves through and for adult audiences, "The Edge Of Seventeen" may work as a sharp, acerbic reminder that those years of adolescence were not prances through a field of posies but so often fraught with those hard moments, experiences and questions that would help to build you into the adults you would eventually become.

Filled with equal parts honest laughs and at times, wrenching drama, Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" has more than fully earned its highest marks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A DECENT BUT NOT-SO FANTASTIC BEGINNING: a review of "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them"

Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Dear readers, it is of no secret to any of you who happen to have followed any of my reviews over the years as to how much I love the writing of author J.K. Rowling. In fact, if you may recall, when her iconic Harry Potter book series was first being discussed as being adapted for the silver screen, I was vehemently opposed to such an undertaking precisely because of how brilliant and beautiful Rowling's writing actually is, as it contains a literary, visual and emotional heft that made each and every page burst into vibrant life, so much so that the thought of any potential motion pictures felt to me would pale in comparison.

I housed those feelings over 16 years ago and to my astonishment, the "Harry Potter" film series not only honored Rowling's original vision and source material wondrously, they eventually became strong enough films that could exist as works of art in their own right. Since that time, J.K. Rowling the writer has only continued to amaze me through her increasingly rich novels, the stunning, devastating political satire/tragedy The Casual Vacancy and her now on-going dark detective series all written under Rowling's pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.

Now, we arrive with "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them," J.K. Rowling's full fledged cinematic return, alongside her reunion with Director David Yates, to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, albeit with the delightfully risky premise of existing as a prequel and featuring none of the characters that we have come to know and adore. And yes, it is also the first of five planned installments to boot. By this point, Rowling has earned more than enough good will from me that I would indeed follow her pursuits no matter where they should take her and frankly, I felt that if she did return to wizards, witches and magic, this specific approach as executed by this new project would be a fine way to tackle the subject matter and not make the proceedings feel as an explicit money grab.

While I do standby those sentiments and my overall faith in Rowling has not been undone, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is unfortunately not quite of the same league as all that has preceded it. No, this is not a bad film in the least, and truth be told, I wouldn't even really call it that much of a disappointment. It was more of a near miss. A film and experience where the intent for greatness is all over the screen but for whatever reasons, all of the parts just did not click as triumphantly as they had in the past. My feelings are not due to some allegiance to the previous eight films, all of which I loved to varying degrees. It is just looking at what was presented to me this time around and finding myself loving some of it, being underwhelmed by bits and pieces and cumulatively feeling that the brass ring, this time was just out of reach.

"Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" takes place in 1926 New York City and stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, expelled from Hogwarts, full fledged wizard, world travelling magizooogist as well as future author of the very textbook Harry Potter and his classmates would one day read and study.

Newt's globe trotting journey lands him in New York complete with magical suitcase as he is in pursuit of yet another mystical creature. But when the mischievous, shiny coin grabbing Nifler escapes from Newt's suitcase, the pursuit lands him within an adventure filled with whimsy and a creeping darkness as he joins forces with Porpetina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a disgraced former Auror, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Tina's mind reading sister and finally, the No-Maj (i.e. non magical American civilian) Jacob Kowalski (a terrific Dan Folger), a factory worker who houses dreams of becoming a baker.

Meanwhile, darkness encroaches upon the city via strange, and increasingly violent disturbances of unknown origin but feared within the hidden wizarding community, most notably the Magical Congress of the United States as led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and the Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), to be the handiwork of the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald.

Yet, Percival Graves is duplicitous as he covertly aligns himself with young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an orphan held under the physically and psychologically abusive influence of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the leader of "The Second Salemers," an extremist organization who hunts and kills wizards and witches. Percival hopes that Credence will assist him is tracking down the elusive host of an Obscurus, a destructive force manifested by magical children who have been forced to conceal the truth of themselves from society but is unleashed due to the stress and anger of hiding oneself.

When Newt's misadventures with his accidentally freed creatures lands him afoul of the Magical Congress, especially Graves who fears Newt is somehow aligned with Grindelwald, the secrecy of the magical world is threatened unless the source of the rising malevolence can be discovered.

As you are able to gather, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" has no shortage of characters, detail, or ideas. The film is a veritable treasure trove of dazzling visuals, strong performances, and a rich conceptual tapestry which features tender romances, slapstick comedy, an arsenal of fanciful creations filtered through a nice animal rights activism and most importantly, a surprisingly grim yet powerfully empathetic look into themes of repression, intolerance, bigotry and the consequences of living within societies (both non-magical and wizarding) where fear runs rampant, certainly more timely than ever considering the current political climate in our increasingly dark real world.

Director David Yates, who helmed the final four and increasingly wrenching and beautiful installments of the "Harry Potter" film series, returns to J.K. Rowling's wizarding world with such confidence that it seems as if it has really only been a scant amount of passed time since "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2" (2011) rather than five years. Yates handles every luxuriously filled frame with reverence, playfulness and the right amounts of drama and darkness, always keeping the main focus of character and story at the forefront rather than the special effects which are as seamless as ever (the film's bittersweet final scenes are absolutely lovely). I was thrilled to learn that he would be taking the reins for this series (presumably, all five films) and I remain convinced that Rowling's vision is in the best of cinematic hands.

And yet, when all was said and done, and even despite my praises, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" never really adds up to very much at all.

Don't get me wrong, dear readers, there is much to admire about the film and one could not remotely accuse J.K. Rowling of simply going back to the well and lazily creating some new product in the most uninspired fashion. Quite the contrary, "Fantastic Beasts And Whee To Find Them," is positively overflowing with ideas...perhaps too many ideas. Or at least, so many ideas that sadly do not coalesce comfortably into a sumptuous whole.

Returning to the plot description I detailed above, Rowling has more than delivered the plot...but somehow, the film seemed to be lacking a bit of a story. Honestly, in a nutshell, precisely what is this film even about? There is a tremendous amount of activity but for what purpose and to what end? Yes, this is the beginning of a serialized five part saga and we can't know all there is to know right away. I more than understand that. But, it seems that what works within the framework of writing a novel does not work quite the same way when devising a screenplay.

As I have always expressed to you, books are books and movies are movies. In a novel, Chapter One has no need to be fully revealing or satisfying because the reader can just turn a page and dive deeply into Chapter Two. But with a film series such as this one, with the second installment not arriving until one to three years from now, an opening installment this meandering and even somewhat shapeless just does not suffice as it still needs to function as a complete experience all on its own and still, even by film's end, I did have to question to myself, just what was all of that even about?

"Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is filled to the brim with greatness but it is in search of the connective tissue that would make all of the elements snap and pop vibrantly into place. Instead, it is a film that tends to feel padded from time to time, especially when dealing with sequences pertaining to Newt Scamander and his pursuit of his beloved escaped creatures, sequences that did elicit some yawns from this viewer as the beasts themselves, aside from the charming platypus styled Nifler, never seemed to be that fully defined and certainly lacked the necessary character to make our imaginations marvel.

I think of a film like Chris Sanders and Dean DeBois' "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010) for instance, a film also based upon a book series, where the sheer variety of dragons presented were all so clearly and lovingly designed and presented that we knew and understood which characteristics and powers were attributed to each dragon species, therefore adorning all of them with rich characterizations that enhanced the overall proceedings and the ultimate story overall. Yet, for this film, and one that is partially entitled "Fantastic Beasts," we really know very little about what these creatures are, what they do and the hows and whys Newt Scamander has become such an impassioned caretaker for this magical animal kingdom. Yes, some of that may be revealed over the next four films but even so, for every beautiful sequence (like the one where Jacob first enters Newt's suitcase to find worlds upon worlds of magical beings protected deeply inside) there are other sequences that just drag and feel like place holders before returning to the main action (most specifically, the sequence where Newt and Jacob attempt to coax a rhino-like creature back into the suitcase).

Whatever fantastical qualities the beasts were supposed to possess, they were somehow lost upon me as I watched, a quality I never felt within the entirety of the "Harry Potter" book and film series regarding the creatures, tools, weapons, and environment. Again, I give tremendous credit to Rowling for being able to not only devise a richly detailed history to a fully fictional world, but to its inhabitants as well. But, it didn't take this time around. Perhaps it was the CGI. Maybe something more handmade in the special effects would have served the beasts better, as well as a greater attention within Rowling's screenplay. But whatever the means, the intended connection just never quite matched up for me.

Similar feelings also held more than true for Newt Scamander himself, or rather Eddie Redmayne's performance. Now, as with all of the previous "Harry Potter" features directed by David Yates, the performances from the entire casts were truly resplendent. With "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them," that high standard holds solid...although Redmayne felt to be more than a little awkward and also had a tendency to mumble his dialogue, making it difficult to understand precisely what he was saying from time to time and to a near annoying effect.

Yes, the character of Newt Scamander is shy, introverted and awkward, a figure who clearly relates better and shows greater comfort with animals as opposed to human beings. Yes, this is an emerging character, therefore a man of mystery, someone who will be fully revealed over the following four films. And while Redmayne has some good moments giving us peeks into his mysterious backstory, including the still present wounds inflicted by his lost love, as well as his entire Doctor Dolittle by way of Ghostbusters persona and mission. Basically, the film felt as if he was not yet fully comfortable within the role, therefore we are witness to him getting his feet wet in this character and universe, just as Yates was obviously finding his way helming "Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix" (2007), and how it seems Rowling herself may have been doing with this, her debut screenplay.

But, even with its flaws, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is not remotely a failure. Just a film that seemed to stumble in ways that surprised me considering the creative source. As previously stated, this is not a bad film by any means and besides, I could steer you away from it even if I wanted to...and I don't. Truth be told, I would even see it again some time down the road as the adventure and the allegory invites revisiting. All of the ingredients exist and here's hoping for a better, more focused entry once the second installment arrives.

I haven't lost faith in J.K. Rowling and I am certain that she will enchant me all over again before I even know it. But this time her book of spells perhaps needs a bit of a revision.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

LET'S GET METAPHYSICAL: a review of "Doctor Strange"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screenplay Written by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
*** (three stars)

In my childhood as I poured and obsessed over all manner of comic books and superheroes from both the worlds of DC and Marvel Comics, there was one figure I tended to give a wide berth, and that was Doctor Strange.

Frankly, Doctor Strange gave me nightmares. The specialized brand of metaphysical universes, occult magic and the infinite layers of the mind combined with hallucinatory villains like Dormammu and the aptly named Nightmare strayed way too far for my impressionable brain and spirit, one who was more than enough excited by the more traditional costumed and cape wearing adventures and just clearly not at all ready for anything that pushed the envelope to such a dark degree.

That being said, I was more than curious to see what the new film version of Doctor Strange would entail because at the very least it would give the Marvel Comics Universe film series a much welcome upgrade visually and thematically as it woud now incorporate the inter-dimensional--as first witnessed in Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015)--with the already established and extravagantly presented world which already holds Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor among others.

The resulting film, Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange," the fourteenth film in the ever expanding series, not only continues to showcase what has made this film series so durable, as well as much more successful than the struggling DC Movie Universe, it also does tend to stumble a tad with its standard shortcomings. Overall, "Doctor Strange" is a solid entry that does point to more intriguing signs for future solo and group Marvel offerings.

"Doctor Strange" stars a perfectly cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the gifted yet extremely arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange, who loses the use of his hands after surviving a devastating car accident. With his extensive and painful rehabilitation merged with an existential crisis of not being able to utilize his hands to achieve what he perceives to be his life's purpose, Strange falls into crippling despair, alienating all around him, most notably his former lover/closest friend and confidant Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).

After learning of and meeting Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) a former paraplegic miraculously able to walk again, Stephen Strange follows Pangborn's advice and journeys to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal to seek out The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer and master of the astral plane and multi-verse, a collection of metaphysical dimensions.

As The Ancient One begins to train Stephen Strange, who is aided by the sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Kamar-Taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), dark trouble is underfoot in the form of the renegade sorcerer and Master of the Mystic Arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is armed with stolen pages from one of The Ancient One's book of rituals and plans to utilize it to conjure the horrific Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, a plane of everlasting life and without any sense of time.

Summoning the power of Dormammu threatens to break the magic protective spell of the Sanctum, formed by three buildings located in Hong Kong, London and New York, it is up to Wong, Mordo and Doctor Strange, now armed with the Cloak Of Levitation and the mystical Eye Of Agamotto to defeat Kaecilius and retain the magical balance of power.

Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" is a first rate production that fits snuggly with all of the previous Marvel films thus far. The character of Strange, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, all swagger and quips (and a predilection for extensive musical knowledge--an area I'd love to trade with him musical facts and figures) yet with a strikingly captivating level of pathos, feels strongly cut from the same cloth as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark.

Through Cumberbatch's performance, he simply nails that requisite Marvel melancholia, the "Achilles Heel" that sits at the core of the character--his level of hubris, of course, but also his alienation from others combined with what he perceived as his greatest strength-his hands-being robbed from him due to the extensive nerve damage. Once again, this level of attention within the writing, direction and performance grounds the proceedings confidently as we are given the human being long before the costume, cape and special effects, ensuring that we have a figure to root for before any extensive visual razzle dazzle.

And yes, at this time, I do have to commend the film's usage of special effects...for the most part. It is clear that Derrickson has taken lessons learned from The Wachowski's The Matrix" (1999), Christopher Nolan's "Inception" (2010) and even some elements from television's "Heroes" (2006-2010), when devising the look of the film's many action set pieces which present all manner of skyscrapers twisting and turning themselves into kaleidoscopic shapes, metaphysical trap doors, openings and exits--all of which are superbly handled.

But, the sequence that really made my eyes POP, so much so that I wished  Derrickson and his crew had been given the free reign to fly even further is the masterful section when The Ancient One first displays to Stephen Strange the multi-verse. It is a cavalcade of sound and vision that feels as if it took the vortex/wormhole sequence from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) as a starting point and went go-for-broke from there. I cannot even begin to describe the sequence fully as it needs to be seen to be believed but it was the one section that felt as if the comic book itself had burst to three dimensional life and blasted itself across the silver screen with all of the surprise, wonder, awe and even terror necessary to successfully pull it off. Just amazing!

Now I realize that Marvel has a film franchise to keep pushing forwards and they are more than trepedacious to tamper with their successful formula terribly much. But, I do feel that after fourteen films, they have earned themselves some leeway and even some cache to play around and perhaps make these films a tad more daring than they actually are. From that special effects standpoint, it would have remained true to the source material to perhaps make a film that was considerably...ahem...stranger.

With all of the various dimensions, dark magic and alternate planes of existence at play, why couldn't Derrickson create a palate that was more akin to something like Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981), where the fantasy/dream/drug trip/sensory deprivation sequences were truly out of this world and to date, remain as delirious as they are disturbing. "Doctor Strange" could have significantly benefited from a grander and more macabre sense of danger and foreboding but what was delivered, aside from the very cleverly handled climax between Doctor Strange and Dormammu, was another standard superhero film where, in this case, all of the Mystical Arts knowledge and abilities are just utilized to beat the stuffing out of each other.

Beyond that, "Doctor Strange," by its very nature of being hid debut film is that we are presented with yet another origin story that feels very much of a piece with all of the other origin stories that we have been subjected to. And in doing so, the film just follows all of the same beats as the previous entries, therefore, making for an experience that already feels to be a bit old hat, overly familiar and one where you're itching for the second installment that will undoubtedly delve deeper as that origin business will be long out of the way. But for now, as and entertaining as it is, "Doctor Strange" is very familiar.

Another quibble I have is with the the usage of Rachel McAdams, a fine actress who is again wasted in another role as the long suffering love/former love interest to the troubled, complex male hero. How I wish that when filmmakers choose to bother to cast her, they give her something of some real significance to do because she does indeed have the talent..if only we were allowed to see it.

But when all is said and done,"Doctor Strange" works and very well at that. Next year, we will see three new entries in the Marvel universe from the return of the Guardians Of The Galaxy to Thor and the latest reboot of Spiderman. Here's hoping that with these subsequent installments, Marvel shakes up their own formula and find themselves unafraid to really begin to take some surprising creative risks.

That being said, Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" is good and strong enough to keep that Marvel flag flying high.

Monday, November 7, 2016

TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY: a review of "Moonlight"

Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Written for the Screen and Directed by Barry Jenkins
**** (four stars)

Finally, after far too long this year, I have seen a film that burrows deeply under the skin, and into the heart and mind so luxuriously and with a powerfully quiet devastation that even after having seen it, I wonder just how so much was accomplished with a film that is actually quite reticent.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," based upon a story and play from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, is without question one of the finest films that I have seen in 2016. Through its deceptively mellow atmospherics and often silent eloquence, Jenkins has ultimately created an emotionally surprising and harrowing experience that gives audiences a profoundly clear eyed view into a world that is essentially never seen in modern cinema...or at least in the way Jenkins has mounted his vision.

"Moonlight" is a film of tremendous empathy as well as artistry, precisely the type of film that allows anyone that chooses to view it a priceless opportunity to walk a life within someone else's shoes yet without any sense of hyperbole or any qualities that suggest a didactic self-importance. And dear readers, I definitely urge you to make the choice and see this remarkable, painful, and essential film, especially during a period in our collective history when even a modicum of understanding for those different than ourselves would do each and every one of us a world of good.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" chronicles the coming-of-age and internal odyssey of Chiron, a shy, withdrawn, reticent African-American individual from inner city Miami and as told in three distinct chapters. In the film's first chapter entitled "Little," we meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert), dubbed "Little" due to his small stature and quiet demeanor.

Chiron is the product of an absent Father and Paula (Naomie Harris), his emotionally abusive Mother who is also falling into a horrific drug addiction. Essentially friendless aside from the more outgoing and confident Kevin (Jaden Piner), and often the target of the neighborhood bullies, Chiron first begins to find solace and acceptance in the home of Juan (an outstanding Mahershala Ali), the local crack dealer and his girlfriend Theresa (a very strong Janelle Monae).

The film's turbulent second chapter entitled "Chiron" finds our protagonist in his teen years (now staggeringly well played by Ashton Sanders). With Paula lost to her drug addiction, and now aggressively and repeatedly targeted by classmate bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), Chiron feels more emotionally lost than ever before save for his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a friendship that opens up the door to Chiron's emerging knowledge of his homosexuality.

The film's third chapter entitled "Black," finds Chiron in adulthood (now played by Trevante Rhodes). Set ten years after the second chapter with Chiron now based in Atlanta as he returns home to Miami after receiving a phone call out of the blue from Kevin (played by Andre Holland).

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is as magnificent as it is supremely haunting and sobering in its depiction of inner city life combined with a riveting yet dreamlike aesthetic that powerfully underscores a searing emotional pain of one young man's relationship with his own development, his notions of family, his sexuality, and his destiny, all the while filtered through an existential crisis of not only discovering his place within the world but wondering if there even is a place for him at all.

Jenkins' vision culminates in an art film with a capital "A," as his skills as a visual stylist through his brilliant collaboration with Cinematographer James Laxton provides each chapter with a distinctive visual sheen and attention to color. Additionally, I must give special mention to Composer Nicholas Britell, whose nearly chamber music score juxtaposes itself tremendously against the gritty urban settings.

And my word, I am compelled to give special mention to Casting Director Yesi Ramirez for I am unable to think of another film at this time where different actors portrayed the same character at different life stages where the different actors in question all appeared to be exactly the same person. It was as if Jenkins performed a cinematic feat akin to Richard Linklater's masterpiece, 12 years in the making project "Boyhood" (2014) but instead of using the same actors over an extended filming period, Jenkins accomplished a similar feat through using different actors to bring 15-20 years of Chiron's existence to vivid life. All three actors who portray Chiron, and for that matter Kevin, are superb in their individuality and collectively, deftly showcasing the full arc and life stories of these two young men who are inexplicably and yet so purposefully bound together.

Much as with Justin Tipping's excellent and sadly underseen "Kicks" from earlier this year, Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight" is a soulful and often esoteric view of inner city life as well as also serving as an exploration of African-American manhood from its expectations, prejudices, challenges, consequences, trappings and possible transcendence. Jenkins' cinematic eye and perspective are stemmed within visual poetry, where poignant silences contain oceans of meaning, simple vignettes are constructed to serve as deep dives into existential quandaries and the journey of the human spirit as one soul desperately seeks to find his own specific footing.

As with "Kicks" where that film's often solitary protagonist often connected with a spirit guide who existed in the form of a lonely astronaut. the life of Chiron in "Moonlight" is also one of severe displacement, of feeling trapped in a world in which he never created for himself but is forced to survive--the same Darwinian approach as also presented within "Kicks."  For Chiron, his Miami neighborhood is a world that most likely will ultimately define and alter him from who he may have otherwise become due to the unforgiving environment, of course, but also due to truly existing without consistent adult figures to help shape, guide, mold, and protect him.

Regarding the figures with whom Chiron ultimately connects with, "Moonlight" also upends expectations and whatever prejudices we in the audience may be holding towards certain characters--especially within the "Little" chapter of the film as Paula's drug addiction begins to take hold and Chiron finds solace with the surrogate parenting of Juan and Theresa. Juan, so brilliantly portrayed by the masterful Mahershala Ali (who also displays a different take on a similar character within "Kicks") is compulsively watchable as he moves like a panther yet elicits a tenderness and gentle layers of paternal depth that we never typically see from a figure who could have simply existed as yet another stereotypical ghetto drug dealer.

One remarkable sequence is one where he teaches Chiron to swim--a sly nod against the stereotype that African-Americans are not adept with aquatics. The sequence is so deceptively simple as Juan teaches Chiron how to float upon his back, proclaiming that the sensation feels as if he is gliding in the "middle of the world." What is tranquility for Juan expertly delivers to us the feelings of Chiron's abandonment by his own Mother via her addictions and the brutality of his peers. He is floating adrift in the universe, untethered to anything or anyone, rightfully tentative to reach out for fear of being abandoned all over again.

But there is Juan plus Theresa who give him the space, room and patience for him to speak in his own time, to trust when he feels ready and able and to become whomever he discovers for himself to be, When Chiron eventually asks of Juan to explain, "What's a faggot?" Juan's answer again will not only upend whatever perceptions you and I may have of him but also begins to reveal layers of characters not typically given to figures and men such as this one within the movies.

As previously stated, "Moonlight" essentially serves as a dissertation about Black manhood, a topic that is pushed to equally violent and vulnerable limits within the film's harrowing and heartbreaking second chapter, all of which leads to the aching emotional reunions and potential resolutions within the film's third chapter, a lengthy sequence between Chiron and Kevin that flows effortlessly between themes of the pain of lingering unfinished business, the tentativeness in revelations and the anguish of sexual confusion, which leads to the larger existential crisis of denying oneself the right to simply be the very person you are certain that you are but your surroundings dictate to you otherwise for your own sense of survival.  Again, Jenkins utilizes sheer poetry in the film's stunning and seductive third chapter, where elements like a prepared meal and a old soul song speak volumes between two quiet, reticent men, each seeking solace and the potential for connection and pure, unprejudiced understanding.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is an exceptional work, a film of tremendous humanity and empathy for those who desperately seek the truth of their own identities and the inherent right to exist as they wish and to the fullest of their individualized potentials. It is a film where Barry Jenkins showcases the lives that falls through society's cracks and are often vilified within the media and politicians either through ignorance, short-sightedness and often without remorse. For within Chiron and his exquisitely presented inner journey, with all of its trauma and sorrow, I would be hard pressed to believe that any of  you could not find some trace of him within yourselves as you regard the paths and pains of your lives as we all ask the following questions: "Who am I?" "What will I become?" "What is wrong with me?" "Will anyone love me?"

With regards to "Moonlight," I loved this film. So, so dearly.