Sunday, June 11, 2017

IS WONDER WOMAN ALL ABOUT TIMING?


The comic book movie WONDER WOMAN opened recently to strong box office and mostly positive reviews; the relevancy of this is that it's the biggest budgeted movie ever directed solely by a woman(Patty Jenkins), featuring the first big screen solo appearance of a beloved character who's been around for decades but has somehow never had a movie of her own.  (Over the years there have been several attempts at getting a  Wonder Woman movie off the ground, but they all fell apart). Somewhat amazingly, the character of Ant Man got his own movie before her, which shows what a boy's club Hollywood sees super hero movies as being.
Super hero characters seem to hold the same prominence now that western heroes did back in the 1950's and 1960's, with westerns appearing all over both big screens and TV screens back then.  And like westerns, super hero movies give us broad, simple stories with clearly defined good guys and bad guys and plenty of action, with both kinds of films inevitable climaxing with a battle royal between the hero (or heroes) and the villain (or villains).  Personally, I find the predictability of both genres (and I think super hero movies have become their own genre) to be their weakness; just as westerns often end with the white hatted hero outdrawing the black hatted villain yet again, the last half hour of nearly any super hero movies ends with cgi characters smashing through buildings in absurd orgies of destruction that are essentially meaningless; cities are destroyed, billions of dollars of damage is done, but the good guys won, so who cares?  And are we really supposed to be worried about our heroes losing that final battle?  How could we when we know the characters are all signed for another ten films!
Still, since I like to support women directors in Hollywood, so I went to see the film (in 3-D Imax, to get the full effect).  While I enjoyed it more than other recent super hero movies I've seen, I still found it just OK; it's often self serious and ponderous (I couldn't help laughing at the odd accents the Amazon women all have), and yes, the final battle at the end is as tedious and predictable as any other final battle in a super hero movie.  And often the style of the film often feels locked in to what previous directors in this series have done, with a lot of the heavy handed slow motion action scenes that series director Zack Synder seems so fond of.
So I wasn't too crazy about WONDER WOMAN.  So what?  Well, the thing I have found interesting is the number of downright rapturous reviews and essays I've read from women who saw the film, with writers like Gwen Ihnat and Esther Zuckerman freely admitting that they were in tears during the film.  Part of this may have been that they have been waiting patiently for years for a Wonder Woman movie, and the fact that one has finally arrived, directed by a woman, makes it all the better.  But I think there may be something else going on here.  I think the movie's arrival is helping us through tough times: I think the Trump era has made the country hungrier for a female super hero.

Last year we saw a woman who was qualified and experienced lose in an election to a man accused of sexually assaulting no less than ten different woman, and who was caught on tape bragging about that very kind of assault. Could there be any more demoralizing blow to the feminist movement than that? As we all know, art is something that can help us all get through troubled times, and for  women depressed by the Trump presidency, watching Wonder Woman pummeling bad guys on screen seems to providing a catharsis.  Even if the film was green lit years ago, and the creators probably thought that it would be released when Hillary Clinton would be in the White House, it couldn't be more timelier as a potent image of feminine power.   So if  Wonder Woman and other female characters like her can inspire women to get out and punch a certain misogynistic president out of office, than I'm all for it, even if I wasn't too fond of the film aesthetically.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

MOONLIGHT (2016)



MOONLIGHT (DIR: BARRY JENKINS) (SCR: JENKINS & TARELL ALVIN MCRANEY, BASED ON THE PLAY "IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE" BY MCRANEY)

If you saw the Oscar 2016 awards telecast, then you saw what was one of the craziest upsets in Oscar history: when Damien Chazelle's  Hollywood musical LA LA LAND was nominated for a whopping fourteen Oscars, it's ultimate victory for Best Picture seemed  assured. And as the evening progressed and Chazelle's film racked up six awards, it seemed inevitable.  So when presenter Faye Dunaway wrongly announced that it had won the Best Picture award, nobody seemed surprised.  Nobody, that is, except for the vote counters at Price Waterhouse Cooper, who were forced to swoop in, mid victory speech no less, and tell the producers of LA LA LAND that a mistake had been made*.  And so it was that a moderately budgeted sleeper hit with two well known stars was beaten out by a very low budget intensely personal independent film.  The win for MOONLIGHT bears out a trend that has been going on for some time now in movies: the best films are mostly being made independently with  lower budgets allowing for more interesting and personal films, or in other countries altogether. And MOONLIGHT is an excellent film, with a script full of quiet, thoughtful moments and sad, emotionally removed characters.  While a cynic might say that it won because it filled out a politically correct check list (with its gay, African American, impoverished lead character), it's simply a strong, melancholy story about a boy who grows into manhood without ever feeling that he fits in.

The film's production began when play write Alvin McCraney wrote a play entitled IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE in 2003.  The play was never produced.  Years later film director Barry Jenkins was looking for a followup film to his 2008 debut MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY when the play's script came to him.  Considering that, like McCraney, Jenkins grew up in the Liberty City projects and had a mother who struggled with crack cocaine addiction, he was drawn to the material, and he and McCraney began to collaborate on a film script that contained elements of both of their childhoods.  The film was eventually produced by the  A24 independent film company on a budget of around one point five million dollars, and it was shot in around twenty five days with a mostly unknown cast (interestingly, stars Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali would both get career boosts when the highly entertaining hit film HIDDEN FIGURES would open up shortly after this one).  Most of the film's shooting was done on the actual locations it was set in.  Released in October of 2016 to glowing reviews, the film made around twenty-seven million dollars in America, and around another thirty million overseas, returning  on it's small budget many times over!
It tells the story of  Chiron in three separate times: when he is a boy (played by Alex Hibbert), then a teenager (Ashton Sanders) , and finally a young man(Trevante Rhodes).  He grows up in the tough inner city neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with a crack addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  As a child, he finds himself making a father figure out of his mother's drug dealer,  Juan (Mahershala Ali), while also beginning to realize that he is gay.  As a teenager, he is picked on mercilessly, and has his first sexual experience with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).  After lashing out at a bully, he spends time in juvenile hall.  As an adult, Chiron is now a drug dealer.  He reaches out to Kevin, who has become a  chef.  When the two meet, Chiron reluctantly admits that he has never been intimate with anyone other than Kevin.

Mahershala Ali & Alex Hibbert

So let's get this out of the way, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking Best Picture winner for a number of reasons: it's the first to feature only African American actors in speaking parts, to have a gay protagonist, and to be openly autobiographical.  Also, if you adjust for inflation, it has the lowest budget of any Best Picture winner too.  But again, I don't want to praise this film just because it fills out some quotas.
One of the striking things about the film is that it's original theatrical origin is apparent in its small cast, its dialogue heavy script and  in the fact that it consists of mostly long, dramatic scenes played out slowly.  But this is to the film's advantage: like in a good play, it's often the honest emotion of the dialogue, and the nuances of the long pauses in between the dialogue, that make the deepest impression on the audience.
And despite the film's low budget, it looks great: Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton fill the movie with jagged, white and yellow exteriors and cool blue interiors.  And the camera keeps moving, whipping around the often harsh locations.   Jenkins is well aware  that a build up to an emotional moment is as important as the moment itself; like when a sadistic high school bully is about to make his move and the camera swings around  him as he paces in a circle, ratcheting up the tension, or when the adult Chiron slowly walks towards the workplace of a man he hasn't seen in almost ten years and the camera follows him all the way, underlining the importance of the moment for him.  Also, the film's repeated visual theme of the cleansing, purifying nature of water is wonderfully displayed, whether it's in the tender, almost baptismal way that Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, to the heartbreaking moment  when the teenage Chiron tries to wash away his facial scars after a particularly harsh beat down.  And the original soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, which features what he calls  "chopped and screwed" classical music, is moving and almost mournful, with tender piano and violin.  Appropriately, the softer classical music of the film's first two parts turns to hip hop for Chiron's adulthood to better reflect his more confident stance.

Ashton Sanders

At one point in the film Chiron's friend Jack, after not seeing him for almost ten years, says to him "You still can't say more than three words at a time."  It's a telling moment that says so much about the character; in all three stages of his life, Chiron feels like someone out of place, and who realizes that because he is different than the other boys and men around him, the more he says, the more likely he will be picked on for being different.  (In the childhood and teenage scenes of the film, it painfully nails the casual cruelty that children often display.)  To have such a soft spoken character as the lead of a film shows the importance of casting, and Jenkins did a great job.  Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner who play the childhood and teenage Chirons respectively, both seem to exude thoughtfulness and sensitively while saying very little.  We immediately like the childhood Chiron, which is important because we then understand why Juan goes out of his way to check up on him,  even while he says nothing.  (In a very moving moment,  Chiron can't bring himself to say goodbye to Juan when he's leaving, but he clearly is saddened by it).  Given that the child  Chiron says so little, when he does speak it carries enormous weight: the scene in which he asks Juan and his girlfriend "What's a faggot?" is so well acted, so matter of fact in it's depiction, and so quietly effective in Juan's response ("You can be gay, but you don't have to let nobody call you a faggot.") that it's probably the film's most moving moment.
Mahershala Ali won a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Juan, and it's clearly deserved; he is completely believable as he goes from being a tough guy drug dealer checking on one of his corner boys to a being a well meaning adult who just can't watch a kid being bullied without helping him.  The gentleness of the swim lesson he gives Chiron shows his inner decency, even if he is a drug dealer.  And the whole cast is excellent: Naomie Harris, as Chiron's mother Paula, has only a few scenes to portray a woman slowly coming apart from drug use, and she's great in all of them, especially when she desperately demands money from the teenage Chiron.  She also has a great moment when she accuses Juan of trying to raise Chiron, to which he responds "Are you going to raise him?" "Are you going to keep selling me rocks?" She spits back, embracing the cruel irony of their situation.  And as the adult Chiron, Trevante Rhodes is also very good; I love the way that he goes from putting up a tough front as a mid level drug dealer who messes with one of his younger dealers just to anger him, to letting that front melt away when Kevin calls him on the phone.  Or the way that he obviously wants to say so much to Kevin, but can't bring himself to (his mildly shocked reaction to Kevin showing him a picture of his son is telling), until he finally spills out in the film's great last line "You're the only man that's ever touched me.  I haven't really touched anyone since."

 If the film has a flaw, I would say that I don't find the adult Chiron as interesting a character as his younger incarnations, perhaps because his inner turmoil is less apparent.  Also, the fact that Juan does not appear in this section of the movie is disappointing, although understandable given that Chiron has grown beyond the need for a father figure.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's obvious that I love this movie, and while I also loved Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, Chan-wook Park's THE HANDMAIDEN and Ava DuVernay's 13th, foreign films and documentaries rarely get Best Picture nominations, so I'm perfectly happy with MOONLIGHT's victory.

*On a side note, I feel what happened is not only a victory for MOONLIGHT, but also a vindication for Marisa Tomei.  Ever since she won the Best Supporting Actress award for the film MY COUSIN VINNY in 1992, rumors have persisted that the envelope had been read incorrectly by presenter Jack Palance, and that she hadn't actually won the award.  We now know that Price Waterhouse Cooper would not let such a mistake stand.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

CANCEL THE OSCARS?



The spheres  of art and entertainment and politics have collided recently in an unprecedented way: as the whole world knows, President Donald Trump on January 27th. signed an executive order banning all immigrants to the US from seven mostly  Muslim countries.  The effect of this has been chaotic, with protests erupting at airports nation wide.  It has also hit the Academy Awards: among this year's nominees are Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and several Syrian people who appeared in the short documentary film WHITE HELMETS.  Under the Trump order they are all barred from entering the country, a chilling example of political overreach; the notion that Farhadi, who had already attended the awards ceremony in 2012 when his excellent  film A SEPARATION won best foreign film, is in some way a threat to the country is absurd and offensive. Although there has been some talk of giving special consideration to Farhadi and the Syrians, that just underlines the  danger of the whole order: why should they be allowed to go to a ceremony, but many people fleeing for their very lives are not being allowed in? Farhadi recently told the New York Times that he will not attend the ceremony either way, which I think is the right move.  But it raises a larger question: should the Academy ban the Oscar ceremony entirely?
In the course of its history, the Oscars have been postponed several times: because of a flood in 1938, because of the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and because of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.  But outright cancelled?  The idea was probably first floated in an article in VOX magazine yesterday, and was later picked up in the AV CLUB website today.  The issue is sure to spread and be widely debated.
Now on the one hand, cancelling the Oscars would certainly send a message and create awareness about what our new president has done; the cancelling of a major awards show would let the world know that Hollywood and millions of other Americans do not want Trump's actions to speak for all us.  Although he has tried to compare his order to past orders made by presidents Bush and Obama, there has never been one as far reaching or openly discriminatory, with some people left in limbo and families being separated.  Getting rid of the show would remind the country that the man we have elected is not a normal politician, but an unexperienced one who ran on a platform of bigotry; it would help prevent the normalization of a highly divisive figure, perhaps the most divisive president ever.  It would acknowledge that now is not the time for frivolous star watching and "best dressed" lists.
On the other hand, because the Academy Awards is routinely one of the most watched TV events of the year, it could give a format to outspoken members of Hollywood to air their anger at the Trump administration, and perhaps hit inside that middle American Fox News bubble.  Political speeches are nothing new at the Academy Awards, and they range from the odd moment when Marlon Brando sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to pick up his Oscar for THE GODFATHER in 1973 and lecture the audience about negative portrayals of Native Americans, to Micheal Moore being booed in 2003 for criticizing the Iraq war while winning for his documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.  Surely Trump's recent actions will bring more political speeches to the fore, and perhaps the entire show will take a more serious tone, which might be a good thing considering the troubled times we now live in.
Finally, there is the financial angle to consider; the ad revenue that would be lost from the show's cancellation would number in the millions.  I imagine the pressure from the ABC network on the Academy to keep the show is huge, which, in the end, will probably be the deciding factor in still putting on the show, even if the Academy won't admit it!  Personally, I can understand both arguments, but I lean towards calling it off to let the world know that business as usual is not going to be standard with a demagogue like Trump in the White House.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

THE 2016 NOMINEES: FIRST IMPRESSIONS





Well, the 2016 Oscar nominees are out, and while glancing over them, I can't say I see any surprises: LA LA LAND, which dominated at the Golden Globes (a record seven awards), racked up an impressive 14 nominations, putting it well into the lead for the Best Picture award.  The film is a mostly upbeat, colorful, musical with likable, attractive stars that manages to both pay homage to old musicals while remaining modern.  It's a hit with both critics and audiences, and it's Hollywood setting is something many Academy members can relate to.  (How many of them haven't wanted to sing and dance their way out of a traffic jam?).  All of this means that the Best Picture winner will probably be a lock for LA LA LAND, but then I also thought that about Hillary Clinton.
It also appears that the "Oscars so White" campaign of last year has not fallen on deaf ears, with 6 different African American actors being nominated from films like FENCES, HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, (not to mention South East Asian actor Dev Patel being nominated for LION)  and those films all picked up other nominations for direction and screenplays.  Political correctness aside, I think all three are fine films and I'm glad that the nominations will help them all find a bigger audience.  And in many ways, the most relevant film of the year was African American director Ava Du Vernay's documentary 13th., which is up for Best Documentary and will hopefully win.

While studying the nominees overall, I think the Academy did a good job this time around, with no glaringly overrated films. I like that the nine Best Picture nominees included a good Science Fiction film (ARRIVAL) and a cop movie (HELL OR HIGH WATER), along with the usual prestige dramas.

 My biggest disappointment is that neither Chan-Wook Park's THE HAND MAIDEN or Paul Verhoeven's ELLE were nominated for Best Foreign Film  (Isabelle Huppert was given a nomination for her excellent role in ELLE).  I also wish that Amy Adams, who gave two good performances this year in ARRIVAL and the oddball NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, had gotten a Best Actress nomination instead of Meryl Streep for her fun but fluffy performance in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.  But I'm sure Adams, who's been nominated 5 times already, will win someday soon.
Despite my few reservations, it appears that the Academy is doing what it does best: showing that movies for grown ups still matter and making more audiences aware of lower budget films like MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  So, bring on the overblown musical numbers and inevitable president Trump bashing, the Oscars are coming!