It’s about time that gay people were better represented in holiday rom-coms (according to my girlfriend, 2020 was the first year Hallmark featured a gay protagonist in a Christmas movie, which is astounding). Why shouldn’t queer people be able to enjoy cute, low-key holiday fluff that also better represents their stories and perspectives? That’s the goal of Happiest Season, written and directed by Clea DuVall, an actress best known for her 90s output like The Faculty and But I’m a Cheerleader who has transitioned behind the camera. The story follows a lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), celebrating their first Christmas together. Harper invites her girlfriend to meet her family, however, she hasn’t come out to her conservative parents and sisters. Abby will have to pretend to only be the “roommate” and from there the movie sets us up farcical misunderstandings and comic mishap. The problem with Happiest Season is that everyone is a big jerk. Harper’s parents are jerks. Her overly competitive sister played by Alison Brie is a jerk. Even her young niece and nephew are jerks. Why would it be such a big deal for a conservative politician’s daughter to be gay… in 2020? Hell, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter and he’s done okay for himself. Why would Harper want her girlfriend to spend upwards of five days with these awful people and under the guise of having to hide who she is and their relationship? I think it’s because Harper is also a jerk. She dismisses Abby’s feelings and misgivings, ditches her to hang out with an old boyfriend, and doesn’t seem to recognize how uncomfortable any of this is making the woman she reportedly loves. And then it’s revealed that Harper outed her high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) and said she was obsessed with her in an effort to not be seen as gay when she was younger. That’s not endearing. This person doesn’t deserve Abby, and that’s the problem because when the happy ending and sweet kisses fortuitously come I wasn’t feeling joy but contempt. I kept yelling at turn after turn for Abby to leave this family to their own miserable devices. I wanted the movie to somehow transform into a separate story about the only people I genuinely liked, Dan Levy as Abby’s friend and Mary Holland as the youngest daughter, a sweet goofball, the only one in Harper’s family with a soul. The comedy bits run the gamut between cute and clumsy, though the escalations don’t rise to the farcical levels you would expect from compounded misunderstandings and secret-keeping. Happiest Season is an adequate holiday movie, and a boon for greater representation even in a genre with a low bar, but it would have been even better with characters you actually liked and wanted to spend the yuletide season with.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.
Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.
The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.
Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.
So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.
I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.
Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.
There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.
The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favourite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.
In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.
What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.
This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.
Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.
Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.
This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.
Nate’s Grade: A
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.
Nate’s Grade: B
Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
It feels like the Below Her Mouth filmmakers watched Blue is the Warmest Color and its lengthy, explicit sex scenes and said, “Lesbians don’t have sex like that. There’s way too much scissoring,” and then decided to make their own Blue-style lesbian romance to showcase the frank reality denied to mass audiences. Well, the explicit sex scenes in Below Her Mouth definitely feel more realistic, and they don’t involve even one act of scissoring (just about everything else though). However, they kept the breathy, graphic sex and left behind everything else that made Blue such a phenomenal movie, namely complex characters, an emotionally engaging story, and genuine reasons why these two star-crossed lesbians would be drawn to one another besides the purely physical. To put it simply, Below Her Mouth is inelegant soft-core porn dolled up in indie film dross.
Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a fashion magazine editor and engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). Her life is privileged and wealthy but missing passion. This is awakened when she bumps into Dallas (Erika Linder), a love-em-and-leave-em lesbian. Something awakens within Jasmine, who can’t stop thinking of that chance encounter. She climaxes under the running faucet of her bathtub while listening to Dallas work atop a roof, nailing shingles. With Rile conveniently on business, Jasmine agrees to go out for a night with Dallas. They can barely keep their hands off one another, even against the exterior wall of a dirty alley. The two lose themselves in one another for days. Rile accidentally walks in on their activities and Jasmine must decide whom she truly wants.
Since the vivid sex scenes are grabbing all the publicity, let’s discuss them first. Whether it’s a masturbation scene, sex scene, or stripper lapdance, there’s generally something every ten minutes like clockwork, and that’s not even counting the casual nudity of the actors. The lovers get together at the half-hour mark and from there almost half of the next 30 minutes is some variation of the above (I clocked it). So there’s quantity but is there quality? Is the sex erotic? There is a ferocious carnality to it that radiates through the screen and it’s magnified by the kinship of Krill and Linder. They may not be the best actors but they can sell the earthly pleasures like pros. There are multiple instances of the use of a strap-on, which from what I’m told by my lesbian friends is far more prevalent than repeated hard-core scissoring. The sex is lengthy, sweaty, and explicit. I’m fairly certain at one point you see Krill’s inner labia (the movie is unrated, to the surprise of no one). If you’re here for the sex, you’ll leave fairly satisfied.
On the other hand, if you’re here for any other reason or curiosity, Below Her Mouth will leave you cold and indifferent. Because there’s so much sexual congress there’s very little time to get to know either character. Jasmine had a lesbian experience when she was younger that she never got closure from. Dallas has been a “tomboy,” a term she hates, all her life and identified as more masculine than feminine. She also has commitment issues. That’s about it. Neither of those back-stories is worthy of a deep-dive exploration. Without better understanding of the romantic pair we have further trouble identifying why exactly they would fall in love. Blue is the Warmest Color was three hours and explained in great detail why its characters would be attracted to one another and what would ultimately drive them apart. They came across as living, breathing, complicated, flawed, and achingly human characters. The sex in that movie was a bonus to a rich and heartbreaking character study. Jasmine and Dallas exist as ciphers that only exist to lust for one another. These are not interesting people and I think director April Mullen must have realized this. I would feel more passion if I felt more for these people. Even the character names sound soft-core-ish, and that includes Rile, a name I’ve never heard before in my life (#11,580 most popular name according to Baby Center.com).
The dialogue includes some doozies that might just take your breath away, further hampering any connection or engagement with the characters. There are the pseudo-intellectual, laughably poetic lines like, “Have you ever tried to count how many breaths you take in a minute?” There are the clunky, on-the-nose declarations like, “Even inanimate objects aren’t safe from you.” But I think the winner for most groan inducing goes to Dallas’ bit of nonsensical introspection: “I have no emotional stamina for intimacy.” If someone ever says something like that, walk in the other direction.
The acting by our lead couple is rather stilted and unconvincing. I feel like the filmmakers just needed semi-competent actresses that would feel comfortable with the demands of the roles. Linder is a Swedish model making her film debut and she has many roles to go before she becomes comfortable with this whole acting thing. And yet she has a presence that draws you in; perhaps it’s the hunger in her eyes. Krill conversely has a lengthy resume of Canadian TV appearances (Rookie Blue, Wynona Earp). She’s far too emotionally aloof. That could be an acting choice to communicate her character’s funk, but even when she starts to light up from increased interaction with her sweetheart, Krill is flat. I was impressed with Krill’s abs and command of pelvic thrusting, for what it’s worth. Suffice to say both actresses are at their best during their love scenes. I thought the best actor was Dallas’ last ex-girlfriend, Joselyn (Mayko Nguyen, also of Rookie Blue, Killjoys), who has to reconcile that the woman she’s in love with cannot return her feelings. Hers was a character that had the most dramatic potential as presented.
Let’s get to a better question, which is whether or not simply being an erotic escape is enough to justify the film’s validity. Below Her Mouth is one of the few films to have an entirely female-lead crew, which lends it greater credibility with the handling of the subject matter. If you’re looking for a steamy way to pass 85 or so minutes, Below Her Mouth will definitely deliver some desired sensations. There is obvious merit to telling the stories of minority groups that have infrequently seen themselves represented on the big screen with care and normalizing their everyday lives and challenges. The 90s was an explosion of quirky, sexy lesbian indies, mainly rom-coms (Better than Chocolate, Go Fish, Show Me Love, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love). While those movies broke ground in their own ways with gay voices, they also had the essential elements of story and character and didn’t rely upon a gimmick. People do go to the movies to feel turned on, but if you’re only there to watch the sexy parts, then the characters aren’t people so much as sexual objects for your personal gratification. If the sole purpose of a movie is to titillate then I think you’re in the realm of high-minded pornography. It feels like Below Her Mouth was made for the disposable consumption of the horny. This is a movie that’s only ever skin deep.
Nate’s Grade: C-
What Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.
The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.
The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.
The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.
I don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.
Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.
The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.
Moonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.
Nate’s Grade: A