Thursday, October 27, 2016

Moonlight: Film Review

If you haven't seen Moonlight yet, you might want to go into it having read nothing about it. All I knew is something about 3 different ages of the same character being shown and that people thought it was great and special but I didn't know why. I think you should go into it with the same sense of discovery and just see the damn thing without reading what I have to say till you see it too. Moonlight is great and special for several reasons.

Overall you have an elevated and sophisticated sense of cinematography, pace, and score that isn't normally paired with stories from "the streets" - so often it's completely on the nose - gritty style to show a gritty world --- and you know what? The effect of these overtly gritty "urban" movies is a sense of "other"ness -- we are more detached from the world and characters and entertained by them rather than brought into relating to them --- and I think this impacts both people who are and aren't from these worlds to see it so romanticized. The cinematography in Moonlight is beautiful but it's used to connect you to the humanity in the characters rather than objectifying them or being precious with how "beautiful" they are.

The script - each line of dialogue is perfectly paced, and certain lines are delivered with the utmost power they are capable of evoking. He uses the words. The words are essential. Certain lines will stick with you long after they've been said.

The ending is perfect largely because of the script. It's rare that a film, especially an emotional drama, has such a satisfying ending - and it's satisfying simply because the final line and moment ties everything together - and not because of an event, spectacle, or big plot twist. This perfect ending relies on performance and power of the words.

The performances are so spectacular across the board - it's clear director Barry Jenkins has found incredible talent to act in the film and the actors deserve credit where it's due - but you don't get that level of consistently great performance without the hand of a masterful director. The child, teenage, and adult version of this character -- are all masters of the dichotomy of what we say/do versus what we actually mean and feel.

In fact all of his characters put up fronts, and only let their guard down for very choice moments.

He opens with this exaggerated swirling steadicam shot delivering a massive pow of disorientation and movement - like we're being shaken on our heads inside a snowglobe. Barry Jenkins uses elements of misdirection and confusion perfectly. It's unclear we're in Miami until well into the movie. Choices like these feel germane to the character's experience. A child who hardly knows who or what he is. We've seen techniques like playing with soft focus, or drowning out vocals before --- but Barry has figured out exactly how to employ these choices with precise skill, timing, and placement in the edit.

I constantly felt afraid for the characters, I constantly felt connected to them and the movie never lets you go till the end - it uses emotional suspense, not plot driven suspense.

This movie told stories from a rough world. But it wasn't some gritty, sad, hopeless film that's all about how harsh the streets are.
What it IS about is humanizing characters that we never had the chance to see in this way before -- music choices and cinematography were especially about emotion, which is why this film works so well. Jenkins allows us to connect to his characters and access their soul in a way that reminds the audience exactly how powerful film can be. This movie is NOT about the streets. It's about masculinity, sexuality, ego, identity, self preservation, love, hate, and family.

Even when showing a homosexual act, he shows it in such a way that it's purely about sexuality and makes the experience universal and accessible -- once again cementing his skill at not objectifying what he portrays, but letting you in so you can relate. The end result is very powerful.

Another striking thing was in Mahershala Ali's performance. I know him as the smooth, calm, controlled Remy from House of Cards and as the powerful boss villain Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. I've never seen him as a dude from the streets of Miami as in Moonlight. Everything changed, from his voice to physical body and facial gestures. He made it so small and so natural, but it all felt so huge in the best way. His last line in the film was the first tear jerker for me, and the first major point of important punctuation in the story.

To the rest of the cast - I was just blown away. It's hard to know who gets the Oscar.
Maybe the teenage version of our protagonist Ashton Sanders?
Nah.
All of them.

There better be some nominations.

Final side notes:
--- This movie is doing well ENTIRELY ON MERIT and not hype. Audiences are diverse and it's selling out. It's headlining major movie theatres and playing on their premiere screens - such as the cinerama dome at the Arclight Hollwood. Emotional dramas don't normally attract this kind of attention without major celebrity talent or without already winning Oscars.
- Seeing Mahershala play this character also made me wonder about how race factors in the role people of color play in professional versus private worlds in the entertainment industry- what is it like to have all these different sides of himself? If the streets are entirely foreign to him, what's it like for him to find that? How does he relate to the world? Or is that more his world and the person he plays in Hollywood is the act? Which is true to him and his life and family versus "just acting?" It made me think more about the elements of what the f*ck I do or don't know about being black.
--- Birth of a Nation isn't going to be the only powerful black voice in the film world this year, or next year, or the year after that, and Moonlight is proof of that, and I'm quite interested to see how this film impacts that conversation.

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