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The BFS Recommends: Moonlight 5 comments

Moonlight Theatrical PosterFriday night, Jessica and I had a decision to make: were we going to see Lego Batman or Moonlight? We ended up choosing the latter, partially under the logic that plenty of people were going to see Lego Batman, and we might as well reward the theater for picking the less popular but more serious movie, which had just won an Oscar for Best Picture.

The logic behind the choice has come back to hit me harder than I thought it would: Moonlight is an important movie, one that we need now, more than ever.

This isn’t going to be so much a review of Moonlight (you can find an excellent review on Roger Ebert’s site), though I will say Moonlight may be one of the most perfect, character-driven dramas I have ever seen. Instead, it’s going to be a plea of sorts, an argument, for why you need to see it, sooner rather than later. Why the argument? I’ll get to that in just a moment.

As often happens with a movie as powerfully immersive as Moonlight, it lingered with me, and I found myself needing to bounce my thinking about it off of others. After talking it over with Jessica, I found the above-mentioned review. Even though I knew what I probably would find there, I scrolled down to the comment section and found this sad little post:

“Can anyone explain to me why this film is “important?” Because there are crack-hos and gay black people and drug dealers with hearts of gold? How am I not a complete human being if I don’t absolutely adore this mediocre trash and weep inconsolably whenever I think of poor little Little or Chevron or Black or whatever his real name is? My life was not “affirmed” by somehow surviving this torturous, dull, self-indulgent and amateurish melodrama. The emperor has no clothes!”

Yes, it’s a comment on the internet (Beware: here there be trolls). But it’s not an out and out troll comment (there’s at least some struggle to know what they’re missing), and more, I know that a movie that focuses on the coming of age of a gay black man in Miami is going to be tough content for some people. Let’s face it, we don’t see many movies like this, particularly one that has won major awards.

I’m actually a big believer in saying that not every movie and not every book is for everyone, no matter how good it might be. And you sometimes have to be in the right mood to handle an excellent movie or play (if you’re wanting comedy, you probably shouldn’t watch King Lear). But for someone to have apparently sat through the whole of Moonlight as this commenter did and have it pass clear above their heads is absolutely depressing.

Moonlight is about identity and trying to find it. About being crushed by others as you try to find it. And no matter how 100% awesome and sure of yourself you might be at this moment, every human struggles with identity. Everyone. So for someone to watch a movie that shows that struggle in a fellow human as perfectly and understandably as the film medium can allow, but still only focus on the externals of its characters? There is something wrong with that viewer.

Our society is increasingly focused on walls now—literal, political, or emotional—maybe more so than it has been at any other time in my thirty-eight years. Maybe the 80s and that part of the Cold War is on par or even worse, but it’s impossible to argue something hasn’t been going down the drain more and more the past couple years. And this problem isn’t due to one group or another, either. Take your pick of the current news: no matter where you look, it’s easy to see humans refusing to listen to each other, whether it’s conservatives ignoring/attacking those who don’t agree with them or this protest/attack on a conservative speaker at Middlebury College. We’d rather shout each other down, or win an argument or election than listen.

What beauty we are missing. I’ve never been to Miami; I’ve never had a parent struggle with addiction. I’m just a straight white guy that has lived his whole life in the Midwest, but I could feel and understand Chiron’s life, the protagonist of Moonlight. The movie is told in three parts, with Chiron in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Each section pivots on a key scene, with Chiron reacting to the ocean. The joy Chiron feels as he learns to swim as a child, with ocean waves washing over him and the camera, is palpable. The hope or love or longing he feels when an ocean breeze passes over him in adolescence is impossible not to register: it’s the most happy we’ve seen him since he learned to swim. And the look on his face when he returns to the ocean as a young adult (he has been living in Atlanta for some years)? It’s the look any human makes when they see something they have missed more than they could describe.

I’d want Chiron to understand me. I know he’d understand the look on my face when I saw my wife for the first time in weeks. It shouldn’t matter that he’s never been to Minnesota or lived as I have lived.

And it really doesn’t.

BFS Reviews: Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

much_adoJoss Whedon has this weird way of going about making movies and TV shows. On the one hand, he’s known in the big networks and studios for success stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and last summer’s The Avengers (or “shows that shouldn’t have been canceled so soon” like Firefly that can make some fans perennially sigh over what might have been if the show had kept going). But on the other hand, he does stuff like… make some kind of movie broken into two parts during a writer’s strike (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a strange but endearing mixture of superheroes with musical, drama, romance, and tragedy). More, he can make this kind of thing work, as that odd, two-part movie grew into an internet sensation that’s followed as much as anything made by a major network.

And now he’s made a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Apparently Whedon has an amazing house and regularly invites actors and actresses to come out and perform a Shakespeare play. Why not? I probably would too, if I had a fabulous house and was a director. To add to the fun, this time around he’s made a film out of this practice. He chose a fine play to do this with, as Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s best comedies (for the uninitiated, a Shakespeare comedy means there’s going to be lots of fun, humor, and romance, but… there’s going to be a fair amount of heartache as well: the travails of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life have nothing on what Shakespeare will put his comedic characters through).

I’ll be up front and say that Joss Whedon had to win me over with this one. I like a lot of his work and it sounded like this adaptation was pretty good, but… I love Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of this play: it’s what won me over to Shakespeare at a young age. Sure, it’s got some weird moments and Keanu Reeves… cannot do Shakespeare to save his life, but it is otherwise excellent. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are razor sharp witty in their roles as the two lovebirds that refuse to believe they are lovebirds, and they are excellently juxtaposed against the two lovebirds that very much know they are lovebirds, played by Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale. To cap things off, Michael Keaton is hilarious as the hapless constable, Dogberry.

So I’ll admit I didn’t completely click with some elements of the movie. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker were good fun as Beatrice and Benedick, but… they just couldn’t speak it and act it like Branagh and Thompson did, particularly early on (though let’s face it, those two are heavyweights in the acting world). Still, they began to spark more for me as the other characters in the story try to draw them together. The closely paired scenes where Benedick and Beatrice learn that the other loves them (or so they are led to believe as they eavesdrop on their friends…) are as entertaining as I’ve seen in any production. Benedick’s sudden attempts to look sexy for Beatrice are as amusing to watch as junior highers at a school dance (so much awkwardness rolled up in so much sincerity). The pair isn’t all humor, either: Whedon closes the movie with a shot focusing solely on them, an indescribably romantic moment.

That said, the standouts among the actors are undoubtedly Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the constable Dogberry and his assistant, Valence. In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, Michael Keaton plays Dogberry hilariously over the top with growls and mannerisms reminiscent of his role as Beetlejuice. Nathan Fillion, on the other hand, is openly and honestly sincere in his ineptitude (though he still manages to save the day, of course). Both performances are completely varied but completely hilarious. It highlights the strength of any good play–and book for that matter–the stories and characters can be great no matter how many times you revisit them.

But what seals the deal is the cinematography and the music. Whedon went from directing a superhero summer Hollywood blockbuster–with all the big action shots that implies–to using steady, fixed shots and vivid black and white cinematography in this film. There’s some versatile directing for you. Of course, he’s filming a location he knows quite well–his own gorgeous house with a spectacular view–but he uses that knowledge to maximum effect. Joss also enlisted the aid of his brother, Jed, and his wife Maurissa Tauncharoen, to perform a couple of the songs from the play (this duo were responsible for the catchy tunes in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Both songs are a clean and engaging fit with the modern setting Whedon chose for the play, and I wish a movie from earlier this summer, The Great Gatsby, had done so well with matching its music to its story.

In the end, there are things not to like in Whedon’s production of Much Ado, but this is no different from any other Shakespeare production I’ve seen (or heard commented on). For theatrical afficianados, every new production of a play can offer new delights and interpretations–even small, classroom productions–and this is a good thing in the end. Even better, Whedon’s production offers many new things to delight in.

BFS Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

dragonOkay, so… I got a little excited two weeks ago when the Celt found a preview for How to Find Your Dragon 2. A little. I might have been a little un-Swedish. But here’s why.

Trying to tell a story that draws in adults and younger folk isn’t as easy as some think (both critics and creators). You can’t get too stupid (or adults AND kids will hate it), and you can’t get too cerebral or the kids (and let’s face it, many adults) will hate it. But How to Train Your Dragon finds this balance point and soars away with it.

The crazy thing about it is that this movie kind of snuck its way into the movie landscape. Unlike Pixar films that are fanfared and publicized well in advance (a very small teaser trailer for Brave was out at least a year before it hit the screens), I didn’t hear of this one until I saw a trailer a mere couple of months before it was released. And rather than try to give us the whole plot of the movie, the trailer did what the trailer released for its sequel did last week: evoke a feeling.

It’s essentially the moment seen in the poster in the upper right, but better. Dragons (and this dragon in particular) in the movie have up until now been unknown and powerful and dangerous–tapping into centuries of storytelling that have made dragons touchstones of mystery and magic. But, this moment posits, what if you could reach out and actually touch that mystery… and while you were doing that, what if that mystery decided it wanted to reach out to you as well?


And this undercurrent is felt throughout the movie. Sure, there are some moments that are more kiddie or more obvious than I’d like (I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of the voiceover used in the opening), but these shortcomings are buoyed by the undercurrent of magic and mystery, and completely erased by the strong story. We understand why Hiccup–the boy in the poster–reaches out to the dragon, but we also know what this is going to cost him personally. Dragons and humans just don’t mix, it’s been made clear, and there will be repercussions.

Another fine element of the film is that the adults are allowed to be smart. What a concept, I know, but one thing Roger Ebert frequently noted in the last couple of years (I am really going to miss reading that man’s reviews…) is how often adults are made to be stupid when kids or teens are the protagonists of a movie. But in How to Train your Dragon, Hiccup’s father has feelings that are clearly understood and valued just as much as Hiccup’s. He’s not one dimensional, either, changing in reaction to the events of the story: just as Hiccup is allowed to change. True, the adults can be silly at times, but so can the kids (and this movie knows when it needs to be silly and when it needs to be serious).

The movie doesn’t stop imploding typical Hollywood fare there, either. Its characters often aren’t… pretty. Stoick the Vast (Hiccup’s father) is a big, beefy Viking warrior in the classic sense. He doesn’t have slabs of muscle Hollywoodily stacked on top of more slabs of muscle. His arms are thick but not defined, and also clearly strong–not unlike some arms you’ll actually see in the real world. And his skin… his skin is a bit pale and freckled and ruddy, not unlike some other people you’ll see in the real world. How strange to see a bit of real proportion in a cartoon, eh?

So, this movie knows how to be real, knows when it needs to get serious, and knows when it needs to fly (something its upcoming sequel seems to be remembering as well). Not every movie knows how to do that, so it’s a real treat when one does–if you haven’t seen this one already, you should.

BFS Reviews: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

darknessStar Trek Into Darkness is a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. The Hollywood blockbuster is basically a genre unto itself, loaded with its own pros and cons (“The action is awesome!” vs “Ugh, can they do anything but action?” “Shaky cams add realism!” vs “Enough with the shaky cams already…”). This becomes more of a problem for some because Into Darkness is a Star Trek film–and Star Trek is a thinking person’s sci fi, right? The debate has been encapsulated by fans with a quote from Captain Picard in the movie Insurrection: “Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”

In other words, Star Trek is not supposed to be about action.

Balderdash. I’m not a huge fan of the original series, but it had its share of action sequences (and Gene Rodenberry had to rework the pilot to put in more action and make it more palatable to TV audiences–read into that what you will, but it’s been there since the start). One of the best Star Trek films is still Wrath of Khan, and the action and fighting is front and center there. This has only continued over the years with all subsequent movies and shows. Action is a part of Star Trek, and that shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider how varied the show is. It’s a delightful mix of politics, morality, relationships, emotions, and action–focusing on what it needs to focus on to tell its story. Star Trek is populist sci fi, not a niche sci fi film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (no matter how well known that film is, it is not populist).

Star Trek’s stories can be hit or miss, of course, but the stories that come alive are the ones that use any of those elements to explore its characters and ideas meaningfully. This can work in a revenge and action flick like Wrath of Khan or a more cerebral one exploring mortality like Generations. And it can work with a Hollywood blockbuster like Into Darkness.

Speaking of which (that preface did have a point), Into Darkness is stronger than its other JJ Abrams predecessor, which had a villain that liked to sit and brood in some dark throne room before randomly killing some things. The opponents in Into Darkness are allowed more time to develop and establish their motivations, which makes them more interesting foes for the new Kirk and Spock to tangle with. I worry that the opponents might rely a little bit too much on knowing earlier Star Trek stories to appreciate some of the nuances, but there is enough there for relative Star Trek newcomers to enjoy.

The actors playing the protagonists are also stronger in their second time around. Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock are simply a delight to watch. They’re frustrated and intrigued by each other, their friendship growing even as they collide over how they respond to broken Starfleet regulations and the various crises a Hollywod blockbuster is going to throw at them. There wasn’t a scene where they weren’t clicking on all cylinders together. Even better, while they hit on the classic characteristics we know from Shatner and Nimoy in the same roles, they are carving their own way with the characters, not bound to where two actors have gone before… *ahem* it’s all enough to make a jaded movie-goer look forward to seeing them in the next movie.

The rest of the protagonists are a little more hit and miss. Zoe Saldana is allowed stronger dramatic moments than the original Uhura, thanks to her relationship with Spock (a change in this new Star Trek universe that is a welcome one). The script has less room for Chekhov, Scotty, and McCoy, who are reduced to their somewhat cliched parts. Simon Pegg works well within his limitations (he’s good fun as Scotty, even if he’s mostly used for humor), but I just can’t like Karl Urban as McCoy… he’s got the mannerisms of the original, and that’s it. He honestly feels like a caricature or someone spoofing the original McCoy, rather than finding the man in the character.

To JJ Abrams’s credit, he is juggling many things at once, and he’s paying good attention to the main characters and antagonists. That said, like his previous Star Trek outing (and many of the shows and movies he’s made), there are plot holes and strange technological workings that make you scratch your head if you stop to think about them. How is a character able to teleport across the galaxy when the Enterprise generally need to be orbiting a planet before they can beam something to it? The script doesn’t talk about this, even though the script later on won’t allow the crew to teleport someone that is less than a mile away.

Things are going too fast and too fun to make little things like this truly bothersome. The actors all believe in what’s going on and we’re just having fun watching them do it. This is populist sci fi doing what populist sci fi does best–and while it would be nice to have a Star Trek film in the future that explores the quieter side of the universe (or at least something more cerebral), this is still an enjoyable romp in the Star Trek Universe.