Shades Of Color: Ten Reasons Why “Moonlight” Is The Best American Film Of 2016

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The 89th Academy Awards will be severely tainted in February by recent political events which will unfairly push attention away from some very deserving films.  The awards show has long ago since turned itself into a soapbox for political speak instead of focusing on the very reason for its creation; cinema art.  If the show would spend half the time devoting itself to cinema history and the very films it has nominated, as opposed to the nudge nudge wink wink of sociopolitical commentary, maybe more people would tune in.

The American independent film scene in 2016 rose to great prominence and promise judging from the releases.  The standouts include Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea”, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson”, Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic”, The Daniel’s “Swiss Army Man”, Robert Egger’s “The Witch”, David MacKenzie’s “Hell Or High Water” and the one film that has stood out from this well regarded crowd; the astounding Barry Jenkin’s film “Moonlight”.

There are very good reasons why “Moonlight” is the best American film of 2016 and richly deserves the Best Picture Oscar in February.  In fact, there are ten good reasons why you need to see this, if you have not already done so.

1.)  This is a story about all of us, regardless of your color, sexual orientation, gender, religious affiliations, political beliefs, etc..  We all yearn for love and we all want to belong.

2.)  The striking cinematography by James Laxton captures images and moments that stay with you long after you have left the theater.

3.)  You will never see more naturalistic and honest performances this year than what is witnessed in this story told by three different actors at three different stages in a young man’s life.

4.)  The script, by Barry Jenkins, reveals African American masculinity in ways audiences have never seen depicted before.  Insight, such as displayed here, is rare.

5.)  The subject matter is treated with a stunning honesty and forthrightness that is refreshing to experience in an adult-themed film.  No other film this year touches upon the loneliness and yearning we all experience in our lives.

6.)  Nicolas Brittel’s music score never overreaches in scenes, but compliments the emotions on screen.  The choice of current songs (many are spot on) adds realism and a soundtrack to this young man’s life on the Miami streets.

7.)  The achingly beautiful last scene between two lost, but found people is worth the price of admission alone.

8.)  Mentors are needed in any young person’s life and this film beautifully illustrates it from the unlikeliest of people.  Sometimes mentors drop into your life and you glean all you can before they disappear.

9.)  Audiences scream for more original films with all the sequel blockbusters we are saddled with.  “Moonlight” is a film for the ages and there seems to be nothing we can compare it to.  A true original.

10.)  “Moonlight” teaches us the common language of love and acceptance.  Its language is both poetic and street-wise.  One walks away from the film a better person for the experience.  It is an experience worth repeating and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of a truly great film.

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(pictured: writer/director Barry Jenkins [right] and writer Tarrell Alvin McCraney)

“Moonlight” (2016) written and directed by Barry Jenkins from an original play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney.  Cinematography by James Laxton

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Blood Money: Truthful Lies in “A Separation”

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The Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi has been in recent news due to the current United States administration ruling on banning all entries into the country from Iran, along with six other heavily Muslim countries as well.  Farhadi issued a statement expressing his sadness and anger with the situation that he will not be able to even attend the Academy Awards that has nominated his latest film “The Salesman” for best foreign film.  As an artist who strives to convey to audiences the nuances and universal themes his culture has with the world, this must be a very hard pill to swallow.

In 2012, director Farhadi won the Academy Award for his superb drama “A Separation” much to the delight of cinema artists around the world.  Iran, one of the oldest known civilizations still in existence has suffered great political upheaval this past century that has isolated the country unnecessarily.  Misunderstandings about Iran’s religious practices, laws, and sociopolitical parameters  have lead to great ignorance of this culture followed by violence.  It is a credit to its artists that we are able to glimpse inside this isolated land and find people much like you and I yearning for happiness and a better life.

The film presents a couple in the midst of a divorce proceeding, although the husband refuses to consent to.  In Iran, it is still the man who rules over the household and his wife, but we sense that ancient hierarchy is crumbling.  When they separate, an incident with the man’s elderly father (who suffers from dementia) with a housekeeper he hires sets in motion a court case in which all the elements of truth, justice, and society norms are put into play.  It is fascinating to watch the court proceedings in which a judge is the final authority; no lawyers are present.  Only the plaintiffs involved are present to make their case known.  The film presents the male/female relationship rules that govern most marriages in Iran.  There is also the religious rules, such as a woman should never see another man undressed in any manner; even with his shirt off.  Religious teachings still govern much of their human behavior, though this film denotes that even this is fading because of Western influences.  The blood money that is demanded from a couple who lost their child is defined as a monetary amount in compensation for that death.  The blood money in this story hinges upon a hidden truth which unravels before our very eyes in one explosive scene.

There are many reasons to see this film, but above all it is a story of grace, dignity, and how the perception of truth is never reliable.  The drama is engrossing while letting the viewer see the universality of these people.  One of the important things about international cinema can be the ability to empathize and learn about cultures foreign to our senses.  It can certainly lead to a much better understanding of the world around us.  Fear seems to be the consistent enemy when faced with a different culture.  That fear is wiped out when an artist such as Farhadi can helm a story that teaches, as well as entertains.  The ending, without giving anything away, perfectly leaves open to the viewer a singular choice that will determine someone’s happiness.  Without a doubt, the film is powerful in its treatment of the subject matter with performances which are note perfect.

Farhadi’s newest “The Salesman” opens here soon and should be on everyone’s list of must sees.  Not because of the political climate today, but because based on “A Separation”, this is an artist to be excited about and talked about.  Currently, “A Separation” can be streamed on FilmStruck.

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(director Asghar Farhadi 2012)

“A Separation”  written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

The Politics Of Life: Mike Mills and 20th Century Women

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“So sweetie.  I don’t know if we ever figure our lives out, and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted.  They might be just the people who show up.”

“Look, wondering if you’re happy, it’s a great shortcut to just being depressed.”

There are times in life that are rudderless, floating in an ocean of uncertainty and passive confusion.  The day to day existence is all there is when one is searching, or taking a sabbatical from searching.  You love as best you can.  You take care of necessities to make life comfortable, but not necessarily to make it exciting.  There can be an infinite number of reasons a person can get stuck and just float upon that uncertainty.

The writer and director Mike Mills crafts a sort of love letter to the aching existential pain of being a woman in his new film, “20th Century Women”.  Many critics complain of the “rudderless” mentality of the film, which is actually its main strength.  Life is not some grand novel with a beginning, middle, and end clearly displayed.  Life is messy and does not always make sense.  Who are we kidding…it never makes any sense, as director Mills outlines for us in his new film.

“20th Century Women” concerns the story of Dorothea Fields (played with convincing conviction by Annette Bening), a single mother at 55 with a teenage son in 1979 Santa Barbara.  She decides to enlist the help of two other women in showing her son what it is to be a man.  This is not some cliche strewn story of a mother struggling with her child, but an intelligent thought provoking look inside the life of a woman, a real red blooded woman who has had her share of disappointments and made the best possible decisions with the information she had at the time.  There is a tremendous shortage of actual women in cinema that are believably realistic.  Bening, along with two other tremendous actors Elle Fanning and  Greta Gerwig bring such subtle facets to different stages in a woman’s life under Mills’ sensitive direction.  Again, we are not looking at some tear jerker “woman’s picture”, but an honest look at aging, identity crisis, sexual awakening, humor, and what it means to be honest with who you are.  These women have their lives take all sorts of roads which do not necessarily lead anywhere.  That is what some critics complain about.  It is actually refreshing to see a story involve you in small moments, like life, instead of grand gestures.

Mike Mills script is filled with gems (like the two quotes above) and shoots in a naturalistic manner that gives you time to study faces and body language during exchanges between the characters.  Aside from Bening, the excellent Greta Gerwig has expressions that lets you glimpse inside the head of her character, the feminist Abbie.  Elle Fanning plays the broken, but strong woman Julie with a string of men and disappointments behind her.  And let’s not forget the men in this film.  Billy Crudup (always a joy to watch) brings strength and a quiet dignity to his character William.  The young son of Dorothea, Jamie, is played by a strikingly naturalistic Lucas Jade Zumann.  All of these actors mesh so well together that they convey to us as actual living breathing people.

One single flaw (and one that may hurt it) is the wrong headed marketing that indie studio A24 chose to go forward with.  It comes across as some, for lack of a better definition, chick-flick catered to female audiences only.  The poster and the trailer are evidence.  The film, the actual product itself, is like reading an intimate and very involving novella (with all the characters themselves lovingly narrating certain aspects in the story at different points) filled with life and energy befitting for both intelligent male/female viewers.  There is a lot to discuss about this film after seeing it for both sexes.  Independent films that have no specific target are often the hardest to market.  “20th Century Women” deserves good word of mouth and a wide audience.

Director Mike Mills has a unique talent; the knack for creating believable worlds (1979 details are spot on) and realistic characters who sound like us, not some pontificating super hero.  See this with an audience and let the film wash over you with its centered attention to the complicated politics of what makes us human.

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(director Mike Mills behind the scenes with Annette Bening)

“20th Century Women” (2016) written and directed by Mike Mills

The Lonely Reality Of Bob Hoskins

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English actor, Bob Hoskins, died back in 2014 and his presence on screen is still sorely missed.  It was the boiling anger simmering underneath an exterior of a “man’s man” complete with a fatal romantic streak which gave Hoskins his likability even under explosions of violence.

The nineteen eighties were the pinnacle of Bob Hoskins’ acting career, giving him some of the best roles that clearly displayed his brilliant craft; “The Long Good Friday”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, and probably his most touching and achingly heartfelt performance as George in Neil Jordan’s “Mona Lisa” (released in 1986).

“Mona Lisa” is a story of an ex-con recently released from prison trying to ingratiate himself back into society by taking a job from a former boss; a job that will involve him in a dark underbelly of London’s prostitution ring and a second chance at love.  The woman, that casts a spell on George, hides a mysterious secret much like the Mona Lisa painting as the song standard is heard throughout by Nat King Cole.  The film is full of surprises and still holds up very well today.

What makes Hoskins’ performance special in this film can be found in the layers he peels off as the story unfolds.  His behavior, at first, seems brutish and cheap.  He loses his temper quickly, but soon reprimands himself.  He wants to be better and he wants to be respected.  He also wants to be loved, as we soon discover.  There is none quite like Hoskins that can go from sudden violence to tearful loss and regret in a single scene.  He inhabits the lonely existence of George, who’s only aim in life is to be happy again.  He wishes to be happy with himself and to be happy with someone in his life.  For proof of Hoskins unique ability, just watch his face and eyes closely when George discovers the woman’s hidden secret.  The world crumbles in his eyes and it just breaks the viewers heart to witness it.

Bob Hoskins was the antithesis of a movie star with his short gruff stature, cockney accent, and average tough looks.  What lies beneath this facade was a brilliant actor who made you feel and root for him.  As George, he could show you the loneliness with simple asides such as stopping at a park bench to gaze at a sunrise.  “Mona Lisa” is a wonderfully drawn character study masquerading as a tidy little thriller.  It cemented Hoskins’ star quality right after his dazzling explosive performance in “The Long Good Friday”.  Depicting loneliness is a hard nut to crack in cinema because of the danger of straying into cliche ridden territories.  “Mona Lisa” does not give its heart easily.   Nor does it pander to the romanticism of tough guy with a heart of gold.  These seem like real people with real complicated emotions and it is a credit to the filmmakers that followed this path.

“She had faith in him. She believed in him. And he had a lot of hopes for her. And there was love. Yeah. She was in love alright. She really was. But not with him.”

Mona Lisa (1986) directed by Neil Jordan, written by Neil Jordan and David Leland.

Why Does Ingmar Bergman Still Matter?

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“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
― Ingmar Bergman

When I talk about Bergman films to my friends, it is usually followed by statements ranging from his films are too depressing, Scandinavian, theatrical, talky with no humor, or no sign of the joy of life.  Quite the contrary, Bergman’s films are filled with that life substance that affects us all.  Plus, he has quite the sense of humor, perhaps a bit on the risque side.  Sex and death has obsessed Bergman throughout most of his career.  His writing has a raw, sometimes sensual poetry to it and his camera eye details all the information a viewer needs, if one only looks a little deeper.

Bergman became my number one choice recently, alongside the American cinema master Stanley Kubrick, in the last ten years due to my current station in life.  I learned to appreciate the subtle teachings about family, love, relationships, existential crisis, and, of course, the ever present specter of death.  Throughout these proceedings that Bergman unleashed on the screen, are sprinkles of humor to levy that heavy experience known as life.

Perhaps his most famous film, “The Seventh Seal”, captures all the elements I mentioned above, but is also his most humorous.  We have all seen a still from the famous scene of the Knight, exhausted morally and spiritually from the Crusades, playing chess with Death himself.  It has since been much copied and parodied since the film won a special jury prize at Cannes in 1957.  This, plus his merry whimsical comedy “Smiles Of A Summer Night”catapulted him to the forefront of cinema stardom.

“The Seventh Seal” is a film I return to many times for reasons I am not sure I can put into simple words.  Bergman creates a world, the Middle Ages to be exact, that is realistic and fantastical.  Where else are you going to see Death smiling at his latest catch because it amuses him to play a lively game of chess.  We all know you simply cannot cheat death, but we witness a very good try.  The plague is sweeping across the lands, always looming over the shoulders of his characters, giving chase and momentum to the proceedings.  A favorite character of mine is the silver tongued squire of the Knight.  It is through him we sense the futility of the Crusades, the lust, the common sense, and the ribald humor of what he sees around him.  Bergman gives him a voice for all of us.

Does Bergman still matter to us anymore?  His films are not well known by the average movie-goer and his stature has lowered with the advent of so many talented film directors around the world.  However, if you read interviews with most of these directors working today, Bergman’s name comes up again and again.  His quiet influence is still felt and his films are looked upon as some sort of Mount Everest to attain to.  I envy anyone that can experience one of his films for the very first time.  The feeling of an artist totally in their element and a confidence in images/sound that sweeps aside most other important films.  Life is not easy.  Life can test one’s very soul at times.  Bergman was able to transcend mere cinema gimmicks and invent a style that has still not tarnished.  I talk about him when someone asks me what my favorite films are.  Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” is up there because of two things; the subjects it talks about still resonate today and the rich characters have become almost like old friends of mine that I love visiting from time to time.

In this world we live in today, we need our artists more than ever.  Ingmar Bergman speaks for the individual and for all of mankind.  A lofty statement indeed, but once you actually sit down and view one of his films, it is easy to understand why Ingmar Bergman still matters.

(image above Ingmar Bergman on set of “The Seventh Seal” 1956)

suggested viewing:

“The Seventh Seal”

“Fanny & Alexander”

“Winter Light”

“Persona”

“Wild Strawberries”

“The Magician”

Fear Eats The Soul

aliAlone
On a Saturday night
My half filled wine glass
Catches the light
From a long ago film
Fassbinder’s greatest and most tender
She is past her prime
Yet has so much to give
I see myself in her, strangely enough
Yearning, lonely, fearful
Seemingly doomed to drift
In a sea absent of visible shorelines
Raining outside
She takes shelter within the darkness
A stranger walks slowly towards her
The fearful energy buzzing about her
Yet he is confident and kind
A dance you say?
Two souls
From opposite worlds
A true connection forms
Real love emerges
Like some slowly awakening dog
The dance crystallizes a moment
I don’t care what you have done
It does not matter who you have been with
But when we’re together
We must be nice to each other
Otherwise
Life’s not worth living
For love to last
Connections to bind
Ever tighter, stronger
We forgive the past
For the present
Beckons a simple action
In darkness we despair
Coiled tightly in writhing pain
Memories can be beautiful
And yet tear us apart
Just what is
That simple action?
Fassbinder knew
With just that simple dance
In all of our darkness
Our pain, our loneliness, our fear
Live in the present
And love unconditionally

(image from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul”)