Why You Should See ‘Moonlight’

Not many films examine masculinity at all, let alone as well as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight does. Combine that with a film that examines sexuality, race, and poverty in ways we rarely see and you have something truly exceptional. But Moonlight goes a step further and is universal in its ability to connect.

Moonlight is incredible. The direction, writing, cinematography are all flawless. If you haven’t seen it, you should. The film is set in three acts, with three different actors playing the same character at different points in his life. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead).

i. Little

The start of Moonlight opens with Boris Gardiner’s “Every N****r Is a Star” (a reference to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly – a masterpiece that examines mental health, addiction, race and society, amongst many other things) and an introduction to Juan (Mahershala Ali). You could write entirely about the incredible music used in the film, from the soundtrack picks to the subliminal score by Nicholas Britell (soundtrack on Spotify here). Here Alex R. Hibbert plays “Little” in the first of the three acts of the film (although it is obvious throughout the movie that it was adapted from a play, it does not have the problem that Fences has in transforming into its new medium). We watch as Little’s mother slips further in to drug addiction and he meets and connects with Juan, someone who sees a truly isolated child and offers them a connection. In the last scene before moving on we seen Juan and Little, and Little asks Juan if he deals drugs and if his mum does drugs. This, coupled with a previous scene where Juan confronts Little’s mum Paula (the incredible Naomie Harris), was a highlight for me from the first act.

ii. Chiron

In the second act Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is awkward and sad; the setting of someone being bullied in an American high school is familiar and featured in many narratives. The betrayal Chiron experiences in this act (this is semi-autobiographical up until the end of this act, check out this interview with  playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney here) is gut wrenching and leads Chiron to take control of his life, in a destructive way.

iii. Black

Black (Trevante Rhodes) is Chiron fully grown and emulating Juan in everything from the crown on his dash, to the grills, to to his body language. He is also a man who has obviously built himself, physically and mentally, for survival. In many ways the third act’s most striking feature is the facade that Black has created for himself; the use of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” is a give away, a song about a man with old-fashioned values and beliefs and the stereotype of masculinity and of an OG. I don’t want to say to much about the ending of the film, it is fantastic and you should go see the movie immediately if you haven’t already.

Why Moonlight is universal.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about whether people can connect to this film. Camilla Long is one of the few critics not enthralled by Moonlight. She gave it a mixed review, and said the audience would be unable to relate to it because they would be mostly “straight, white, middle class”. There are lots of things you could pick out of her review, like the fact she wasn’t sure who was playing the protagonist in the three parts, that would make you wonder why she hasn’t connected to the film. I’m amazed that something in Moonlight didn’t manage to reach her and move her in the way it appears to have done to almost everyone else, but I personally think she is certainly wrong about any demographic of an audience being unable to relate to it.

That’s because you don’t have to be black, gay, American, even male to understand this. People have called it a coming-of-age drama, but it is about something more universal even than growing up: it is about connecting to another human being. Something so simple and integral to being alive that most people couldn’t imagine not having it. By showing us this essential part of being human from the perspective of someone so isolated, who is denied this connection by the person most responsible for providing it to him, it feels truly universal, allows anyone to connect to the character. From my perspective this is the part that connects to me the most. If I was black, gay, or male there may be another part of the film that speaks to me more or in a different way, as it has to many others.

But, what is incredible is that it doesn’t matter, because the film is so powerful and perfectly realised it will reach everyone. For me Moonlight is more about loneliness and the human condition seen through a lens of homosexuality, race and poverty than it is about specifically about those things. It is amazing to see a film with the diversity of Moonlight doing so well, both critically and commercially, but it’s true success is it’s ability to reach anyone who takes the time to watch it.

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The Myth Of The Miracle And Hollywood – ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ And Religion

Like many others I’m sure, I was hesitant to watch Mel Gibson’s new film Hacksaw Ridge. I’d seen the trailer and it looked like a fairly ridiculous (you know the bit I mean – kicking and slapping away grenades) and standard war film. But the critics were pretty consistent; it’s not a masterpiece, but it is definitely worth your time. So I gave it a go and I really enjoyed it – up until the last twenty minutes or so.

I was hesitant because Mel Gibson is pretty strange. Not because of all the crazy personal stuff (although that is extremely strange and won’t be mentioned here), but because of the movies he makes: Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Apocalypto, and now Hacksaw Ridge (full disclosure: I have not seen The Man Without a Face, so I have not mentioned it here). Bear with me. (Spoilers for Hacksaw Ridge ahead).

Personally I often find war films problematic. Partly because so often they seem ubiquitous, and partly because they don’t always seem to adequately deal with their subject matter. Full Metal Jacket on the one hand is a good example of a war film that shows the horrors of war (with a fair amount of humour), whereas something like Fury for me was much more like a glorification of war, violence, and shows the armed forces as a boy’s club. Saving Private Ryan gets a pretty perfect balance. Braveheart is overly long and occasionally self-indulgent, but pretty well balanced. It’s fairly liberal with the truth and, although primarily a war film, does feature religion and Gibson’s standard saviour protagonist.

Religious films are also problematic. Balanced religious films are much less common than balanced war films. You tend to get mainstream films that are critical of religion (Spotlight, The Magdalene Sisters, Sausage Party, Doubt) and then on the opposite of that religious films that are made with a religious agenda. I tried to watch one of these once, A Matter of Faith, but had to turn it off when the father got to his daughter’s university to debate her lecturer on this existence of evolution (this really was the plot). More balanced films that aren’t particularly criticising or promoting tend to be the more historical: Aronofsky’s excellent, and underrated, Noah and The Last Temptation of Christ. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ probably fits well into the last category.

I enjoyed The Passion of the Christ and it seemed to be fairly focused on portraying a realistic telling of Christ’s last days. There was a lot of criticism at the time that it was very Catholic centric (and Gibson was accused at the time of anti-semitism because of the film). This would at first appear to be Gibson’s most religious film. But, by being a fairly simple (if, perhaps, biased) historical film that happens to be about religion, The Passion of the Christ is not necessarily overwhelmingly religious.

Gibson’s Apocalypto is genius and unprecedented. If perhaps you had been too distracted by the content of his previous films to see what a great film maker he can be, then Apocalypto should convince you. Which, unfortunately, does not mean it is not flawed. Whilst perhaps not particularly historically accurate and potentially pro-colonisation, depending on how you read it, the integrity of the film making and the sheer thrill of chase film set in a jungle makes these problems – if not forgivable – then forgettable.

So, Hacksaw Ridge is a return to both war and religion for Gibson, and a surprisingly good one. The trailer made the concept and the story itself look weak, but throughout the film the dawning that these are real(ish) events has quite an impact – it feels inspirational that someone could save so many people and be involved in war whilst standing by the beliefs and not partaking in the violence.

Richard Brody from the New Yorker took issue with the violence in the film, calling it pornographic. He’s definitely not wrong, the amount of violence and they way that it is filmed seems completely at odds with the message of non-violence from the protagonist. But for me the real issue with the way in which the film forced the religious message.

But unlike other films about religion I’ve mentioned, Spotlight and Doubt for instance, which are ideologically anti-religion do not let their persuasion get in the way of the story telling. The story itself is what leads you to the ideology, if you choose to see it, rather than needing to hammer in the ideology as Gibson does in Hacksaw Ridge.

There are two points that I felt really stuck out as guilty of this: when Doss sends someone back for his bible, and the shot at the very end of Doss on a stretcher. As if Doss would want someone to murder people and risk their life just to retrieve his bible and the final shot when he is being transferred on a stretcher at the end, floating in the sky and the camera moves as if he is ascending to the clouds was too much for me.

In the last 20 minutes the film stops being about a man who happens to be religious, doing a great thing, and instead hands the credit for the actions of the man to his religion and God. The pushing of the religious message, coupled with the amount of violence and the way it is shown, appears completely at odds with what Doss achieved as a conscientious objector. Whenever a film is made that tries to force a message rather than tell a story, the story suffers. Hacksaw Ridge is certainly watchable, and the story of Desmond Doss is truly incredible, but Gibson makes his best films when he leaves the preaching alone.

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Nocturnal Animals: Why Tom Ford’s Latest Thriller Is Not The Glorification of Violence That Some Suggest

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is much more complex than suggested by some.

Unlike many people, I loved Tom Ford’s first film A Single Man. I thought it was profound and interesting and beautifully shot. A lot of people would probably only agree with the last point. So, I was more excited than most for the arrival of Ford’s second film Nocturnal Animals, even though the trailer looked a million miles away from 2009’s A Single Man.

I personally thought Nocturnal Animals was excellent. The performances were great. The cinematography, direction, and art direction were all fantastic. The tenacity with which the story within a story was told somehow made the concept seem fresh. And that scene in the middle was horrendously gut wrenching. I – like I’m sure many others – sat with bated breath and white knuckles counting down the seconds until it was over.

(Spoilers ahead)

A quick synopsis if you need it:

There are basically three parts to the film: the present, the past, and the novel. In the present Amy Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner with a crappy marriage to a cheating businessman husband. Susan receives a manuscript from Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband, entitled “Nocturnal Animals”. As Susan begins to read the transcript we’re taken into the novel, where Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife (played by Isla Fisher, and as always Fisher and Adams look very similar) when they run into a group of men, who run them off the road, kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter, and then rape and murder them. The rest of the novel is taken up by Tony’s search for revenge (with the help of Michael Shannon as Detective Bobby Andes). Back in the real world we are shown Edward and Susan’s past marriage in flashbacks, which ended with Susan leaving Edward for her current husband and aborting their baby without his knowledge. The film ends with Edward standing Susan up for their catch up in a restaurant.

That scene

You know the part I’m talking about. Everyone who’s seen the film, and probably a fair few that haven’t, know the scene that I’m talking about. That part of the story, and in particular that scene, is harrowing and feels deeply violent.

To recap: Tony is going on holiday to West Texas with his wife and daughter. They have what at first seems like a road rage incident, but quickly turns sour. Tony tries to keep everything under control when three men appear and start acting strange and threatening towards the family, helping to fix a flat tyre they no doubt created. Eventually his wife and daughter are in the car alone, at which point they are abducted. Tony is forced to follow in the other car. He manages to escape and finds their dead bodies the next day with the help of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

Part of what I liked about this scene, other than the fantastic way Ford builds tension so subtly, was the way in which Tony acts. He seems to be not trying to start a fight and remain hopeful that the group of men don’t mean them harm. His wife and daughter, on the other hand, appear to know what’s up straight away – something that I felt rang particularly true as a female viewer.

This part of the story is the book written by Susan’s (Amy Adams) ex-husband Edward, and plays out like a revenge fantasy. Susan aborted a child that was hers and Edward’s without consulting him, after she had left him for another man.

Accusation of violence for violence’s sake

Victoria Coren Mitchell recently wrote an article where she accuses the movie of vapidness, being akin to pornography, “gynophobic death-porn” and arguing that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never got such accolades.

Scrolling through the comments it become quite obvious that most of the people commenting on the article have not seen the film, and are now unlikely to do so. Accusations of graphic rape scenes that are always unnecessary are thrown around, talk of men making graphic (and pornographic) films that are about women as hapless, but visually attractive victims.

What Coren Mitchell, and many of the commenters, seem to miss is that, terrifying as the movie is in parts, it’s easy to forget that there is almost no violence actually shown in the film. Most of the violence happens off camera (one of the exceptions is Tony visualising what happened to his wife while it is described to him – where we shakily see Isla Fishers face screaming). But they would not know this without seeing the movie.

Coren Mitchell’s argument that women are raped and murdered in the real world and therefore shouldn’t be glorified on screen is fair enough when it truly is glorification, but this is not accurate for Nocturnal Animals. The reactions to the “violence” with Nocturnal Animals seems to broadly swipe at anything violent within film. I understand some people do not like violence at all, and avoid violent films, but to say that is unnecessary would limit us greatly.

Nocturnal Animals doesn’t glorify violence against women, and to suggest it does is to deeply misunderstand it. It explores something much more complex and nuanced: the mundane violences we visit on each other in relationships and how that is dealt with. The violence (if there is violence) is in Edward’s writing of the scene in the novel, not within the scene itself.

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Exploring The Elements Of Metamodernism In ‘La La Land’

(WARNING: This post contains mild spoilers for La La Land)

In the middle of January, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land opened in cinemas in the UK, and like many other eager beavers, I went straight to see it. After thoroughly enjoying Chazelle’s 2014 debut Whiplash — an almost-thriller centered entirely around jazz drumming — and the critical buzz that was building around La La Land, the usual skepticism I would feel on hearing the word “musical” was quashed. I left the cinema feeling like I’d seen something fresh and different, something that paradoxically seemed simultaneously uplifting and dispiriting.

What struck me most while watching the film was that paradoxical feeling and the parts of the story that made me feel each way. It’s almost as if it was trying to be the perfect Hollywood romance while knowing that that could never exist.

Postmodernism And Metamodernism

Metamodernism is the name for the movement that has possibly come after postmodernism. Postmodernism is characterized by irony, self-referentiality, and cynicism. Perfect examples are shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with the gang’s never-ending narcissistic exploits without any feeling or sincerity (e.g. the insistent of not dealing with Frank being Charlie’s father), and movies like American Psycho, a film that destroys grand concepts like truth using black humor but ending in nihilism. Nothing learned and nothing sincere.

Examples Of Metamodernism

Examples of metamodernism are everywhere in current pop culture: Louie, Parksand Recreation, Bojack Horseman, Easy, The Lego Movie, the list goes on. Rick and Morty is a great example. You would almost certainly assume at first glance that it is a fairly postmodernist show, full of cynicism and many of the stylistic factors we’ve come to know from postmodernism. However, the sincerity (and therefore the feels) develop quickly in a way that a postmodern show — for instance, Arrested Development — would never accomplish.

Metamodernism In ‘La La Land’

La La Land is a perfect example of the feeling of metamodernism. It finely dances (tap-dances) the line between cheesy and genius, either side of that line is the sincerity and cynicism (and the oscillation between the two) that defines metamodernism. It wants to have the naivety and sincerity of the earlier time it idolizes, but the lessons are learned. It has optimism but with the knowledge of postmodernism. It also features many of the typical aspects of postmodernism: genre-mixing, referencing other movies, self awareness, and the destruction of meta-narratives.

A good example of metamodernism is fairly near the beginning of the movie. We have had the two main characters’ days shown to us from their own perspectives leading to the scene where Stone’s character hears Gosling’s character playing the piano from outside a bar. Cue the most perfect meeting you ever did see. However, as she begins to gush to him about his piano playing he shoulder barges her and walks out. Flawless.

Even the struggle both the characters go through in relation to their idealistic dreams of what they want to do and the realistic challenges of everyday life can be seen through the same lens. They are constantly caught between these challenges, and in the end when Mia leaves for Paris the story opts for something between optimism and realism.

The ending is bittersweet. They’re both successful and Mia is happily married with a child. She’s back in LA and heading out for dinner with her husband when she’s pulled into a bar by the sound of jazz, just like when she first met Sebastian. Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has stumbled in to his. Seb then plays the song that drew here into that first bar and we get a devastating dream sequence of their relationship working perfectly, à la 25th Hour. Before she leaves they smile at each other.

In the end La La Land shows that just because we don’t have the perfect happy ending, it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. We’re not naive, but we’re still optimistic.

I don’t actually really know anything about Metamodernism, but these guys do:

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‘Arrival’ and the integration of complex theoretical ideas in successful Hollywood films

If you haven’t yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s latest outing, Arrival, I recommend you go see it now (or read on at your peril). If you’ve seen the movie, or read any of the reviews online, you will probably be aware of its almost universal acclaim. Slower than many blockbusters, it nonetheless manages to retain interest and tease the surprising developments satisfyingly throughout.

What the movie does best is beautifully explain and present the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic relativity. Knowing nothing of this hypothesis beforehand, I left the cinema feeling as though I had a grasp on what it meant (I probably don’t, but hey!).

In case you haven’t seen the film and you’re the only person in the world that doesn’t mind spoilers: the movie opens with Amy Adam’s character, Louise, and her daughter doing mother-daughter things, leading in to scene where her daughter dies in a hospital bed, breaking your heart in an opening sequence, à la Up. As the movie then moves in to the main story of the ships arriving we see Louise, looking sad and without a wedding ring, getting called in to translate the aliens’ language with her mad linguist skills.

So in the end it turns out the lovely aliens (looking like the giant creature from Enemy) have come to give you humanity a gift, isn’t that nice of them. The gift is their language. This is when the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes into it: language determines cognition. Louise becomes immersed in the Heptapod language, which then effects how her brain works giving her the gift of experiencing time in the same way as the Heptapods. Then we find out that she hasn’t been remembering her lost child, but seeing her future child.

This is all pretty incredible and emotional. It reminded me of Nolan’s Interstellar in many ways, not least because of the shared themes of love, family, and time used to devastating effect. But also the way the narrative of Arrival conveys the meaning on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a similar way to Interstellar‘s dramatisation of the theory of relativity (another thing I barely understand).

It’s refreshing to realise that Hollywood is not afraid to put huge budgets into intelligent movies. Whilst we are still getting a constant stream of comic book and franchise hits, it’s comforting to know that people are making big budget movies combining  such complex ideas with such compelling narratives.

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‘A Force Awakens’ and Rey’s power

I recently had a conversation, spurred by watching Rogue One, of where the latest additions to the Star Wars franchise come in rankings of all the Star Wars films. The agreement was they both sat fairly high, but the discussion turned to Rey, A Force Awaken‘s protagonist. What was suggested was that Rey’s quick harnessing of her power was a cop out and that she shouldn’t have be able to so easily defeat the powerful, and trained, Kylo Ren. Possibly a bit of a dues ex machina.

The argument was that Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader etc all had to train to be able to utilise the force. Shame two thirds of those guys are evil.

My, no doubt ill-conceived, argument (which was definitely inspired by serious philosophers and not G&Ts) was that the prowess of Kylo Ren’s character was partly because of his conditions. His mother was a general, his father a charismatic and aloof criminal, and his grandfather an all powerful Sith empire guy. Also a man. And also not very happy about his life and conditions, and appears to have gone through a teenage rebellion that’s gotten a bit out of hand.

Whereas Rey has been fending for herself, abandoned by her family, and salvaging scrap from spaceships to get that yummy looking black gloop stuff. She doesn’t appear to have had much time to hone her Jedi skills, or even realise they exist. She is also a woman. Which perhaps is, or is not relevant.

One has come from a background where they could develop their skills and one has not, because they had to focus simply on surviving.

As much as I told myself I would never seriously discuss Star Wars, I’ve now done it. Yay for me.

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Halt and Catch Fire and the slow burn

Halt and Catch Fire is currently my favourite thing on TV (well, internet). Yes, I know Game of Thrones is amazing, there’s tits and dragons, Westworld is great (tits and horses), I will definitely watch Mr. Robot at some point, and The Walking Dead is still enjoyable I guess, sometimes, if you’ve got nothing better to do…

But, Halt and Catch Fire isn’t particularly like any of those shows. Set around tech in the 80’s it’s closer to AMC’s hit Mad Men than most of the most popular shows of today. Like Halt and Catch FireMad Men was a costume drama set within a particular industry and within a particular time period. Like Mad Men, Halt builds very slowly, focussing on character development and dialogue, no decapitations, nudity, or dragons. Boring, right?

But unlike Mad MenHalt is not a hit. Having just finished its third season, numbers have actually fallen. Hovering at about 300,000 for the third season, which is pretty low. Other slow dramas may start off with low ratings, but generally slowly build over time as they gain more views, like Mad Men or Breaking Bad (another incredibly slow show, not that you’d know it for the phenomenon it became).

Amazingly however it has survived, and even been renewed. You could speculate the reasons for this, AMC may have more than enough money that they’re happy to support something without the high ratings usually required for renewal. The third season has been critically applauded, I’ve see several articles knocking around that suggest people should binge it immediately.

I was always amazed Mad Men did as well as it did, excellent although it was, simply because of the speed it moved. If you think about Game of Thrones as well you make think it incredible that it’s the international obsession it is considering how slow the first couple of episodes are.

For whatever reason, Halt hasn’t captured the hearts of swathes of viewers like other slow moving dramas have managed to before it. I still think the four main characters, their relationships with each other, and their development over the three seasons is the best thing on TV.

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