Written and directed with poignancy and grace, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (A) is urgent in telling a three-chapter coming of age story of a young African-American man named Chiron and how his experiences growing up in America (largely in a surreal pastel drenched Miami) shape his identity. Rather than tackle only the physical violence associated with most inner-city dramas, the perceptive Jenkins traverses the emotional landscapes of self-worth, racial identity and sexuality and how Chiron learns to find traces of comfort in his own skin. The writer/director has fashioned a very dynamic narrative around a shy and withdrawn protagonist; as embodied by three supremely talented actors – Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen) and Trevante Rhodes (young man), viewers will ache for him to come to answers. Naomie Harris is devastating as Chiron’s emotionally abusive addict mother, and Mahershala Ali is magnificent as a drug dealer who takes on a role as a near-spiritual guide. The film explores the games people play with each other and with themselves in their quest for acceptance. The clues aren’t easy to discover as the film employs an overall tone of heartache punctuated with bursts of uplift, but the journey is consistently gripping. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is splendid and assured cinema with an austere and stunning score by Nicholas Britell and a dreamlike color palette created by cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel (first chapter emulates Fuji film stock to emphasize skin tones followed by Afga film stock adding cyan and the final chapter in Kodak form). This is a must-see for cinephiles and is moving indeed as it pinpoints exactly why this black life matters, expanding consciousness and empathy, and how the people who come into our lives shape our evolving selves.
Somewhere on the cinematic patriarchs continuum between Captain von Trapp and the Great Santini, Viggo Mortensen gives a sensitive, soulful and indelible portrayal of a flawed but well-meaning dad in Matt Ross’ incredibly engaging Captain Fantastic (A-). Mortensen is the draw here, summoning a rugged loner charisma that at this point can just be called “Mortensenesque” as a man raising his six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with unconventional techniques to teach them self-sufficiency, critical thinking, peak physical performance and a global worldview. His headstrong homeschooling, an ongoing ropes course and debate society in the woods, wins him no favor with his in-laws (well played by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) but makes him a hero in the eyes of his neo-hippie children, all beautifully played. George MacKay is an earnest delight as the oldest of the offspring, incredibly moving as he experiences a date for the first time after being shrouded in the wilderness. Ross makes an assured directorial and writing debut, showcasing the central family’s confrontations with society in a way that keeps you guessing of whether or not it will all work out. There was a melancholy moment I thought would be a pensive ending, but I liked the extended epilogue – including an unforgettable family jam session – even more. The film is a cult sensation challenging American mores in the tradition of Easy Rider and Into the Wild and highly recommended.
David Mackenzie crafts his neo-Western Hell or High Water (A) with such methodical pace that he disguises how urgent a work it is for modern times. Yes, on the surface it’s a heist thriller about sworn “Comanches,” or enemies: a pair of bank robbers versus a duo of rangers facing off on stark Texas terrain. But a deeper viewing of the film finds a dramatic, elegiac tale about brothers surviving a cycle of poverty and abuse, about lawmen making a last stand to protect a land and a way of life and about a community coping in the shadow of institutional greed. There’s a sense everyone is playing their assigned role in a Western, down to the cowboys and Indians, but the pop psychology behind the characters is very much grounded in America after the devastation of recession, payday loans and foreclosures. Everyone is wounded in this unconventional oater that eschews constant shoot-em-up in lieu of rich character development. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are superb as the sibling protagonists, with Pine delivering the best work of his career to date as a man conflicted between duty to family and revenge against the bank that wrecked havoc on his homestead. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, playing a character of Native American and Hispanic descent, are also wonderful as the rangers. Bridges can add his colorful role to a series of late-career triumphs. It’s telling that the bank is ostensibly the real enemy in the film, but it is populated by low-level bureaucrats who seem unaware or indifferent to their effect on Main Street USA. Giles Nuttgens’ lived-in outdoor cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ plaintive score bring additional gravitas to the proceedings. There’s action too, but this movie is best in the quiet reflective moments that speak volumes about pockets of the country left behind in the march toward progress.
It’s an inspired idea indeed to have celebrated actress Meryl Streep perform in a most meta Emperor’s New Clothes style homage as an infamous no-talent. But as the titular character, a songstress oblivious of her pronounced vocal limitations, in Stephen Frears’s 1944-set biopic Florence Foster Jenkins (B), Streep’s seriocomic riffs are often on the mark even while the notes are all over the map. It is clear Frears finds his mercurial Manhattanite subject endlessly fascinating; and like Ed Wood, Bullets Over Broadway, Grey Gardens or The Producers, he finds fits of dry wit amidst the Schadenfreude. Hugh Grant as Florence’s conflicted husband is serviceable and occasionally sentimental, despite the actor’s limited range. Simon Helberg is a bit of a misfire as the songbird’s pianist, registering on the nebbish scale somewhere between Alan Cumming and Jason Schwartzman but with little of the charm. Nina Arianda is funny as a gangster moll type but is given strange motivations during a critical sequence. At the film’s heart is Streep herself, demonstrating with droll doses of heart and high-note heinousness that throwing yourself into an artistic passion with gusto, even when all the pieces aren’t altogether effective, can still be somewhat satisfying.
An absurdist sci-fi fantasy, a cunning comedy and a metaphorical meditation on the oddities of being a single person on the planet earth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (B) is a beguiling think piece that both advances the contention that Colin Farrell has become one of film’s great comic actors (a great companion piece to In Bruges) and the notion that a puzzle of a movie can still be a jigsaw short of its razor-sharp intentions. Farrell plays a sad-sack single who checks in to a rigorous retreat center where guests either pair up with a companion based on a very superficial physical trait or permanently transform into an animal. This droll, deadpan fable is largely able. Alas the episodic structure doesn’t provide much of a compass to guide viewers to where this is all heading (nor does the ending); but like Her, Gattaca or Dogville, it follows some intriguing internal logic. The dark comedy largely delivers; and even with some final act problems, it is a remarkable production that will stimulate discussion. Farrell’s fussy scruffiness, the craziness of his road to wellville and some fierce supporting characters (Ariane Labed as a hotel maid, Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly as fellow guests at the recovery residence, Léa Seydoux as a freedom fighter and Rachel Weisz as a mystery woman) buoy this indie original.
Wielding a war arsenal ranging from zingers to Zambonis, comfortable going commando for confrontations and partial to the musical stylings of Wham! to set the mood, the titular hero of Tim Miller’s Deadpool (A-) leapfrogs most recent films in the comic book genre in terms of both action and comedy in a single bound. Ryan Reynolds offers a career re-defining role breathing fleet-footed life into a wry, wisecracking mercenary that leaves Han Solo, Iron Man and Wolverine in the collective dust. His vulgar and animated antics are sensational. Morena Baccarin gives him a run for his money as his idiosyncratic lady love, and Ed Skrein is fantastic as the diabolical villain. The protagonist’s deal with the devil when facing a terminal cancer diagnosis sets the stage for a very different pathway into motivations ranging from romance to revenge that give the proceedings amped-up resonance. From the self-referential opening credits to musical montages that are note-perfect (you won’t soon forget the “Calendar Girl” sequence), Miller and the crackling writing team fashion a hipster antihero who is brash and brilliant. It’s a dark, profane, bloody and bonkers great time at the movies.
Note about Deadpool in theatres:
Whether it’s a high speed car chase or shoot-out, Dolby Atmos® puts the movie audience in the center of the action. Dolby Cinemas are only available in select markets, but they are the best places to see, feel and hear a truly immersive experience. Here is a link to all available Dolby Cinemas: https://www.amctheatres.com/amc-prime. For our Atlanta readers, the closest Dolby Cinemas location is AMC Prime North Point Mall 12 – Alpharetta, Georgia.
Expanding on a grand tradition of animated animal allegories ranging from Animal Farm to Watership Down to Fritz the Cat, Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Zootopia (B) depicts the unlikely collaboration between a rabbit police officer voiced by Gennifer Goodwin and a red fox con artist played by Jason Bateman to uncover a conspiracy that involves missing predator civilians in an urban melting pot menagerie. This sprawl of the wild is chock full of colorful contours and lively landscapes with the atmosphere alluded to in the title providing home to a fable reflecting mature viewpoints on race and law enforcement. With additional voice talents such as Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons, it’s all pretty cunning and complex for a cartoon, evoking the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as a new brand of colorful, kaleidoscopic film noir. Alas several subplots are labored, and the mix of zaniness and gravitas causes zigzags in tone. Overall it’s great fun in the Disney tradition with a charming central duo and a few morals wedged into the mayhem.