MOONLIGHT

by Alan Yudman

MOONLIGHT is something of a biopic. It examines the life of a boy who has grown up in Miami. Chiron is poor, his mother is a crack addict. When we first meet him he is about 10 or so. He is so small, other kids call him “Little”. He mostly has to fend for himself, yet when he doesn’t come home at night mother is angry with him. In the next stage of his life we see Chiron in high school, probably a sophomore or junior. He is still small, rail thin. He continues to be picked on by the other boys, but he has one friend, Kevin. And he is exploring his identity as a young gay man. Then in the final third, we see Chiron as a young man. He is not small anymore, he is buff, fit and he is pimping and fronting.

Chiron’s story is most likely one of a hundred or a thousand young black men across the country. Single parent home, bullied and ignored. His only role model as a child is a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan advises him, teaches him what he needs to know to be a man. Chiron is also unsure about his sexuality, but Juan tells him he has time to figure that out.

In his high school years, Chiron is more sure of himself, takes less shit. But he is still a target for bullies. His mother (Naomie Harris) is farther down the rabbit hole of crack addiction and alternately bullies her son and loves him. Chiron is still “taken care of” by Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). It is really the only love he gets. He explores his homosexuality with his friend Kevin, but Kevin turns on him. That leads to a beating, and Chiron has had enough and lashes out in the only way he knows.. by hitting his abuser with a chair.

That leads us to the final part of the film, where Chiron is a pimp (sorry if I got that wrong, it’s not entirely clear what illegal activity he is engaged in) in Atlanta. Doing time in juvenile hall has taught him to be harder, tougher.. to be “Black”. But when his old friend Kevin calls him one night you can see he is still the sensitive child he was. He longs for Kevin and drives to Miami to see him.

This little film gives the viewer insight into how it must be for a young black man who is also gay. It is a brutal existence that is mostly unforgiving. But Chiron never loses his heart or his innocence. The story is wonderful, but the acting is everything here. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris give Academy Award worth performances. They both care for Chiron in their own ways. The performances are moving and powerful. The actors who portray Chiron throughout the years are also wonderful. Alex R. Hibbert is “Little”, Ashton Sanders is “Chiron” and Trevante Rhodes is “Black”. The are all outstanding but Sanders and Rhodes are stellar as the tormented “Chiron” and the hard, yet still sensitive “Black”.

The score is fantastic (I am listening to it as I write this). It is subtle and moving and adds tension or kindness at the absolutely right places.

Barry Jenkins adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s largely autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” and did a wonderful job with it. Jenkins direction is perfect in tone and execution. He frames the scenes perfectly to exude the right feeling at the right time. It is masterful.

MOONLIGHT is a great film. One of the best I’ve seen this year. It has received numerous awards already and if the Academy can get past its own biases and inhibitions it might win Best Picture.

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PATERSON

by Alan Yudman

I was born in PATERSON. Lived there for 5 plus years until we moved across the Passaic River to a more suburban town. My memories of Paterson were of a place abandoned by the Middle Class and a place we never wanted to go to. By the time I was in high school, it was a the typical abandoned industrial city. Filled with crime and squalor and abandoned factories. The only reason to go was to visit the Falls. Those Falls are a character, cleansing in Jim Jarmusch’s new film PATERSON.

Adam Driver plays a bus driver named, wait for it…. Paterson. He is married to a woman best described as innocently quirky and marvelously played by Golshifteh Farahani. Paterson is also a poet, writing free verse about his marriage and his life. They are all love poems of a kind. His wife implores him to share his gift with the world. Paterson seems reticent and describes himself to anyone who asks as a bus driver. He is in a routine, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He drives his bus, he comes home, eats dinner and takes their English Bulldog, Marvin for a walk that always ends up at his neighborhood bar. The next day is pretty much the same as the last. Some situations change, he meets new people, but he wakes at about 6:15 A.M. each day and goes to work, writing poetry before he drives the bus and while at lunch. It seems a part of him, but more of an avocation. His wife Laura aspires to greatness in baking, design, country music. She sees bigger things. Paterson seems content.

Jarmusch brilliantly makes Paterson an Everyman who really is anything but. At one point a girl he meets says with irony, hmm a bus driver who like poetry. Paterson the man is like Paterson the city. He is filled with talent. He doesn’t boast, doesn’t want to be flashy but his history and talent cannot be denied. The legacy the city has left in the form of poetry, music and comedy are woven throughout the story. It seems plain on the surface but wash away the dirt and grime and it will shine. The Falls are the instrument that can do it to both the city and the man. Paterson visits the Falls to eat lunch every day, seemingly cleansing himself in an effort to reveal his inner poetry. And when the unexpected happens he must recover just as his namesake city must.

This is a love letter to Paterson, but it does not bludgeon you over the head to get the message across. Jarmusch has made a funny, subtly dramatic story of love and poetry. Driver is absolutely great. Paterson is a quiet talent, in love with his wife but you can tell he is both bored and bemused by his routine. Driver captures that perfectly with his performance. He walks upright and straight, proud but not prideful. He is not tormented, but not exactly settled. It is a fantastic performance in a wonderful movie.

I had long forgotten about Paterson and its place in American history. Watching this film made me realize what a wonderful place it is, and that beauty and poetry can be found anywhere.

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

by Alan Yudman

I try not to read other reviews before I write mine. But it has been impossible to ignore the press surrounding ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. Most of the criticism I’ve read has focused on these themes: “it’s not a Star Wars movie”, “it’s too dark”, “there’s no character development”. And one critic I heard said there were too many dogfight scenes. To all that I say…. DID WE SEE THE SAME MOVIE?

Yes, it is not a “Star Wars” movie in the sense that it doesn’t follow the continuing story. It doesn’t feature many of our favorite characters. It also doesn’t have as much humor as the other 7 films.

And yes, it is dark. It is not necessarily a story of triumph. People die. Not in a gruesome fashion but they die fighting for a cause. So yeah, dark or as some people (me included) might say, emotionally more honest.

No character development? No, there is no a sweeping change like Luke becoming a Jedi and finding out his father is Darth Vader. Vader owning his goodness. Leia and Han falling in love. Han going from scoundrel to hero. Those arcs took 3 films to play out. That doesn’t mean characters don’t undergo subtle and noticeable changes.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) is a runaway scientist who was working on the Death Star for the Empire, but his conscience gets the better of him and he runs off to live with his wife and daughter on a remote planet. Galen is found and brought back into the fold. Jyn latches on with a group of extremists rebels led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). She is on her way to prison when Rebels break her out in hopes they can persuade her to lead them to her father.

Meantime, Galen has sent an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) to Gerrera with a message — he knows how to defeat the Empire’s new weapon. Jones is teamed up with a Rebel named Cassian Andor and his surly droid K-2SO to find her father. Jyn has major abandonment issues, at least that is the way it appears. She is hardened by her experience and mad at the world. Once she sees her father’s holographic message she knows she must find him. Andor has other orders — to kill Galen.

Yes, there are a few issues. Jyn’s turn toward hero doesn’t seem entirely earned. There seems to be some very subtle effort to make Jyn and Cassian a couple, but the filmmakers never commit to it and that leaves the audience wondering. There is also a very brief cameo by R2-D2 and C-3PO, which feels a little too much like fan service. But those issues don’t ruin the overall experience.

What almost does kill the ROGUE ONE is the CGI recreation of 2 characters, most notably Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing (or some computer representation of him). Cushing died more than 20 years ago. So rather than recast it or write around his absence director Gareth Edwards and his crew decide to “re-create” him. The technology is coming along, but it is far from perfect and he looks odd and unnatural. There’s another use of this technology near the end which looks even worse. I wish they could have found another way to tell those parts of the story.

Back to the good stuff. Darth Vader is back and badass. There is one scene near the end of the movie that was an awesome example of his power and the power of the Dark Side. It is really spectacular. The complaint about too much blowing stuff up. Come on! Really? The whole point is to blow up the Death Star. It’s a war. Stuff gets blown up in war. Star “Wars”, remember?

Did the critics not read anything about ROGUE ONE before seeing it. Did they not know this was intended as a one off, a side story that explains how the Rebels got the plans to the Death Star. That’s it. This story ends right before A NEW HOPE begins. So, if you are confused by the themes or plot or intent of this film then I urge you to re-read the press materials.

ROGUE ONE fills a hole in the mythology and does it in a very satisfying way. It does exactly what it promises and expecting it to do more is unfair to everyone involved.

So, when does Episode VIII hit theaters. Waiting a year between these movies is almost too much to bear. Oh well, guess I’ll just watch THE FORCE AWAKENS for the tenth time.

ASSASSIN’S CREED

by Alan Yudman

I think I liked ASSASSIN’S CREED. I know i was captivated by it. I could not stop watching it. But then again I cannot stop watching police chases or internet cat and dog videos. So it is a low bar for what I will watch.

The movie is directed by Justin Kurzel from a script by three screenwriters. ASSASSIN’S CREED is based on the wildly popular video game created by Ubisoft. It features Michael Fassbender in a dual role. Or is it one role. You’ll have to decide for yourself. In the past he is Aguilar, a member of the shadowy brotherhood of Assassins who are trying to prevent the Templars from possessing Eden’s Apple. Yeah, as in Garden of Eden. The apple is believed to be the key to eliminating free will. In the past that seems like just a way of controlling people. Isn’t he present it is seen as the root of man’s violent nature. In the present he is Callum Lynch, a man on death row. But his past is littered with run-ins with the Assassins. There’s a reason for that, but this will be a spoiler free review.

Lynch is sent to the execution chamber and injected with the chemical cocktail that will kill him. So he’s dead. Or is he? Guess not, because he wakes up in some facility in Spain run by the father-daughter team of Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard. They work for the modern Templars and have been using a device known as the Animas to mine the pasts of people they suspect have ties to the Apple. Lynch is their best lead because his DNA links him directly to Aguilar.

When Lynch is sent back in time, the flashbacks are some of the best sequences in he movie. They are crazy and wonderful. Great battle scenes as Aguilar/Lynch fight the Templars to rescue a child and keep the Apple away from Torquemada and his followers. The effects are great as Lynch relives this, the scenes cut back and forth and mix the past and present. Cotillard and Irons want Lynch to find the present day location of the Apple. But, other “guests” at their facility are descended from Assassins and want to stop it. Lynch believes the Assassins to be evil and is willing to work with Cotillard. Until he isn’t.

Ok, I’m done rehashing the convoluted and sometimes confounding plot. There a few problems. Why does Lynch suddenly decide to side with the Assassins? I mean I can guess, but it is not clear. I waited the entire movie for his transformation and it comes with a “hmm ok, that was it?”. Then I wanted more of Lynch as the Assassin. I guess I’ll have to wait for the next film. The climactic scene should be Lynch and his fellow Assassins capturing the Apple. I expected some big battle. Another disappointment.

The fight scenes and Fassbender’s acting save this from being completely terrible. Like I said, I wanted to like it. I was riveted by it. But I’m not sure it was any good.

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OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

by Alan Yudman

You look at the cast list for OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY and you wonder how this movie could be anything but a hit. T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry, Jennifer Anniston, Vanessa Bayer, Courtney B. Vance, Jillian Bell… that’s quite a list of funny people. Well, don’t judge a book by its cover or a film by its cast.

Miller is the head of the Chicago office of a big software/computer company. Sort of like Oracle. He’s the son of the company’s founder. His motto is happy employees are good employees. Well, that isn’t true in life or in this movie. He’s more concerned with morale than the bottom line. The company’s new CEO notices. She also happens to be his sister (Jennifer Anniston). She is everything Miller is not. Driven, career oriented and ruthless. She comes by the Chicago office in full Grinch, prepared to shut the branch down because they, well, suck. Bateman is the head of software development for the branch. Munn is the chief software engineer. Corddry is head of customer service. McKinnon is the HR lady. Bayer is Miller’s secretary.

Miller has one shot, convince Vance, a buyer, to give him his business. So Miller’s plan is to throw the best office Christmas party ever. To show Vance, who seems depressed, the best time of his life. Anniston had cancelled the regular party so this is all going on behind her back. Miller uses his own money to finance the party. It’s all the money has in the world, having used his fortune to buy things for his employees to keep morale up.

So you can tell, there are a lot of balls in the air here. But also lots of potential for comedy, especially as the party gets going. And the movie takes advantage of it. But it misses the mark by “that much” (hold your thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart and you’ll get the idea). The jokes are funny, but could be funnier. The story is interesting, but not quite enough to draw you in. The cast does what it can with the material, but it is simply not that funny. Chuckles not guffaws. Credits that include three people for screenplay and three for story may be part of the problem. This isn’t a TV show where you bounce ideas around a writers room for a 30 minute sitcom. This needs to be more focused.

The character that stole it for me was Jillian Bell who plays a pimp. She seems nice, but then you realize she is batshit crazy. It is a genius performance by a comic actress with a lot of talent and potential.

Too bad the rest of the movie isn’t that inspired. I’ll just stay home and miss this OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

by Alan Yudman

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is such a quite, subtly told story, that it is sometimes hard to see exactly how tragic it is.

Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler. We meet him in a flashback where he is riding on his brother’s fishing boat, teaching his nephew the finer points of angling. It is quickly apparent that is in the past, because Lee is a janitor in a Boston area apartment complex. He’s sullen and angry, though his anger is the seething, slow burning variety.

Lee is handed a family tragedy and is forced to deal with it as best he can. And he is not prepared. In another flashback we find out why he is unwilling to deal at first and also where that seething anger is coming from.

I am being purposely vague because everything in this movie is a spoiler, especially the way Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan has constructed the film. It is better to go on this voyage of discovery knowing at little as possible about what you are going to see. Just know that it is fantastic.

Lonergan is a masterful storyteller. He constructs the film and the story through a series of slow reveals and poignant flashbacks. At some points you may find yourself scratching your head, wondering why Lee is such a.. well… dick. Then you find out and metaphorically smack yourself in the head.

Affleck is on a slow boil throughout the story. It is a skillful performance because he never reveals too much of himself, yet lets the viewer in just enough to see what is going on. His character development is subtle and incremental. This is by no means a story of feel good revelation. Bring tissues or a punching back depending on your demeanor. I know Affleck has a history of sexual harassment and treating women like crap. Should that prevent him from winning an Oscar for his performance here? The work is good enough. He has paid for his misdeeds through settled lawsuits. Is that enough penance to allow him to move on? I don’t know. It’s going to be a tough for Academy members to wrestle with their conscience.

Michelle Williams only appears in a few season, but they are key and she is fabulous.

In an era where audiences are bludgeoned with unskillful storytelling, it is wonderful to see an interesting story told so well. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA deserves all the praise and awards that can be heaped upon it.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

— by Jeff Schultz

I’ve coined a new word to describe this genre picture: melodramedy. It features two vivid performances and has the fun of what used to be called B-movies — and with a certain type of B-movie populism (evil banks, the common man crushed and forced into crime) as well. Jeff Bridges is effortlessly perfect as the lawman, effaced into the role, you can’t get enough of him. And Ben Foster, who by now has patented his psycho act, goes capably, yes, melodramatic, as well when required. As for Chris Pine, he does a lot of brooding as the darkly handsome “good” brother; it’s kind of a relief when he momentarily comes to life by beating the crap out of a guy at a gas station. That said, Pine holds his own (no small feat) in the final scene, when he finally meets up with Bridges; it’s a perfect wrap-up.

LA LA LAND

by Alan Yudman

There wasn’t anything quite like an old school MGM musical. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland (or Shirley Jones or Debbie Reynolds or, well take your pick). Those movies were pure escape. I mean who breaks out in song in the middle of their day. There was nothing real about them, but they were full of heart, humor and mostly really good music. LA LA LAND is a throw back to those classics, but with a modern twist. And it is simply fantastic.
Emma Stone is a struggling actor. Ryan Gosling is a struggling Jazz pianist. They meet angry… twice. Then they meet cute and their romance along with their song and dance are on. But it is more than a vehicle for some really wonderful songs. It is a great story about love, struggle and following your heart even though it may wind up in pieces on the floor.
Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz have been working on the movie for years, ever since they were in college together. But things got serious about 6 years ago when Chazelle began focusing on the screenplay. Hurwitz also became serious about the music and their dream started to take shape. The songs weave naturally through the plot and help tell the story. It’s not exactly natural, but it feels completely right. And those songs are really spectacular. The highlights for me were “City of Stars” and “Audition (Dreams)”. Jazz also plays an important role here. Gosling’s Sebastian is a purist and is married to the traditional jazz he loves. He explains it to Stone’s Mia in such a way that anyone could understand what makes this truly American form so special and lasting. Full disclosure, I am listening to Thelonius Monk as I write this.
Stone and Gosling have an easy chemistry. Wait, that is selling it short. They light up the screen when they are together. By the end of the movie I felt I could sit and watch them sing and dance for another 2 hours. Their banter is natural, their dancing sublime and their singing talents are perfectly suited to the musical. I’m sure this movie would have been perfectly fine with two different actors, but it would have been a totally different experience and most definitely a lesser one.
Chazelle is a wonderful writer and director. He stages the musical numbers beautifully and never loses site of the overall story. He won critical acclaim and several awards for 2014’s WHIPLASH. Those awards and accolades are sure to continue with LA LA LAND. I’m not sure this will revive the classic MGM-style musical. But it surely should give a younger generation an appreciation for those films.
LA LA LAND is simply a wonderful film and could be an Oscar winner come the end of February. It would be a shame if another movie won, because this is a celebration of all things Hollywood and the joy a great movie can bring an audience. And at the end of a tough 2016, we could all use a little LA LA LAND in our lives.

MOANA

by Alan Yudman

In case you haven’t noticed, Disney has a formula for its animated musicals. A young girl (usually some kind of princess) is tested, overcomes and winds up as a heroic inspiration. Don’t knock it. It works every time. The latest version is MOANA. The only difference here is the heroine isn’t thin and white. The other difference is Lin-Manuel Miranda. No other Disney feature has had his immense talent attached to it. That alone should make MOANA one of the best animated films of the year.
In this version of the princess story, Moana is the daughter of an island chief. My apologies, Moana is not a princess. A fact she points out every chance she gets. She is in line to take over and lead her people in their island paradise. One problem, paradise isn’t what it used to be. Plants are dying, coconuts are rotten, there are no fish in the lagoon. If something doesn’t change the society will die. Moana has always felt the pull of the water, to explore beyond the safety of the reef that protects the island. Her father forbids it, but being the Disney rebel she knows that is her calling. When she discovers her ancestors were sea-going explorers her mission is clear. She must find the mythic demigod Maui, return their goddesses jewel which will set the world right. Maui has other ideas. He wants to steal her boat (leaving her stranded), retrieve his magical fishhook and exact revenge on the devil who left him stranded. Moana is too strong and willful to let that happen. The adventure of Moana and Maui crosses oceans and stereotypes. All of it featuring songs that are nearly as catchy and wonderful as anything Miranda wrote for Hamilton. He has the the help of Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Foa’i brings language and traditional island authenticity to the songs. Mancina’s score is soaring and beautiful.
The voice acting is unbelievably wonderful. Dwayne Johnson voices Maui and shows an outsized comedic personality I wish he showed more of in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE. And the Rock can also sing, well sort of. Think Richard Burton in Camelot, but slightly better. Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana and the newcomer is absolutely fabulous. Marvelous acting and wonderful voice.
The animation is also exceptional. I’ve read that animating water is always problematic. Water plays such an important role in this film that they had to get it right. They do. And seeing it 3D confirms the technological achievement.
MOANA is a fabulous film for kids of all ages. Nothing too scary or intense and the music…. wow. As good as the story and acting are, Miranda’s undeniable songwriting talent elevate this to the among the best of the Disney animated musicals.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

by Alan Yudman

John Hughes was to teenaged angst what Donald Trump is to the alt-right. Hughes was the standard bearer and the enabler. In the 1980’s from “Pretty in Pink” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” John Hughes tapped into that particular vein like no other filmmaker. His characters were stereotypes in the best sense of the word. They reflected teens as real human beings. So when someone says Kelly Fremon Craig made channeled Hughes in her movie THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, it is not empty praise.
The film features Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a high school junior who defines the word outcast. She has one friend, Krista, who has been with her since second grade. She makes questionable fashion choices, she is self-loathing and angry at the world. It doesn’t help that her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is Mr. Perfect. Perfect body, perfect friends, perfect smile. She hates him for his perfection. So, when Krista and Darian hook up in a “meet cute” kind of way it sends Nadine into an epic tailspin. She lashes out at everyone and everything. She channels her self loathing by being self-centered and narcissistic. She runs to her favorite teacher, expertly played by Woody Harrelson, to vent her frustration and to tell him she is thinking of killing herself (I won’t reveal why, but it involves an unfortunate message to a boy she is infatuated with). She shares this because she thinks an adult ought to know. Harrelson is non-plussed, seeming to not care. He uses sarcasm to talk her down off the ledge, an interesting but comedically effective technique.
Steinfeld shines. She shows the same skill that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for TRUE GRIT. She has to shine because she is in just about every scene in the movie. Steinfeld is up for it. I don’t know if acting or music (she has an album out) is her true passion, but she has the chops to be an all-time great actress and the youth to see it through.
What would a John Hughes movie be without music? Not a John Hughes movie. So, I was glad to see Craig paid attention to the soundtrack, because it really helps move the story in the right direction.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is a wonderfully thoughtful and executed comedy about growing up. It is a genre that has been missing its greatest voice since Hughes died way too young. It will be fascinating to see if Craig is that new voice.