Friday, October 21, 2016


In Barry Jenkins' artful and quietly masterful Moonlight, incidents shift like smoothly-rolling waves. There is a scene early where a man (Mahershala Ali) is teaching a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), to swim. He lifts his head above the surface of the water like a newborn and then shows him how to crawl. Water is a symbol of rebirth in the three stages we glimpse of Chrion's life--whether it's the dusk and night-time quiet of the ocean in the film's evocative Florida setting or an icy draw in a bathroom sink. Throughout, images are kept close, waist-up, as if we are swimming through them right above the surface of the sea. These moments are melded together beautifully by editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon. The cinematography by James Laxton grows more and more expressive, intimate and visually distinct throughout, as if we are experiencing the heightening of a young man's perceptions of his world as he ages.

In simplistic terms, Moonlight is about survival, about staying afloat, and adapting to environments through spirit and body. We watch Chrion grow from a wounded, quiet child into a wounded, quiet young man into a wounded, quiet adult in various states of physicality. A sexuality thwarted, a life undone. There are issues of queerness, blackness, of mass incarceration which are pivotal to the story-lines and the fates of these characters; but they are organic to the story and the situations not forced--they smolder like a flame slowly devouring paper.

Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," eschews the use of frequent flash-backing and deftly separates the film into three, fleeting chapters. The performances of Chrion are richly layered by a trio of actors (Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), all excellent and potent. We see subtle reflections of one another in each turn, the way their eyelids move or the where they tend to land their stares. The rest of the cast, Ali as an early mentor, singer Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend, and Naomie Harris as Chrion's drug-addicted mother (a supremely difficult part and the only one we see in all three stages), are remarkably strong. Like the performances, the film feels urgent and bracing but tender and sensitive.

A diner scene backed by Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger" is one of the most crisp and fervent uses of a song since Claire Denis's use of the Commodore's "Nightshift" in 35 Shots of Rum. Watching the Rhodes and André Holland (also great) in the moment is an electric heartache. It could be off-putting to praise a production company and marketing campaign, but I admire the way A24 has refused to have this movie get lost in a plethora of streaming choices and showier pictures. They are creating unmissable movie-going, a way to witness great art in shared experience. I was compelled calmly throughout Moonlight, but hours afterwards, as if coming off a long ocean swim, I felt the ache of what I had witnessed, the rush of water in my ears. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, October 20, 2016

i gotta feeling

New track from Midnight Magic. They are really good at building a tune through a simple phrase and a disco soundscape.

Monday, October 17, 2016

billy lynn's long halftime walk

Here is the environment the day of my Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk screening: a too-warm late-afternoon in October on the eve of a presidential election that has stirred up anger, uncertainty and anxiety for many. Earlier, I had passed by someone in Best Buy trying out the Oculus. He looked silly and also slightly creepy as he swiveled and flailed his arms.

With the use of 3D and a 120 frame rate (the first to be shot in its entirety this way), there has been a lot of blah blah about Ang Lee advancing "the form" but the joke may be on us. Whereas traditional film-making has long offered a sense of visual distance, the bright, polished look of this film gives it a hyper-realism that shows freckles, warts and all, including extras overacting. Throughout, like the appearance of the Oculus man, I felt silly in my 3D glasses with an audience of 3Ders, watching a movie that didn't feel like it needed to be in 3D. The technology is the most obvious aspect and also one of the least important. It can read tacky--like wearing an outfit with labels and price tags still on. But the slickness of its look also ends up parodying what a mainstream movie-going audience pines for--to be transported, dazzled and excited. But are war pictures supposed to be dazzling and exciting? Am I supposed to be entertained by 3D bullets and carnage, especially in a depiction of the war in Iraq? To its credit, in the film's use of the frame rate and its feverish, sometimes severe direct-to-camera closeups, there is something aptly unnerving in the sleek visuals as we experience the heightened senses and emotions of a traumatized soldier Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) at a football game.

After surviving a harrowing battle, Lynn's squad is invited as special guests to the Texas game by an oligarch with the last name Oglesby (Steve Martin) interested in making a movie deal about the troop's story at the denouncement of a celebratory "victory tour." The squad is ragtag and young, simultaneously childish and immature and yet wise-beyond-years, led by the stern and sarcastic Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund). Lynn is unsettled by the recent death of his comrade (Vin Diesel) and the disconcerting contrast of home-life versus war-life. 

Billy Lynn is an oddball film from one of the most versatile directors alive (who has delivered masterpieces and misfires) that is crude in so many ways. Crude in its use of slick cinematography (lensed by John Toll, known for picaresque sweeping epics like Braveheart); crude in its strange, stunt casting; crude in its depiction of war; crude in the crude vocabulary of its characters; crude in its satire; crude in its frequent utilization of juxtaposition. It's an impossible film to market and a stinging antithesis to patriotic pics like American Sniper which raise so few questions. There is no skillful choreography on display but it's sort of Fosse in its indictment of American entertainment. David O. Russell's Three Kings also comes to mind in terms of the jokey tone and skittishness. Because our characters are laconic, sometimes inexpressive, Jean-Christophe Castelli's script, based upon a novel by Ben Fountain, isn't pitched in smart, snappy dialogue (the humor, like that of a 19-year old is sometimes awkward and lurching), instead the wit is left to the tone and the medium itself.

This is one of the few cinematic war satires I can think of that isn't a lampoon on an American war itself but a lampoon on American civilians in time of war. This is the most arresting and distinctive aspect of Lee's picture. The depiction of the stadium spectators, security, and handlers is flat-out contemptuous. There are flickers of shallow, hollow "thank yous for your service" and a tone-deaf press conference. A cheerleader with a helluva name (Faison Zorn, last name ironically the word for "wrath" in German, played believably with a dash of mockery by Makenzie Leigh) is introduced in a strong scene as an object of desire with a surfacey message of Christianity for Billy, who describes himself as "searching." 

It is certainly beneficial that British newcomer Alwyn is so excellent and expressive in his impressive film debut. He's the aching human heart of a movie that's sometimes feels brittle in its brightly-imaged derision. His sister, scarred by a car accident Billy was responsible for, is effectively played by Kristen Stewart whose character is a marginalized voice of reason, regret and urgency. The squad, haunted by the loss of one of their comrades, are a mixed-bag acting-wise but the way they are put on display like dolls in camo duds in the midst of the film's centerpiece--a faux-mounted of a very faux-feeling Destiny's Child half-time performance of "Soldier"--is completely inspired. It's a tremendous joke scene in its satire on spectacle. I was wrapped up in the drumline beat fireworky fakeiness (much ado has been made about the unmistakably fake Beyoncé who we see only from behind) and cynicism. They are also literally used by Martin, who, in the film's most meta-moments, gives them their limo-Hummer game-time spotlight treatment as an incentive to make a movie of their lives on the cheap.

As Billy stumbles to express to understand the "kind of fucked-up" purpose of his experience at the half-time show, the audience of this movie may walk away quizzical and underwhelmed as well. What to do and take away from this movie except another layer of queasy disdain for American life and American consumerism? Perhaps that's enough to be challenged by from this peculiar picture that's more provocative than I think it's been given credit for. In fact it continued to buzz and linger in my mind as I wrote some of this review standing in line in a busy Manhattann basement Marshall's on that too-warm October night, surrounded by a cacophony of shelved crap. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, October 15, 2016