“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

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“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

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We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

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He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

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In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

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The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”


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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. 

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Spectre

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James Bond needs a good foil … or two. Without a sharply defined counterpart, ideally played by a crackerjack BBC-er, against which to reflect and/or deflect, 007 is just a swaggering phallus with a peculiar penchant for martinis and gun-play. And that’s a bore.

Why was the last outing – Skyfall so good? Yeah, Adele’s theme song was one of the best we’ve heard in decades, and director Sam Mendes (Revolution Road, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead) applies a literary/theatrical craftsmanship that elevates film beyond mere verisimilitude to near-allegorical levels.

And, yes, Daniel Craig is the first actor to, you know, act while wearing Bond’s trademark tight-fitting bespoke suits and leaping tall fire escapes in a single bound – his chief charm being that he seems to sort of hate the character and plays Bond as someone who has a f*cking job to do, mate, and, if he has a shag and a drink along the way while slaying an army of vaguely malevolent thugs and baddies, so be it. He’s like your local cable guy if he were an international spy, that is, if said cable guy possessed the eyes of a malamute and the abs of an Abercrombie and Fitch model.

But the real reason Skyfall worked so freaking well?  We had the BOGO (buy-one-get-one-free, kids) joys of Judi Dench AND Javier Bardem, who gave Craig/Bond a film “mother” and a film “brother” against whom to play some crackling “family” dysfunction, with a sparkling amount of wit and a smothering amount of tension. That acting trifecta of Dench, Bardem, and Craig also had the benefit of a great yarn to tell, a fractured fairy tale origin of Bond’s Oliver Twist-meets-Batman upbringing, culminating in nigh-Shakespearean death, destruction, and dismemberment … and that’s just describing what happened to his family vacation home in those eerily snowy Swiss/Austrian/Nordic (?) mountains where these films always seem to conclude.

Alas, Spectre, as fun as it is (and it is fun – kind of a rainbow sherbet to cleanse the palate after the heavy shepherd’s pie that was Skyfall), has no such shining, scene-stealing yins to Craig’s yang. Christoph Waltz, who becomes more of a cartoon every time I see him, seems like the perfect person to play a Bond villain … in 1968. However, in the postmodern grit and wit of Craig’s Bond, Waltz is a bit of a snoozer. I suspect Spectre‘s BIG reveal – the Bond mythos legend whom Waltz portrays – is meant to bring the kind of shock and awe delight of the similar unveiling of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness. It didn’t.

But (spoiler alert), at least, we get the signature cat … and thuggish henchman (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista as the menacing and seemingly indestructible muscle Mr. Hinx … or Oddjob 2.0).

Ralph Fiennes as Bond handler “M” is no Dench, and he carries a constipated delivery in his few scenes that perhaps bespeaks some frustration that he had to retire Harry Potter‘s Darth Vader-esque Voldemort for a much less interesting 2nd banana role in the Bond franchise. At least Fiennes has nostrils in this series.

Much of the non-Craig spark comes from Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny. She is such a source of light in the film, I’m baffled why the filmmakers aren’t brave enough to mount a Bond/Moneypenny buddy flick. I’d go see that in a heartbeat. Ben Whishaw’s Q grows on me with each subsequent outing, as well, bringing a sardonic glee to torturing Bond with high-tech goodies the spy can’t have as 007 is perpetually in some kind of probationary limbo. (Isn’t Bond at risk of losing his job in every one of these latest forays? I realize Craig does a great job playing the rogue cop notes, but how is Bond still employed at this rate?)

John Logan’s screenplay packs a lot of punches (maybe two or three too many, yielding a near three-hour running time), but lacks the emotional wallop of Skyfall, which is to be expected, I suppose. The script’s biggest crime is falling prey to the two Bond women structural cliche, with the first character being a disposable femme fatale (the much more interesting Monica Bellucci) and the second a wary love interest who will be totally forgotten by the next film in the series (the bland Lea Seydoux).

(We also get one of the loopiest credits sequences in recent memory. Sam Smith’s song is pleasant enough, with a nicely subtle John Barry influence, but all the naked women writhing around with octopi and a shirtless Craig was just … troubling.)

The film aims to say something profound about how Orwellian our culture has become as we willingly submit to eye-in-the-sky surveillance and social media self-revelation, rendering privacy and freedom obsolete, all in a panicked and ultimately misplaced desire for security from nameless, faceless Terrorism with a capital “T.” In the process, we hand the keys to the kingdom to the real terror-mongers in our midst.

Ultimately, this zippy thesis gets lost in the shuffle – with four endings too many ranging from lots of buildings going “boom” to damsel-in-distress kidnappings to way too much Snidely Whiplash-monologuing from Waltz. Spectre also never capitalizes on the spookiness of its strongest sequence, the opening cat-and-mouse chase set among skull-and-crossboned revelers at Mexico City’s annual Day of the Dead celebration. Those early scenes impose a marvelously ominous claustrophobia and a sweaty delirium that the rest of film fritters away.

Spectre does a fine job drawing together the disparate threads of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, with various villains from those prior episodes dancing in and out of the story – one of them intones to Bond, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” In fact, that cryptic phrase’s chaotic imagery could describe the entire Spectre viewing experience: volatile, transporting, thrilling even, but ultimately tangled up in its own aspirations – a fun but forgettable ride.


12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Kicking the world in its collective teeth: Skyfall

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Skyfall, the 23rd “official” James Bond film, is about as perfect an escapist adventure film as I’ve seen. By the way, the spoofy, 60s Casino Royale and the unauthorized Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again don’t count in the sanctioned tally of Bond films…BUT, if they did, that would make for a nifty 25 films in 50years…ah well.

I did not get a chance to see Quantum of Solace, which, from what I understand, was a wise choice, but I adored Daniel Craig’s first Bond outing Casino Royale. That would be the serious, gritty one with the villain who cried blood while gambling…ewwww. To my mind, the actorly, rugged Craig is the perfect Bond, barely masking what appears to be contempt for and occasional bemusement with a world gone horribly awry as he kicks said world in its collective teeth.

This latest film fires on all cylinders – action, drama, emotion, and even a bit of comedy. The comic moments blessedly never veer into high-camp Roger Moore territory… there are more than a few clever allusions, however, to the goofy charms of early films in the series. Director Sam Mendes brings gravitas to the proceedings, working with screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade to give us a backstory for 007 that leads to a powerful, engaging, and rather heartbreaking finale. The film owes a bit of its DNA to classic cat-and-mouse thrillers like Charade as well as more recent popcorn fare like Silence of the Lambs (for its villain’s creepy plexiglass cell escape) and The Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises (with its backdrop of have/have not inequality that supercharges social anarchy against a flawed social system). Ensemble players Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Helen McCrory are all reliably excellent – what a cast!

But beyond Craig’s nuanced, charmingly surly performance, supported by a dream BBC miniseries-style cast, what is the film’s best “special effect”? That would be none other than Javier Bardem. He internalizes the epic, broadly drawn supervillainy of previous Bond antagonists, turning it into a charmingly twisted, Freudian pretzel of a characterization. Bardem’s Silva is fascinating, transfixing, and utterly relatable/revolting. The chemistry between Craig and Bardem is electric. Don’t miss this one, folks. Smart, sharp fun.