Moonlight

Moonlight is a film that made me want to revive this blog,which has been collecting cobwebs for nearly half a decade so it seems. For one thing,it was directed by Barry Jenkins. He’s a relatively new black director known for the 2008 Bay Area themed film Medicine For Melancholy, which I have yet to see but was recommended to me by my good friend (and Bay Area resident) Henrique Hopkins. Of course the major points for me wishing to see Moonlight wasn’t it winning the Academy Award for best picture this year. But rather for increasing knowledge of the films content.

For one,there’s Jenkins making a film set in his native Miami,Florida roughly during my own lifetime. Selfish as that may sound,there are many compelling ideas that could come from that late 80’s to mid 2000’s arc of time.  There was also the presence of singer /songwriter/musician/actress Janelle Monae- a major player in the world of Afro Futurism in the performing arts today. Then came the subject matter: an African American child coming to terms with his homosexuality in the hood. Its a premise that could’ve gone either way in quality. What I did see inspired me to talk about it.

The story follows a Miami native named Chiron-presented in three acts. One act dealing with his childhood,one with his adolescence and the final with his rising adulthood. He is the child of mother whose become a junkie and prostitute . Throughout his school life, he is understood to be gay and bullied because of it. He finds refuge in the home of Cuban drug dealer Juan,who along with his girlfriend Teresa (portrayed by Monae) attempt to give the young boy a sense of racial pride.

As he becomes a teenager,he has his first sexual experience with a school friend named Kevin. He is than pressured by Chiron’s longtime bully Terrell into hazing his friend for his sexuality. When the stress of the somewhat taciturn Chiron’s life gets to him, he assaults Terrell in class and is arrested. As a grown adult,Chiron is trying to overcome his own history of drug dealing following time in prison. He is contacted by Kevin,who has since become a chef. The two reunite. And end up discussing their past and trying to resolve the unexplored relationship they never had.

Of course,there is going to be the subjective matter of personal opinion on this movie. And I am no exception to that subjectivity.  Even though the setting in this film was quite different than my own, the internal struggles of a young man of (in my case some) African American descent dealing with his sexual orientation was a compelling one. The questions I ask myself in writing this are…did Moonlight deal with this subject matter in a well rounded enough manner? And further more,did the characters and their situations endear themselves to the same purpose?

This is after all the first film I’ve seen with an all black cast to directly deal with LGBT issues.  The film is beautifully acted and directed by Jenkins. Its a fairly quiet film that lingers on sometimes impressionistic visuals to make its point-as opposed to heavy dialog.Janelle Monae’s Teresa is actually one of the more likable and sympathetic characters in the film. Chiron is depicted by three separate actors as a brooding, somewhat damaged human being-someone never able to articulate his feelings. The issue of betrayal and instability in his life seems to be a factor in this.

As a study of the Chiron character and his dilemma as an LGBT African American in a vice riddled Miami,its likely a fairly accurate portrayal. It is also the source of the issues I personally had with the movie. For decades now, almost every movie I’ve seen focused on internal African American social issues ignore families who do well. Generally, it places the lead characters in a hard ghetto environment where the only way to evolve is to survive in the best manner possible. And Moonlight is no exception to that rule. In that area,it actually missed a golden opportunity to tell another angle to this kind of story.

In this day and age of white supremacy having a leg up in American politics,and its accompanying racism and homophobia again having to be fought against by an often more humane masses of American citizens, Barry Jenkins had the opportunity to make a a strong dialog based movie about a functional African American family with an LGBT child or children-still dealing with similar issues as Chiron did in public life. Instead,it used the ghetto environment as something of a visual canvas to tell a story that was more about visual art than character development.

Chiron himself is sympathetic character,who many could empathize with. Naomie Harris’s Paula,Chiron’s mother,is an utterly unlikeable character. She is consistently selfish and abusive to her already crumbling son. She only cleans up her act when Chiron becomes an adult-even going as far as asking his forgiveness for her wanton neglect. Even characters such as Kevin and Mahershala Ali’s Juan,who mentors young Chiron, are all effected by either the drug dealing/using and bullying that is slowly crumbling Chiron’s life into pieces.

In the end, Moonlight gave a lot but could’ve given so much more. The cliche of “black social drama set amidst crime and poverty” sapped much of the energy out of the story line for me. It really required more scripted dialog,and less visually operatic melodrama. That being said,for a movie that’s probably the first of its kind, Moonlight is a significant beginning. The question is will black themed LGBT cinema evolve, or will it keep its characters forever ghettoized.? Its a question worth asking. And finally answering when this sub-genre of African American cinema finally realizes itself.

The Magic Of Belle Isle

                               Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen are, in my own humble opinion two of the most talented,natural and versatile actors of both film and television. They’ve never let their enormous star power potential get the best of them. At the same time, their characterizations are able to boldly touch on some of the most emotionally significant elements of the human experience. This has been an age of motion pictures very firmly delegated into categories oftentimes having baring mainly on a particular demographic of age, race and gender. Stories that actually speak to the broad wealth of different human emotions and lifestyles come few and far between. And if they do, they tend to possess a great deal of cliches. Directed by Rob Reiner The Magic Of Belle Isle  is a film that actually reinvigorates that genre of character based motion picture with a broader minded perspective.

This is the story of Morgan Freeman’s Monte Wildhorn, a disabled former Western writer with a drinking problem and despondent over the death of his wife and Charlotte O’Neill, a newly divorced mother of three who meet each other by chance while they summer in the Belle Isle lake region.  Charlotte has three daughters,the middle one being Finnegan who,by chance encounters Wildhorn at a funereal for a fallen local. Together she,Wildhorn and a mentally challenged local named Carl Koop all engage on a study of imaginative thinking from Wildhorn. As Charlotte develops a deep friendship with the writer, the three O’Neill sisters Willow,Finnegan and Flora all inspired Wildhorn back to writing again even when different professionals could not. And even inspire him to make a decision to settle down in a somewhat unexpected place in the end.

Morgan Freeman’s Monte Wildhorn states the theme of this movie perfectly;”don’t stop looking for what’s not there”,as very much the key for imagining both stories and new possibilities for life. At the same time, the main appeal of this movie is the visual and dialog nuances. Freeman’s Wildhorn character is the epitome of the silent generation African American creative minded individual-filled with highly regal and dignified dialog and often able to say just as much with his facial expression as well. Virginia Madsen’s Charlotte O’Neill’s character is actually very similar-raising and disciplining her daughters with an emphasis on education and self respect as opposed to anger and violence. Though these characters all begin the story somewhat tormented, it is their intelligence, kindness and above all dignified civility towards one another that brings out the ultimate positive qualities of this genuinely charming and heartwarming film.

Stupidity

Stupidity

                                   There is great importance that there be a fair discourse on cinema and it’s role in shaping our society. Of course my personal preference is that this discourse be informed by fair and balanced opinion. Its not even a matter of politics or philosophical belief. When Canadian independent filmmaker Albert Nerenberg made this film in 2003 it set about to do something that had never been done before-to analyze and investigate in depth the subject of ignorance and lack of intellectual thought process in modern society. Promising a witty and, yes balanced outlook on a subject that I was greatly interested in. Much of my own writing and exploration has been on the same subject. And this movie was presented to me in aa potentially exciting and even mildly humorous way, which gave it all the more appeal. To say that anything but these factors were met in this documentary would be an understatement of the highest order.

                                 Nerenberg gathered together a group of writers, cultural analysts and celebrities such as Coolio, John Cleese and Noam Chomsky to make the point that we live in a time where society is bombarded with far more information than the mind can mentally handle. And therefore too many people have resorted to either “zoning out” after their long and tedious day by watching television programs and movies that showcase other people making fools of themselves. It also points to the fact that all human beings are in fact inherently stupid. And our ability to cope with our surroundings largely depends on our own individual understanding of that stupidity. It also makes the assertion that society has come to worship an uneducated youth culture where even the universities have increasingly become institutes of higher ignorance rather than learning.

                                      When all is said and done the key to this film is it’s complete ineffectiveness in making its point. The narration, sounding very much read hurriedly off of a cue card and the often grainy and pixelated  quality of the film greatly add to this unprofessional atmosphere-even for an independent film. A good deal of the footage is also composed of bizarre footage of bucked toothed people jumping about in dunce caps, very much like a poorly executed satire of the type of reality television the movie condemns. While the origin points of terms such as moron, idiot and even a rather feeble attempt at explaining the origin story of the dunce cap are made, the manner in which these are presented lack any conceptual coherence and come off as mere vignettes randomly strung together with little care for logic or sequencing.

                                     The most irksome quality of this film is on the more personal level. Stupidity is a bad movie. Not in the sense of the low quality/low budget films of an Ed Wood. But bad in the sense that its presentation has high potential to encourage negativity. All of the dialog of the film is presented in an extremely hectoring manner-almost as if it had been deliberately designed to provoke loud and unpleasant arguments between the different people who might be watching this film together, for example.  Most of the social experts and writers speaking on this film take an extremely patronizing and insulting tone about everyone and everything they talk about. They make it more than clear without directly saying it that they look down their nose at most human beings. And they consider their views to be morally and intellectually above any given viewer of the film. The film does this in different was-each worthy of mention as far as I’m concerned.

                                    First off, this film is extremely anti-children-to the point of being abusive. I would even recommend that people under 20 year of age shouldn’t watch this film as it never articulates such a person has any right to be on this planet.  Bill Maher himself states in his appearance in this film that young people are inherently stupid by virtue of their young and that, as in other countries it’s only the old who should be considered worthy of any veneration. An author who spoke toward the end of the film actually evoked  the concept of finding ones inner child to be a stupid concept because, to quote him whenever he saw a child in a grocery store they were “stupid and ugly”. Emphasis on youth is also blamed for Hollywood movies, dumbed down because of pandering to a “younger” audience. It personally attacks actress Uma Thurman for not completing high school with an academic father-along with her apparent interest in metaphysical literature which is of course dismissed as “rubbish”.

                                 Perhaps most importantly every participant in this film are treated in a cruel manner . The man and women on the street, including a homeless street philosopher are interviewed for this film with the plainly obvious intent of making fun of their lifestyles.  Not only that but the film itself dismisses all politicians and artists’ entire points of view as being based in inherent stupidity. While much of the historical information such as tracing genetic intelligence among immigrants, the origin of the term IQ and how the brain has been observed and studied are compelling this film defeats its own purpose by not further emphasizing these points within its own context. Instead it chooses to revel in the side of itself that is emotionally abusive to a number of different people,especially the young, by utilizing the scripted equivalent of bullying tactics. In the end I would never recommend this film to the enlightened, intelligent, the ignorant or the stupid people of the world. And those who created and participated in this should be ashamed for their involvement in this horrible insult to documentary making and all it stands for.

Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium

                                   With so many period pieces in the world of film, one crucial aspect of the Romantic era has never been thoroughly explored. And that is the exploits of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, the two poets who started that era going in 18th century England. Director Julien Temple had access to film in the Lake region of England to do the location shooting. And he was also lucky enough to have actors such as Linus Roche and John Hannah in the lead roles along with Samantha Morton and Emily Woof for a film what would be pressed into delving deep into the waters of one of the most eccentrically creative periods in the history of English poetry.

                                    The film begins with Coleridge, a middle aged man broken from opium addiction being asked to attend a gala thrown by Lord Byron to introduce the new poet laureate. Byron admires Coleridge and wishes for the poet to reveal the lost portion of his famed Kubla Khan. In a drug addled stupor, a terrified Coleridge runs across his old partner Wordsworth and finds himself reliving his time as an anti slavery abolitionist in France where he first encountered poet Robert Southey and Wordsworth himself. He also recalls how their first collaborative collaboration, a series of political essays were censored and how he and Wordsworth decided to collaborate on a collected works composed of poetry that plainly spoke directly to the soul.

                                       While writing this set called Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge becomes immersed in the opium habit after first using Laudanum for a toothache.  As his habit grows worse and worse he,Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy indulge in experiences with hallucinogens they along with the wife’s of Coleridge and Wordsworth become involved in a pecuiliar series of romantic triangles and Wordsworth’s growing envy over Coleridge’s rich poetic visions. As Dorothy becomes more infatuated with Coleridge, he becomes more and more of a parasitic and intrusive element on their lives due to his opium poisoning and eventually Coleridge is forced into leaving the lake region when his relationship with Wordsworth and his growing family finally soured.

                                        Upon meeting Wordsworth later,the poet explains to Coleridge the fate that befell his sister Dorothy  because she followed Coleridge’s addiction in hope of poetic inspiration. In the end he learned Wordsworth had been collaborating all along with the man who censored his original political publication in order to forward his own needs. In the end Wordsworth is shocked to learn that Robert Southey, not himself is to be the new poet laureate.   Wordsworth’s deception is revealed by Coleridge before Byron and his crowd at which time Dorothy reveals the unheard portions of Kubla Khan to the entranced audience.

                                          Linus Roche’s dreamy and righteous interpretation of Coleridge and John Hannah’s conniving and almost villianous take on Wordsworth are indicative of Temple’s directorial approach. A beautifully shot film with some beautiful scenery of the lake region where these poets lived and created, there is a quality in this somewhat similar to Milos Foreman’s classic 1985 film Amadeus. Both of these films took a degree of factual license in terms of biographical detail in order to tell a certain kind of story. Still there are many accurate character traits in this film projected and in terms of it’s bright visualizations and either sunny or darkly flamboyant atmosphere this is a poetic and beautiful cinematic masterpiece.

Wreck It Ralph

Wreck It Ralph

                               Since the days when I first started seeing films like Toy Story, its become apparent that a good number of the enormous glut of films Disney/Pixar have released in the past decade and a half are able to perfectly blend CGI animation with seamless story telling and,most important to myself at least,  positively minded social commentary. Truth be told I haven’t seen every one of the many movies Disney and/or Pixar. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that,in today’s society it seems that it’s hard for anything to stand out as being very individual. If a film,a style of music or a book is successful suddenly there are so many people out there trying to copy it that the original concepts that inspired it all begins to lose a lot of it’s original meaning.  And with all due respect to their enormous and amazing contribution to animation, Disney has tended to to be major contributors to this particular problem in recent decades. It tends to leave you to wonder if the real animation film heroes are the smaller ones few know about, or the ones that are the most heralded and promoted. Interesting part is that concept is addressed fairly directly in this movie.

                              Starring the voice talents of John C. Riley and Sarah Silverman, this film tells the story of Wreck It Ralph. He is the antagonists of an 1980’s arcade game called Fix It Felix. The characters of Ralph and Felix have a sun and moon type relationship; that which one destroys the other creates as it were. Within the arcade there exists an entire community-between classic arcade games and more modern ones through a transit authority called Game Central Station. At the same time there are very set rules that Ralph is about to break because,as Felix is honored within his game for his accomplishments, Ralph sees himself literally living in the games city dump and is attending a support group for video game bad guys called Bad-Anon. Here he comes to the conclusion that he wants to be honored for his accomplishments and be the “good guy” in the same manner Felix is. On his journey he soon finds his prize in another game called Heroes Duty,a far more modern and violent game where (in disguise) he manages to win the medal in the game and his chance to be a hero. But his lack of ability in the game causes the escape pod he leaves the area in to get lost in another game called Sugar Rush after being pursued by a swarm of self replicating robot insects called Cybugs.

                     While looking for his medal he encounters a mischievous but very clever character named Vanellope Von Schweets.  She tricks him into commandeering the medal so she can use it in order to instantly build up points in the games massive database in order to join into the game itself as a racer. But Ralph sees how poorly she is treated by the others racers because she’s considered a “glitch” and he comes to her defense  Recognizing a kindred spirit,he comes to her defense and teams up with her in because both are looking to become accepted as heroes by gaining the medal. For it’s part the Fix It Felix game has been put out of order by the arcade,a state that could mean the game being unplugged and it’s characters being forced to live in the lobby of Game Central Station.  This leads the games characters into thinking Ralph has “gone Turbo”,a term coined by the games characters based on a video game character who caused the deactivation of two games by trying to enter into the other competing game in order to eliminate the competition. So Felix teams up with the Hero’s Duty game’s tortured and hardened military leader Calhoun to go find Ralph,as one of the Cybugs who replicate by and into whatever they consume is trapped in the Sugar Rush game with Ralph-putting every game in danger.

                 While Ralph helps Vanellope to become a champion racer in her game,he confronts the games King Candy who is equally as reluctant to have Ralph involved in helping Vanellope, even resorting to attempting to trick him into thinking her winning the race will cause the game to reset and her to be forever trapped within it when it’s shut down. In the end he decides to help her anyway. When Felix and Calloun, with whom Felix has become smitten,arrive they confront her worse nightmare: a mass of of replicating Cybugs threatening Sugar Rush. An inconsistency shows up when the memories of the characters have been erased,which is now understood by Ralph when his noticing of Vanellope’s face on the side of the arcade console made him to understand she was not truly a glitch. During the race,it’s revealed that King Candy is actually a disguised Turbo-who is planning on using the Cyborgs to become more powerful. After Ralph manages to use the games power course to create a light to which Turbo and the Cybugs are attracted to and destroyed like moths to a flame-he pushes Vanelleope’s car over the finish line when her true identity is revealed as Princess of the game,and the characters memory returns. While she remains in her game to try to alter it’s dynamic, Ralph returns to his own game but now as an honored antagonist rather than a disdained one.

                 The first thing that struck me about this movie was the quality of it’s pacing. It started off in a very professional manner by setting up the multi dimensional characters (pun very much intended) and their situations,and begin to bring them into a focus. The main characters all have an inner conflict to fight as their helping each other. Ralph has his quest for heroism, Vanellope has her ambition to be seen as worthy and Calhoun is motivated by anger and a video game form of PTSD to fight the battle no one else wants to. This video game world is set up very much the way the real world is today. Many of the other characters such as King Candy/Turbo, along with the other characters in the  Fix It Felix game are motivated by the very corporate community around them. It’s a community in which,if a game is unplugged the characters become instantly homeless-such as is seen with 80’s arcade icon Qubert in Game Central Station. After realizing that Ralph’s talent at wrecking plays to his advantage,and Vanellope understands her true nature both of them elect to use that knowledge to affect positive change in their respective games. This is very much a film about how ones own self realization can allow them to easier turn disadvantages into advantages. And  therefore makes the film broad minded, entertaining and meaningful enough to be enjoyed by younger and older viewers alike.

W.

Bush

                                   Considering it’s release time during one of the most tense presidential election years in 2008,my own feelings upon seeing this film were as controversial as the subject matter.  After all it’s very hard not to personalize one’s own experiences during a given time,and that was a vital consideration with me and this particular film.  There was simply a lot of overexposure in the media at the time and also a mammoth Wall Street collapse that put George W Bush aggressively into the public eye as his second,and probably most tumultuous term as president,came to a close. I decided to weigh the issue-it was a biopic about someone who I was anxious to rid my thoughts of at the time with the fact it was an Oliver Stone film-a huge plus in my own case. When I actually took the time to look at the film,it wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be at all.

                                      The film exists on a duel timeline,weaving in and out of George W Bush’s (Josh Brolin)  administration planning the agenda for Operation:Iraqi Freedom back into his past. As the debate about the middle east rages on,we view Bush’s days at Yale. Of his years of being bailed out of prison by his father George Sr,played with eerie similarity by James Cromwell and W’s failure as an oil rig worker and his descent into a life of alcoholism and womanizing. After failing in politics the first time,he builds his reputation by managing a major league baseball team and helping out with his father’s presidential campaign. Along with wife Laura he successfully runs for Governor at which time he contemplates the presidency for the first time. In the end,when he begins to understand the enormous complications of the war in the middle east he ends up facing regrets as to his choice to become president and not pursue his original love of professional sports.

                                     Josh Brolin delivers a barnstorming performance as the younger Bush. He portrays the character as a very stereotypical American male image: brazen,careless and not always very aware of the consequences of his actions. This does an excellent job at pointing out the father/son schism between the younger and elder George Bush’s,wherein the son is strongly competitive for his fathers respect over the younger and more politically rewarded brother Jeb. Richard Dryfuss does an extremely accurate turn as Dick Chaney. He is portrayed as a very conniving character pulling at the naively righteous president,who became a virtual slave to his own religious convictions after years of struggling with addition problems. This is depicted with some of Stone’s typically wonderful humor as the president casually mispronounces Guantanamo as “guantanamera” during lunch at the White House.

                                   There are many scenes portraying characters such as Colin Powell,Condi Rice and presidential adviser Karl Rove all debating the way the post 9/11 issues should be handled. Chaney and Rove paint the military model of the picture: take over as much as possible with no thought to the consequences where Powell and Rice both press at first for taking more time to look into the situation before making a move. Brolin’s Bush,admittedly not the best at conversation,buckles at making such hard choices. These are the kind of decisions that marred his own lack of focus in his youth. And,consequently as president. By humanizing a character who had by this time become the figure head of one of the most difficult presidential administrations in history,Oliver Stone was probably very successful at portraying George W. Bush as a man whose deeply seeded insecurity couldn’t back up some of his more boastful intentions.

The Satellite Sky

satellite_sky

                        Documentary filmmaker Robert Stone delivered a brilliant performance in his 1987 film Radio Bikini, his debut that chronicled Operation Crossroads,involving a pair of atomic tests on the Marshall Islands. One of the most vital features of this film was it’s minimal use of narration. About 98% of the film is told solely through archival footage of the period. Apparently inspired by the cold war era sociopolitical atmosphere Stone elected to make his follow up about the next logical step following the advent of the atomic age-the beginning of the exploration of outer space and the ensuing “space race” that followed between the United States and the Soviet union.

                          Stone begins the film with an Atlas ICBM test in Florida that ends in a typically enormous explosion,over which is played Ferrante & Teicher’s 50’s pop hit “Sleepwalk”. The story than follows into the USSR’s launch of the first human made satellite Sputnik  into Earth orbit. Of course immediately the satellite is thought to have massive military implications. We see images of engineers,local Floridonians and even a representative from the Chrysler corporation all discussing the the development of ICBM’s and therefore the linkage between the space race and the nuclear arms race.  Many many attempts at an American satellite fail until 1958 when Explorer 1 is successfully launched and America reveals it’s first Astronaut core,the Mercury 7,to the world.

                          As astronaut Allen Shepard debates who will be the first man in space,a soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin takes  that mantle. Not long after Shepard becomes the first American in space,though the soviets point out it was not an orbital light as theirs ways. By that time President Kennedy has already committed America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by decades end. This results in another frantic race to hurry forward the Mercury program-culminating in John Glenn’s first American orbital flight. Glenn returns a national hero and his hometown family and friends even make a miniature documentary before the film cuts to footage of the first moon landings several years later.

                           This film is somewhat different from Stone’s debut as it contains no outside narration whatsoever. The entire story is told through archival footage.  By juxtaposing footage of television shows,astronaut training footage and perhaps most significantly footage from the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut training program (probably obtained through much difficulty as this film was made just before the end of the cold war) with old American and Russian science fiction films and random human conversations this film has the affect of making the viewer feel as if they’re genuinely participating in these events. My own favorite part is,during a TV show discussing the USSR’s  Sputnik 5’s ability to jam US television signals Stone jump cuts via static to a Soviet export commercial for a brand of cigarettes named Laika,named after the Soviet dog who was a passenger on Sputnik 2. Again Robert Stone ably expressed the absurdity,humor and wonderment of the space race in this film perhaps more potently than most documentaries on the subject.