Moonlight (2016)

As people pass through time, the events they experience, both good and bad, shape who they grow up to be. Moonlight is the story of one man’s life. Chiron, played by a different actor in each of the three time periods, is raised by a single mother in a poor part of Miami. As a child, Chiron, called “Little” due to his size, barely talks and is regularly beaten up by other kids at school. When running away from his bullies, he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali; House of Cards), a drug dealer, who takes care of him and, along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), becomes a surrogate family member. When his mother uses drugs or when he gets picked on, Chiron goes to their house for support.

The consequences of Chiron’s upbringing are clear. One day he goes to Juan and Teresa’s house and asks “Am I a faggot?”. Without support from his mom and without a father, he is unable to figure out who he is and the labels other people attach to him, including his nicknames, determine how he behaves and perceives himself. As a teenager, his mother’s drug addiction becomes a larger issue. He often can’t stay at home and doesn’t know how to deal with his homosexuality. The outside pressure to act “hard” or “tough” in order to survive push him to a life of crime.

Chiron's troubled home changes the course of his life.
Chiron’s troubled home changes the course of his life.

After serving time in prison, Chiron deals drugs just like Juan did. He has tattoos, wears a grill, and even drives around in Juan’s car. After the one romantic experience of his youth left him heartbroken, he clearly overcompensates for the pain he has felt. Chiron spent his time in prison changing himself so nobody could hurt him. Despite his tough exterior, when he reconnects with a childhood friend and first love, his true nature comes out. He reverts to the reticence of his youth and is at a loss for words. His subtle hesitations betray the emotional frailty behind his facade of hardness.

The actors deserve enormous credit for their consistency. Whenever a character’s life is split into distinct sections and requires different actors for each, there is always a risk that they don’t seem like the same person. Yet even as Chiron changes physically, especially as an adult, the character’s behaviors carry through. The sad stare, the tilted head, and other minute mannerisms remain constant. The cast and director are able to unify the performances and create a cohesive character portrait.

Moonlight has incredibly sensitive direction. Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) brings a deliberate pace to the film. Each scene is intimate and characters feel real. Jenkins shoots his characters close-up with lighting that emphasizes mood. The best comparison is Derek Cianfrance whose character interactions also share the same intensity. Words are spoken slowly for maximum impact and the looks in the eyes of the characters as well as their physical posture are just as important as dialogue. Moonlight uses its measured style to examine a young man’s life with raw veracity.

4/5 stars.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) returns to Korea with one of his best movies in years. The Handmaiden takes place during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s where a young thief, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), goes undercover as the personal servant to a wealthy, but mentally unstable Japanese woman named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee; Right Now, Wrong Then). Sook-hee’s friend and fellow thief (Ha Jung-woo; The Yellow Sea) poses as a Japanese Count so that, with Sook-hee’s help, he can marry Hideko and then have her declared legally insane, inheriting her family’s wealth for himself with a cut of the earnings going to Sook-hee.

The delicate approach taken to Hideko and Sook-hee’s relationship is easily the most shocking part of the film. Not that what is displayed is surprising, but rather who it is coming from. Park is known for his twisted violence and his often perverted characters. He has never shied away from portraying sadism onscreen which makes the genuine sweetness  of the romance completely unexpected. As Sook-hee cares for Hideko, she sympathizes with her plight and becomes attracted to her naivete. Both are inexperienced, but they discover themselves with and through each other. Even as it becomes explicit, their relationship creates a much softer, and welcome, core to the film.

The nature of her work brings Sook-hee closer to Hideko.
The nature of her work brings Sook-hee closer to Hideko.

When the times comes, Park quickly moves into his signature perversion. Characters have deeper motivations than what is first implied and noble pastimes are shown to have unseemly roots. Fortunately, the transgressions are displayed with a light tone. Park has the temperament of a child gleefully flipping through an adult magazine, excited more at the idea of breaking the rules than the actual acts themselves. This gives the film a much needed levity that creates laughter where on paper it could produce disgust.

What’s amazing is Park’s ability to blend these conflicting tones. The film is at times tender, as a romance grows between Hideko and Sook-hee, comedic, when the Count struggles to court Hideko, and, of course, violent. Park separates the film into distinct segments, mirroring the book the film is adapted from, to prevent the tonal shifts from becoming jarring. Furthermore, he uses them to add much needed variety. The film is 144 minutes long but rarely drags as each chapter reframes the audience’s perspective. With each section, more information is revealed and deceptions prove deeper than ever expected. The Handmaiden is a serpentine thriller that is as playful as it is twisted.

4/5 stars.

Under the Shadow (2016)

In Tehran, after the revolution but still in the middle of conflict, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) pleads with the director of her medical school. She left to be an activist during the revolution and now wants to return to her studies, but because she chose the wrong side is not allowed to re-enroll. Heartbroken, she goes home only to find out her husband, also a doctor, is being drafted to help the military. Tehran is a major target for bombings, so he advises that Shideh take their daughter Dorsa and go to his parents in the north where they will be safe. Upset and stubborn, Shideh says she will stay. She soon learns that there is more to be afraid of than the bombings.

Under the Shadow is a multilayered film and builds fear with each additional wrinkle. There is the physical threat of bombings that constantly looms over the characters, but Shideh is also dealing with her own failure and is questioning her ability to protect Dorsa by herself. On top of this, there are the supernatural elements. Why is Dorsa’s doll missing? Why won’t her fever break? What are the things she and Dorsa keep seeing? As Shideh tries to deal with these fears, she begins to crack under the pressure. Everyone in her building starts leaving the city so she has the additional fear of being alone in the building. Each of these aspects increases the baseline level of fear. Even if they are safe in one respect, there are still several other dangers to be afraid of.

Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.
Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.

Director Babak Anvari adjusts the camerawork to match the emotion of the film. Rather than maintain the same shooting style throughout the movie, he shifts his approach as needed. In pivotal sequences when a character is exploring the source of a noise, he uses perfectly fluid movements to indicate the danger lurking around the corner. When characters are scrambling in fear, the camera shakes softly reflecting their unstable state of mind. Anvari also deserves praise for creative framing. He films common scenes in portrait rather than landscape, allowing a character’s posture, and the sentiment it communicates, to dominate the screen. His expertly controlled cinematography precisely manipulates the audience’s emotions.

The sound design is also a major factor in the film’s success. Horror, more than any other genre, is reliant on audio cues to maintain tension. Normally this is limited to the interplay of quiet and loud that forms a jump scare but Anvari uses background noise to make the audience constantly uncomfortable. There is always rumbling, like the sound of heavy winds or the shaking of an earthquake, and it subtly increases as the film progresses. Low frequency noise like this creates a physiological response of unease. Gaspar Noé used this to great effect in Irreversible and Anvari is able to even eclipse that. The noise, like a tightening in the chest, gently suffocates any hope of relief.

The true nature of Under the Shadow sneaks up on you. It initially seems like a family drama about separation caused by war, but soon reveals its horror roots. The strength of the film is how it successfully combines disparate types of fear. As Shideh’s situation spirals out of control, she is not only sympathetic, but clearly unreliable. In most films, this would be counterproductive, but because of the very real threat of bombings, it only adds to the suspense. The physical dangers become interwoven with the psychological and even though we suspect she may be misinterpreting her surroundings, we can’t relax because there are other risks around her. The lack of release is almost unbearable and the tension escalates to the point of asphyxiation. Under the Shadow melds internal, external, and supernatural fears into a terrifying whole.

five stars

5/5 stars.

A War (2016)

Is it a crime to try to save your own men? Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) explores this question in A War. Commanding officer Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk; Game of Thrones) leads his team of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. When a local family attempts to seek refuge in their military base after the Taliban informs them that they will die unless the father becomes a warrior, Claus assures them that they can return home and that the soldiers will come back to stop the Taliban. As they try to make good on their promise, the Danes soon find themselves under fire and Claus makes a decision to ensure the safe extraction of a gravely wounded soldier. He survives but Claus is placed under investigation because, unbeknownst to him, his order caused the death of several civilians and his reasoning is brought into question.

Lindholm excels at creating realistic drama. The military scenes are shot with a Direct Cinema verisimilitude that never over-dramatizes an action. Movements are subtle and the film feels deliberately stripped down. This method of staging makes the violence of battle a tangible fear and the potential consequences are apparent with every decision. Lindholm would make a great action film director if he ever chose make the switch. It’s a shame that there are so few of these scenes in the film.

Claus's trial creates the central dilemma.
The verdict of Claus’s trial becomes the central dilemma.

Instead, his main focus is the aftermath of the battle. Claus is sent home and put on trial for the deaths of the civilians. The prosecutors are claiming that he made the critical decision without information required by law – that he ordered a bombing without having a positive ID on military targets. Claus’s innocence (or guilt) is not ambiguous and the truth behind his decision is made clear to the viewer. Lindholm’s true desire is to explore how Claus will defend himself. Will he tell a lie if it means a chance at an acquittal? Does it matter? As one character puts it, “The issue is not what you should have done, but what you do now.” The impact of these decisions goes beyond Claus himself. He has a wife and three young children and by all other accounts is a skilled soldier. Who will benefit from him going to prison? Who will really be punished?

Lindholm’s choice to quickly leave the war-zone and enter the courtroom is a risky one. When in Afghanistan, he deftly handles the battle scenes and makes the small scale battles feel pivotal. His stripped down style creates tension from realism and this applies to legal battles too. As in A Hijacking, he portrays a man in conflict between doing what appears right and what will be the least painful. The strength of the legal scenes comes from Claus’s relationships with his men and the potential damage to his family. How will his reporting officers testify? It’s clear that many of them are more than just direct reports and unfavorable, but perhaps truthful, statements could not only damage their friendship but also send a good man to jail. While these cross examinations are interesting, they can’t compete with the intensity of the action scenes. They feel somewhat deflated in comparison. Despite a shift in focus, A War examines the split second decisions made in battle and the morality of their repercussions with engrossing realism and nuance.

4/5 stars.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (2016)

[BS Note: There are two versions of Voyage of Time: a 40 minute documentary and a 90 minute feature length version. This review covers the former.]

Almost 40 years ago Terrence Malick had a dream. He wanted to make a movie that explored the origins of life. The movie, then tentatively titled Q, was going to be backed by Paramount until Malick left and went on his famous 20 year separation from Hollywood. Apparently, he never stopped working on the idea. Parts of the project were used in the origins sequence of The Tree of Life and since then an effects team has been at work on what is now Voyage of Time. Clearly intended for IMAX screens, Malick has created a documentary unlike any other.

His goals are less didactic than philosophical. Malick, who graduated with a degree in philosophy from Harvard, has never been interested in literal facts. Instead, he uses voiceovers by Brad Pitt to ponder the meaning of life. While existential quandaries are par for the course in anything Malick has done recently, the thoughts here are much more broad than usual. These are questions that apply to life in general rather than the particular experience of a character. Many will view this narration as pretentious and navel-gazing and they would be mostly correct. The opening epigraph addresses the audience with “Dear Child”, making the spiritual tone apparent from the beginning. There are moments of profundity scattered within the voiceovers, but they lack the impact they had in The Tree of Life. If anything, this film proves that Malick’s brand of exposition requires a human story. It grounds his thoughts and provides a context for the audience to connect with.

The special effects create the feeling of traveling through space.
The special effects create a palpable feeling of traveling through space.

Regardless of their varying quality, the voiceovers are largely forgotten. The visuals overwhelm and envelop all expository aspects of the film. The footage was shot with the format in mind and watching it on a 90 foot screen is nothing short of awe inspiring. The visuals swallow the audience whole. Combined with the sound effects, namely the rushing of water and classical music, they form a gestalt that renders any attempts at exposition inconsequential.

It’s unclear how much time and money was spent creating the special effects, but whatever the cost was the final product is worth it. The scenes depicting the formation of the universe and showing celestial bodies are particularly enthralling. They use chemicals, coloring agents, and models to create practical effects that are timeless. Seven years ago audiences were amazed by the visuals in Avatar, but computer generated models always show their age. Soon, the effects in Avatar will look dated but in another 50 years, the cosmic scenes here will still be stunning. The only complaint is that there are not enough of these universe creation scenes.

The film’s narrative is mostly empty. Pitt’s voiceovers aside, the only real story available is knowing that each scene moves forward in time. Some may not find this enough to carry a film, but at 40 minutes the lack of story is not an issue. After the creation sequence, Malick interweaves scenes of nature with footage of a young child playing in the grass asking the question (literally) “How did we get to who we are?” The question is never answered, but rather discussed. While coming to a Terrence Malick movie expecting anything to be explicit is a mistake, many will still find the lack of resolution, and therefore the film itself, pointless.  For those wiling to embrace Malick’s elliptical style, Voyage of Time presents the divine beauty of life with standard-setting visual effects.

4/5 stars.

Café Society (2016)

Café Society continues Woody Allen’s love affair with the past. While Midnight in Paris had him going back to the 1920s, here we have a glossy depiction of the 1930s. Jessie Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Bobby, a young Jewish man from New York City who moves to Hollywood hoping that his successful agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell; The Office) will give him a job. Deliberately estranged from his family and career focused, Phil ignores Bobby for weeks until finally offering him work doing odd jobs. Since Bobby doesn’t know anyone in the city yet, Phil asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart; Clouds of Sils Maria) to show him around town. Bobby soon falls for Vonnie and even though she clearly has feelings for him, she can’t reciprocate because she is already in another relationship.

The film is decidedly safe territory for Allen. The tropes are well worn with the characters almost prewritten. Bobby is Allen’s typical protagonist, meaning he is Woody Allen himself, but the performance is inconsistent. Eisenberg oscillates between his own shtick, the fast talking staccato phrases from The Social Network, to Allen’s self-deprecating nervous ticks. The standout performance is Kristen Stewart’s. Her anti-commercial attitude contrasts nicely with the materialist celebrities and big shots Phil socializes with and makes her the one down-to-earth person in a Hollywood filled with superficiality. The clothes she wears only add to her appeal and further distinguish her. The other characters are dressed in period appropriate clothing but Vonnie’s outfits, while perhaps overly twee, are more like a present-day fashion brand’s lineup of ’30s inspired clothing than something actually of the era. They add a modern twist to the old fashioned elegance. Vonnie’s combination of unique personality and looks make it only natural for Bobby to be so deeply interested in her.

Allen and Storaro take the "Golden Age of Hollywood" quite literally.
Allen and Storaro take the “Golden Age of Hollywood” quite literally.

The film leans heavily on its visuals. The famous cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) lovingly recreates the era. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and he and Storaro take full advantage of the format’s advantages when it comes to color correction. Scenes alternate between being shot in sepia tone and bathed in golden light from a sun that appears to be constantly at dusk. Does it make sense that everything seems take place before sundown? No, but it doesn’t matter. Their goal is to capture nostalgia and they achieve it. This artifice sometimes removes the scenes from any sense of reality, but is worth it for the gorgeous colors.

It’s the lack of emotional involvement that ultimately debilitates the film. There are brief moments when complications arise in Vonnie and Bobby’s relationship that entice, but most of the film is only engaging because of its visuals. Characters seem to be defined by quirky mannerisms rather than internal motivations. These idiosyncrasies can be momentarily amusing but aren’t enough to build any character depth. Even Vonnie, the film’s best and most fully developed character, eventually becomes like the other Hollywood socialites. Her previously attractive traits are gone and with them the film’s charm.  Like many of the stars at Phil’s parties, Café Society is visually attractive, unoffensive, and provides a few laughs, but isn’t substantial enough to stop it from joining the list of Woody Allen movies no one will be able to remember a few years from now.

3/5 stars.

Embers (2016)

Embers takes place in a near future where a virus that causes memory loss has spread to the entire population. When people go to sleep or even after only waiting a few minutes, they forget who they are and what they are doing. The world as we know it has collapsed and the remaining survivors wander aimlessly through the destroyed homes, picking up and losing companions along the way. We are presented a few different stories. A man (Jason Ritter; Freddy vs. Jason) and a woman (Iva Gocheva; Sneakers) wake up next to each other in a dilapidated home. Neither recalls their names or their relationship to each other. The only clue they have is a blue piece of cloth each has tied around their wrists, indicating some type of connection. They decide that they must have been a couple, settle on names for each other, and explore the area, searching for supplies. A parallel story involves a man and his young adult daughter who have been living in an underground bunker for the past decade. While cutoff from society, the two are also disease free and can recall their past. Their zoned days and nights are a point of contention for the daughter who wants to experience more than their routine existence.

The setting reflects the lives of the characters. Without the memory of having a home, nothing has been maintained. Buildings are crumbling, rooms are in disarray, and everything seems to be abandoned. Even the cinematography feels blank. The colors are desaturated with the palette emphasizing shades of gray above all else. The world feels deliberately empty and drained of life.

The dialogue is void of emotion as the characters are of memory.
The dialogue is as void of emotion as the characters are of memory.

Interactions between characters are unfortunately as cold and stilted as the environment. The initial conversation between Ritter and Gocheva feels unprofessional, like first time actors attempting a dry run at a scene. The dialogue itself is weighed down by the exposition clumsily woven in to explain the background of the world. Each time the characters try to connect verbally, it only shows how poorly written the film is.  As the father and daughter argue over the value of a dull, repetitive life with memory versus a uncertain but varied life without it, the gravity of their discussion never hits home. It just feels like a whiny, immature child arguing with a controlling parent. Even when it gestures at deeper emotions, the combination of amateur acting and underdeveloped dialogue undercut the film’s ambitions.

There are only a few moments when the film is able to successfully explore the implications of its premise. The rapid memory loss means that even the strongest emotions and events in a life, good or bad, will soon be forgotten. This has effects beyond simply forgetting one’s own name. A severe, life-changing emotional trauma can simply evaporate. People stop in the middle of crying because they have forgotten why they started in the first place. A short separation from a loved one can lead to forgetting their existence. How does a child develop without the ability to form memories? First time director Claire Carré clearly wants to explore these scenarios but loses sight of her goals in favor of explaining the setup. Instead of fully examining the consequences or benefits of life without memory, Embers squanders its interesting premise with wooden acting and exposition heavy dialogue.

2/5 stars.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man is perhaps the strangest film to come out this year. Paul Dano (Love & Mercy) plays Hank, a man marooned on a small island about to hang himself in desperation until a body washes onshore. That body is the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and upon realizing the body is dead, Hank returns to hanging himself until he is interrupted by the corpse violently convulsing. He realizes the corpse is farting and propelling itself across the water. Then Hank does the only natural thing and proceeds to ride the body like a jet ski fueled by flatulence. The duo make it to a nearby shore and attempt to reach society. Along the way the body slowly comes to life. Manny, the dead body, starts by barely talking then gains more abilities like spewing water for Hank to drink.

The beginning of the film may alienate viewers. The focus on farts, bodily fluids, and other bodily functions initially seem juvenile and can be repulsive. Nobody wants to watch someone drink water spraying out of someone else’s mouth. While these may be the most talked about aspects of the film, the directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (credited as “Daniels”) only use these as plot devices to advance the story. They are interested in much more than the sometimes vulgar beginning.

Hank's etiquette lessons are detailed.
Hank’s etiquette lessons are incredibly detailed.

Daniel Radcliffe deserves enormous credit for his performance. His absolute commitment to the role make the character somehow believable and likable. His partially fixed facial expressions, belabored voice, and cumbersome movements all convey a body recovering from rigor mortis. As Manny becomes more intelligent and gains an ever expanding array of uses, Radcliffe’s delivery makes the character seem authentically new to the world. His acting is what makes the emotional impact of the story possible.

The film proves to be about the relationship between Hank and Manny. Hank goes to great lengths to carry Manny with him as they try to find their way back home. Along the way he does his best to educate Manny on how to behave like a living human being. He constructs elaborate, but makeshift, recreations of regular life to show Manny how to interact with others. The main skill he focuses on is talking to an attractive stranger on the bus. The Daniels use this process to examine love from an elementary perspective. Manny’s increasing intellect leads to several childlike questions that probe at social conventions. He speaks his mind because he doesn’t know what or why inhibitions exist and as Hank tries to answer, he discovers the insecurities that have caused him to miss out on life. A recurring topic is “What does weird mean?” and the role of other people’s perceptions. Hank sees how he let his lack of confidence prevent him from taking the actions necessary to achieve his desires. During these lessons, the connection between Hank and Manny grows and the power of their friendship emerges as a major theme that is examined with uncommon depth. The film becomes a story of self-actualization and building confidence to become comfortable in one’s own skin. Swiss Army Man is a sweet, earnest exploration of social norms and the value of strong bonds, but done in the most bizarre way possible

4/5 stars.