Tag Archives: Derek Cianfrance

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 Light Between Oceans (2016)

Despite its similar naming structure, The Light Between Oceans, shares few similarities to its predecessor The Place Beyond the Pines. Set in Australia shortly after WWI, the film stars Michael Fassbender (Shame) as Tom Sherbourne, a veteran hired as a lightkeeper for a remote island. Soon, he meets and falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander; Ex Machina). After their marriage, they have two miscarriages within three years leaving Isabel despondent until a rowboat washes ashore. Inside they find a dead man and the baby girl that will forever change their lives. Tom attempts to report the incident, but buckles under Isabel’s desire to have a child.

Once the little girl, Lucy, enters the picture, Tom and Isabel’s lives are filled with joy. They play with their new daughter and show her off to their family and friends. The hapiness lasts until her christening where Tom spots a tearful woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz; The Deep Blue Sea), praying in front of a grave for her husband and infant daughter who were lost at sea the same day he found Lucy. Racked with guilt and unable to persuade Isabel to confess their sins, Tom leaves a note for Hannah letting her know her baby is safe, but her husband is dead. What soon follows is a messy situation. Lucy taken from the parents she knows to the rightful mother she wants nothing to do with as Tom and Isabel face repercussions of their actions.

In its early parts, The Light Between Oceans resembles a Nicholas Sparks movie. The leads only require one picnic before Isabel brings up the idea of marriage so they can spend the next 10 minutes handwriting cliche-ridden professions of love a la Dear John. “I never knew I could talk about the way I feel”, writes Tom. Cianfrance’s films are known for their raw intensity of character interactions. He’s been called an “actor’s director” because he is able to create an original intimacy even in predictable situations, like the relationship in Blue Valentine. This makes the overly simplistic beginning to the central romance especially disappointing. Fassbender and Vikander are a real life couple, but their early scenes of courtship (or rather the single scene) feel forced. It’s like the director looked at the actors and said “Be perfect for each other” and started rolling. Isabel’s optimism doesn’t match with Tom’s taciturn demeanor and it’s unclear why either has developed affection. Fortunately, the romance becomes more believable as the two grow closer during the hardships they face.

The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.
The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.

The Sparks comparison extends to the setting and cinematography. The film is set by the ocean with an overabundance of landscape shots. Granted, the visuals are breathtaking. Ocean waves crashing against the shore and lonely sunsets dominate the first half of the movie. While aesthetically stunning, the focus on the backdrops unnecessarily slows down the film’s pace and has the unintended effect of distancing the viewer from the central conflict. The fading light of the sun seems to carry equal importance to Tom and Isabel’s relationship early on, but Cianfrance lacks the ability to imbue meaning into the natural imagery. He is not Terrence Malick.

In the final act the film, Cianfrance finally delivers on the emotional resonance he is known for. Actions have consequences, and the depth of Tom and Isabel’s relationship is shown, not told, as they take steps to protect each other. Here, the professions of love are earned. In some ways, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s version of a Merchant Ivory film. Romantic, but deliberately old-fashioned with his natural inclinations muted until the end. Still, not many filmmakers working today can match Cianfrance’s ability to draw out an emotional response. The feelings come like waves hitting the rocks of the island, overwhelming and powerful. While the The Light Between Oceans starts out slow, the scenery is enough to carry the film to its piercing final third.

4/5 stars.

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.