Tag Archives: Moonlight

Landline (2017)

Gillian Robespierre’s (Obvious Child) sophomore effort is an unfortunate disappointment. Her stellar debut mixed awkward humor, real dilemmas, and a gentle romance, but Landline features very little of what made that film great. The new movie again stars Jenny Slate as Dana, a 30ish engaged woman, and her dysfunctional family, each member on the verge of a supposed crisis. She has caring but divided parents played by John Turturro (Barton Fink) and Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) and an obnoxious teenaged sister Ali (Abby Quinn) who acts out at every turn.

This may be one of the first films to feature 90s nostalgia. We’ve seen many movies with bell-bottomed characters in the 70s, the big hair of the 80s, but few have recreated the 1990s. The denim-heavy clothes, cassette tapes, and titular landlines all reference the decade but what is surprising is how little the time period matters. Beyond the absence of cell phones and social media, the characters talk and behave in such a modern way that it is easy to forget when the film actually takes place. This makes the choice of setting a confusing one. It doesn’t add any particular nuance to the story. It’s not something that could have only happened in the 90s, so the setting was likely chosen to match Robespierre’s own experiences growing up. It’s nice to see a different choice for a period piece, but the not-quite-retro setting is only worth a few pop culture references and nothing more.

The constant, and usually unfounded, whining of the daughters becomes irritating.

While her previous film was about one woman coping with the upheaval of her already scattered lifestyle, Landline centers on a family unit. The relationships and the mistakes one person makes are reflected through each family member. The parents, while physically together, are emotionally separated with the father having an affair with an unknown woman. The daughters are also distant and constantly argue with each other. Ali sneaks out at night, curses nonstop, and is completely opposed to anything her parents say. Dana, engaged to a loving fiancé, is having second thoughts about where her life is headed and takes out her frustration in arguments with her parents and Ali. The dialogue is realistic, but the sheer abrasiveness makes the characters unlikable. The way the family, particularly the daughters, cut into each other with their words is downright mean. The insults aren’t played for humor, so the film becomes an incessant display of verbal abuse to people that they supposedly care about. It’s an unwelcome look at the cruelty people can show to those closest to them.

Furthermore, the mistakes they make are unprovoked. Characters risk loving relationships for momentary pleasures and mistreat each other for no apparent reason. These are relatively affluent people with no physical, mental, or financial issues to speak of, but they still create problems for themselves as if they have been through some kind of trauma. In Moonlight, the main character had to deal with growing up with a poor, crack-addicted single mom in a crime-ridden neighborhood intolerant of his orientation, yet he complained less than these people do. Their pleasant, upper-middle class lifestyle is apparently too easy so they make unnecessary conflict. Ali screams at her mom for asking about her college applications and Dana gets upset with her fiancé for calling her after she abruptly moves back to her parent’s house. These aren’t relatable or even meaningful problems and without that, the film remains a showcase of unpleasant, self-destructive characters oblivious of their own privilege.

2/5 stars.

Hidden Figures (2016)

For each individual’s success there are dozens of people who helped them get there. In many cases, these people never receive credit for their efforts. Hidden Figures, is the story of how three black women contributed to NASA’s early programs. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are “computers” in the early 60s, meaning the perform the complex calculations needed by the engineers and scientists. Katherine has been assigned to a special task group, but has to deal with being the first black person working there. Dorothy is trying to get promoted to supervisor, a job she is already performing, but can’t win the respect of her boss. Mary wants to apply to become an engineer, but doesn’t have the required education and isn’t allowed to attend the only school that offers it. Each of the stories follow the women as they deal with prejudices against their race and their gender.

The writing is surprisingly sharp. There are plenty of witty exchanges between the women as they comment on their managers and the difficulties they have to face. Monae is particularly funny as the unfiltered, sassy member of the group. Her barely contained anger and judgmental stares lead to several amusing scenes. The film also handles quieter moments well. Katherine is courted by a charismatic military officer played by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and their growing romance is both sweet and comical. The screenplay adds some much needed flavor to the otherwise well-trodden narrative.

The couple’s interactions provide a welcome tenderness to the film.

The actresses are clearly enjoying themselves in their roles. Playing technical characters is something many actors struggle with (think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening), but the cast here is believable as talented mathematicians. Spencer is sympathetic as the den mother of the group who tries to ensure jobs for her team in the face of impending obsolescence by technology. Monae’s rare moments of politeness are enjoyable as she navigates through the labyrinthine rules preventing her from reaching her desired profession. Even Henson is charming as her character’s intelligence and work ethic outshine her supposedly superior bosses. She definitely continues her signature “stink look” throughout the film, but that subsides in favor of the story.

Special note needs to be given to the soundtrack. Most period pieces rely on music of the era to help embed the audience in the past, but composers Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch decided to go in the opposite direction. They use selections or original songs that are deliberately anachronistic, but instead of feeling jarring they add a modern sensibility to the film’s retro setting. This injects energy into what could have been an otherwise stuffy environment.

The real Achilles heel is that the plot is too predictable. Every potential conflict and every subsequent outcome can be guessed 30 seconds into the trailer. This isn’t a film that is trying to do something new on a story level. It’s not what happens, but who it happens to that is important. The goal of the film is to provide some much needed praise to this often overlooked demographic and celebrate the strength of women in general. That intent deserves commendation but the straightforward story diminishes the drama. There are several moments where the film attempts to create tension, but they have no real effect. We already know where the conclusion is headed and can’t get invested in the potential crises. Without that investment, the movie can only impact on a surface level. Hidden Figures is an uplifting tribute to forgotten women held back by its commonplace narrative.

3/5 stars.

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.