Tuesday, 28 February 2017


Barry Jenkins, 2016, USA

Like ‘Manchester by the Sea’, another film-of-the-moment, here is a further drama whose performances are exceptional across the board. Told in three segments – childhood, youth, adulthood – here is the story of Chiron, a gay black man trying to reconcile those identities over a lifetime in a mostly disapproving environment. 

Barry Jenkins’ film starts with Chiron as a child (Alex Hibbert) hiding out from his tormentors and running into a drug-den and Juan (Marshalala Ali), a passing drug dealer who literary tears down a wall to talk to the kid. How’s that for symbolism? The boy turns out to be a cagey, silent kid and already we can see that trusting others is something that he has learnt not to do easily, if at all. But Juan perhaps sees in the kid something that he was, or simply a vessel to place his untapped paternalism in; whatever the motivation, Juan and his girlfriend provide a safe place for Chiron as he tries to negotiate bullies and his unreliable drug-addict mother. The other kids sense a difference in Chiron that he hasn’t quite cottoned to yet and this makes him an easy target. Then we jump to Chiron’s youth (Ashton Sanders) and he’s still fighting the same battles but he’s now torn between keeping silent and speaking up for himself. But by now, he realises that he is targeted because he is seen as gay, which he is. How to stop it all? Then we skip forward to his adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) where he has becomes somewhat of a stereotype: a man dealing drugs. He can bury his sexuality beneath this identity: he has built himself again from the ground up and forsaken his natural sentiment and emotional range. Until the old friend he once had a sexual encounter with gets back in touch.

‘Moonlight’ has attracted praise from all over and allow me to join in. The theme of bildungsroman and the three-act conceit is likely people think of Richard Linklater’s formal daring with ‘Boyhood’ to capture growing up. Of course, ‘Moonlight’ probably triggers all kinds of preconceptions as to what it will be like once you are told the plot, but it’s not quite the gritty drug-addled tragedy you might assume: it’s bright, easy-going and given to occasional flights of lyricism that hint at the influences of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsey. The three actors playing Chiron move fluidly into one another – all exceptional – and so rounded is his character that revisiting him at different stages of development clearly reveals different angles on his personality; the leap-frogging structure allows a view of how Chiron develops, how his experience informs his decisions and how that affects his development. Certainly, there is a resonant ring of truth to the tale, and in adapting semi-autobiographical Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ Jenkins has said that this tale resounds with his own experience. Indeed, this will resonate with any repressed and bullied individual.

Brett Easton Ellis has taken ‘Moonlight’ to task for dwelling on a “victim narrative”, but that seems very narrow and a sweeping neglect of the nuances the film and acting presents. For example, fully, this is a story of how Chiron decides no longer to be a victim – there is the moment in the school office after being beaten up where he seems to take on board the advice he’s been given that there is a point where a person has to decide what to be. The point seems to be that he is made to feel that, within this culture, there are few identity options deemed open to him. He decides not be a victim but that leads him to an identity where he has to shut down his sexuality and neglect his subtleties. It’s about the tragedy of not feeling you can be who you really are due to what are seen as cultural norms. Indeed, this is spelt out during the remarkable final kitchen conversation between Chiron and Kevin (André Holland).*

 The Movie Waffler finds the ending a little too cute and flawed for that, perhaps with the idea that a happy ending is a sign of weakness; but it’s far more ambiguous than that, surely? All we have is the hint that Chiron has been able to express himself truthfully for once with no guarantee that this leads to anything more (indeed, Chiron’s smile may be untypically beatific, but Kevin’s more inscrutable). And, surely, why would you begrudge Chiron a moment of happiness? The film leaves him in a brief state of hard-won contentment but surely it would be a mistake to think this will typify his life from thereon out? Nick James says ‘Moonlight’ is sweepingly romantic, and there is that to it, but since when has a romantic venture for a gay black man had so much crossover appeal? Indeed, it is surely that popular cinema is including so many diverse and minority groups into popular narratives that has contributed to the era’s conservative political backlash. Sheesh, it’s an Oscar winner. Who’d have thunk? It’s one to make the racists and homophobes and right wing to bring on the ‘Hollywood is liberal politically correct gone mad hellspace oh so horrible’ tirades (indeed, Tucker Carson happily obliges). But for those of us that go to film to see reflections and representations, to discover how other people live and survive and therefore learn a little about them and ourselves, this is a treat.

‘Moonlight’ can soak up all the praise its had been given for its performances, steady pace, careful dialogue, segues into the poetic and its use of music are all exemplary (when we finally get to hear the song that reminded Kevin of Chiron, its undisguised romanticism is quite a shock and cuts deeps). It will probably survive the stigma of being an Oscar winner as this will typically bring on a backlash against its popularity, but it’s important (for reasons that Todd Brown discusses) and it is fully worthy. 

Oh, and it’s deeply moving.

Brett Easton Ellis also feels that ’12 Years a Slave’ trades in a “victim narrative”, which is surely a woefully miscalculated viewpoint. He seems to be conflating the narratives of “victimhood” and narratives portraying “making victims”: ’12 Years a Slave’ is about the wilful, violent making of victims, not wallowing in victimhood. For perspective, he thinks Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ a superior film. I have enjoyed many of Ellis’ books but I don’t go to him for empathy: indeed, it is telling that the only Ellis novel I have been properly moved by is ‘Lunar Park’, a story whose tragedy rests upon the protagonist’s selfishness and inability to empathise with his child.

Sunday, 19 February 2017


Aaron Lipstadt, 1982, USA

A hugely enjoyable excursion into 80s B-movie sci-fi from the Roger Corman stable: an android lives obliviously with his master on a space-station until three escaped convicts appear and change everything. With the winning directness of a short story and as a product of the 1980s, ‘Android’ is of course going to look dated – look at those computer games Max plays! – but the effects are mostly decent and, more importantly, the set design is no-nonsense and convincing in its limitations; they avoid looking too futuristic and trying too hard (it’s a case of budget restrictions being an asset) and with the company colours and strips all over it resembles living inside a canister bearing a logo.

Android Max 404 (Don Opper) is a blank slate, a technological medium only as good as his programmers, his innocence and mildness a means of making him compliant, but nevertheless this is unable to stop his natural curiosity for pop culture. There are undertones of film noir not only in Max’s aspirations but also at times in the lighting. This leads him to want to go to Earth and in the three new arrivals, he sees his chance. In fact, Max 404’s malleability is his major asset. It’s another plot with robots that cannot help but anthropomorphise – the who/what is human? is a staple intrigue of the android narratives – but it’s more a part of the pulp conceit rather than investigative as in something like Alex Garland's ‘Ex Machina’. This is a coming-of-age story for androids.

Don Opper, who wrote the script, is riveting and naturally charming as Max 404. Opper is a likeable and knowing presence that should have been one of the era’s genre cult heroes but didn’t really develop this promise. Klaus Kinski is admirably level as Dr Daniel in a role that could have easily introduced over-acting; having said that, perhaps that’s just how Kinski is – in constant deluded-and-mad-scientist mode and he’s just dialling in the performance. He’s busy trying to kick-start his supreme female android – which, it turns out, can be triggered by a dose of android sexual energy. But indeed, all the cast manage to step back a few steps from complete hamminess even if it is clunky at times. The convicts are the type immediately recognisable from the Eighties with only Crofton Hardester being straightforward villainous without nuance, and it’s fun that as the audience you can see they don’t realise what they’ve stepped into.
As with ‘Ex Machina’, the queasiness of the gender politics are somewhat mitigated by the overall exploitation aesthetic and moreso by the obvious intelligence and wit of the script. 

Monday, 13 February 2017


"Under the Shadow": article on influences and Q&A with director Babak Anvari. How pleasing that such a great little horror film is getting such recognition.

Vic Pratt on his love for "Night of the Demon", which is a more-or-less just an excuse to post this picture.

Favourite songs #1

Favourite Songs #2

Thursday, 9 February 2017

St Vincent

Theodore Melfi, 2014, USA

Antisocial old guy babysits a bullied but bright kid for selfish reasons and, after hijinx, is redeemed by this friendship.

Ah, you know this one. A comedy based upon the premise that it is inherently funny to have an antagonistic older guy teach an innocent kid about name-calling, booze, gambling, prostitutes, etc. So the bar isn’t set very high but the main actors are a likeable bunch so it takes some time to realise that there aren’t enough gags to elevate the shenanigans before they give way to an uninteresting sentimental denouement where the full saccharine potential of the title is reached. Of course, although many characters call him such, we don’t really believe Vincent is an irredeemable asshole because he’s played by Bill Murray (or Bill “Fucking” Murray to give him his full chive.com name). His assholishness is put down to a broken heart and it is all resolved with social recognition, a hug and a makeshift family unit. But he’s also been rude, selfish, thieving, irresponsible, manipulative, etc. As Bill Murray the celebrity is a symbol for a kind of counter-culture japester devil-may-care machismo, Vinnie’s general unacceptable behaviour gets quite a pass, but this isn’t so much sticking-to-the-man as it’s taking advantage of and insulting working people.  

Elsewhere, Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Oliver has an appearance and manner that manages to mitigate his obvious precociousness into something more vulnerable and appealing, but like ‘Midnight Special’ there is the sense that this doesn’t use the most of him.
Naomi Watts has fun hamming it up as a Russian tart-with-a-heart and Melissa McCarthy grounds things immensely as if she’s stumbled in from a more earnest film – but of course this is Murray’s show and it’s a shame that it’s in the service of such slush. Beneath its bright superficiality, director Theodore Melfi’s script is only moderately funny with the kid mostly gets the best material (even with the amusing deleted scene where he and his pal discuss the origins of acting-up; his introduction to his new class struck me as perhaps the film’s funniest scene): Murray insulting and manipulating everyone isn’t instantaneously hilarious in itself, surely (?). You’re left with the feeling that there’s an emotional reconciliation because *shrug* that’s just what this stuff does. It’s all so by-rote (this is the bit where Vinnie tries to sabotage their friendship; here is where the kid overcomes the bully; here is a stroke overcome by a montage, etc) that it’s hard to be genuinely moved as the film seems to desire.