“In Moonlight, Black boys look blue” – Moonlight (Film Review)

Moonlight offers a look at the upbringing of a young man looking at three specific time periods in his life. As a boy, a teenager and a man. Moonlight has just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, following a mix up when La La Land was announced as the winner by mistake. It’s a powerful film, but is it worthy of Best Picture?

Chiron is a young, black child growing up in Liberty City, Miami. Withdrawn and bullied by other kids he seeks solace in the form of the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), in an attempt to get away from his abusive crack smoking mother Paula (Naomie Harris). As Chiron grows older we see him struggling with his identity and the relationships with those around him.

The decision to divide the narrative is both a strength and a curse, allowing for a highly organised structural narrative underneath which is an ambitious and experimental method of storytelling. The specific focus of the acts means that we miss out on events in between that is at times highly effective, and sometimes disadvantageous. For example, a character dies in between one of the gaps and the unexpectedness of the realisation is shocking and effective. However because a different actor plays the role of Chiron in each act it causes an alienating effect that can distance you from the emotion of the film. In the first transition of Chiron from boy to teenager the metamorphosis was believable, in part to an outstanding performance by Ashton Sanders as the teen Chiron. Whilst the transition from teenager to adult results in us seeing a very different side of Chiron. This jarring change in the character is not a criticism in itself, it is understandable that after such an intensely difficult childhood the adult Chiron would be a very different character. But this alienated me from the connection to Chiron’s emotional state as it was difficult to buy into Trevante Rhodes as if he was portraying the same character. In part this is down to the writing, the final act being much more contemplative, and therefore slower, than the intense passion of the opening two acts. It was disappointing for me to feel like this as the movie is phenomenally beautiful and up until that point it had me hooked within the action. Ali is wonderful as Juan, the soulful drug dealer who serves as a kind of ward for Chiron, whilst Harris is demented as the crack addicted mother who overpowers Chiron with never ending emotional abuse. The scene stealer though is truly Ashton Sanders who anchors the second act with an extraordinarily vulnerable display, somehow not receiving the same recognition as the admittedly wonderful Ali and Harris. A highlight of the film includes a much heralded sequence at a beach in the night. It’s rightly noted as a wonderful cinematic moment, gorgeously shot by Director of Photography James Lawton who captures a pure form of teenage intimacy in a way that is truly unique. It is emblematic of the beauty of the movie as a whole, thanks in part to Lawton, and Barry Jenkins must deservedly take credit for tackling such an incredibly difficult project with the kind of virtuoso direction you would expect of a far more experienced hand.

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Moonlight is an exquisitely shot journey through the life Chiron. Capturing his frailty, rage and desires. It can’t quite the sustain the weight of its aspirations. Not my Best Picture of the year, but also not a bad Best Picture by any means. If a film is measured by its ambitions then Moonlight stands as tall as any.

3/5

Dir: Barry Jenkins
Scr: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland
Prd: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Music: Nicholas Britell
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 111 minutes

Moonlight is out now in UK cinemas.

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So, that happened.

Just a short retrospective on the Oscars and the frankly glaring mix up that occurred during the show the other night. La La Land was falsely announced as the winner of Best Picture in a moment of pure cinema history that took place before our eyes. Moonlight was the actual winner. In the midst of all the drama taking place it can be easy to forget that Moonlight was seen as the underdog to the overwhelming favourite La La Land. Though in actuality I had considered Moonlight the front runner for the last few weeks as a backlash mounted against the perceived over adulation La La Land received. The Oscars traditionally like to award the Best Picture to the most overtly political film of the year. Following the election of Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement and the political discord that continues to divide America it was no surprise to me that Moonlight took the award on the night. Much like Spotlight taking the award last year in part due to its content being perceived as more “Important” I feel Moonlight was the right film at the right time and that it’s subject matter played a part in it winning on the night.

Moonlight was a film that I enjoyed. It was stunningly shot, wonderfully directed and told an original story in a truly ambitious fashion. There were issues I had with it that prevented me from being able to heap as much praise on the movie as some critics did but I felt it was a piece of evocative and powerful cinema and was glad to see it nominated by the Academy. La La Land was my favourite of the nominees, just edging out Hell or High Water (I have yet to see Fences though, something I will soon correct). It swept me away on a whirlwind of glee and it was painful to watch Jordan Horowitz have to hand back his award the other night, which he did with incredible class I might add. However just because my personal favourite did not win does mean that I feel Moonlight’s victory was unwarranted. I will argue till blue in the face that for me La La Land is the better movie, and that even Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water were better films to me. But there is a line drawn where you have to acknowledge the subjectivity of cinema. Moonlight’s ferocious originality, narrative ambitions, subject matter and obviously talented cast and crew make it an obvious nominee, and a worthy winner. In the past couple of weeks a few people have asked me what should win Best Picture and I have responded that I would like La La Land or Hell or High Water to win but, in a way, it doesn’t matter. For me as long as a nominated film embodies the highest ambitions of cinema then the eventual victor is almost circumspect. Yes it would be nice to see a particular favourite win, but when dealing with art the lines are so blurred that it becomes illogical that there is a best film, besides simply a favourite. How do you compare Arrival with Hell or High Water, Fences with Hacksaw Ridge or Moonlight with La La Land? Would you compare Mohammed Ali with Sachin Tendulkar? A Ferrari with a Concorde? To me films are so variable that comparison, especially that of the supposed best of cinema, is mute beyond that of personal preference. I’ll fly my flag for La La Land, and happily argue it’s corner till I drop that I think it is better than Moonlight, but I won’t say Moonlight wasn’t a worthy winner on the night. Congratulations to the cast and crews of all the films nominated at this year’s Oscars, you all did brilliantly.

“My Heart was Broken, and I Know Yours is broken too” – Manchester by the Sea (Film Review)

Kenneth Lonergan’s built up a reputation as a terrific wordsmith and a talented filmmaker. A playwright by trade Lonergan made the jump to feature films with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, which resulted in two Oscar nominations and a lot of critical praise. He got a lot of work as a writer in the resulting few years, including penning the screenplay for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (Though for some reason they’ve left that of Manchester By The Sea’s advertisement posters). His second film, Margaret, took seven years to release following a creative clash between Lonergan and the studio, resulting in a litigation battle over the movie. With that unpleasantness now behind him Lonergan’s newest film has garnered innumerable praise since its release and needless to say this anticipation had left me with high hopes of what was to come.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living an isolated existence in Boston who finds out that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has collapsed and died. He returns to his home town of Manchester-by-the-sea to settle the funeral arrangements. Lee discovers he has been named guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but is unwilling to stay in the town due to past events that drove him away.

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Casey Affleck is receiving riotous praise for his performance as Lee and they are well deserved. Lee’s isolation and deadpan demeanour masks an enormous rage which Affleck communicates via subtle gestures and his character’s desolate body language. Even when surrounded by others Lee seems alone, and more than happy to be that way. Pushed out of his isolative state into a role as a guardian to a wayward teen, played with arrogant glee by Lucas Hedges, the pairs disagreements, conflict and attempts to reconnect are fascinating and deeply expressive of their inner sorrow. Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) appears in both flashback and the present day and without moving into spoiler territory the two share a scene that is hauntingly visceral in its emotional purity. Both Affleck and Williams pull on all their skills as performers to deliver one of the best scenes of the year that will labour in viewers minds long after they have left the screening. Their success is aided by Lonergan’s script which manages to blend comedy and tragedy together in a manner few other screenwriters can. Most sequences are accompanied by the brutal music of Lesley Barber, which haunts the film with an uneasy pulse of strings loudly bellowing over the action of the movie in an almost operatic display.

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Manchester By The Sea isn’t for everyone, following the screening numerous other patrons around me discussed the movie and found it depressing, or/and unsatisfying. It’s ending isn’t designed to please, and the more I let it gestate in my mind the more I appreciated and admired its bravery. With a range of career best performances, Lonergan’s wonderful script and Barber’s beautiful score it appeases me to say that Manchester by the sea is more than worth your time.

5/5

Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Scr: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan

Prd: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, Lauren Beck

DOP: Jody Lee Lipes

Music: Lesley Barber

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 137 Minutes

Manchester by the Sea is out now in UK cinemas.

“Here’s to the ones who Dream” – La La Land (Film Review)

Following its triumphant run in the U.S, and a rapturous night of success at the Golden Globes, La La Land finally opened here in the UK last week. When a film gets as much fanfare as this one has received it’s difficult to contain your expectations accordingly, but try as I might it’s been hard to contain my excitement following the embarrassingly large number of awards that have been cascaded towards the film’s feet. Not to mention that ultra-talented director Damien Chazelle, along with leading pair Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, have quite the pedigree between them to warrant a stirring sense of anticipation.

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), attempting to negotiate the harsh realities of breaking into the film business, continually finds herself bumping into jazz enthusiast Seb (Ryan Gosling) who dreams of opening his own club. Despite an acrimonious beginning a relationship begins to blossom between them set to the backdrop of the beautiful L.A skyline.

La La Land is a gorgeous movie, that captures an evocative, dreamlike feel of the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle’s camera is swift, yet definite, with the musical sequences captured in long, expertly staged, takes filmed in Cinemascope which was at its height in the 1950’s, an era La La Land repeatedly nods it head towards. The choreography is inventive and fluid, slick when it needs to be and graceful when it has to be. All the while cinematographer Linus Sandgren manages to fill the screen with an effervescent, dreamy, array of colours. He captures both the mundane world the characters attempt to rail against and the pure romanticism of the city of which they dream. This is displayed best in a terrific dance sequence between Gosling and Stone on a lowly hill top overlooking the L.A skyline. Filmed at “Magic Hour” where the setting sun and neon lights combine to make a dazzlingly surreal landscape that description can barely surmise. Chazelle has made a musical that feels both modern and nostalgic, mixing smartphones and vintage fashion styles, fusing classic Jazz with the new wave, and the dreams of aspiring artists with the crushing weight of reality. Stone is phenomenal, perfectly cast, managing to display charm, wit and an authentic passion that makes you yearn to believe in the magic of movies. Mia is a character fuelled by classic Hollywood trying to maintain her dreams in a world where an audition can come to an end in seconds, where you may spend your entire life auditioning for a part that will never come. Whilst Gosling also delivers yet another terrific performance as Seb, a fellow dreamer, with a rougher edge, who is revitalised by his meeting with Mia. Gosling and Stone have portrayed a couple on screen twice before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad so it is no surprise that their chemistry is spot on. Both are rightly receiving plaudits for their performances, and Stone is a favourite to win an Oscar next month. There is a small role for J.K Simmons in the movie however he only has about fifteen lines, which are swiftly delivered, but is thoroughly brilliant in what is little more than a cameo. The music is instantly catchy, filled with flair and buoyancy by Justin Hurwitz, another Oscar favourite, in his third collaboration with close friend Chazelle.

La La Land is a wonderful journey exploring the passion of those who chase their dreams, and the hardships that they face in trying to achieve them. Mia often mentions Casablanca, one of the oft quoted classic love stories, and though we must wait decades to see if La La Land will become a classic of cinematic history in the same way I’m confident that I will always remember where I was when I fell in love with Mia, Seb and the ones who dream.

5/5

Dir: Damien Chazelle

Scr: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K Simmons, John Legend

Prd: Fred Burger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt

DOP: Linus Sandgren

Music: Justin Hurwitz

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 128 Minutes

La La Land is out now in UK cinemas.

Women in Cinema, or not as the case may be.

They say that a wise man knows what he knows and knows what he doesn’t know, and by “they” I mean Tywin Lannister whose quote I just paraphrased the shizz out of. Most of the time I consider it important to relegate my views if I am aware that my knowledge of a certain subject is limited. What do I think of the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee? I don’t know, I’m not a Native American and I know little of their culture or history (Though if I was a Native American I’m fairly-confident my tribal name would be Tickles with Badgers). I know I’m not a woman, therefore I try and avoid gender politics like the plague. Do I have an opinion about women’s rights to an abortion? Yes, but it’s about as integral as a koala’s opinions about scuba diving. It’s flattering you’ve taken an interest in my view, but how does the perspective of anyone who doesn’t have a uterus really factor into this? However, something has been bothering me for a few years now and if you read the title of the article then I imagine you are already ahead of me on this, so well played. Women’s role in cinema, or the lack of it. If art reflects life, then the underrepresentation of women in critical roles within the film industry is worrying, right? It’s not just me?

The majority of producers, screenwriters, cinematographers and composers who work within film are men. Whereas the most worrying lack of female representation may be in the director’s chair, something which isn’t acceptable. If there is a symbol of creative power within film it is with that of the director. Their vision and interpretation is usually the most important, well at least in principal photography. So, you can imagine how supremely puzzled I am by the frankly alarming minority of female filmmakers in cinema. It’s a well-known piece of film trivia that Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for best director, but I’m frankly more worried that only four women have ever been nominated for the prize period. Forty years ago Lina Wertmuller became the first female to be nominated in the category, and since then we have seen an average of one woman nominated per decade. It’s not just the Oscars that fail to nominate women, the Palme D’or a symbol of filmmaking that considers itself a supporter of the artist, of being a purer representation of cinematic brilliance than the more politically motivated Academy Awards, is guilty of falling short in honouring female directors. Only Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993) has won the prize. To put it in perspective Ken Loach (the winner of the Palme D’or, 2016) has won the award twice. On the dippy French award ceremony scoreboard it currently reads Ken Loach 2 – Women 1, and it’s not Ken Loach’s fault (He’s a lovely guy). Should we dismiss the Academy Awards as a frivolous exercise of film politics? Well, yes. But this award ceremony represents the face of mainstream western cinema and the lack of female recognition (and African-American for that matter, but that’s another issue to get really angry about in another article) is a symptom of cinema as a whole. If there are no female directors, then how do you nominate them?

To grasp how truly one sided the spectrum is I set myself the task of naming as many male directors as I could in fifteen minutes without the aid of the internet, and then replicated the task with female directors. My memory with names if pretty good and I have what I would consider to be a better than average knowledge of filmmakers. The result was a staggering 200 – 13 landslide victory to the guys, and frankly I struggled for 13. To get to that I had to include Madonna and Leni Riefenstahl on the list, meaning 15% of my female directors consisted of Madonna and Nazis. If anyone out there can perform the same task and get a more equal result to prove me wrong then please do so. Seriously, if you can name 100 female directors, in fact even 50, without the aid of the internet in 15 minutes then have a pint on me, you’ve earned it.

So how do we solve this problem? I haven’t got a definitive answer, and all I can say is that we support our filmmakers with pride. For all the depressing as balls statistics I’ve been throwing down there is still a phenomenal talent pool of great and aspiring female directors (Who aren’t Madonna, or a Nazi) and with their every success the likelihood of more women being given the opportunity to express themselves through cinema increases. In Britain we have the likes of Sam Taylor-Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) and Amma Asante (Belle), across the Atlantic there are Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and the Wachowski’s (The Matrix). Jennifer Kent scared me silly with her debut feature The Babadook, whilst in animation women like Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3) and Jennifer lee (Frozen) have been given the opportunity to make their mark on cinema history and have done so by making some damn good movies. Actors such as Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) and Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) have taken their experience from working in front of the camera and have started to experiment as film-makers, hopefully more will join them. These are just a handful of the names out there, there are more but not as many as there should be.

What I wanted to highlight with all this was the current blight on the state of film, without coming off condescending. These filmmakers I’ve listed above have achieved amazing things and I don’t want to patronise their accomplishments, they don’t need me to tell them how fantastic they are. But I can’t ignore this problem and I don’t want others to do so either. Cinema has too long been a male enforced medium, catering to a male audience, which is extra stupid if you live in a country that has more women than men (Like I do), and it’s time for that to end. There clearly needs to be more opportunities for women to get behind the camera and show us what they can do because I am more than certain that the talent and the will to use it is there, and we need to create an environment that can allow them the chance to thrive. In the age of Trump, May and Brexit (No matter what your political affiliations may be) we can still be more diverse than in the past, we can still make progress, we can still change for the better. Now I’m off to watch Kung Fu Panda 2, A. Because it’s topical and B. Because it’s a damn fun movie.

This Wasn’t written, it was scribbled with style by Alexander Halsall

Absent Animation

Inside out

The Oscars. Oh the Oscars. Those bloody golden statuettes that are supposed to represent excellence within the film industry, but instead represent the many dogged symptoms of mainstream cinemas current flaws, are being handed out this evening to whomever the elderly patrons of the Hollywood loyalty scheme declare competent enough to have one. This is not to begrudge the numerous talents on display, in a large variety of categories, who deserve their shining moment. But to highlight those who deserve recognition from, what is considered by most to be, the most symbolically revered accolade in the cinematic landscape and do not receive it. Now it has already been pointed out by many others about the lack of ethnic diversity in the acting categories, and I do believe there is an issue, and I may discuss this some other time. But I wish to highlight what I believe to be a long running exclusion of some of our finest films from being recognised for their feats of success for the arbitrary reason that the characters happen to be animated. Whether hand drawn, computer generated or meticulously brought to life by the craft of stop motion, animated films have been overlooked time and time again.

Whether you’re a fan of classic Disney animated films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. Or the more modern Disney classics like The Lion King, Aladdin or The Little Mermaid. Or perhaps you prefer the Pixar animated wonders of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-e. Or do you enjoy How to train your dragon? Song of the sea? Shrek? Coraline? The nightmare before Christmas? The Iron Giant? Mary and Max? It’s such a beautiful day? Every Studio Ghibli film? Not a single one of which has earned a best picture nomination. Only three animated films have been awarded a nomination for best picture 1991’s Beauty and the beast, 2009’s Up, and 2010’s Toy Story 3. That’s it. Toy Story was awarded a special achievement award for being the first film to be completely animated by a computer, but no best picture nomination for a modern cinematic classic. When Disney completed their first ever feature, the classic Snow White and the seven dwarves, they were also given a ‘special’ award to accommodate their success without being awarded a nomination for best picture.

There seems to be a disdain amongst academy voters, and other award ceremonies in general, toward animation as cinema. As if all animation is simply ‘for kids’. This simplification of one of films most versatile and potential forms always irked me. In 2001 the academy introduced the category for best feature length animated film to allow those who work within the format the recognition and respect they deserve. It has allowed a greater number of animated films to reach a broader audience, especially important for smaller studios, but at the cost of creating a glass ceiling. Now they have their own category voters don’t seem to consider them worthy of competing with what they consider ‘real films’. This isn’t a problem simply with the Oscars. The Bafta’s have only nominated one animated feature for best film ever, Shrek. Why are animated films treated with such indifference? Why not create a best musical category? Best Comedy? Best moustache? I understand that creating a single category allows for greater recognition of form, but is this now creating more harm than good?

This year Pixar released Inside Out, a truly fabulous film and one I recommend for all ages to check out. Inside Out will win best animated feature, despite great competition from many other terrific animated fare, because it is one of the best films of the year and should have also been nominated for best picture. It has earned a best screenplay nomination, but won’t win because it’s animated. Toy story, Finding Nemo, The incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-e and Up have all being nominated for best original screenplay in the past, without a win. The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir was nominated for best foreign language film in 2008, and also did not win. I’m not saying they all necessarily deserved to do so. I’m not saying we should be nominating every single animated film for every single category because they have not been recognised in the past. But what I want to get across is how frustrated I get by the treatment of animation come awards season.

Tonight Leonardo DiCaprio is the favourite to take home the best actor statuette after many years of missing out. Many feel he deserves it for his many great roles over the years, and I do not disagree. Leo is a fabulous actor and this is a deserved moment of success for him with his sixth nomination (fifth for acting) and many people through social media have pointed out how much he deserves it for his overall body of work. It has been 78 years since the theatrical release of Snow White and the seven dwarves, and since then thousands of animators working on hundreds of feature films have created some of the most memorable, majestic and emotionally powerful cinema of the last eight decades with three best picture nominations to show for it, a handful screenplay nominations, and a few deserved victories in the best original song, and score, categories. This year is Leo’s year, in the near future I hope animation has its moment. But if a film as brilliant as Inside out can’t even garner a nomination for best film, what are they going to have to do to win?

Words vomited by Alexander Halsall

(Extra note: good luck as well tonight to Roger Deakins who has been nominated for his 13th academy award for cinematography, having never won. Leo’s had it easy comparatively)