Reviews

Movie reviews

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.

Eating Bugs on the Bowery

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Courtesy of BUGS by Andreas Johnsen

Back in the day, if I ate a bug on the Bowery, it would not have been intentional. But last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I was invited to intentionally taste grasshoppers, worms, and ant larvae at a small Mexican deli on 4th & Bowery in conjunction with the screening of a new documentary about the gastronomic possibilities of insects, BUGS.

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Crispy Grasshoppers. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

This concept of eating insects was not foreign or all that bizarre to me. My 12-year-old son has been telling me for over a year about the possibilities for ending world hunger that consuming insects allows. After all, insects are numerous, varied, and easy to find all around the world (with the possible exception of the extreme environments of Antarctica and the North Pole). But what Andreas Johnsen’s documentary makes clear is that while it is certainly an important facet of the food chain to pursue, there are myriad problems to consider in terms of how the advancement of bugs as a food source will fit into the global industrial food complex.

What makes this 80-minute Danish documentary so good is its refusal to simplify the situation and buy into the hype. We follow chefs and researchers from Nordic Food Lab, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to broadening people’s taste in food and exploring diversity in food sources around the world. They travel to Kenya, Rwanda, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and even Italy, in search of insects that are and have been traditional foods for the people there. In the process, we start to lose ourselves in the enthusiasm for these apparently complex flavored creatures as Chef Ben Reade tastes each one and describes them as only a chef or a foodie can. But as the film progresses, Reade is haunted by the idea that large corporations sit on the sidelines, potentially benefitting from the work of Nordic Food Lab and others like them, while those who do the actual work of raising, capturing, and eating insects that are integral to their traditional diets will see no benefit.

Ultimately, BUGS forces us to face the overall problem of overhyped “superfoods,” the gluttony of first-world nations, and the inequities that cause people to continue to go hungry because of their geography when the world actually has more than enough food to feed everyone plenty. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking take on the true promise of insects as food.20160418_140256

…Oh, and the ant larvae taco was my favorite dish!

Heart of the Dog… A Belated View

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Still from Heart of a Dog written and directed by Laurie Anderson.

I’m not the type of person who is always the first to see every interesting film that comes out. Although I did travel 85 miles to see the first screening of David Lynch’s Inland Empire when it came out in 2006, and I was willing to travel some 200 miles to see Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D debut  (Goodbye to Language, 2014) in New York, more often than not I see things I want to see when they play near me and the time is convenient. Such was the case with Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, an essay film that came out several months ago but which I just saw this afternoon at the Chatham Orphuem. And what a delight it was to be the only person in the theater watching this contemplative documentary that spans the terrain of memoir, experimental film, and philosophy.

Although it is often summarized as such, Heart of a Dog is not really about the passing of Anderson’s rat terrier Lolabelle. The film begins with Anderson describing a dream in which she gives birth to the dog after having had it implanted in her uterus some time prior. It starts us off on a thread that is woven through the film’s structure. Anderson admits that the dog did not want to be implanted in her but that “it is just the way it had to be.” As we move from there to discover Anderson’s relationship with Lolabelle over several episodes, it’s clear that it is not the dog’s wishes or thoughts—even when the camera takes the dog’s point of view—that we are witnessing; it is Anderson’s own needs that come through, something pet owners don’t always understand.

Anderson weaves in a discussion about the impact of 9/11 (thankfully not including actual footage from the event), our surveillence culture, Buddhist philosophy, her relationship with her mother, why we dream, and the nature of memoir itself. All of these elements had me searching for connections, trying to understand what the film was about.

Is it an essay on death? Perhaps. But it is also about the ways in which we construct understanding of the world around us by putting ourselves at the center. There is a kind of natural self-centeredness that is unavoidable.

I left the theater in a state that was simultaneously thoughtful and accepting. I was intellectually engaged in trying to understand the work, but also very comfortable with not understanding it, on an emotional level. Ultimately, it was a very satisfying experience for me and I would love to hear from others who have seen the film and enjoyed it. What did it make you think about? (And if you haven’t seen it yet… its’ still in Chatham through Thursday afternoon.)

The Marvelous ‘Anomalisa’

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David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a modern-day manifestation of the goals of the surrealist movement as establish some 90 years ago.While this review was written without the benefit of any special knowledge of the process by which  Anomalisa was created, (and process is central to surrealism), what we experience as an audience is Kaufman’s ability to make visible the very process of thought, just does Andre Breton declared as the goal of the surrealist project in 1924.

In Anomalisa, we see the world through the eyes of a successful business group, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who is in Cincinnati as keynote speaker to a conference on customer service. The stop motion animated puppets are all strikingly similar, all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan), regardless of gender, age, or other individual  qualifiers. All, I should say, except Michael and a customer service rep/groupie of his named Lisa, (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). In fact, it is her voice that first attracts Michael to her. Obsessed with meeting the woman whose voice stands out against the aural monotony of everyone else, he tracks are down and finds that she also looks different  from everyone else. And while her personality, intellect, and appearance are all very generic, Michael find her fascinating and irresistible simply because she is an anomaly.

Anomalisa is a film that raises a lot of different issues within the small world of these characters. Stone is a man in search of something different. He’s mastered his profession and, like many middle-aged people, has lost the passion that brought him through his career. He’s also come to realize how very generic the world is. Even as we all know that each individual person is unique, we are more similar than we are different, and so Stone is at a point where he desperately needs to be challenged with something or someone truly different. In his pursuit of “something different,” Stone latches onto Lisa without really seeing who she is. It’s as though he’s actually imagining her and not really seeing her for who she is.

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David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA

The film shows Michael’s skewed perception quite directly, both through the use of sameness in voice and appearance of the characters and by showing the plainness of Lisa and Michael. It struck me in a sex scene between the two characters that you could never see this in a live action film because lead actors don’t look like real people for the most part and if their bodies do, they are usually not shown in sexual situations. It was strangely fascinating to see two people making love who, despite the fact that they are animated, more closely resemble the average person than any actual actors do in American cinema.

Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, to name a few, and directed the highly underrated Synechdoche, always brings a touch of the surreal to his scripts, here succeeds in creating a world that is both absurd and totally recognizable, filled with characters who are irrationally rational, in a story that is very real but told with unreal visuals. It is at the core of the Surrealist ethos to occupy the spaces between the real and unreal, the logical and illogical, the rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Kaufman always succeeds in doing this in fresh ways that take Surrealism into the 21st century without reducing the power of that movement’s potential. He is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that resembles the world of Anomalisa, filled with strikingly similar films that no one seems to recognize for their dullness. I am so glad this film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I saw it last year and I hope Cape Codders will get the chance to see it now that the Oscar nomination has brought it to mainstream consciousness.