Dramatic film has long been fascinated with issues of identity, but they’ve rarely been explored with the degree of eloquence and heartbreaking beauty as in Barry Jenkins’ masterful Moonlight, the best film of 2016 (which, it turns out, is not only my opinion but one shared by the Motion Picture Academy as well, whose voters also selected the film as last year’s best, an announcement embarrassingly made during last night’s Oscar ceremonies). Moonlight is a film that is both lyrical and deeply grounded in its character work, a balancing act that’s breathtaking to behold. It is one of those rare pieces of filmmaking that stays completely focused on its characters while also feeling like it’s dealing with universal themes about identity, sexuality, family, and, most of all, masculinity. And yet it's never preachy or moralizing. It is a movie in which deep, complex themes are reflected through character first and foremost. Jenkins’ film is confident in every single aspect of the way that a critic can use that word. Every performance, every shot choice, every piece of music, every lived-in setting — it’s one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step, and climaxes in a scene not of CGI or twists but of dialogue that is one of the best single scenes in years.
The protagonist of Moonlight reflects the conflicted and fluid masculinity of young African-American men in the United States, even in just the way he’s presented. The film is divided into three chapters —"Little," "Chiron" and "Black" — the three names used to refer to the same person that we follow from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. He’s a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world, which is also articulated by the character being played by three separate, all-remarkable actors.
The film starts with Chiron as a boy, referred to by his bullies as "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert). We meet this youngster running, trying to hide in a boarded up apartment from the kids who want to beat him up. Little is found there by Juan (Mahershala Ali, doing career-best work), a local drug dealer. Juan takes the kid out to eat, even bringing him back to his place, where he meets his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Little could use this makeshift family. His dad is gone and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) happens to be one of Juan’s best clients. Juan becomes something of a father figure, but that might make this relationship sound more predictable than it is. Juan sees something good in Chiron and wants to help this quiet boy, even as he provides the product that’s ruining his home life.
The film jumps to Chiron as a teenager, dealing with more intense bullying and questions about sexuality. These are the years in which everyone claims to be sleeping around and a young man like Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggles to find himself, especially now that all semblance of a normal home life is gone. He literally has nothing, and it takes kindness from his friend Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome at this age) to bring him comfort. But even that is turned in a time, place and age in which compassion is sorely lacking, when young men believe that violence is the answer to what will make them feel better or allow them to fit in.
Finally, we meet Chiron as a young adult, played with remarkable subtlety by Trevante Rhodes. Kevin (now played by André Holland of The Knick) reaches out to a very-different Chiron, and the film’s themes coalesce in a surprisingly emotionally resonant way without monologues or heavy-handed melodrama. In a sense, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a boy often overlooked by society, that little kid not cool enough to hang with the bigger ones and without the support of a family to keep him from simply disappearing into the night.
The trio of performances that make up Chiron from Hibbert/Sanders/Rhodes are perfectly calibrated by Jenkins, who directs them to feel not like imitations of each other but express growth. We can see the sad eyes of Chiron as a boy reflected in Chiron as a man. Moonlight could have easily felt episodic, especially with three actors playing the same character, but it’s stunning how much it never falters in that regard. Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter, even as the cast changes as often as it does. Jenkins also draws great turns from Harris and Ali, playing two of the most influential people in Chiron’s life.
Jenkins and his technical team shoot Miami in a way that we don’t often see, using their setting brilliantly, especially the way that the water and the beach around it can feel like a break from the troubles of the real world. But Moonlight is a film about faces. Chiron’s eyes say so much that this young man has not been taught how to express. He is young, black, gay, poor, and largely friendless — the kind of person who feels like he could literally vanish from being so unseen by the world. During one of the film’s many memorable dialogue exchanges (written by Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney), Chiron speaks of crying so much in his life that he feels like he could simply turn to liquid and roll into the ocean.
While there’s memorable dialogue in Moonlight, it’s what’s unsaid that really resonates. It’s the look of a morally complex father figure when a child asks him why other kids call him a bad word. It’s a nervous glance between two young men who know something is a little different about their relationship but society has given them no words to express it. And it’s in the final scenes of the film — in which Jenkins knows he’s laid the groundwork, trusts his actors and allows the emotions of what’s unsaid to provide the dramatic thrust — that Moonlight makes its greatest impact. Jenkins deeply understands that it is human connection that forms us, that changes our trajectory and makes us who we are.
Doctor Strange ***
Because the movie is tasked with telling us how the main character (played with panache by Benedict Sherlock Cumberbatch) becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts, the movie has limited flexibility to do other things. The villain, Kaecilius with the purple eyeshadow (Mads Mikkelsen), is not terribly intimidating. He looks more like a glam rocker than a bringer of darkness. Of greater interest is Kaecilius’ cosmic boss, Dormammu (Cumberbatch again, doing double duty as he did in The Hobbit trilogy), whose special effects-intensive appearance suggests how Marvel might consider rendering Galactus (if they ever get the rights back from Fox). Dormammu doesn’t have a lot of screen time but his confrontation with Strange allows the narrative to try something new (at least insofar as superhero/supervillain confrontations go).
Doctor Strange opens with the introduction of the brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, whose professional skills make him one of the most desired doctors in New York City but whose interpersonal skills (or lack thereof) turn a lot of people off. One evening, while driving his car too fast and paying too little attention to the road ahead, he becomes the victim of a brutal crash. He survives but his hands are shredded. The nerve damage guarantees that he’ll never practice medicine again. Desperate for any strand of hope, he travels to a monastery in Nepal where he trains under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), learning how to bend reality, control time, and create alternate universes. This is all in preparation for the showdown with Kaecilius and Dormammu, which comprises the final act.
This is a highly special effects-intensive feature. There are times when the visuals are dazzling and dizzying but there’s also a sense that we’re watching something created on a computer as opposed to a genuine bending of reality. Possibly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, these scenes also recall the "unreality" of the inside-the-computer realm from the TRON films. They also contribute to one of the most inventive chase scenes in recent motion picture memory in which characters appear to be fleeing through a landscape designed by M.C. Escher, with recursive paths that double back on themselves and where the laws of physics no longer hold sway.
One of the reasons why Doctor Strange works is the respect brought to the pulpy material by a cadre of distinguished actors. How about an Oscar winner and three nominees? None of them show up in Marlon Superman Brando or Anthony Odin Hopkins mode just to pick up a paycheck. They are invested in their roles, especially Benedict Cumberbatch who’s light years better here than as faux Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. The only one who disappoints is Rachel McAdams and that’s because the script doesn’t give her anything substantial to do.
All of the visual razzle-dazzle needs a great score to keep pace but, sadly, Michael Giacchino’s efforts aren’t up to snuff. The music sounds like a slightly reworked version of what he turned in for 2009’s Star Trek. The similarities are so striking that I half-expected someone to start intoning "Space, the final frontier…" It’s jarring to be watching one movie and hear music that’s familiar from another one.
For those who care to play along at home, Doctor Strange posits some ideas about the intersection between magic and futuristic science. Many of the concepts about multiple dimensions and time travel are offshoots of current scientific theory and the film makes a case for the idea that any advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. Is Doctor Stranger a Sorcerer Supreme or has he merely mastered quantum mechanics on a practical level?
Apparently, Derrickson has a deep and abiding love for the character of Doctor Strange and it shows in his treatment. Although this falls far from the 2016 superhero pinnacle established by Deadpool, it’s a significant step up from the two Warner/DC debacles and even Captain America: Civil War. The film understands when it’s necessary to get serious but also contains comedic bits that aren’t forced or artificial. The Avengers are referenced, but they are mostly absent from the movie, allowing Doctor Strange to evolve without their interference. Finally, although the comic book tropes are all in place, the acting, tone, and visual effects keep them from becoming tedious. This is yet another solid building block in the foundation to Marvel’s ever-expanding superhero fortress.
Allied, starring Brad Pitt as a Canadian intelligence officer and Marion Cotillard as a French Resistance fighter who team up for a mission during World War II (and, of course, fall in love), is a high-style romantic espionage thriller that feels like it could have been made in the ’40s (at least, if Ingrid Bergman had been allowed to say the word "f—"). It’s a movie full of Nazis and chandeliers and prop planes and hidden passion. That may strike some viewers as a slightly stodgy turnoff — a fetishization of the past — but Zemeckis, working from a script by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, the amusing and underrated Burnt), is alive to what’s great about old movies: the supple, nearly invisible craft that allows scenes to throb with emotional suspense. Allied isn’t based on a true story; it’s a flagrantly movie-ish concoction. But like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, it’s been made with a so-old-it’s-new classicism that is executed with enough flair to lure viewers in.
How old-fashioned is Allied? It’s so old-fashioned that the film’s entire first section is set in Casablanca — and yes, it’s a Casablanca reminiscent of that Casablanca, a place of "exotic" intrigue and danger that looks, at times, like it’s flaunting the fact that it’s a movie set. In the opening scene, Max (Pitt) parachutes into the dimpled orange dunes of the Moroccan desert, then wanders into the shadowy white-walled maze of a city. Once there, he has to pretend to be the husband of Marianne (Cotillard), who has been hanging out in nightclubs, getting cozy with the chi-chi collaborationist associates of the Vichy government. The lighting is luxe, and so are the clothes — dresses that drape with goddessy perfection, neckties that look like works of art. When Max first shows up in front of Marianne’s friends, the two cuddle like the most intimate of lovebirds even though they’ve never met: a good set-up. Back at their apartment, she tells him her credo: "I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works." She also opens the top buttons of her blouse to test him. If he lunges for her, it’s a sign that he lacks the control necessary to execute the mission.
This is all, of course, the film’s elaborate way to generate some steam heat, and it works. Pitt and Cotillard connect, because there’s a matching toughness to their sensuality. Cotillard acts with a leonine cunning, just the kind of thing that can disarm a seen-it-all conquistador like Pitt. Marianne teases Max, who’s from Quebec, about his lousy Parisian accent (it’s not just teasing, since that could be enough to get them killed), but the viewer has a different reaction: Watching Brad Pitt speak French is a little like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs — more impressive than whether he does it well is the fact that he does it at all.
Max and Marianne belong together because they’re movie-star beautiful, and because these spies share a debonair awareness of what’s happening in any room. Their assignment involves wrangling an invitation to a party thrown by the German ambassador, and the scene where they nail down the invite is full of succulent deception. The party is even better. Zemeckis keeps us in the dark about what, exactly, the mission is, and then it’s revealed: a fiery catharsis that seals their love. How could it not? The couple that does cool explosive wartime Bondian stuff together stays together.
Zemeckis, utilizing the inner glow of Don Burgess’ cinematography, stages this episode with a smoothly framed precision — a fusion of action and feeling — that catches you up. Yet it’s all a big pedestal for the film’s second half, which is set in a London suburb, where Max and Marianne, now married with a child, are doing the closest thing they can to living a cozy domestic life together after the wind-down of the Blitz.
It would be a major spoiler to reveal what happens next, so let’s just say this: It’s possible that Marianne is not who Max thought she was. It’s up to Max to ferret out the truth, and he does it with the doggedness, passion, and unruffled trickery of someone whose very existence depends on knowing the answer. At times, the situation is broadly reminiscent of an earlier Pitt film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but that jokey Brangelina thriller was top-heavy with meta-gossip subtext; that’s what sold the movie. Pitt’s current tabloid role as a disgruntled divorcing dad may not do much to help the fortunes of Allied, but the way that he and Cotillard dance warily around each other creates a far more suggestive vision of marriage as a kind of daily spy zone.
Allied is tense and absorbing, yet the film’s climactic act somehow falls short. Zemeckis and company don’t make any obvious missteps, but the movie, in trying to reach out and tug on our heartstrings, goes soft regarding what the Marianne we’re presented with would choose to do. (It could, and should, have gone darker.) You believe that she loves Max, but there’s another side to her devotion that washes away far too easily. The result is that Allied inspires most of the old-movie reactions it’s going for except one: It never makes you swoon.
Rules Don’t Apply **
Beatty, who plays Hughes in the picture, tries to give us a movie as wildly eccentric and asymmetrical as the man himself. He’s concocted a random romantic farce that isn’t romantic or particularly farcical. But random? Yeah. Two hours and nine minutes — Beatty still commands final cut — and at the end, you remember you had to take Grandpa’s Towncar keys away at about the same age (79).
The aim is more towards Melvin and Howard than The Aviator or the Tommy Lee Jones TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes. Co-screenwriter Bo Goldman wrote Melvin and Howard, and he helps Beatty try to find the Hughes of myth — brilliant, mercurial, veering from lucid to loony and flirting with "rich pervert" the whole time. In mashing up events from the 1940s to the 1970s, framing the entire movie in Hughes’ famous early 1970s phone press conference debunking Clifford Irving’s hoax biography of him — and dating that press conference "1964" and changing Irving’s name — Beatty puts the viewer off balance in much the same way Hughes keeps his various aides, assistants, business associates and limo drivers wrong-footed.
One of the latter is Frank Forbes, played with a trademark earnest dullness by Alden Ehrenreich, who underwhelmed in Hail, Caesar! and Blue Jasmine and Stoker. He’s a nice Christian lad from Fresno charged with picking up aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey and her mom from the airport and delivering them to their new home. It’s a showplace over-looking Los Angeles from high on a hill, with The Hollywood Bowl just below. Marla, a virginal Christian from Front Royal, Va., has been picked for a screen test for Mr. Hughes, labeled "The King of Hollywood" even though this is 1958 and his last mark on the movies was made a dozen years before.
"Stella Starlight" is the supposed name of the movie Marla is up for. But as she is driven to ballet classes, acting classes and the like by Frank, she realizes the mysterious Mr. Hughes has filled dozens of houses with young women (Haley Bennett among them) just like her. And as the days turn to weeks, Marla (Lily Collins) doesn’t meet Hughes, doesn’t get her screen test. Her mother (Annette Bening) loses patience. Marla finds herself making an awful lot of eye contact with Frank, which is "against the rules." Hughes hires religious, mostly-married drivers to control his starlets. They’re not allowed to fraternize, date or seduce the young women, as veteran driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) keeps reminding Frank.
When we finally meet Hughes, the first impression is hardly impressive. Handsome? Sure. Aged? Quite. He’s also quite deaf and perfectly daft, a shy man who treats Marla to a TV dinner. Half-known to Frank and Marla, the increasingly reclusive Hughes is fighting for his fortune and freedom against TWA airline investors, bankers and the government. Every crisis of his public life — a plane crash, the Spruce Goose, Congressional testimony, drug addiction threats of consignment to a mental hospital and an urgent need to marry — is packed into a whirlwind year or so of his life.
Collins makes a perky church girl — "Blessed Savior!" is her favorite expletive — whom Hollywood and Hughes will corrupt. Frank is meant to be Marla’s knight in shining armor, whom she might betray once she’s seen the bright lights of the Big City. But the young couple set off no sparks, and the older pairing — ancient lech and virginal daisy — is just creepy. Nobody makes us feel anything in this burlesque of history and botch-job of a romance.
Broderick, plays a 50ish bounder who wouldn’t mind bedding Marla himself. and cameos by everyone from Alec Baldwin and Steve Coogan to Candice Bergen (more that a cameo, she’s Hughes’ secretary) and Ed Harris remind us that Beatty still commands an audience, at least among his AARP peers. Beatty plays the guy very close to himself — rambling, incomplete thoughts, stammered out bits of brilliance and wit wrapped in layers of dizziness. Madness manifests itself in the paranoia of a man who has bugged hotel rooms and insulates himself from the world with legions of do-my-bidding assistants. He repeats himself repeatedly — in memos, and memorably, in his threat to clear his name in front of Congress or go into exile. "I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d LEAVE this country, and NEVER come back. I’d leave this country and never COME BACK." There are shades of Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait and even Bulworth in the performance. They just don’t add up to much more than a goofy sketch, a caricature.
The dialogue is light, but rarely quotable, largely due to Beatty’s disjointed line-readings. And the picture fits together so clumsily that no satisfactory tone emerges, relationships don’t gel and the story loses any sense of "arc." Sure, Rules Don’t Apply to this movie, but all we’re left with is the odd warm and wonderful scene. Marla has waited so long to meet the man that she blurts out her thanks, her dreams, her suggestions and her pleas for advice in a single breathless minute-and-a-half long sentence. Hughes, probably not wearing his hearing aid, devours his TV dinner peas — oblivious — until he starts rambling about TV dinners in the middle of her frantic monologue. Marla sings a song, Rules Don’t Apply, of her own invention — charming first Frank and later Hughes with her voice, her innocence and her first-time-ever drunkenness. Frank finally meets his boss, shows off his own business savvy and tries to keep the perpetually distracted Hughes focused long enough to hear his real estate investment pitch as they eat late night hamburgers on a dock where the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ massive wooden transport seaplane, is parked. The general incoherence cripples the film, but those random scenes give it enough sparkle to make it worth enduring. But worth remembering? Sorry, The Aviator and for that matter Melvin and Howard have it all over Rules Don’t Apply in that regard.
This week’s other new releases
Kate Plays Christine *** There’s an emotional dimension to this movie — an empathy linking an actor to the human headline she’s dressing up as — that’s nearly abstracted into oblivion by the film’s neurotic self-examination.
London Road *** This enchantingly strange movie couldn’t possibly be called naturalistic, but at times it feels somewhat disappointingly normalized.
Chronic **½ While the movie is a depressing sit, it’s a sobering window into the self-sacrifice and psychological strain of the caregiver, as well as a provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about humane assisted suicide.
Wheeler ** Viewers who don’t mind the lack of dramatic tension may appreciate Stephen Dorff’s credible take on his modest, gentlemanly character.
All We Had *½ The best thing about this movie is Katie Holmes’s stormy portrayal of a desperate, foolishly trusting woman who rushes from man to man seeking security, only to find herself used and betrayed while her daughter looks on with increasing dismay.
Shut In ½* In this achingly inept thriller, you will see Naomi Watts do what she can to sell a plot of such preposterousness that derisory laughter started welling up inside me barely 20 minutes in.
Contract to Kill (no stars) Laughably inept on every technical level and representing the sort of badness that falls far short of being campy fun.
No stars Abysmal