Friday, February 17, 2017


Juan, the amiable neighbourhood meth merchant befriends a small boy who clearly lives in fear of the local bullies. Juan recognises something kindred in the boy, Chiron, who takes a long time to speak so much as his name to Juan and his wife and then it's to explain that most people, meaning the bullies, call him Little. Juan persists with his gentle mentoring of the boy, teaching him to swim and telling the story of how once in the moonlight he was given a nickname which he then rejects, preferring to define himself. Chiron understands but we know how difficult it will be for him to dream of such independence. It's not just the bullies. His mother is one of Juan's customers and her violent mood swings push the boy further away from a life that does not welcome him.

Adolescence is no kinder to Chiron. The bullies are worse and his mother's addiction runs hotter and colder. His emerging sexuality confuses him into shame and anger, especially that it seems to match the hateful labelling by the bullies. One act of the closest thing he has known to love is followed by a brutal betrayal. His equally brutal response forms his most decisive act of identity yet and leads him into an adulthood of one ineluctable course. Or does it? Is there some way out?

This story of self affirmation is given a muscular treatment by Barry Jenkins on his second feature film. The play with focus and motion at its best (Jenkins can use both excessively) establish solid location and motivation. A 360 pan following the bully in chief as he circles Chiron in the quad, bashing into other people who give way to his violence as though he were a rabid dog creates a freezing dread. The conclusion of the scene with its brutality is almost a relief. The consequent scene that travels from a moment of self-realisation in a mirror to a hardened metaphor of breaking barriers and ends in a retributive act feels finished but, thankfully not satisfying. The violence that repays violence is not celebrated the way it would be in a Stephen King story. The sense that it is the next step of a process is too strong for this to be a gratifying conclusion. That's the thing about this film that pushes it ahead of any comparable outing about forging identity and battling injustice: the absence of sentimentality in a genre characteristically turgid with it keeps things focused and intense but also, strangely, light.

There is a strong choreography of character in Moonlight that also sets it apart. The establishment of space, of characters in their landscape and between each other and what that means for the strength of their identity never lets up. A strong cast (some familiar faces but many unknowns) deliver fine goods. Dialogue is lean and the action is intense, allowing moments of beauty to elevate under their own power and very little assistance from the score or burdensome writing. This is a lean masterpiece and a masterpiece of leanness. In recognition, this review will close here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: JACKIE

Fade in. The exquisite beauty of Natalie Portman's face fills the screen as she walks. The scenery around her is a blur. You know this film is about Jackie and you chose it because of that. But if you were expecting an inspiring celebration of strength in a darkest hour you are already being told that that is not going to happen on this screen. The music is played by a string section but the chord bends, everything at once, violins to basses in a descending portamento. Then does it again with the next chord, delivering a sense of vertigo. Pretty movie star vs the kind of groaning strings of post war doomers like Penderecki. Dig it, you feel worried from the first minute.

This is not a conventional biopic. There's a familiar framing device of the titluar character relating the story to a listener but even there the resemblance is distorted. At its worst this can be a clunking parasite sticking out from the rest of the body but behaving as though it's a part of it. Even the great Amadeus which used a fanciful Salieri to tell a crazy tale of Mozart brought the comfortable story to the table. Jackie stops that in its tracks early when the journalist who is to hear the story is told that his subject must be allowed to edit it so that it tells the story she prefers. That is what this intense film is all about. Jackie doesn't start and end a heroine through adversity, she takes the savaging of her beautiful life from politics and violence to Camelot.

Meantime we follow as she descends the steps of Airforce One, her dress spattered with her husband's blood, as she asks the driver of the limo bearing his coffin if he knows about some of the lesser lights on the Presidential timleline, as she asks about the calibre of the bullet that killed JFK, as she numbly fends off the ascendant Lyndon Johnson from invading her house, as she deals with the complexity of her relationship with Bobbie Kennedy, and so on. The choreography, differing aspect ratios, alternate filmstock choices (public events have an uncomfortable Zapruder vintage Super-8 look) parade before us to the point of fatigue.

You would be forgiven if you started finding this film plotless and little more than a series of living tableaux as Jackie gets her story straight but, as we swerve back into a scene from the time she is relating to the reporter and are again immersed in the last days of her life as the president's wife we notice, more and more, in the bustling activity around her that we are getting a lot of National Geographic quality close-ups. While in a more conventional film, close-ups are used to such a familiar effect that we are discouraged from noticing them as we are to the editing. In Jackie we are compelled by them. They are glamour shots with dried blood and brain matter, with distress smouldering through the eyes. The glamour, though is as important as the rage and grief behind the persona for it is the glamour that will be needed for the screaming widow behind it to survive this cataclysm. Thus we don't get to enjoy the Oliver Stone style of cynicism warmed with idealism (or naivete) but the stress that forged the legend, the disease that made the cure look so beautiful.

Natalie Portman, on screen for almost the entire running time conveys this complexity with unfailing skill. From rage to confusion to numb flotation she runs the gamut but more impressively conveys the maelstrom beneath the poise. Did you ever wonder why John Hurt was nominated for the Elephant Man when he spent all of it under city blocks of latex? Watch it again. This is a performance to recall that one. John Hurt is in the film (his last role?) as a priest who, while attentive to her, seems gently impatient with her. And as we approach the photogenic moments of the presidential funeral with ceremonies that are more like performance art than ritual (yes, what's the difference? but there are moments that reminded me of Matthew Barney), Jackie's quest to find herself and her family in history draws close, too. And we arrive, without cheaply bought cynicism or hagiography, to the painful extent that a place in history requires. I stood and left during the credits, while it was still dark, just to keep face.