Monday, February 27, 2017

The Flub

I was intending to write up my usual post-Oscars autopsy, with plenty of praise for Jimmy Kimmel, despite some eye-rolling at his continued fake feuding with Matt Damon. It really was a strong ceremony overall, with some good surprises in the mix, a smattering of excellent acceptance speeches, and just enough political content to be effective without feeling belabored. But then came the announcement of the Best Picture winner, and now the unprecedented mistake is all anyone can talk about. The memes, of course, are everywhere.

And, well, that's completely understandable. The viewing audience just saw a gigantic, carefully orchestrated Hollywood spectacle fall flat on its face in the final moments of the evening. And it's not just that Faye Dunaway read out the wrong winner, but that it took the Oscar organizers so long to correct the mistake, that two of the "La La Land" producers gave their complete acceptance speeches. One of those producers, Jordan Horowitz, wound up making the announcement that it was actually "Moonlight" that had won, before Dunaway's co-presenter Warren Beatty finally made his way to the microphone to explain the mix-up. And it wasn't until this morning that vote tabulator Price Waterhouse Cooper decided to take the blame for handing Beatty and Dunaway the wrong envelope.

In hindsight, everyone was terribly gracious about a bad situation. The "Moonlight" and "La La Land" filmmakers had nothing but good things to say about each other. Jimmy Kimmel jumped in to crack some appropriate jokes to alleviate the tension. Still, it was a huge embarrassment for everyone involved. The Academy's own contingency plans for the announcement of a wrong winner weren't followed. The appearance of Beatty and Dunaway, who were supposed to be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of "Bonnie and Clyde," is instead going to be inextricably linked to the flub. It's awkward to really celebrate the historic "Moonlight" win because of the way it happened, and everyone feels bad for the "La La Land" crew. Kimmel tried to tell us it was just a silly award, but that clearly wasn't true to the people vying for it.

And yet, I'm sure that I'm not alone in seeing the upside of this. After a solid month of apocalyptic President Trump news, it feels oddly comforting to see a big media kerfuffle over something that has absolutely nothing to do with him. There weren't even any angry Twitter rants this morning. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy stirred up a lot of bad feelings, and there were some pretty antagonistic remarks made over the past few weeks over the merits of "La La Land" versus "Moonlight" by various parties. But now, the flub has essentially deflated all the tensions, given everyone on both sides an excuse to say nice things about each other, and we can all quietly table the whole disagreement for a while.

Then there's the value of the drama itself in the context of watching the awards ceremony. Yes, the viewing numbers for the Academy Awards dropped again, but today everyone was talking about the show and watching those clips of the flub. This is the most exciting thing that has happened at the Academy Awards ceremony in ages, and serves as an excellent reminder of the fun of live television events. There will always be conspiracy theories, but it was clear to me that the Academy Awards aren't staged to the extent that some believe. The big reveal really isn't known to anyone but a very few people all the way to the end - not even the orchestra and the announcers.

Simply the possibility of an epic flub like this suddenly makes the Academy Awards much more interesting. Sure, the ceremony itself is still a slog and the races are all pretty predictable to anyone who is paying attention, but there's still that wonderful lack of certainty that makes watching the show live still so appealing. It's been getting harder and harder for me to justify putting aside three plus hours every year to watch the Academy Awards, but when things like this happen I know that it's worth it.

So congratulations to "Moonlight," to Mahershala Ali, to Kevin O'Connell, and all the other winners. And I'll see you crazy Hollywood folks for another round next year.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Dilemma of Recap Podcasts

To go along with my "Westworld" post, I wanted to put down some thoughts about a dilemma I ran across while watching the season. As I've discussed before, there's not much television that I watch live due to access and time issues. Nearly all the media I consume is through streaming services nowadays, which means that I usually have toi wait several months to watch shows on premium channels, and I'm never up to date with any of the discussions going on about them from week to week. However, I can at least recreate some of the buzz by listening to media podcasts. For instance, I regularly listen to Dave Chen and Joanna Robinson's "Cast of Kings" recap podcast for "Game of Thrones." This year, the pair also decided to do a recap podcast for "Westworld" called "Decoding Westworld," which I listened to as I worked through the first season. However, I chose to stop listening after five episodes.

"Westworld" attracted a huge amount of speculation because it's a mystery show that gives the audience more details about the characters episode by episode. I'm not going to get too deep into spoilers, but as early as the third episode, viewers had guessed correctly about one of the season's major twists. By the fifth episode, the hosts of "Decoding Westworld" had opined that the theories about this twist were looking pretty likely. Other theories were discussed, but with the assumption that the major one was true. After I watched the sixth episode, which was full of new information and signals that other big reveals were coming, I decided to save all the remaining installments of "Decoding Westworld" for after I finished watching the whole season. I had already started to make some connections myself, and decided to preserve the mystery in the rest of the episodes, and enjoy the answers when the show was ready to provide them.

Now, I don't blame Chen and Robinson at all for this. I love their "Cast of Kings" podcast and I was enjoying "Decoding Westworld" for the most part. The trouble is that I'm not really the type of fan that wants to spend discussions predicting and anticipating what's going to happen next, which seems to be a big part of the appeal of "Westworld" to many viewers. Past a certain point, speculation turns into potential spoilers, which I'm wary of. With "Cast of Kings," the hosts were much more sensitive to spoilers because the source material already exists in the form of George R. R. Martin's books. I heard almost nothing on the podcast about some of the biggest fan theories until certain events unfolded onscreen in the latest season of "Game of Thrones." With "Westword" it's very different because the new series diverges so much from Michael Chrichton's original film, and uses a mystery narrative. It invites speculation from the start.

There have been several opinion pieces written about this little conundrum, with many viewers debating over how much they're comfortable knowing in advance before the answers are provided. There have been several other shows which have also had their big mysteries blown open by fans long in advance. Again, I won't say which ones to avoid spoilers. It comes down to personal preference, ultimately, and what kind of a media fan you are. Those who treat a mystery show as a puzzle to be solved benefit from more discussion with more people. Theorizing is a big part of the fun by design, and absolutely shouldn't be discouraged. Those who don't want to know the big secrets, even by accident, should probably stay out of the discussion until they're ready to chance stumbling over the right answer. The only thing that the media owes viewers like me is not blabbing obvious spoilers.

The trouble is that I very much want to discuss and hear other people discuss "Westworld," and I'm not adverse to a little speculation. My preferences for discussions, however, would be less theorizing and more of the things I'm interested in: background information, analysis of themes, and more criticism. However, it can be difficult to really dig into these elements of a show as it's airing week after week. Individual episodes of "Westworld" were fine for what they were, but rarely told full stories, unlike "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad." The way its plotting worked, talking about individual episodes meant focusing on bits of new information and the incremental developments. Character development was almost impossible to talk about when we didn't have the full picture of who most of these characters were or their motivations until the final episodes. Can you really say anything insightful about the series until after you've seen the whole season?

Oh well. I still haven't decided what I'm going to do next season. I'll still listed to "Decoding Westworld," but maybe I should try a couple of the other "Westworld" podcasts too.

Friday, February 24, 2017

"Westworld," Year One

I tend to like science-fiction shows and be cooler towards westerns. However, the genre preference that's the most relevant, when talking about HBO's "Westworld" series, is that I tend to be more critical of mystery shows. These are difficult to do well, and I find that the mechanics of the plotting can often get in the way of character development and the handling of other thematic elements. "Westworld" certainly struggles with this in its first season, despite having an excellent cast, strong writers, and some of the best production values of any television series I've ever seen. It makes for very enjoyable watching, but the show isn't as strong as I think it could have been.

Based on the Michael Crichton science fiction film of the same name, "Westworld" takes place at some time in the indeterminate future, where the Delos company runs an Old West theme park called Westworld, populated by extremely lifelike robotic humans, called "hosts." Guests come to live out their fantasies, often violent or sexual or both at once. Several stories are told in the first season's ten episodes, most revolving around the hosts possibly achieving consciousness and self-determination. In one storyline, a new upgrade to the hosts, introduced by park founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), causes potential glitches, which the park's head of programming, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), investigates. In another, a new visitor to the park, William (Jimmi Simpson), becomes smitten with a host named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Another host, Maeve (Thandie Newton), starts recalling disturbing memories and exhibits the ability to break from her established programming. Then there's a mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris), intent on learning the secret of a maze he believes is located somewhere in the park.

And as you might expect from creator Jonathan Nolan and executive producer J.J. Abrams, there are a lot of secrets to uncover and twisty bits of plot to untangle over these first ten episodes. Both the premiere and the finale are exciting and satisfying to watch. The eight episodes in the middle, however, are frequently frustrating. Some of the storylines, like Maeve's and Bernard's, are perfectly fine. Others, however, are so hampered by trying to preserve the big secrets until the big reveals, that it's difficult to become invested in them. There are some terrific performances from the cast, with Wood, Newton, Wright, Harris, and Hopkins being the clear standouts, but they're mostly in service of very shallow characters. The Man in Black, for instance, gradually reveals his motivations and backstory as he comes closer and closer to his goal. However, he spends 90% of his time engaged in fairly humdrum Old West adventuring in the park, which I didn't particularly find appealing. Other characters would disappear for multiple weeks, making it difficult to keep track of who was who. I didn't realize the park's two major outlaw characters were different people until very late in the game.

Pacing was also a major problem. There were some stories, like William and Dolores's journey to the edge of the park, that felt endless, while others felt rushed. Due to the nature of the hosts and their roles in the park, certain narratives were also very repetitive. While I found that everything wrapped up satisfactorily over the last few installments, many of the individual episodes of "Westworld" felt like filler designed to stretch out the suspense. Attempts to grapple with headier themes involving artificial intelligence are well-meaning, but distinctly secondary to the less interesting puzzle box storytelling. I suspect that a shorter season would have been a better fit here, and I'm hoping that the show follows the lead of similar serials and just dumps the whole mystery format next season.

I'm being harder on the show than I usually would be, and I want to emphasize again that I did enjoy the first season. However, "Westworld" is being pushed as HBO's next big prestige series, and the creators have so many resources at their disposal, they're the ones who have set the high expectations. There's a lot in the series I like, from the cold glass laboratories to the wonderful use of music to the audacity of some of the twists in the final episode. You can't say that Nolan and company aren't being ambitious here. However, "Westworld" is still working through some growing pains, and I'm hoping next year sees some significant improvements.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rank 'Em: The 2017 Best Picture Nominees

I know I haven't written reviews for all of the films yet, and honestly I don't have a lot to say about several of them, but I have managed to actually watch all nine of the nominees. So at least I can write up a ranking of this year's slate before the awards ceremony, from best to least. It's not a bad group of nominees this year, but also not a particularly good one either.

Manchester By the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's third film is a heartbreaker, about a death in the family and all the tumultuous history that it resurrects for our protagonists. I love it for its sense of place, for its sense of restraint, and the way that it slowly reveals its characters's inner lives little by little, often through other people's POVs. It's an emotional roller-coaster in the best way, with little moments of humor to be found in even the bleakest, most crushing situations.

Moonlight - An incredibly daring piece of cinema, tracing a boy's personal journey of self-discovery through three distinct periods of his life and three different personas. There's such an immediacy to the way each situation unfolds, a coiling tension that never resolves in a predictable way. I had trouble connecting to the final third of the movie, which I'm still wrestling with. However, the first two thirds are strong enough that I'm placing it here, and will be rooting for a win.

La La Land - There's a lot to enjoy here, from the catchy songs to the charismatic leads to all the Hollywood musical nostalgia that you can handle. But while I appreciate all the effort and passion that went into this, I can't really count myself as one of the film's fans. It's a fine, entertaining film, but it could be better. I am very encouraged that it's been embraced by the mainstream, though, and certainly won't complain if it walks away with a big haul on Oscar night.

Hell or High Water - A modern western set against the backdrop of the recession, this one stands out because it has such a fun specificity to it. The characters are well drawn, the writing is strong, and Texas culture permeates everything down to a microscopic level. There's nothing I can find fault with, but on the other hand the experience was a fleeting one. I can't help feeling that this would have been a great film in the hands of a different filmmaker instead of a very good one.

Arrival - Largely a fantastic adaptation of a very uncinematic science-fiction short story. I'm predisposed to like this genre, these actors, and much of the creative talent involved. However, I did feel that the ending was a little fumbled, as it hinged on a manufactured crisis that simply wasn't executed well at all. I'm thrilled that the Academy decided to recognize "Arrival" to the degree that it did, but aside from some of the smaller races, I don't think it'll be a contender.

Lion - The first half of "Lion" is fantastic, and the second considerably less so. The end result is a solid little tearjerker that manages to be far more absorbing than the premise would suggest. Browsing Google maps never looked more exciting. The problematic elements are too glaring to be ignored, however, which is why I'm placing "Lion" lower on the list. However, this is a very promising feature directing debut for Garth Davis, and I look forward to more from him.

Hacksaw Ridge - A WWII film that never hits a wrong note, but is also such a purely straightforward, uncomplicated hero tale that it feels several decades out of date. Desmond Doss was clearly a hero who deserved recognition, but watching Mel Gibson build an outsized moral lesson around his example isn't my idea of a great film. It is very entertaining, however, and very well made, so I'll just chalk this nomination up to the older Academy members' staler tastes.

Fences - The lead performances are unassailable and the material is iconic, but Denzel Washington just doesn't have the directorial chops to turn August Wilson's beloved stage play into something properly cinematic. There are an awful lot of missteps here, especially the awkward epilogue and flubbed final shot. Still, this is the kind of thorny, substantive film that I'm always happy to see getting more attention, and Viola Davis is simply too good here to be ignored.

Hidden Figures - I hate the term Oscar Bait, but occasionally the title fits. This is a neatly concocted bit of feel-good froth that combines a civil rights narrative with the space race in the the most shameless way possible. And while I certainly found it entertaining, I struggle to call it a superlative example of anything. Sure, commend it for encouraging promising minority kids and smart girls to go into STEM careers, but nobody deserves a statuette for this.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Emerald City" Lacks Shine

I probably should have quit watching "Emerald City" a lot earlier than I did, but I was so hopeful that the series could pull off something great. I'm an old school fan of the original Oz books, and was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a lot of my favorite characters from the series properly on screen for the first time in ages. However, "Emerald City" is a modern reinterpretation of "The Wizard of Oz" aimed at an adult audience, so it wasn't particularly interested in actually doing justice to L. Frank Baum's originals. Mostly, it seemed to be taking its cues from "Game of Thrones, without understanding what made that show work.

Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is a nurse whose mother abandoned her as a child. Her attempts to find her mother lead to her being whisked away by tornado to the Land of Oz, which is controlled by the Wizard (Vincent D'Onofio). The Wizard fears losing power to Oz's witches who he's tried to suppress from doing magic. Three of the powerful "Cardinal" witches remain, Glinda (Joely Richardson), West (Ana Ularu), and East (Florence Kusumba), who Dorothy accidentally kills shortly after her arrival. On her way to find the Wizard, Dorothy also meets an amnesiac soldier she calls Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and helps a young boy named Tip (Jordan Loughran) escape an evil guardian.

This is far from the first time that Oz has gotten a gritty modern revamp, but "Emerald City" is like a time capsule of 2017 trends. Dorothy is of indeterminate ethnicity, leading a cast that's supposed to look diverse, but barely is. "Game of Thrones" influences are everywhere, from the Munchkins resembling a band of Wildlings, to West running a brothel and preaching sex positivity - though we never see anything naughty because this is still network TV. Emerald City is full of intrigues and various figures vying for power. One major character, who has long been one of the few examples of transgender characters in children's literature, is finally acknowledged as such, but the show is reluctant to actually deal with it in any depth.

The one thing the show has on its side is Tarsem Singh, who directed all ten episodes. However, he's clearly working on a TV budget, and there seems to have been a concerted effort to avoid anything too colorful or whimsical. So the only thing that really looks like Tarsem's trademark visuals is the costuming of Glinda's disciples, who resemble periwinkle nuns with giant bulbous headpieces. He also manages to get Adria Arjona into a gauzy red dress for a few minutes to reenact a brief scene from "The Cell." Otherwise, there are a few interesting visuals here and there, but little that's particularly impressive. The story is pretty generic stuff, and the characters are worse. Tip was the only one who managed to win my sympathies with any regularity, thanks to a good performance from Loughran. Dorothy and Lucas are perfectly bland hero types, while the Wizard is promising, but too badly written to actually be compelling.

As an Oz fan it was fun for a few episodes to speculate as to whether Tip's friend Jack (Gerran Howell) was supposed to reference Jack Pumpkinhead, and which of the myriad minor characters might be our Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodsman analogues. However, despite throwing around names like Ev and Ojo and Mombi, there's really no rhyme or reason to which bits of the book got adapted and which didn't, and very little fidelity to anything I enjoyed about the source material. The only Oz characters whose portrayals I was happy with were Tip and Princess Langwidere (Stefanie Martini), a haughty royal from a neighboring kingdom. Alas, due to budget concerns, she switches between wearing different masks, instead of different heads, like the original. In the end, this is just a dull, formulaic adventure serial with a few bits of Oz lore tacked on. Even the CGI set pieces are pretty blah.

Fortunately for me, somebody is bound to try tackling this material again in a few years. Oz remains popular and the books are public domain. When that happens, I hope they'll take a long hard look at "Emerald City" and learn from past mistakes.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Powerless" and "Superior Donuts"

I've been trying to make more room for television lately, so I took a look at a couple of the midseason sitcoms that piqued my interest. I watched three episodes each of NBC's "Powerless" and CBS's "Superior Donuts," enough to decide whether or not to keep watching.

"Powerless" is the more high profile contender, a workplace comedy that happens to take place in the DC Comics universe. None of the main characters are superheroes (yet) but have to deal with all the consequences of living in a world overrun with them. Optimistic young go-getter Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) becomes the director of a dysfunctional R&D division of Wayne Enterprises. It turns out that it's being run by Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce Wayne's idiot cousin. Emily's new co-workers are a smart, but often unmotivated bunch, including Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson). Jackie (Christina Kirke), Van's long-suffering personal assistant, rounds out the group.

While the premise sounds like a lot of fun, and the cast is full of talented people, "Powerless" is far from the show that it could be. The structure is messy, characters and relationships aren't well defined yet, and the superhero shenanigans don't really add much. Bigger names like Batman and Superman get namechecked frequently, but only minor DC characters like Crimson Fox actually show up. Only the biggest DC nerds are likely to get much out of the references. While the visuals are bright and colorful, they also look awfully generic, and I found myself wondering if they'd recycled some of the furnishings from "Ugly Betty." "Powerless" went through some major retooling before it hit the airwaves and it shows.

The first two episodes are, frankly, a disaster. There's way too much emphasis put on Emily being a small town girl ready to do good, and learning how to be a benevolent boss. Vanessa Hudgens is trying mightily, but she's not at the same level as some of her co-stars, and I think it's going to take a while for her to really be able to carry her weight on the show. It's only in the third episode that the ensemble starts to play off each other, and we get a few good bits of characterization. Alan Tudyk could make something special out of the terrible Van, and Ron Funches has managed to be a scene stealer in every episode so far. However, I plan to back away from the show until I hear it's made significant improvements. There's just too little time and too much to watch.

"Superior Donuts" caught my attention because it's based off of a Tracy Letts play, of all things, one much sweeter and gentler than his usual work. It's also a workplace comedy, but one that follows the much older template of shows like "Cheers" or "Taxi." It stars Judd Hirsch as Arthur, the aging Polish-American proprietor of a Chicago donut shop in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. He hires an African-American millennial named Franco (Jermaine Fowler), who wants to modernize the shop and help drum up business, which leads to some clashes. Their regulars include cops DeLuca (Katey Sagal) and Jordan (Darien Sills-Evans ), odd-jobber Tush (David Koechner), grad student Maya (Anna Baryshnikov), and Fawz (Maz Jobrani), a real estate developer who owns the dry cleaners next door.

Maybe it was because "Powerless" had such an awkward start, but everything about "Superior Donuts" felt fully realized and ready to go from the outset. The characters are easy stereotypes, but all of them are pleasantly funny and all of them fit nicely into the show's framework. The jokey patter follows familiar rhythms, but they got plenty of laughs. "Superior Donuts" feels like something from twenty years ago, and is definitely aimed at CBS's older audience members. I feel I should be a bit miffed at the constant depiction of mIllennials as trend-loving, over-idealistic nutters, but the humor of the show is so gentle and good natured, it's hard to resist its charms.

What helps, I think, is that the core talent is just right. Franco is a manic-pixie magical negro hybrid of very flimsy construction, but Jermaine Fowler is so much fun to watch, I didn't care. It's so good to see Judd Hirsch on a sitcom again, bringing some curmudgeonly heart to Arthur. And Katey Sagal is as lovely and as good with a one-liner as ever. So the show's ham-fisted social commentary and ancient bits about the generation gap go down very smooth. I suspect that this is a show that my Boomer dad would love, and he hasn't liked on anything on TV since "Becker." As for me personally, I can see myself tuning in from time to time to see how the gang at the shop is holding up, but this won't be appointment television.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Kubo" and "Miss Peregrine"

Still catching up on reviews. I decided two late summer kids' films from last year deserved some spotlighting, though I wasn't entirely pleased with either. However, both of them feature some strong efforts from talented people, and there are never enough good kids' films.

Let's start with "Kubo and the Two Strings," the latest stop-motion wonder from the animators at Laika. the studio that gave us "Coraline" and "Paranorman." The story takes place in ancient Japan, where a one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) looks after his nearly catatonic mother, who fled from Kubo's evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), when Kubo was a baby. Kubo spends his days working as a storyteller, using magic to make origami figures and animals act out stories as he tells them. At night, he and his mother never go out, so that the Moon King won't find them and take Kubo's remaining eye. However, one night Kubo breaks the rules, and has to go on a quest for a magical suit of armor, with a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) as traveling companions.

As with all Laika productions, "Kubo" is a lovely thing to look at, full of handcrafted wonders. There's a fight with a giant skeleton puppet and a voyage on an origami paper galleon among the highlights. I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Monkey and Beetle, who provide the bulk of the laughs and the fun. There are a lot of great ideas here, loads of visible effort put into the production, nobody cut any corners. However, "Kubo" has a much darker and emotionally fraught story than it appears at first glance. The other Laika films have tread into this territory before, with some great results, but "Kubo" pushes further. Grief and loss are major themes, and I'd be hard pressed to call the ending a happy one. However, director Travis Knight handles the tricky material very carefully, and orchestrates some powerful, memorable moments.

Unfortunately, as much as I appreciate all this, and as much as I wanted to like the film, it didn't win me over in the end. As good as many of the pieces are, the narrative is very uneven and oddly paced. There were multiple times when it felt like he story had skipped ahead over exposition, while other scenes ran too long. I imagine a lot of small children pestering their parents over the questionable mechanics of how certain things happened in the story. Also, I had a lot of trouble with the Japanese cultural elements, which were all handled more or less respectfully, but still felt watered down and haphazard next to something like "Kung Fu Panda." The worldbuilding wasn't as tight as it should have been, and frankly suggests a lot of willy-nilly incorporation of Japanese elements that just looked or sounded cool. The Moon King, confusingly, was given the name Raiden, the name of the Japanese god of lightning.

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" has similar problems with its worldbuilding, though much more minor. The big issue here is with how the rules of how the magic in this world operates, which wouldn't be such a stumbling block if the film didn't put so much emphasis on it. Our hero is an ordinary Florida teenager named Jake (Asa Butterfield), whose beloved grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) dies under mysterious, violent circumstances. Learning that Abe's old stories of growing up in a children's home full of fantastical people might be true, Jake and his doubtful father (Chris O'Dowd) travel to the remote Welsh island of Cairnholm. There Jake discovers what happened to headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her brood of "Peculiar" gifted children. And he finds a new enemy in the sinister Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and a new interest in the lovely Emma (Ella Purnell) too.

There's quite a bit more to the story, and several more important cast members too, but I think it's best to let the viewer discover these for themselves. "Miss Peregrine" is an odd film, long and meandering, with a story that takes a good while to properly get going. The trip is worth taking, though, especially if you're a Tim Burton fan. This is a return to form for him in many ways, with a lot of nods to older cinema and whimsical storybook ghoulishness. The art direction is gorgeous, and there are a lot of wonderful details, from the period designs of the various "Peculiars" to little things like the sound design during a rooftop chase sequence. Burton's style hasn't translated well into CGI before, but that's not the case here. And best of all, the film is legitimately spooky and frightful, though not too intense for most children to enjoy.

I'm not familiar with the book this was based on, but I'd be interested in how convoluted the plotting was compared to the film. Jane Goldman's scripting is pretty good, but the pacing could use some work, and she seems to get utterly tripped up by some of the more complicated elements involving time travel and time loops. The ending is also terribly brisk, especially after it took ages to get Jake to the island and to introduce most of the major characters. Still, as Tim Burton films go, especially those aimed at children, this is his most successfully executed one in a while. The "Peculiars" are similar, but distinct from similar cinematic oddballs, and there are some good performances in the mix. Asa Butterfield, I'm sorry to say, does not give one of them, too stiff to give Jake much soul. Ella Purnell, however, nearly makes up for it.

All in all, both movies get points for ambition and for getting a lot of things right. There's a lot of room for improvement though, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next Laika and Burton films go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Wire"

HBO's "The Wire" remains one of the greatest television series, bar none. I've put off writing up a top ten list for it for too long, and it's time to correct that. Please note that the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate. Clearly, the first and fourth seasons were my favorite ones. Some minor spoilers ahead.

"Old Cases" - The moment I fell in love with the series was when Bunk and McNulty visited an old crime scene and managed to expertly recreate the crime and turn up new clues, while conversing only through the utterances of the F word. This is also the episode where we get some good backstory on Lester Freamon, who was my favorite of the police characters in the series, and a peek into the McNulty's past through the contentious meeting with his ex-wife.

"The Hunt" - In the aftermath of the shooting in the previous episode is an intense one, not only because of the immediate threat to a major character, but because it suddenly accelerates the entire wiretapping operation. Also, poor Bubbles winds up caught in the middle of the situation, and put into the kind of dilemma that was all too familiar in "The Wire" - despite his attempts to stay clean, the demands of the investigation all but shove him back off the wagon.

"Sentencing" - No happy ending in this first season finale, where poltical tusseling over the case, both among the police and the dealers, result in the hammer falling hardest on the wrong people, and little real change being brought about. Watching what happens to D'Angelo is heartbreaking. This was also the first instance of the show using a season-ending montage, catching us up on everyone in the show's sprawling cast, and showing life in Baltimore going on.

"All Prologue" - Omar's court appearance is one of his most delightful, especially when he lands his biggest blow to Levy during the cross-examination. However, this is also the episode that brings this year's chapter of the Barksdale storyline to a head. The ending is one of the biggest shocks in the series, and sets up the major arc with Stringer Bell for the third season. Though well done, I found the second seaosn investigation into the docks one of the weaker parts of "The Wire."

"Reformation" - Brother Mouzone is easily the most outlandish character in "The Wire," with his speaking style and fashion choices. However, it is immeasely satisfying to watch him team up with Omar against Stringer Bell, as the feaud between stringer and Avon Barksdale reaches its inevitable, violent conclusion. And it should be notes that this was the episode that finally got the show it's first Emmy nomination, for David Simon and George Pelecanos's script.

"MIssion Accomplished" - The third season's Hamsterdam storyline and the rise of Carcetti were designed to highlight how political and governmental dysfunction contributed to Baltimore's drug problem, and the finale does a great job of hammering that home. Colvin's experiment was one everyone knew was doomed to fail, but it's fascinating to watch how the fallout helps some people climb even as it causes the downfall of others, setting up the rest of the series.

"Boys of Summer" - The fourth season starts with one of my favorite scenes, Marlo Stanfield's enforcer Snoop buying a nail gun from a home improvement store for nefarious purposes. This is before we're even introduced to the four boys who will be at the center of this year: Namond, Michael, Randy, and Dukie, whose fates will be decided by the end of the year. And we learn that Prez, our first season troublemaker, is now entering the school system as a junion high math teacher.

"Margin of Error" - The election episode is a big, exciting hour that is a big turning point fo rthe Carcetti storyline. However, it's also the episode where we see several familiar regulars start stepping into surrogate parent roles for the boys, with Prez and Dukie and Carver and Randy most prominently. Looking back, you can see all the good intentions and all the naievte, more poignant when you know most of them will end up falling through the cracks and becoming victims of the system.

"Final Grades" - The most stunning episode of the entire series watches nearly all the the plans of the well-intentioned adults fall apart, and three of the four boys we've been following this season seem lost to the street for good. What happens to Randy, and Carver's inability to intervene, are especially gutting. There is so much tragedy packed into this finale, I was sure that many of the events had happened over multiple episodes. Only the final shot seems to suggest any hope.

"30-" - I wasn't a big fan of the last season of "The Wire," feeling that the show had gotten repetitve with McNulty's fake serial killer. However, that final, epic montage checking in with so many, many familiar characters all over Baltimore, is sensational to see. It's David Simon's final word on how the cycles of crime and drug use are perpetuated, though there are moments of hope throughout. The final glimpse of Bubbles with his sister is my favorite.

Honorable mentions

"The Target," "Cleaning Up," "That's Got His Own," "Clarifications."


Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Dreamy "La La Land"

There's nothing in "La La Land" that quite lives up to its opening number, where a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway overpass erupts into a colorful dance number, full of whirling motion and a diverse array of performers. There was no better way to signal the film's intentions to be a movie where a present day romance follows the form of, and is subject to the magical realist rules of Hollywood Golden Age musicals. Directed by "Whiplash" wunderkind Damien Chazelle, with music and songs by Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land" is far more interested in being a nostalgic throwback than something original, and it's pretty good at it too, but I also found the conceit a little limiting.

Jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and actress Mia (Emma Stone) are both struggling to achieve their dreams Los Angeles. They meet by chance and fall in love, but their ambitions cause clashes threaten to break them apart. Though the characters are very modern, their problems are anything but, and the film strives for a timeless feel. There are nods and references to Hollywood's past everywhere you look. Mia's apartment is covered in old movie posters, and she works on the Warner Brothers lot, just a stone's throw from an old set of "Casablanca." The film's other preoccupation is with classical jazz music, which Sebastian is obsessed with, and "La La Land" devotes a good chunk of the second act to. The couple's passions combine beautifully in multiple musical numbers that punctuate their tumultuous romance. More than the happy MGM classics, it's more reminiscent of the French New Wave musicals like "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Young Girls of Rochefort," which were more emotionally fraught and often ended in tragedy.

The thing is, though Gosling and Stone are very well matched, are putting in a lot of effort, and do a passable imitation of the old greats, they clearly don't quite have the vocal or terpsichorean chops to live up to the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. I don't know enough about music to tell if Gosling's turns on the piano are any better, though at least on that front John Legend was recruited to help shore up the big numbers in a supporting role. So while it's fun to see Gosling and Stone dancing through the clouds in a fantasy sequence, or the big finale where they do a big dream ballet number staged like an old Broadway production, there's always a feeling that they're imitating more than inhabiting these scenes. Fortunately, the central romance does work very well, and Stone in particular turns in a performance that will certainly put her in awards contention. It's been a while since we've had a feel-good romantic film that's hit the popular consciousness quite so hard, and it's a nice thing to see.

I was very impressed by the music and production design. The songs are endlessly hummable, particularly the opener, "Another Day in the Sun" and the main theme, "City of Stars." The jazz pieces are eclectic, evocative, and a lot of fun. The film is so inviting to look at too, presenting a dream city free of smog and refuse that could only exist in the movies. Many Los Angeles landmarks are gorgeously brought to screen in sumptuous technicolor, and Emma Stone is dressed in a succession of eye-poppingly colorful dresses. If nothing else, the spectacle is worth the price of admission. However, as lovely as it all is, I'm afraid that "La La Land" ultimately isn't to my taste. I'd have much rather seen a film that was more in line with the opening number, something that explored Los Angeles and its inhabitants as they are here and how, with all the rougher edges intact.

For what it is, "La La Land" is executed almost perfectly, and should be a good time for most musical lovers. This has all the earmarks of a passion project for everyone involved. And there's plenty for non-musical fans to enjoy between Stone and Gosling's performances and all the cinematic eye-candy. I don't begrudge anyone for falling for its charms, and honestly remain a little disappointed that the same spell simply didn't work on me.


Friday, February 10, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2000

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy

Songs From the Second Floor - There's never been an apocalypse film quite like this one, a collection of scenes of ordinary, mundane people caught in darkly funny situations on the brink of the void. The camera barely moves, and only cuts when we are ready to move from one perfectly composed tableaux of horrors to the next. The characters are pale, despondent, and might as well be dead already. Humanity never appeared more deserving of such a bleak fate.

Dancer in the Dark - Lars von Trier's subverts Hollywood musicals by staging his own around the tragic life of a factory worker. With the singular singer Bjork in the lead, and DOGME 95 inspired visuals, what unfolds is a tremendously stirring, upsetting, and absorbing tale of injustice and self-delusion. Whatever von Trier's aims, the film works wonderfully as both a musical film, with several memorable numbers, and as one of his better tales of feminine martyrdom.

Almost Famous - Every last member of the sprawling ensemble is allowed to shine in Cameron Crowe's nostalgic paean to life as a rock 'n' roll groupie in the 1970s. This is the film that best encapsulates Crowe's particular brand of cinematic joy, full of bright music, youthful hopes, and beautiful people in crisis. The story isn't a happy one, ultimately, but being able to hang out with this crowd of scruffy dreamers in the moment is an experience I'm glad that I got to have.

Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky established himself as a major talent with his sophomore film, which follows four people caught in the downward spirals of addiction. Moving from the opening shots of lyrical beauty to a nightmarish finale of quick-cut brutality, the movie is a tour de force of filmmaking. It may also be one of the darkest, most harrowing films American films ever made, transcending the genre of drug addiciton memoirs that it tends to be pigeonholed into.

Werckmeister Harmonies - Though I've never really been able to penetrate the story, the filmmaking is so powerful and so involving, it doesn't matter in the slightest. Bela Tarr's mesmerizing visuals provoke deep emotional responses and the score is absolutely exquisite. The long shot of the attack on the hospital is one of my favorites in all of cinema, a short film in and of itself. I've had difficulties connecting to Tarr's other films, but this one is impossible to forget.

American Psycho - Patrick Bateman is a monster created by his environment, the soulless corporate world of the 1980s. And thanks to Christian Bale and Mary Harron, his turn on the big screen is everything we could hope for: exhilaratingly violent, gleefully funny, frightening, tragic, and completely mad. "American Psycho" is extravagantly over the top, but the social satire at its core has some real bite. As sick as Bateman is, his universe proves even sicker in the end.

In the Mood for Love - Wong Kar-Wai's most achingly lovely romance is all about the longing, the colors, and the beautiful patterning of repeated images. Anchored by its two stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the film sells the straitlaced characters' passion even though we see little of it explicitly onscreen. Instead, as the title suggests, it's all about the mood, the little interactions and the brief meetings between them creating a delicate, precious bond.

Memento - Described by some as a cinematic parlor trick that doesn't work twice, but that's overlooking the excellent character study at the film's heart. "Memento" demands multiple viewings to really appreciate Guy Pearce's complex performance and the careful construction of the plot by the Nolan brothers. Nothing else made with this kind of non-linear storytelling has every come close to achieving the same dramatic impact - even the Nolans' subsequent projects.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? - One of the Coens brothers' most crowd pleasing comedies follows a trio of chain gang escapees on a Depression era Southern Gothic odyssey. I love the use of bluegrass music here, particularly the rousing "Man of Constant Sorrow." I love the ridiculous wordplay, the classical references, the pomade, the cinematography, and especially George Clooney appearing in his first of several magnicently silly collaborations with the Coens.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Wuxia reached the mainstream at last with Ang Lee's period adventure film. Zhang Ziyi's performance still thrills me, especially the multiple fantastic action scenes that she features in. However, it's China that's the star of the picture. The variety of gorgeous landscapes captured by Peter Pau really enhance the sweeping epic scope of the film, while the production design rivals any other costume drama ever made.

Honorable Mentions

Billy Elliot
Shadow of the Vampire
Yi Yi
In Vanda's Room
The Gleaners and I
Amores Perros
Sexy Beast
High Fidelity


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Favorite Spike Lee Joint

I spent a significant amount of time thinking of ways to justify writing about "The 25th Hour," before realizing that it was futile. I was going to spend more time explaining why I wasn't writing about "Do the Right Thing" than I was actually writing about "The 25th Hour." So I might as well just write about "Do the Right Thing," one of the most provocative, controversial, and exciting films of the 1980s. It has long been hailed as the magnum opus of Spike Lee, the first mainstream black auteur, and still one of the only major black directors with a list of credits extensive enough for me to write a "Great Directors" post for. Some of his films can be a challenge to watch, because they're so eager to tackle thorny concepts and confront social issues that nobody else talks about. At least, not in the fearless, impassioned way that Spike Lee talks about them.

So let's go back to Brooklyn in 1989, where a boiling hot summer day heats up the tensions among the predominantly African-American inhabitants of a multiethnic neighborhood. Spike Lee stars as Mookie, who works as a pizza delivery man for Sal's Pizzeria. Throughout the day he watches the tense interactions of Sal, with various figures in the neighborhood of different ethnicities. The day ends in a riot, where a man dies and the pizza shop is burned down. Race clearly plays a large part in why the violence occurs, but the film invites you to puzzle out who, if anyone, was really at fault. Was it Radio Raheem, for blasting his boombox at Sal in a deliberate act of defiance? Was it Sal for losing his temper and crossing a line? And when Mookie throws that trash can through the window, what are his intentions? Spike Lee has said that only white viewers ask him whether Mookie did "the right thing." Black viewers already know.

Well, as a viewer who doesn't fall into either category, my understanding is that nobody does the right thing. This is a story about identities, egos, and various forms of self-expression. Everyone is trying to express pride in who they are and where they came from, but some of those means of expression are misunderstood, clash, or aren't socially acceptable. There's Radio Raheem, whose boombox is an extension of his identity. There's Sal, with his wall full of photos. And then there's Buggin' Out, picking a fight with Sal over perceived disrespect, which boils down to Buggin' Out trying to assert his pride in his own culture. And what Spike Lee does that is so great is that none of his characters are bad people or wrong to want what they want. Sal is obtuse to this sensitivities of his customers, but genuinely likes being part of the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is driven to protest injustice, but his monologue reveals he is hopeful about the future. You're meant to empathize with everyone to some degree.

All of these characters loom larger than life, and are frequently in each other's faces. Spike Lee's cinematography puts them in the audience's faces too, especially in the famous montage of insults and epithets shouted directly into the camera. The tension and energy of the interactions are emphasized by the filmmaking, with its use of canted angles, bright colors, and a very mobile camera. Images are often slightly stylized, to capture the feel of Brooklyn and the too-hot summer atmosphere. The film opens with Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing ferociously to "Fight the Power," which sets the tone for a film where frustrations boil over and violent events can unfold at a breathtakingly fast pace. In the riot scenes, the camera is in the thick of the action, so close to the actors that it feels invigorating one moment, and suffocating the next. Watching the ending play out still makes me feel sick to my stomach.

But to really get an idea of what makes "Do the Right Thing" so iconic, you have to examine it in context, as most of Spike Lee's films demand. He was actively engaging with the social climate of the time, trying to get conversations started about the uncomfortable subject of racial violence, but some thought he went too far. Major reviewers wondered if the film might heighten tensions in black communities and spark riots. Spike Lee was labeled a dangerous Angry Black Man, a director who recklessly courted controversy, and was aiming to start trouble. Those reactions seem absurd, decades later, when the film has become a cultural touchstone and a classic of American independent cinema.

It's depressing to acknowledge that there's so little else in the cinema landscape that deals with race in such powerful, honest, and surprisingly evenhanded terms. And in the age of Black Lives Matter, these are films that we are necessary. While Spike Lee's career has had its ups and downs, I'm happy to find him still working. And more importantly, he's no longer the only major black auteur that most cinephiles can name. It'll take a while for Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen and the rest to fill out their filmographies, but in the not too distant future, I'm looking forward to writing about their contributions to cinema too.

What I've Seen - Spike Lee

She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Malcolm X (1992)
Crooklyn (1994)
4 Little Girls (1997)
Bamboozled (2000)
25th Hour (2002)
Inside Man (2006)
Red Hook Summer (2012)
Oldboy (2013)
Chi-Raq (2015)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Sherlock," Year Four

Minor spoilers ahead.

The long-awaited fourth series of "Sherlock" has landed at last, with one very good installment, and two decent-to-middling ones with rather botched endings. I'm used to "Sherlock" having had dud episodes since the beginning, and series four is overall a marked improvement over the goofier series three. Still, this run of episodes felt like they'd been made in an awful hurry, with a lot of corner cutting and sloppy writing. The last episode in particular seems to have key scenes missing and some of the plotting just plain doesn't make sense when you consider it in hindsight. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss still have a wealth of good ideas, but their execution of them has become terribly hit or miss.

So, when last we left "Sherlock," John Watson and his wife Mary were happily expecting a baby girl, and Sherlock Holmes had gotten an obnoxious notification from the deceased Moriarty that he was coming back for more criminal hijinks. However, Moriarty doesn't really play a big role in the first two installments - like in previous series we have to build up to him. Instead, there are other villains and figures of interest, including those played by Lindsay Duncan, Sian Brooke, and Marcia Warren. The most successful of the newcomers is Toby Jones as Culverton Smith, a beloved philanthropist who may also be a serial killer. He's the main antagonist of the second episode, which is by far the most successful and entertaining. Also, all of the old gang is back, including Lestrade, Mycroft, Molly Hooper, and a very welcome Mrs. Hudson, who gets all the best laugh lines.

A common criticism of the later series of "Sherlock" is that the mysteries have become too personal, and many of the developments too outlandishly melodramatic. Both of the weaker episodes end up revolving around people with close personal ties to Watson or Holmes, and their friendship is in jeopardy again, of course. However, I don't particularly have any issue with the direction that the writers decided to take the show, just the rushed nature of the storytelling. A kinder, gentler, and more emotional Sherlock with more personal attachments works just as well as the antisocial version, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, and I like watching Watson's personal life progress more rapidly. However, Mary Watson ends up assuming an unfortunate type of role too common for women in genre fiction, and a big shocker ending in one of the episodes is just handled very badly. In a show full of super geniuses, super spies, and criminal masterminds, sometimes the characters can be real idiots.

"Sherlock" has also doubled down on its breakneck pacing and use of gobs of fancy visuals. You have to really watch closely to follow the plots, many of which are rather haphazardly constructed this time out. There's a sequence in the second episode where Sherlock's frame of mind shifts about half a dozen times in less than a minute. I admire the show's continued ambition, and it certainly keeps the series very watchable, but I know deep down that it's also a tactic to cover up and distract from the weaker parts of the writing. When "Sherlock" works, though, it's still a real treat to watch. The second episode, "The Lying Detective," is up there with my favorite episodes of the series. However, it's immediately followed by "The Final Problem," which is a pretty unforgiveable mess despite a few good moments. There are very strong indications that this is the final episode of "Sherlock" for the foreseeable future, and at this point I'm not too sad to see it go.

If it does come back, after another multi-year hiatus, I think the series is due for some shaking up. New writers would be helpful, and maybe chucking some of the regulars. Culverton Smith and last year's Magnussen prove that the series works perfectly well with big villains other than Moriarty. And good grief, the show really needs to stop teasing us about Irene Adler if it's not going to deliver.

As far as I'm concerned, "Sherlock" still owes us the proper ending of "Scandal in Belgravia."


Friday, February 3, 2017

The Magnificent Misery of "Manchester by the Sea"

After an awards season full of contenders I felt lukewarm about, finally one came along that completely knocked me out. Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" is a flat-out masterpiece about grieving, self-destruction, and surviving personal tragedy. It features what is by far the best performance I've ever seen Casey Affleck give, and Michelle Williams nearly steals the picture with her few moments of screentime. As with Longergan's last film, "Margaret," he's created an extraordinarily textured, well-populated film universe where every minor character feels like someone living their own full life, that we're only allowed glimpses of.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a custodian and handyman who lives in a suburb of Boston. He lives a small, miserable existence, until one day he's brought back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea by the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee discovers that Joe has named him as the guardian of his sixteen year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The last thing that Lee wants is to move back to Manchester, due to various demons in his past, but Patrick reists being uprooted. As Lee and Patrick navigate the days following Joe's death and their awkward family obligations, flashbacks fill in some of the details about Lee's past in Manchester, including his marriage to his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

There's a lot left unsaid in "Manchester by the Sea," events that are referenced but not explicitly shown. Lee informing Patrick about Joe's death, for instance, happens in frame, but too far away for us to hear. That immediately connects the audience to the other bystanders in the scene, Patrick's hockey coach (Tate Donovan) and teammates, who are watching nearby. Nearly every minor character, some with only a line or two of dialogue, seems to be living a full, rich, complex, connected life. And in that way, "Manchester by the Sea" is one of the few films I've found that has a realistic sense of community in the way that few films do. We don't need to see much of Randi, because we see the effects of her absence, and the lingering impact of her falling out with Lee.

Affleck and Hedges' performances carry the film, and they're so good. I've had trouble with some of Casey Affleck's work in the past (and I won't get into his offscreen antics), but he's always been excellent at underplaying emotions, really injecting some humanity into his characters' tragedy and heartbreak. Here, it takes a while to get peel through his layers of seeming indifference and standoffishness to realize what's actually driving him. Hedges provides a great counterbalance, a guileless smart-aleck who is dealing just fine, except when he isn't. I think it's everyone around these two that really make the film, though, the hospital workers, Patrick's friends, and other Manchester residents who Lee interacts with. It's often through them that we get the strongest sense of the small town atmosphere and close-knit community ties that affect the story so deeply. It also helps immeasurably that everyone's Boston area accents are just about perfect, adding to the sense of authenticity.

I've long admired Lonergan's writing for being chock full of little nuances. Here, it was the moments of humor that surprised me, all the ways that he found to insert lighter character beats. Even in the most crushingly sad scenes, there's a gurney that the ambulance workers can't get to fold up quite right, or a freezer door that just won't cooperate. Patrick seems to be constantly distracted or bored when Lee takes him along to wrap up Joe's business. It's not because he's a bad kid or doesn't care, but because he's busy being a teenager with a full life that he needs to get back to. Lee, by contrast, shuns connections as best he can, leading to a comically awkward evening with Patrick's girlfriend's mother, where he shuts down in the face of small talk.

As with most of my viewing experiences this year, I've been second-guessing my own reactions to this film, wondering if I liked it so much because of some unconscious bias. I don't have much reason to think this is the case, though, because I'm not a particularly ardent fan of anyone involved, and I have no special love for tragic domestic dramedies like this. Eeverything about "Manchester by the Sea" just worked for me - the tone, the humor, the characters, and how the story played out. And despite the slower pace, I was absolutely engrossed throughout. It's just a great film, and to date my favorite of 2016.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Dilemma With "Moonlight"

I had a lot of trouble with "Moonlight," a deeply intimate portrait of a black gay youngster in Florida named Chiron, portrayed at three different times in his life by three different actors. This is a pure character piece, looking at extremely personal episodes in the lives of Chiron and those closest to him. It's fearlessly candid, as we witness Chiron's rough living situation, troubles at school, and an early sexual encounter, and how they shape his life.

We first meet Chiron, nicknamed "Little" as a child, played by Alex Hibbert, who lives in Miami, Florida. Neglected by his mother Paula
(Naomie Harris), Chiron is taken under the wing of a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). In the second segment, Chiron is a teenager (Ashton Sanders), trying to hide his sexuality while enduring a school bully, Terrel (Patrick Decile). Chiron's only friend is another boy named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). We see the two connect, and then later reconnect later as adults, played by André Holland and Trevante Rhodes. Chiron is now an intimidating drug dealer and Kevin works as a cook in a restaurant.

I struggled to get myself into the same headspace as Chiron, though he's a very sympathetic character. A loner who is deeply uncomfortable with himself, but yearns for affection, he flies in the face of the typical black male we're used to seeing in the movies. The first two segments of the movie, where he's a youngster who hasn't figured out how to shield himself from either physical or emotional harm, had me mostly onboard. The young actors are very strong, and the supporting adults around them are used wonderfully. I especially appreciate Mahershala Ali as Juan, who takes on the role of Chiron's surrogate father with great sensitivity. I was worried about Chiron because he was worried about Chiron.

The thirid section is where I ran into trouble. Adult Chiron and Kevin's tense evening together was a lot more difficult for me to parse, partly because Chiron's transformation from teenager into mature man is so outwardly dramatic, and partly because the portrayed events are so incidental compared to the previous segments. Until the last few moments, Chiron is a fairly passive presense, while his mother and Kevin do most of the talking. I had trouble connecting the younger versions of Chiron ot the stoic grown-up, even though I knew the tough exterior was a front.

The filmmaking, however, is exceptional, especially the use of music to reflect Chiron's inner world, and James Laxton's cinematography. There's an appealing lyricism to the images and the editing, and a tactility to the environments. Chiron's world is full of threats and ugliness, but it also has its moments of beauty and serenity. The two seaside sequences, one with Juan teaching Chiron to swim, and the other with Kevin and Chiron, are the clear standouts in the way they leave such distinct emotional and sensory impressions.

But as much as I admire what director Barry Jenkins accomplished here, especially with such challenging subject matter, in the end I didn't connect to anyone on a fundamental level the way I have with the characters in similar films. I keep thinking of Lee Daniels' "Precious," which wasn't nearly as well made as "Moonlight," but where I did find myself absorbed with the story. What is is about "Moonlight" that made me keep my distance, especially in that final segment of the film?

I'm still trying to work it out. Part of it has to Trevante Rhodes' performance, I think, and part of it has to do with the fact that the final part of the film made me uncomfortable. I didn't know where the story was going or what to expect from it. I don't know anyone like Chiron and I haven't seen many portrayals of people like him in the media. And suddenly being in such a personal place with him felt like I was intruding, like I wasn't supposed to be there.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if I like the film or simply appreciate it. There's no question, however, that it is something extraordinary, and I expect that I'll continue wrestling with the questions it raises for a long while to come.