Moonlight Triumphs

Moonlight.

Moonlight.

One of the great mysteries of the show biz world is how it is that the most gifted, talented and ambitious stars in Hollywood contrive to produce the most tedious television programme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drearily predictable and every gesture has plainly been choreographed within an inch of its life.

Ironically, quite how redundant the Oscars are as a tv show was further highlighted by this year’s extraordinary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbelievable Bizarre and Unprecedented for the uninitiated. Because the vast majority of people who subsequently watched that, there’s no other word for it, unbelievable cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, thereby avoiding having to sit through the hours and hours of tedium that it was preceded and followed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to Gladiator.

Unusually, they actually got is right this year. Moonlight really is the best film of the year. But under normal circumstances, few members of the Academy would have bothered taking their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Picture award to Birdman over Boyhood (reviewed earlier here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Story 3 and The Social Network in 2010 and to Gladiator over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic in 2000.

Based on the unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is divided into three acts as we follow the growing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenager and as a young man. The damaged only child of a drug-addled mother who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is rendered all the more shy and awkward by virtue of being secretly gay. All of which screams hopelessly dull but drearily worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2013, and, like Moonlight, also supported by Brad Pitt.

Happily, indeed impressively, the film soars above and beyond its theatrical origins and rather than being subjected to the sort of preachy lecture that the material suggests, what we get instead is a vision that somehow manages to be both impressionistic and coolly detached at the same time. Director Barry Jenkins, whose second film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remarkable job of freeing the material from its source and injecting genuine cinematic life into it. But they manage to do so without ever losing sight of quite how horrendously difficult growing up is for a gay black kid in the suburbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tailoring to, and feeding off, people like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Magnificent yes, but not quite the masterpiece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the outside world comes crashing down on him and it’s heart wrenching to witness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momentarily in peace, and he is finally given space to breathe. So you leave the cinema on a much lighter note than you might have expected, but you are left feeling ever so slightly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a major film and Jenkins is a serious talent. Let’s just hope he manages to walk away from the obscene amounts of money that as we speak will be appearing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hollywood. Just say no.

You can see the trailer for Moonlight here.

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Finally, two new films to shout about.

Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the Sea.

In her revealing profile of Kenneth Lonergan in the New Yorker here, Rebecca Mead charts the travails that Lonergan went through with his second feature Margaret. Not withstanding her entirely sympathetic portrait, one of the fascinating insights to emerge is that, at least to some degree, those wounds were partially self-inflicted.

Certainly his debut You Can Count On Me was one of the most impressive films to come out of America in the last couple of decades. And not withstanding the wrangling over its length, his follow up Margaret, reviewed earlier here, was if anything an improvement on that debut. But when it came to delivering that contentious final cut of Margaret, he seems to have burrowed himself ever deeper into a hole largely if tragically of his own making.

The Brilliant You Can Count on Me.

The brilliant You Can Count on Me.

There’s evidently a stubbornness and a prickly recalcitrance to his character that’s quietly at war with his fiery intelligence and the profound sense of empathy that he has for other people and, therefore, with the characters that he ends up creating on the page. It’s in this sense that his third film, Manchester by the Sea is so clearly an autobiographical one. It’s not so much the story that he tells that is so manifestly his, rather it is the mood created that so perfectly captures that inner tension.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, who has bottled up whatever it was that happened to him in his past so tightly he’s become immune to life itself. When a tragic event sends him back home to the Manchester of the title, he has no choice other than to face up to his past.

What Lonergan does so brilliantly is to stay with his characters as they go about the mundane, day to day chores that have to be gone through whenever any of us have to deal with a tragic event. What makes this all the more excruciating is that of all the people who have to deal with those kind of things, Lee is the least capable, and the most in need of help. Which is the one thing he’s incapable of asking for.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck, who’s a revelation, and the excellent Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

It would be misleading to pretend that, at times, this were not a profoundly depressing film. But its brilliance lies precisely in its refusal to turn what seems like an impossible situation around and to tie up all the various narrative strands. In life as we live it, some things are impossible to move beyond. And those stories don’t end, they rumble on for the rest of our lives.

Loving is the sixth feature from Jeff Nichols and after the atmospheric Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), he made the disappointingly conventional Midnight Special. The latter seemed to strain for the sort of Spielbergian grandeur that Hollywood and its accountants are so in awe of. This film, happily, would appear to a conscious effort to produce an antidote to that sort of emotional incontinence.

Jeff Nicholas Loving.

Jeff Nichol’s Loving.

As a based-on-a-true-story tale of a white man’s insistence on marrying the black girl of his dreams in the 1950s, in the southern state of Virginia, it’s the sort of story that could have been ruined had it been saddled with the traditional Hollywood treatment. In contrast, Nichols is consciously restrained throughout, and he refuses to punctuate every emotional expression with a musical outburst, quietly letting the facts speak for themselves.

And, as with Manchester by the Sea, he too takes his cue from classical Greek drama, so that most of the pivotal action happens off stage, including even the climatic court scene when the laws prohibiting interracial marriage are finally overturned.

Ruth Nega in Loving.

Ruth Negga, who gives a powerful performance in Loving.

Instead of which, he focuses on the reactions of the protagonists to the events that have unfolded off screen. And there can be few scenes more moving than when Ruth Negga gets the phone call informing her that, somewhere in the vast bureaucracy of the United States government, someone was finally responding to her many letters pleading desperately for help.

Some have complained that this distanced view renders the film cool or even cold. But as Manohla Dargis writes in her excellent New York Times review here, it’s precisely this quiet distance that gives the film its emotional punch. You can see the trailer to Loving here, and the trailer to Manchester by the Sea here.

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The 2 or 3 good films from 2016, and “Sunflower”, a lost De Sica classic.

Sunflower.

Sunflower.

Donald Clarke is one of the few consistently reliable film critics on these shores, so when in a recent Irish Times column he described Arrived as one of the best films of the year, I trotted along to the cinema confidently expecting to be wowed. A couple of hours later I came out scratching my head. It’s all right, and it certainly is one of the best Hollywood films of the year, but that surely is setting the bar at an embarrassingly low level.

So naturally enough, I set about compiling my own list of the year’s best films. And do you know what, he was right, though not I suspect in the manner that he meant. 2016 was a dreadfully disappointing year film wise.

Heroically, the Guardian managed to find no fewer than 48 films to recommend as their films of the year here. Including: the comic book pair of damp squibs Captain America and Deadpool, the Coen’s pedestrianly conventional Hail Caesar, the latest unnecessary film-by-numbers from Tarantino The Hateful Eight, Tom Ford’s there’s-no-there-there Nocturnal Animals, reviewed earlier here, and, yawn, Ghostbusters.

Love and Friendship.

Love and Friendship.

This being the Guardian they even managed to recommend a couple of Irish films. The, whisper it, hopelessly muddled Room – whose story is it, his or hers, and what do they want? If it’s to escape, then what’s the second hour about, and if that’s not what they want, then what’s the first hour about? And Sing Street, which would be fine in a TV listings for a Sunday evening as a marginally more lively alternative to The Antiques Roadshow, but should never have been allowed within a three hundred mile radius of an actual cinema.

And, inevitably, they warmly recommended I, Daniel Blake, which is, frankly, little more than a Ken Loach film. I know I know, you’re right, that is harsh, but honestly, that’s really all it is.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul.

There were a handful of memorable films. Whit Stillman’s charming adaptation of a minor Jane Austen, Love and Friendship, László Nemes’ harrowing Son of Saul, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (reviewed earlier here), and Matteo Garrone’s majestic Tale of Tales (reviewed earlier here).

Tale of Tales.

Tale of Tales.

But if in ten years’ time you were watching a television somewhere and you recognized a scene from one of the above, which one of them would make you stop what you were doing to think, I hope I have time to sit down and watch the rest of this? Tale of Tales, just about, so long as the screen was sufficiently grandiose to do it justice. But there’s nothing there that would make your heart skip a beat at the thought of having the chance to see it again. What do I mean by that? Sunflower.

Sunflower was part of a last great hurrah that the truly great Italian film maker Vittorio De Sica enjoyed, but had the misfortune to be the first of two films that he released in the same year, in 1970. And it ended up being very unfairly eclipsed by his second film, the exquisite and heart-breaking The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign film that same year, which I reviewed earlier here.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Sunflower is every bit as emotionally devastating though in a somewhat different way. Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni fall in love on the eve of the second World War and, despite their best efforts, he is eventually forced to do his bit and is dispatched to the Eastern front. When he fails to return, Loren sets off for Russia determined to find out what has become of him.

Very much a companion piece to Demy’s sublime The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, like that film Sunflower takes an apparently mundane, everyday story, and gives it incredible emotional resonance and depth by transforming it into an impossibly bold and dazzlingly brilliant melodrama. Almost as ravishingly colourful as Cherbourg and, though not actually a musical, it effectively feels like one such is the power of Henry Mancini’s devastating score.

Mastroianni and Loren.

Mastroianni and Loren.

I saw it a couple of years ago on Sky Arts, but I notice that, in their efforts to make it a 24 hour channel, in contrast to say the likes of BBC4, they rotate a number of their films and programmes throughout the night and into the morning. So you can still find it every now and then hidden in their schedule. If you get the chance, watch it. And in ten years’ time, when you catch a glimpse of it on a screen somewhere, you’ll know what I was talking about.

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3 new films, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals and a new Storyville.

Arrival.

Arrival.

Arrival divided critics when it reached cinemas this autumn, with some hailing it as a strong contender for film of the year and others wondering what all the fuss was about. It’s a scifi film from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in which Amy Adams is given the task of trying to decode the alien language of the visitors who arrive here from outer space.

It is just about worth seeing, but only because of the subtle twist it has in its tail and the less you know about that the more pleasantly surprised you’ll be by it. But it’s a very conventional film. One to put your feet up to with a calming cup of cocoa on a rainy winter’s eve.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is the second film from Tom Ford after his impressive debut with A Single Man in 2009. The latter, as well as being as exquisitely crafted as everyone assumed it would be, it being a Tom Ford film, was also a quietly moving film with significantly more in the way of emotional depth than many had expected.

His latest offering however is exactly the sort of vapid exercise in surface style that everyone had feared would be the result first time around. Amy Adams stars again, this time as a privileged gallery owner in LA whom we’re clearly meant to sympathise with. She gets sent a novel written by an ex and the film morphs into a neo noir tale of southern revenge.

Colin Firth in A Single Man.

Colin Firth in A Single Man.

It all looks impeccable of course, but all Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous photography does is to further emphasise how little there is here beneath the surface. Whether Nocturnal Animals is an aberration, and the real Tom Ford is the man who brought us A Single Man, or whether in fact that film’s success had more to do with Colin Firth and the source material provided by the Christopher Isherwood novel, only time will tell.

James Foley.

James Foley.

I promised myself that I would force myself to watch all and any Storyville docs that were screened on BBC4, but I really wasn’t looking forward to what I presumed would be a dull but worthy film on James Foley, the American photo-journalist executed by Daesh. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

p01q1kmxJim – The James Foley story was a riveting window into what life was like for the nineteen other journalists who were imprisoned with him in Syria, and an incredibly moving celebration of a life cut short. In a dignified and measured way it was absolutely devastating.

If you’re not familiar with the Storyville strand, I reviewed it and three or four of its remarkable films earlier here. And if you can, watch the James Foley Story. You can see the trailer for Arrival here and the trailer for Nocturnal Animals here.

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South Park S20 still relevant.

South Park Season 20.

South Park Season 20.

The Simpsons are in their 28th season, and the last time they were even remotely funny was around season 13 or 14. So for the last ten years they’ve been painting by numbers, and a once cutting edge show has rendered itself completely irrelevant. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have clearly been thinking about this very carefully.

At the moment we’re up to episode 5 of the current season (20) on Comedy Central and it’s clear that it’s become a noticeably different beast to the South Park of five or six years ago. The main difference being, that instead of having neat, individual episodes that exist in their own bubble, independently of any episodes that come before or after, there are now three main story arcs that link each of the episodes across the whole season.

The yawn Simpsons.

The yawn Simpsons.

Inevitably, the main story arc gives us their take on the seemingly unsatirizable election, with the girls and the boys at the school divided into two factions hell bent on mutual destruction. Then there’s the internet troll story, which gets increasingly interesting the more it unfolds. And finally, there’s the Member Berries dig at J.J. Abrams and co and the never-ending stream of nostalgia-fuelled tedium we’re being subjected to because of their reliance on pre-existing franchises instead of ever coming up with anything actually original.

Much more riskily, as ever, they are reacting in real time to the events of the week which then get incorporated into that week’s episode. So last week they had Mr. Garrison – as the Trump stand-in – spewing forth a torrent of anti-female bile at his crowd of supporters. But when then a number of women get up to leave in protest, he quite reasonably asks them, so that’s where you draw the line? It’s fine for me to say all that stuff about all Mexicans being rapists and all Muslims being terrorists, but as soon as I start insulting women, well that’s when I’ve crossed the line?

That was the week that was.

That was the week that was.

They are down to ten episodes a season now, so inevitably you’re occasionally going to get the sense that they are just trying to jam too much into each episode. But taken as a whole, this is easily the funniest and the most relevant commentary on what’s going on at the moment in the US anywhere on television. You can follow it on Friday nights at 10pm on Comedy Central. But if you can, you should really try and see it from the beginning of the season. In the meantime, here’s a taster of what the debate looked like.

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