Moonlight, or: I’m Not Spoiling Much, Go and See It Already by Ismael Santos
“The violence done to black boys is the abusive insistence, imposed on them by family and by society, that they not feel,” Bell Hooks, Rock My Soul
I quote bell hooks above because this is a film dealing with the violence done to black boys in the name of a toxic masculinity: this film also offers a way out of that toxic sense of selfhood, of manhood, but more on that later on in the review. But, for starters, the tagline of the film tells the story wonderfully: This is the story of a lifetime.
I don’t remember exactly when I heard about this film, through trailers and finding out that Mahershala Ali would be in the film. I was determined to see it, adamant about it, and in October, with five friends, headed to Wynwood, the arts district of Miami, to see it. Barely making it to the showing at O Cinema (fantastic arthouse movie theater), we had missed the first few minutes, only to get wrapped up in the film, and finding it an amazing watch. My first thought, upon seeing it, was just relief: “Finally, someone made a Miami movie without making it all about Miami Beach, tourist crap.”
I saw it a second time two months later, in Sunset Place/AMC Theaters, the quiet, silent moments of this impactful movie punctuated by friends sneaking in pork rind bags and chewing on them loudly (adding a bit of comedy to what is a serious film-viewing experience.)
And now, this third time that I’ve seen, in Little Havana, choosing to watch it over paying attention to the Super Bowl, I found myself more invested, and amazed by this film, than before. To say that that is because this is a film about a young gay black character coming to terms with his life, and finding something better for himself in terms of his own life and relationship to the world around him, may be a mouthful, and may even be missing the point: this is an honest film, and one that I’m proud to call a “Miami” film.
When people think “Miami” in film, images of Scarface and Al Pacino’s phony accent (calling it a “Cuban” accent is an insult to the Cuban community, and to accent specialists the world over), or they think about “Baywatch” and gratuitous shots of “Miami for Tourists” aka Miami Beach.
Now then, to focus on the film now, it is like talking about a poetry, a moment, an image that you see that you know is beautiful, but to break it down is to try to break down so much that it seems impossible to tell the whole.
To get the obvious of the way, this is fantastically shot, edited, written, directed, scored, and acted film: this is a film that will last because it is done so well, every part strengthening and adding more to the film. This film accomplishes more in an hour and thirty minutes of character development than most epics try to do in three hours: it tells a story about a character who struggles to find some part of the world to live in, and be well in, to whatever degree is possible.
The story of Chiron, a young black gay man in Miami FL, in Liberty City, who is ignored by his drug-addicted mother, bullied by his peers, and unsure of where or what to find himself in this world, is a tough thing to put to words, let alone to film. Yet Barry Jenkins and his collaborator (the one who wrote Tarell Alvin McCraney…) found a way to make it so: there is something different to this film which refuses to excuse nor whitewash the harsh lives of people struggling in Miami. I feel proud of being from Miami, born and raised and living here for so long, to have a film that finally points out the DIFFERENCES between us, and the different ways we find to live.
This is a film worth watching, because it is a masterwork. Yes, that word is tossed around for any and all sort of film beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and yet Moonlight deserves the acclaim. It stars an all-black cast, tackling a subject matter never really put to screen before.
To see a film portray the harshness of living in Miami, of growing up in Liberty City, with no resources, no way out, and no way in (both into a better sort of life and into understanding yourself thanks to a desperation that comes from survival in a harsh landscape)
The actors portraying Chiron, from Alex Hibbert to Ashton Sanders to Trevante Rhodes, are absolutely stellar: not a single moment is wasted to develop Chiron even further through these three actors. Chiron is not a man of dialogue, so to have to inhabit this silent character, with his aches, pains, frustrations, and to develop that over the course of one hour and thirty minute film is incredible stuff.
The structure of the film is what helps keep it going, what helps develop both the character, the story, the plot, and the themes of the film: it’s in three acts, following the continuing journey of Chiron. At a time when so much is going wrong, when inequality is crushing the poor and fattening up the rich, let alone in Miami, which proves itself as a city tough to live in just based on housing costs, school costs, shrinking wages and opportunities, and struggling survivors, for a film like this to come along and be so open, so honest in its treatment of a city, is wonderful to behold: it is art, with a soul, a consciousness developed in the rhythm of its own making. This rhythm is immediately established by the fact that the film itself is broken up into three distinct parts: “Little”, “Chiron,” and “Black.”
The first section of the film, titled “Little” and dealing with Chiron as a child, growing up unsure of where he fits in, and just discovering his own sexuality, his own differences, is made even more spectacular by the combined efforts of Alex Hibbert as Chiron and the fantastic Mahershala Ali as Juan aka Blue. Juan’s introduction, really the opening of the film, rolling to the sounds of Boris Gardiners “Every N***a’s a Star”), a crown on the dashboard of his beautiful car, is quick enough: he’s important enough, looking over others doing drug deals and collecting money, and someone who looks out for others via saving Chiron from a group of bullies in a crack hole. The atmosphere in this opening, from the dialogue in a Liberty City neighborhood to Juan taking Chiron to his home, to feed the boy and try to get him to open up about his own home address, quickly gives us the characters and their relationships: Chiron is withdrawn and shy, dealing with a lot, while Teresa(Juan’s girlfriend) tries to find a way to get Chiron to open up
His scenes with Alex Hibbert, especially teaching him how to swim, leads to a fantastic monologue by Juan, about there being “black people all over the world. We was the first on this planet, never forget that.” It’s the second thing he says, about his childhood in Cuba, about running around so much that an older woman stopped him, saying the following about Juan running around so much in the moonlight: “…Running around, catching a lot of light”. “In moonlight, black boys look blue”. “You’re blue”. “That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.” This reference to Blue, to the color, to looking and seeming different, will show up later again, not just in the ending of the film itself, but actually the pivotal bookending scene of the second part. More on that later.
As Chiron comes to understand himself, through his relationships with his friend Kevin (who will be pivotal for the rest of the film), and Juan, along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa(played by Janelle Monae), it is his relationship with his mother Paula (played by Naomie Harris) that comes to the forefront: an exhausted single mother trying to raise a child who is “different” from the others ends up in pain. Naomie Harris’ s portrayal of this desperation, not just born of drugs but of a limited economic situation, and with a child who is gay and picked on by others, tests her completely. Her principal scene with Mahershala Ali is as raw and honest, and full of tensions and heartbreak as any other in the film.
The first part ends quickly, with Chiron admitting to “hating his mother”, and Juan understanding that feeling, but admitting he now “misses her”. Two key lines to take away from this section are as follows: “No. You’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot” and “You gotta decide what you gonna be in this world. Don’t nobody can make that decision for you but you.” To be proud and comfortable in one’s sexuality in a culture of masculinity that does not reward being different, that, in the bell hooks quote listed above the review, wants to commit violence to someone’s identity, to constrict and restrict someone’s being, must be fought against: both quotes lead to this same deal, but in different ways. As seen in the next section, that kind of societal pressure only leads to more and more damaging effects.
The next section, “Chiron”, sees him as a teenager, played fantastically by Ashton Sanders, continues Chiron’s story by having him be bullied for his sexuality, feeling alone in the world, having to sleep at Teresa’s house because Paula has descended further into crack. Two scenes, however, need to be pointed out for the purposes of this review: the first scene is the one where Kevin and Chiron meet up unexpectedly on the Beach, late at night. They’re talking, smoking a blunt, as relaxed and happy by comparison to the rest of their time in the film, and Chiron cracks jokes with his old friend. Everything is normal enough, that is until Kevin starts horsing around, and both him and Chiron find themselves connected in a way unlike anything seen in the film before: Kevin starts kissing him, and gives him a hand job. Chiron, grabbing the sand from off the beach as he climaxes, is almost startled back from this experience.
Unfortunately, the beauty of this scene doesn’t last long for either one, as peer pressure leads Kevin to beating down Chiron at the insistence of one bully, named Terrel. The scene, near the end of the second part of the film, where Chiron has decided on a course of action that will upend his whole life, is shot wonderfully, and only becomes more immediately important on subsequent viewings: everything is shot to emphasize the color Blue. From Chiron’s wardrobe to the halls of the school he walks through, splotches of determined blue on white walls, blue lockers, blue doors, everything is blue. I read this as Chiron not just taking on a course of action by himself, but Juan coming back, insofar as a inspiration: “You can be gay, but you don’t let nobody call you no faggot” and “You gotta decide what you gonna be in this world. Don’t nobody can make that decision for you but you”-all these lines that must have stayed in Chiron’s mind lead to this one moment of violence, retribution-and yet immediately reality hits, and we’re into the next section of the film: “Black.”
Black immediately opens with actor Trevante Rhodes, shocking us away from our previous notions and expectations of Chiron: here is a different man, trapping out in Atlanta, wearing a grill and driving Juan’s old car, crown on the dashboard and all. Kevin returns, and Paula, as well: I do not want to spoil any part of this section, because I believe seeing it is all the impact you need, all the writing necessary. I will say this, to analyze without summarizing: whereas the first two parts were about Chiron growing up and trying to find himself, “Black” is about Chiron letting his guard down, and ultimately finding something else. Every moment from this, every look on Chiron’s part, every bit of silence, even every bit of food being eaten in this section, means a world of storytelling, of great writing.
This is character development, and an arc of a character finally being fulfilled, in regards to the purposes of this film: Chiron, the man who struggled to find any acceptance from those around him, finds something else. Paula, his mother who seemingly was lost, reaches out to him first, and they have a heart-rending scene together. I would even say that it is an answer-of-sorts to the quote I listed above the review by bell hooks. It is a section that deconstructs Chiron, who he thought he was, who he thought he had to make himself into (“I made myself hard, built myself from the ground up”), and has him directly speaking about how he feels with the man who betrayed him in the second section, Kevin. That is all I will say concerning the plot and the story, but it’s not nearly enough: to see this section, at least for me, was to find some hope for the both of them.
The tagline of this film is all you need to know to get you on your way: this is the story of a lifetime, of one man’s lifetime, of Chiron’s lifetime. If “Boyhood” could win a million-and-one awards for being a three-hour home movie, then this movie deserves a billion-and-two awards. The potential issues here, with regard to the writing of the film, keeps Chiron at a surface level, always away from really delving into him beyond painting up a few scenes: that does not discredit the film, the character, nor the writing, but it only shows how much more this film could go in being even greater than it already its. At an hour and thirty minutes, it’s a grand epic, which while being great, is a film that needed to be three hours long, or a whole miniseries.
And there’s one line, in the emotional conversation between Paula and her son Chiron, that hit me as a bit off-putting: “You’re heart don’t got to be black like mine, baby.” For a film with an all-black cast, a black director and a black writer, to have a line like this spoken by a black mother reaching out to her black son for reconciliation, was only saved by Naomie Harris’s brilliant performance.
With all of that said, this film is required viewing. Please go out and watch it.
Unbreakable: The Greatest Movie about Comic Books and Superheroes by Ismael Santos
I am a huge fan of comic book films. I have seen so many in theaters, that when a good one starts up, I immediately get sucked into the thrill of it ala watching Ant-Man, or when seeing a great film, like The Dark Knight, I never want the experience to end. When I see a horrible comic book film, like the 2004 Fantastic Four film or X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I cringe and shiver in anger and shame so fast, I can barely stand sitting and watching the travesty unfolding on the big screen in front of me.
Which brings me to this film, a lone film by comic book fan, and declining-in-acclaim director M. Night Shyamalan, titled “Unbreakable.” What’s the strangest thing to consider, beyond M. Night Shyamalan making a film about comic books and superheroes, is just how right he gets EVERYTHING. It’s startling, how pinpoint this film is, even with spoiling the ending for myself a Millionfold, this film is a living, breathing comic book. Every frame, every shot, especially in the scenes with Robin Wright and Bruce Willis talking, is perfect mise-en-scene: every frame is positioned to almost be a living panel from a comic book.
Starring Bruce Willis and Robin Wright, any film would work with these two as a tandem, but the real standout, the MVP of this film, the true “hero” is Samuel Jackson’s performance as Elijah Price. Elijah Price is the starting point of the film, and bookends the film: born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease which makes his bones fragile and easy to break, baby Elijah is born with broken arms and broken legs. From then on, the movie, while focusing on Bruce Willis’s character figuring out his place in the world, Jackson’s Elijah Price is a man lost and bitter, with comic books keeping him afloat.
After the initial flashback sequence, the movie starts off with Bruce Willis’s David Dunn, a character that is going through hardships in his marriage, flirting with another woman while on a train. The train derails, and over one-hundred and thirty people are killed. All except for David Dunn: not a single scratch on him, and the rest of the film keeps going with Elijah Price acting the part of the comic book mentor to David Dunn’s Everyman-style character, who is unbreakable, never ill, but water is his weakness. With this setup in mind, and it being a Shyamalan film, it’s easy to disregard this film, and label it another Shyamalan stinker.
But, that’s not true: this is a great superhero film, a great comic book film, a great film, entirely. Even with the expectant Shyamalan twist at the end, the twist actually adds something to the film. More than anything else, to watch this film is to watch a titanic performance by Samuel Jackson, who, years before his turn as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, showcases his innate understanding of a character with overtones of comic book-influenced ideas.
His Price, nicknamed Mr. Glass by school children early on in his life because of his fragile bones, upon hearing of David Dunn’s survival in a train crash, surmises that, with him being so fragile on one end of the spectrum, there must be another on the opposite end of the spectrum who is unbreakable.
What is interesting to consider, about this film concerning comic books and superheroes, is the fact there isn’t some cliché “save the world, beat the bad guy” finale, at least not typically: there is no CGI mess, no boss battle, no third-rate villain shoehorn.
This film accomplishes what even TV shows about superheroes have not accomplished for the most part: a world where heroes seemingly exist, where the humans must deal with the consequences, and where both heroes and humans live in the same shadows. The only thing that could really be compared to this film would be the new Daredevil show on Netflix, sans Kung Fu fighting: it’s a fantastic tribute, and exploration, of what it means to be a hero, and to make your purpose in this life.
I can’t say enough good things about this film, and I give all the praise in the world to everyone who acted on this, worked on this, and M. Night for directing and writing this gem, and showing his full potential in this(even with the rest of his career being an exercise in what NOT to do when it comes to adaptations and filmmaking), I’d like to point out some great, underrated moments:
When David Dunn walks out of the ER, and sees all the faces of the victim’s families gathered, staring/glaring at him for surviving without a scratch, Bruce Willis endows David with such a quiet strength, it’s heartwarming, and heartbreaking, to see him come together with his family, and his estranged wife Audrey(Robin Wright), as they stop holding hands when leaving the hospital.
Another great scene is when David, deciding to work out, finds out that he can bench more and more and more than any human should, especially one with a serious “football” injury. The awestruck notes his son takes in the film, when watching his dad David keep on piling the weights and paint cans to bench, his son starts hiding in the basement closet or moving back on the basement stairs, amazed by his dad.
Robin Wright has some stellar moments as well, but the ones that come to mind are twofold: One scene has her deciding to try and make her marriage with David Dunn work, as she breaks down, wanting to be happy with him again. Subtlety, that’s the key word for Robin Wright in this film: I can’t think of a better actor that can convey M. Night’s words onto the screen, and give it an emotional resonance. Another scene, with her and David out on a date, and trying to work out their marital problems, is another work of subtlety.
Samuel Jackson as Elijah Price, in two scenes, makes this work so well: this concept of a person, obsessed with comic books and bitter at the world and his condition, decides to find a hope, of sorts, for another person. One scene has Elijah Price hobbling on his cane, going after some man with a gun on his hip, and Elijah falls down the Subway stairs, and breaks his leg in sixteen different places: Samuel Jackson instantly gets the character’s pain, but he also finds a way to infuse the character with a realism of being used to this sort of torture.
The other scene, of particular note, besides the ending, is when Elijah Price, having been told to never come near David Dunn’s family again and that his theories of David as this “unbreakable hero” are wrong, is staring at comic books, strapped in his wheelchair in the back of a comic book shop. The comic book store worker starts moving Elijah through the store, while Elijah deliberately sabotages him, and throws over comic book boxes, and makes a mess out of the store. With any other actor, this character would be insufferable, but Sam Jackson, in that scene alone, through his eyes and his rapid movements using the wheelchair, makes you feel for him, and want for him to be right, just once in his life.
Go watch this film, and take it in: it’s a slow one, of course, and more meditative and introspective, but well worth the effort. The best origin story, of one hero and one man needing to find his place in the world, M. Night Shyamalan found something through this film, something I hope he can find one day soon.
Movie review by Ismael Santos
When thinking about silent films, and silent film actors, the inevitable name of Charlie Chaplin always pops up. This is not a bad thing in and of itself: Chaplin was one of the funniest, most talented actors/writers/directors/comedians of all time, and his place in film history is well-deserved.
What is more troubling is the simple fact that, for every person that knows Chaplin off of late night showings of films like The Gold Rush or Modern Times, or Tumblr reblogs of his famous speech from The Dictator, another name is forgotten that stood neck to neck with him in terms of comedy stylings, acting ability, directing ability, writing, and all-around greatness.
The one name people forget about the most is Buster Keaton.
The Great Stone Face, as he came to be known, was one of the greatest performers of the silent film era: his ability to play deadpan juxtaposed against the most ridiculous of situations, along with his daring at trying dangerous stunts and comedic timing are to be revered.
From 1920 to 1929, before MGM creatively and artistically restrained him for the sake of profits, Buster Keaton was a one-man band of fantastic pictures: The General, in my opinion, is his best work.
This movie, set around the second year of the Civil War, and taking place in the South, is a comedy goldmine: the perfect combination of physical comedy and great writing, and the fact it is a reenactment of an actual, 80 mile chase that occurred during the Civil War, with a few dozen men from the North side robbing a train belonging to the Southern army, and what happens in that chase is perfect.
This movie is fantastic.
The movie starts off with a chase sequence of one man not willing to give up the locomotive he was assigned to, and the movie ends with that same man and his love interest fighting off the dozen robbers/Northerners on their tail.
It’s a veritable tour de force of a film, and it’ll put a smile on your face from the get-go.
Now, after all you’ve read, if you feel half-and-half on seeing this movie, just read the words of the late, great, Orson Welles: he loved this movie, too, and you should, too.
Orson Welles stated that Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”
If there’s no one else you’ll agree with on films, make sure you agree with Orson Welles: he knows a thing or two, no doubt.
Review by Ismael Santos
A quick history lesson: Two years after the success of The General, the independent actor/director/comedian Buster Keaton lost his financial backing from longtime supporter and Hollywood Heavyweight Joseph M. Schenck(the same man who discovered Marilyn Monroe) and had to think about the future: Making movies with a huge risk for less profits on the independent scene or sign up with a major studio and have more guaranteed money on hand, a wider distribution chain, and more publicity for his work?
He chose the latter option, and MGM gobbled him up to a long-term contract.
This is the only real stellar diamond in the rough during the MGM years (Spite Marriage was good, but it doesn’t become great until the last sequence, in my opinion.)
This movie is the best example of making a great, sympathetic protagonist. Too many movies try way too hard to make their protagonists into smartasses that you love to hate. The Camera Man sets up a character that, while oblivious in some respects and a screwup in others, is ridiculed by others throughout the film, and generally waved off as someone not good enough to make it in the world.
Great gags, and a great, natural progression help keep the movie’s pacing moving forward. However, it’s the performances by the actors and actresses that help keep the movie grounded in its subject and make the gags work, in the first place.
What ties this all together, beyond the hilarious public pool scenes or the inevitable bad luck that befalls the main character Buster Keaton plays, is the fact that the last act is written and performed to perfection: the bumbling hero of the story actually becomes a hero, two times over, and a real photographer, at that. It’s one of the few times a happy ending scenario actually works and doesn’t feel contrived in the least bit.
This, like The General, is a masterpiece: unfortunately, it would be the last real masterpiece of Buster Keaton, and the last real great work from his time at MGM. Watch this with the highest possible recommendation.
For a more in-depth analysis of Buster Keaton’s decision to sign on with MGM, please click on the link below