Occasionally, I’m a real starstruck starfucker; I’ve met two of my own idols, and each time was a story in itself. I’m a fan of both The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, too (though not so much Franny and Zooey).
So not surprisingly, I found the premise of Coming Through the Rye appealing and totally relatable: set in 1969, Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff), an angsty, unpopular, nerdy high school student at an all-boy boarding school in Pennsylvania, sets out to track down the reclusive J.D. Salinger (Chris Cooper). Like many a midcentury American boy, Jamie says Salinger’s Catcher changed his life; although he’s not as harsh, he identifies with Holden Caulfield because he sees himself isolated and surrounded by phonies. He seeks the author’s blessing on his senior project, a stage adaptation of Catcher (in which Jamie plays Caulfield, of course) to be performed at his school.
Anyone remotely familiar with Salinger knows that Jamie isn’t getting his wish, something at least two teachers let him know. The kid will not take no for an answer. After failing to reach Salinger both by letter and by dropping in on his agent in New York City, a series of unfortunate events at school prompts Jamie to take off and look for Salinger himself. Deedee (Stefania Owen), a local girl who likes him and fortunately for him has a car (a cool Rambler), picks him up and offers to drive. The two embark on a short odyssey through New England.
Equal parts road movie, romance, and coming of age story, there’s quite a bit to like here. Based on actual events from his own high school years, writer and director James Steven Sadwith crafts a straightforward, easygoing story that flows naturally. The many parallels between Jamie and Caulfield—right down to a red hunter’s cap and a disquieting older brother (Zephyr Benson)—are cute; the fact that Jamie is the only Jewish kid at a WASPy boarding school is a nice touch that underscores his status as an outsider. Sadwith does a fine job showing the loss of Jamie’s innocence through a number of small events. Wolff and Owen have a wonderfully guileless chemistry that works really well; a scene with milkweed blowing in the wind is downright beautiful. Jamie’s ultimate discoveries, however, aren’t so cute—this is what keeps Coming Through the Rye from turning into nostalgic drivel.
Now for Bullets Over Broadway: I suspect that once we as a culture got to the ’80s, complete artistic control became a pipe dream. This is because by that point, entertainment already was a bona fide industry with backers, lawyers, trademarks, and a human resources department—a mix of commerce that sometimes can but most of the time just doesn’t mix with art. Let’s be honest: how could it?
This is what makes Bullets Over Broadway so much fun! Set in 1920s Manhattan, Woody Allen—himself an artist by this point in his career—is making fun of, well, artists. And commerce. And you know what? The whole thing is fucking brilliant! I mean, if anyone knows how that works…
John Cusack is David Shayne, the Broadway playwright du jour. His agent (Jack Warden) gets his play produced—but it requires a series of concessions, some of which literally are do or die. You see, a mafia kingpin (Joe Viterelli) agrees to finance the play as long as his girlfriend, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), is cast as the lead. OK, but…Olive has no talent. And remember: this is Prohibition. Who’s going to say anything—especially when Olive arrives to rehearsals with a bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri)? Bueller?
You’d be surprised—like an asshole, everyone has an opinion. Some, particularly those with artistic credibility (but not necessarily looking out for the best interests of the play), get David’s attention more than others—lead actress Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), for one. Never mind that she pretends she wants to sleep with David—she’s got his ear. Too bad David writes off the ones with the best ideas—and the best intentions. Who’s the artist now?
With excellent appearances by Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, and Tracey Ullman, Bullets Over Broadway is one of Allen’s best films. For some strange reason, it’s damned near impossible to find on home video—DVD maybe, if you get lucky; but definitely not a download. I don’t understand why.
“You musn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree, and then to the sky.”
So, “Audrey Hepburn is having breakfast at Tiffany’s”?! Why, yes, I would love to join her!
When Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies, and Paramount Pictures invited me to “fall in love again” for a special 55th anniversary screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in a select theater near me, well, I couldn’t say no. Until now, I’ve only seen it on my television or computer screen.
I admit, I’m a sucker for this film—even though it’s not the kind of thing I usually go for, and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi was a terrible idea even if many films of the era did the same thing to get a big name involved. Whatever. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like this film. Directed by Blake Edwards and adapted for the screen by George Axelrod, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a fine midcentury fairy tale. Set in Manhattan, Holly Golightly (Hepburn) leads a life full of the very trappings I imagined myself having as an adult: a cool apartment in a big city, great clothes, wicked accessories, lots of fashionable friends and acquaintances, wild parties, drinks all the time, travel plans, and generally risqué fun and fabulousness. I have some of them.
What’s brilliant about this story, though—and probably why it appeals to me—is its dark side. Nothing here is what it seems: what we see is a ruse—to use the words of O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam), Holly is a phony. Her life is phony. She puts on an act. It’s more than simply running away from her past, represented by ex-husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen) and his references to her former self, Lulamae. She’s not the naïve eccentric she would have everyone believe she is. She’s also not the high society sophisticate she presents, either: the apostrophe ‘s’ she adds to the name of her ideal escape (the store is called “Tiffany & Co.”) gives her away. Frankly, she’s not even true call girl material, however downplayed that part of her personality is (we’re only told that she gets fifty bucks for the powder room).
Like her dark sunglasses and the Halloween mask she steals from the five and dime with fellow phony Paul Varjak (George Peppard), Holly’s working a facade she hides behind. Holly is a product of Lulamae’s imagination; she left behind her life in Tulip, Texas, for a bigger, more exciting one. The problem is, she doesn’t seem to know exactly what she wants, bouncing carefreely from one half-baked plan to another. She’s afraid to commit to anything because doing so puts her in a vulnerable position. Why else would one call her cat, “Cat” (Orangie)? Oh, the poor slob without a name!
At the end of the story, Cat represents something different. Holly throws him out of the cab into the rain in a “bad” neighborhood. She realizes that she wants to belong somewhere, to someone. Ummm…Paul? I know Truman Capote wrote a different ending, and I tend to disdain a neat, happy Hollywood ending; but here, it’s perfect. I can’t see a better way to end this story. Sorry, Mr. Capote.
Three more things: Patricia Neal is fantastic as stylish girl “2E.” Henry Mancini’s score is the cherry on the top of this sundae—mmmmm! If I ever have two dogs, I’m naming them Sally Tomato (Alan Reed, who went on to be the voice of Fred Flintstone) and Mr. O’Shaunessy (Joseph J. Greene).
After the announcement of Florence Henderson’s death on Thanksgiving, it seemed appropriate to honor her memory by spending some time with the character for whom she’ll always be remembered: Carol Brady. I chose not to watch episodes of the sitcom but something else she was in, and The Brady Bunch Movie fit the bill. Although she doesn’t play her iconic character here, Henderson still makes a cameo as Carol’s mother.
The Brady Bunch Movie has about as much depth as the show—less, actually. It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a divinely groovy tribute to the series, tongue firmly in cheek. Set in the mid ’90s when it came out, the world has changed—but the Bradys, fixed in the ’70s, haven’t. The plot revolves around previously unseen shady next door neighbor Larry Dittmeyer (Michael McKean) and his underhanded plot to get the Bradys out of their home, which they don’t want to sell. Much of the humor comes from the anachronistic nature of the family, especially interesting to watch now that we’re as far in time from the movie as the movie is from the series. Again, the world has changed.
The Brady Bunch Movie captures everything lovably goofy about the series, and does so better than any other movie based on a television show. Deborah Aquila’s casting is genius; every single actor here nails his or her character’s idiosyncrasies. Shelley Long’s Carol is uncanny. Christine Taylor is a dead ringer for Maureen McCormick—it’s actually creepy. Jennifer Elise Cox is amazing as Jan, playing up Eve Plumb’s weird mannerisms and way of speaking as psychotic. Henriette Mantel acts exactly like Ann B. Davis as Alice, right down to her comic beat and the face she makes when she says her punchline. Indeed, casting other sitcom stars like McKean (Laverne & Shirley) and Jean Smart (Designing Women) as the Dittmeyers is a subtle yet wickedly snarky touch. RuPaul makes a bizarre appearance as a guidance counselor. Practically obligatory cameos by Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Davis are wacky and good-natured without coming off as desperate.
Director Betty Thomas keeps the pace quick and the lines flying, one right after another. The script is packed with references to quintessential episodes: Jan’s wig and glasses, Marcia’s nose, Greg’s “Johnny Bravo” song (“clowns never laughed before, beanstalks never grew”), Peter’s changing voice, Cindy’s tattling, even Davy Jones singing “Girl” with the Monkees. Fucking brilliant! The script crams an impressive number of lines from the series into an hour and a half.
The Brady Bunch Movie is a fun tribute to a show everyone knows—everyone born between the late 1950s and maybe early to mid 1980s, anyway. I laughed my ass off when I saw it during its original run, and I laughed my ass off again this time. Perhaps one day I’ll bring myself to see A Very Brady Sequel. Rest in peace, Ms. Henderson—I’ll always remember you fondly.
Tom Ford is a Virgo, and everything he does reflects textbook traits of his sign: his products are sharp, observant, and meticulous. He exhibits impeccable style and substance. He’s a perfectionist, and it shows. His films are no exception, and his aesthetic serves them well. I seriously dug A Single Man, but I figured it was a one-off project after a few years passed without a follow up. I’m glad Ford proved me wrong: Nocturnal Animals is great. It’s also different; A Single Man is in essence a gentle and compassionate love story, whereas Nocturnal Animals is a bitter tale about a bad romance, regret, revenge, and closure with a comment on how art mirrors life. Certainly not a breezy endeavor, it offers quite a bit of food for thought.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a study in contradictions, has all the material trappings of the glamorous life—too bad none of it brings her happiness. A rich and successful Los Angeles gallery owner, she hates what she does for a living. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is dashing but absent, offering more of an arrangement than a marriage. Part of the problem might be the bankruptcy he alludes to in one of their conversations early on. Or maybe it’s the transcontinental affair he’s carrying on in New York City. Their home is a chic box in the hills; Susan is alone in it—except for the hired help, of course.
A package arrives out of the blue from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They haven’t spoken in years; their relationship did not end well. A simple guy she knew from growing up in Texas, she broke his heart with three horrible things she did—not the least of which was telling him he lacked what it takes to be a writer. Edward sent her the manuscript of his forthcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he dedicates to her. He included a note stating that he will be in town and wants to meet her out.
Susan opens it and starts reading. Immediately, the story seduces her. Edward’s novel, depicted from her imagination as a film within the film, is a tragically violent work of pulp noir. Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) is driving down a dark desert highway in Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and their daughter (Ellie Bamber) when a band of hicks runs them off the road. Facing a menacing proposal, Tony tries to talk his way out. Sensing weakness, nefarious psychopath ringleader Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) exploits the situation and separates Tony from the girls. With one potential shot at saving his family, Tony blows it and ends up seeking help from the police. Officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a pithy cowboy with a badge, can’t comprehend why Tony didn’t put up a fight, but he helps track down the bastards so Tony can exact revenge.
Ford adapted his screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. What’s both interesting and distracting about Nocturnal Animals is the way he presents the story: he bounces back and forth between Susan’s present reality, her past, and Edward’s work of fiction that ties both together. It’s a very tricky feat, but he absolutely nails it with smooth transitions and masterful use of imagery and symbolism to connect the three narratives. Like most people (I suspect), I was far more interested in Tony than Susan even though Susan’s past and present are necessary to understand the story: Edward’s novel is a metaphor for his relationship with her. Many have complained about the ending, which is open to interpretation. I found it both realistic and satisfying whether Edward says “fuck you” to Susan or lets her off gently.
Visually, Nocturnal Animals is flawless. Ford’s sets, props, clothes, colors, and staging all work together with Seamus McGarvey’s dark and lovely cinematography to create a striking realm where naked fat ladies, a hick taking a dump, a bloody papercut, and discarded corpses are all things of beauty. The acting is superb all around, but Laura Linney is particularly exquisite in her brief role as Susan’s Lone Star Republican mother. All big-haired and dripping pearls and superiority, she sips her martini at an exclusive restaurant and urges Susan to forget about marrying a weak man like Edward. Fabulous!
I wish I could play Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” for Closet Monster‘s protagonist, Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup), because the lyrics say something he needs to hear: the answers you seek and the love that you need will never be found at home. Sigh.
When young Oscar (Jack Fulton) is a wee lad of maybe seven or eight, his parents give him a hamster (played by four different actors: Chunk, Mama, Blood Thirsty, and Buffy #1). The gift, it turns out, is intended to take the sting out of their explosive announcement: his mother (Joanne Kelly) is leaving his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams). It doesn’t take long to see why, as Peter is an oppressive loose cannon. Oscar stays with his father and quietly retreats into his own world where his new furry friend, Buffy, becomes his companion and has a way of expressing what Oscar is feeling (Isabella Rossellini, of all people, provides Buffy’s voice).
One afternoon after school, Oscar follows a group of older teenage boys into a cemetery. Unbeknownst to them, he watches from behind a tree as they barbarously attack another boy—presumably a gay one—with a rusty iron rod. Immediately after, Oscar notices his father is a toxic alpha male asshole. Determined to prevent something horrible from happening to him, he jumps into survival mode and starts doing “guy” things.
Cut to a decade later: Oscar (Jessup) is into creating monsters with makeup and prosthetics, practicing in his treehouse on his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), an aspiring model who carries a torch for him. They both just finished high school. Oscar bides his time that summer working as a stockboy at a home improvement store while waiting for an acceptance letter from a school with a design program for cinematic special effects to which he’s applied. He’s completely beside himself when a new employee named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) shows up and asks to borrow his work shirt. Wilder is cool, sexy, and has a way of transmitting ambiguous sexual signs—causing Oscar severe stomachaches and visions of that iron rod.
Writer and director Stephen Dunn’s first feature threw me for a loop, in a really good way. Closet Monster is packed with gay coming of age clichés, but it still stands on its own. Oscar’s homosexuality is more than incidental, but it’s no dark secret; Oscar knows he’s gay and he doesn’t seem to be ashamed of it, even if dealing with it is tricky. The cast here is excellent, particularly the exchanges between Jessup and Schneider (not to marginalize the other actors). Dunn exhibits a dinstinctive style both in how he tells his story and how he shows it. From a narrative standpoint, he concocts a compelling mix of comedy, teen drama, fantasy, horror, gore, and psychological intrigue. The tension between Oscar and Peter is palpable, simmering from a quiet friction to an all-out eruption.
Dunn’s visuals are even better: vivid, surreal imagery of iron rods popping out of Oscar and vomiting nuts and bolts into a sink, they indelibly illustrate what’s going on in his head. Peppered with retro electronica, I pick up a certain late ’80s/’90s vibe here; indeed, Dunn’s aesthetic reminds me of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and to a lesser extent Anton Corbijn, all of whom started out doing music videos. Dunn’s sensibility is similar to another young director, Xander Robin (Are We Not Cats) (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/are-we-not-cats/), though Dunn is not as dark. Closet Monster has a few shortcomings, but overall it gels nicely into a totally satisfying film.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is not a typical teenage girl movie. It isn’t a comedy. Its protagonist, 18 year old Star (Sasha Lane), isn’t funny, cutsie, bitchy, or crazy. To the contrary, she’s smart, strong, serious, and quite desperate. Star is pursuing a boy, but her agenda extends beyond that, even if she doesn’t realize it. She also seems acutely aware that for better or for worse, she’s in control of her own fate.
American Honey opens with Star and two young kids chained to her side digging out discarded chickens from a dumpster for dinner. They walk aimlessly to K-Mart—a place I had no idea still exists—where they cross paths with a feral band of cracky-looking misfits led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a ringleader of sorts for the trailer park set. Star and Jake flirt, but security ejects Jake and his posse from the store when they get rowdy. Star ends up with Jake’s phone, giving her the perfect opportunity to continue their encounter in the parking lot. Smitten, she ditches the kids (it turns out they’re not hers) and takes him up on his offer to join him and his “mag crew” on the road.
A “mag crew” is a nomadic lot of door-to-door sales reps, usually kids, hawking magazine subscriptions (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/02/21/us/21magcrew.html). The environment is cutthroat and the crew is often abused and exploited. Jake’s crew sells magazines in small mainly rural towns throughout middle America—places like Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, and Missouri. It doesn’t sound fun or profitable, but it works for Star—for a little while, anyway. Despite unrelenting shade from the crew’s manager, suspicious and bossy queen bee Krystal (Riley Keough), Star finds her stride in this ragtag mess, competing for sales, partying with the group, and getting involved with Jake, the top salesman who takes her under his wing and trains her. As rapper E-40 says in “Choices,” one of the songs used for the soundtrack, “I choose to get money, I’m stuck to this bread.”
American Honey doesn’t feel very structured; it plays out more as improvisation than something planned from a script. At times, the pace is rambling and almost painfully slow, which usually sounds the death knell for a lengthy film such as this. Surprisingly, it works for these characters and this story. Arnold is clearly interested in the geographical, cultural, and economic continental divide of America, and she’s adept at exhibiting this through her artistic choices. The settings—mostly barren highways, shitty little meth towns, cheap roadside motels and truck stops, even an oil field—nicely frame the characters’ collective circumstances. The locations provide precisely the backdrop one would expect in a road movie, but somehow they’re more beautiful here. The music is a hodgepodge of genres from techno to country to rap to folk, and it all fits perfectly. I must confess, I downloaded the soundtrack (Bruce Springsteen is not on it). American Honey paints a lusty, vivid picture of life on the fringe.
Newcomer Lane is intriguing and charismatic; it’s hard to believe this is her first film. The part of Jake seems tailor made for LaBeouf, who brings a volatile, forboding edge to his character. The supporting cast is adequate but for the most part forgettable. A few stand out. One is QT (Veronica Ezell), a friendly and chubby pot smoking hippy. Another is Pagan (Arielle Holmes), a sweet goth chick obsessed with Star Wars. The true scene stealer, though, is Corey (McCaul Lombardi), the tanned, blue-eyed, tattooed, fake blonde horndog party boy with a penchant for whipping out his dick whenever because, well, he can. I hope and expect to see more of him and his chiseled cheekbones in the future.
I doubt American Honey has mainstream appeal; it’s too fluid, subtle, and open-ended. It’s got its flaws, but I loved it. On the surface, it’s a road movie about a girl pursuing a boy. The real narrative, though, is much deeper. Like the character in the Lady Antebellum song that gives this film its title, Star literally grows up on the side of the road, and does so before our eyes. She starts out a kid. In the final scene, she immerses herself in a pond, an event spurred by a turtle Jake gives her and likely by a few hungry, neglected children she encounters on her own while selling magazines earlier that day. Her “baptism” is symbolic: with it, Star resigns herself to the fact that she has a role in the grand sceme of things even if she’s never going to get all she wants. In other words, she’s grown up. It’s a gorgeously demonstrated point, if you can make it all the way to the end.
“Sometimes horrible things happen quite naturally.”
“It’s all so horrible, you know, the nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse. One day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be past it. Your beautiful skin will wrinkle and shrivel up. You’ll lose your hair, your sight, your memory. Your blood will thicken, teeth turn yellow and loose. You will start to stink and fart, and all your friends will be dead. You’ll succumb to arthritis, angina, senile dementia. You’ll piss yourself, shit yourself, drool at the mouth. Just pray that when this happens, you’ve got someone to love you. Because if you’re loved, you’ll still be young.”
British playwright and occasional film director Philip Ridley’s first picture, The Reflecting Skin, is a wickedly devious bait and switch. It opens downright beautifully with seemingly precious eight-year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) walking through an unnaturally radiant golden field of wheat carrying a huge frog to his friends, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and Kim (Evan Hall), who are waiting for him on the side of a rural dirt road. The idyllic scene, which could be straight from a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting or maybe even a Mark Twain novel, immediately takes a seriously twisted turn when one of them sticks a straw in the frog’s butt and inflates it. The tone is set: as Ridley himself admitted, “the opening of the film deliberately dupes you into thinking you’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie, and then it suddenly becomes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with reptiles” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/). Ummm, yeah.
Poor Seth: his name rhymes with death, which is all around him and it’s tearing his world apart—he doesn’t even realize it. The adults in his life seem incapable of explaining any of it to him. He lives in a crumbling old farm house next to the gas station that his henpecked father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), operates in an isolated prairie town somewhere in Idaho (a fact I picked up from a state trooper’s uniform) in the 1950s. Maybe the town has seen better days, but probably not. A group of handsome greasers in a big black Cadillac comes into the station for a fill up. The creepy driver (Jason Wolfe) asks Seth a few weird questions and promises to see him soon before driving away.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
The aforementioned frog was the unfortunate pawn in an awful prank involving one of the Doves’ neighbors, a glum and taciturn English widow with the spectacular name Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), a raving termagant obsessed with the smell of gasoline in her house, makes him go apologize to her. It’s a weird exchange: Dolphin relates that she used to burn cats when she was little and shows Seth a box containing her dead husband’s teeth, hair, and cologne before she breaks down, sending Seth running away with a harpoon. Soon after, Eben disappears. Seth blames Dolphin, whom he concludes is a vampire in part because she looks like the one on the cover of a pulp novel his father is reading. The police, particularly cynical Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons), think otherwise: they blame Luke because of a past transgression. Feeling backed into a corner, Luke eventually immerses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire.
Seth’s older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), comes home from the military, where he’s serving on a mission in the Pacific. Cameron meets Dolphin at the cemetery—a spark ignites, and they start spending time together. Seth is horrified when his brother tells him he’s sick: he’s losing weight, his hair is falling out, and something is going on with his teeth. Seth again blames Dolphin, who he thinks is turning Cameron into a vampire (although Cameron reveals what’s really going on when he breaks out a photo of a Japanese baby whose skin turned silver from an atomic bomb). After catching an intimate moment while spying on the budding lovebirds, Seth observes the guys in the Cadillac snatch Kim.
“Innocence can be hell,” is the last thing Dolphin says to Seth before she accepts a ride into town from the black Cadillac.
The Reflecting Skin makes a simple point: children will use their imagination to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. The story is told through Seth’s eyes, and his conclusions are often bizzare but he arrives at them using what little he has to work with (that whole deal with the fetus he finds in a barn and rationalizes is Eben—yuck!). As Ridley explained, “it’s a kind of remembered fantasy of childhood; it’s being told by an unreliable, possibly psychotic narrator; objects are used symbolically; there’s this huge kind of nightmare journey through one mythical childhood” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/).
The way he illustrates his point is fascinating. Everything about the story is horrible. With an approach worthy of David Lynch, Ridley takes a hodgepodge of characters—vampires, religious zealots, suspicious small town law men—and throws them into this weird mix of the macabre, sexual perversion, punishment, and subtle dark humor. His use of symbolism is liberal to say the least. The story is meticulously plotted: every character, scene, and little event is in here for a reason.
This is all underneath Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography, which is loaded with vibrant colors and a beautifully fine-tuned attention to detail: the vastness of the wheat fields, the crazy black hair of both brothers, the flies that are always present. Nearly 30 years on, The Reflecting Skin still looks arresting; in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. Nick Bicât’s heavy and haunting baroque-inspired score is a perfect fit. The overall result is wonderfully dreamy and surreal, yet we definitely sympathize with Seth—probably because we all know that childhood does in fact suck. He’s grounded in reality.
I would be remiss not to mention the acting, which is all around superb. I doubt this film would work with lesser talent.
A dearly departed old friend of mine introduced me to The Reflecting Skin in 1993 or 1994. I’ve never had an opportunity to see it on the big screen, which is a pity because this is one film clearly meant to be seen in a theater. For years, I had a shitty VHS copy and recently found it on DVD. It’s not an easy film to find, but it’s totally worth the effort.
“At some point, you got to decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
A few films impressed me this year, but so far none have moved me like Moonlight, screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins’s first project in eight years. Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight peers into three brief but pivotal intervals in the life of Chiron, a poor black kid in a Miami hood, as he grows up, struggling to connect to the world and find his place in it. This doesn’t sound revolutionary—I could say the same thing to summarize a handful of other movies—but Moonlight is different; it’s not merely Boyz N the Hood or Precious with a gay protagonist. Executed beautifully and flawlessly in three “acts,” it covers a lot of ground—blackness for sure, but also family relationships, sexuality, masculinity, and identity. I relate to so much about it even though my world is nothing like the one it depicts. Jenkins hits something universal, and I can’t imagine many people walking away from this film not feeling it.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
Act one: It’s clear from the outset that something is different about Chiron, who everyone calls “Little” (Alex Hibbert). He’s quiet and contemplative. A group of boys chases him into a dope hole, an abandoned apartment building or motel where junkies do drugs. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer, finds him hiding out there. Chiron won’t talk even after Juan takes him to eat. He warms up a little when he meets Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but he’s still guarded. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), who has a difficult relationship with her son, knows he’s not like other boys.
When Chiron is kicked off the field during a game of something—soccer or football, I don’t remember—a classmate, Kevin (Jaden Piner), runs after him. He tells Chiron he’s “funny” before he picks a fake fight with him to get Chiron to show the other boys that he’s not “soft.” Apparently, they don’t buy it: “What’s a faggot? Am I a faggot? How do I know?” are some of the questions Chiron peppers Juan with not long afterward.
Act two: Chiron (Ashton Sanders), trying to shed “Little,” is a scrawny teenager. He’s still dodging bullies, particularly Terrel (Patrick Decile). He’s also still friendly with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who brags about his sexual exploits and smokes a lot of pot. Chiron has a thing for him. They share a surprise moment on the beach one night—it’s deep for Chiron. Too bad things go violently sideways when they’re back at school the next day.
Act three: Chiron, now “Black” (Trevante Rhodes)—incidentally, the name Kevin gives him in high school—is his 20s and living in Atlanta. He emulates Juan, and not just by following in his footsteps selling drugs. Kevin (André Holland) calls out of the blue. He’s a cook in Miami. He says that a guy played a song on the jukebox where he works that reminded him of Chiron, and he offers to make him dinner sometime. It’s a weird call that gets to Chiron, who still carries a torch for Kevin.
After visiting his mother at a treatment center, he heads down to Miami and finds Kevin at the restaurant where he works. They skirt around a bit, and Kevin plays the song: “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, a smooth ‘60s R&B track with lyrics like “I’m so glad you stopped by to say hello to me” and “If you’re not gonna stay please don’t treat me like you did before because I still love you so.” Kevin vaguely seems to come on to Chiron, who doesn’t understand why Kevin called him—though he seems glad he did.
The sum of Moonlight is greater than its parts, but its parts are still great. The plot is fluid, driven more by dialogue and little moments—like Juan teaching Chiron how to swim, Teresa making the bed for Chiron, and Kevin cooking him dinner—than building up to any single climax. Moonlight is voyeuristic, crammed with moments that are so personal it feels like we shouldn’t be watching. The third act is strange and even a bit slow, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. Chiron and Kevin’s meeting is suspenseful and confusing, percolating with an urgent and erotic undertone. Something about how they convey what they’re feeling with just their eyes makes you actually want to see them kiss. Kevin sums up what the film is all about in one question when he asks Chiron point blank, “Who is you?” The end is unresolved, but it’s perfect.
Moonlight is as close to poetry as a movie gets. James Laxton’s cinematography uses colors that are so lush that you can actually feel the humidity in the air. The night scenes, especially on the beach, are an odd mix of serene and ghostly.
Side note: Chiron’s mother is an interesting character. She seems overprotective at first, wearing scrubs and a name tag when we first see her rushing up to Chiron as Juan brings him home the next day. Upset with Chiron for not coming home, she revokes his TV privileges and tells him to find something to read. Sensible parenting, perhaps; but a lot here is not how it appears. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s a mess. Likewise, it doesn’t take long to see that Juan is not the thug he appears to be. Nothing about Moonlight is what its seems on the surface.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, an engineering student at the University of Texas, Austin, killed his mother and his wife before taking over the observation deck of the 30-story Main Building on campus (“The Tower”). Known as the infamous “Texas Tower Sniper,” he then shot random passers-by on the mall below, terrorizing the campus for over an hour and a half. When it was over, 17 victims including him were dead and dozens were wounded (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman). Quite possibly the first mass shooting on a school campus in the United States—and definitely the first of this magnitude—the event resonates nearly 50 years later.
Keith Maitland’s Tower is a sort of oral history of this tragic day, and it’s compelling from the outset. I may seem to be stating the obvious here—how could the story of such an event be anything but compelling? I haven’t mentioned that the whole thing is animated—as in, a cartoon. I must admit that I was skeptical. Turning a combination of archival footage and reenactments into rotoscopes that have an offbeat King of the Hill quality sounds dubiously unfitting for many reasons. Nonetheless, Tower works unsparingly well.
With barely a mention of Whitman—his name comes up toward the end, and only incidentally—Maitland chooses to focus on those caught in the confusion. He doesn’t say who is shooting or why, putting viewers into the thick of it. He let’s survivors, heroes, and witnesses narrate their ordeals: what they were doing, who was with them, and what happened to them. Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), a pregnant teenager who was the first one shot on campus, tells about seeing her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, die right next to her and losing her baby while she lied in a pool of her blood on the hot concrete. She also talks about the woman, Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), who played dead to stay with her and keep her conscious until help could get to her. Aleck Hernandez (Aldo Ordoñez) tells about being shot in the shoulder while delivering newspapers with his cousin riding on his bicyle with him. Allen Crum (Chris Doubek), a middleaged bookstore employee, tells about dodging bullets to help a victim on the ground and winding up on the observation deck while Whitman was still shooting. Austin police officers Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette) talk separately about their roles in bringing down Whitman.
Each account is unflinchingly brutal with lots of personal detail. The animation is an odd but effective way to bring us close to the action in a way that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Considering how it’s presented, Tower is surprisingly emotional and personal. I haven’t seen a documentary like this before.