The Handmaiden

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Master director Chan-wook Park’s diabolically pleasurable “The Handmaiden” delights the eye with its sumptuous costumes, production design, and photography, and also tickles the imagination with its structural gamesmanship. While it seems that the majority of films tagged “erotic psychological thrillers” fail to satisfy even one of that trio of descriptors, Park – at the top of his strong game – delivers the goods and then some. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” Park’s movie, through its careful application of con artistry and class consciousness, also recalls aspects of “Dangerous Liaisons” and brings a hint of “Raise the Red Lantern” into play as well.

Presented in three parts, “The Handmaiden” follows undercover hustler Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) as she infiltrates the bedroom of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), the wealthy niece of a powerful master and collector of shunga and other rare pornographic scrolls, tomes, and folios. In league with fellow grifter “Count” Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), with whom she intends to split Hideko’s sizable inheritance, Sookee’s job is to convince her mistress to elope with Fujiwara. The intriguing roundelay, party to several twists and turns revealed in flashback, provides Park with a sensuous stage on which he can explore sex as power, sex as weapon, and sex as release.

The potential pitfalls and snares are many, but Park somehow manages to thread the needle between the kind of softcore, tongue-in-cheek jape that treats onscreen lovemaking as a kind of elaborately choreographed pas de deux and an earnest examination of unclothed connection. Most popular cinematic depictions of anything even close to BDSM struggle to resist simplifying kink and pathologizing attendant behavior as unhealthy, abnormal, or wrong. Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho) appears to fit that bill, commanding Hideko to theatrically narrate explicit literature for an audience of guests who come to luxuriate as well as buy, sell, and trade books and artwork.

Set in Korea during the Japanese occupation and featuring helpful color-coded subtitles that distinguish between the two principal spoken languages, “The Handmaiden” keeps a close eye on the dangers of being a woman under the control of an entitled male authority figure. As Manohla Dargis points out, Hideko is both puppet and bird in a gilded cage: she lives with the constant threat of violence, which Park partially imagines through the metaphor of Kouzuki’s dreaded basement. Park will indeed invite the viewer to visit that mysterious underfloor vault in a manner befitting the director’s penchant for stark, grim comeuppance.

While the plotting of the narrative depends on the quartet made up of two men and two women, Park confidently shifts among the permutations. A serpentine Sookee/Hideko/Fujiwara triangle coexists with a perilous relationship between the lady of the house and her handmaiden. In one scene, Sookee files the sharp edge of Hideko’s tooth during a bath, gently probing mouth with finger. The slippery, humid sequence is as pulse-quickening as a number of Park’s other period tableaux, many of which reach for the unknown pleasures, confounding ecstasies, and possibility of force displayed in Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” – a famous image included by Park in “The Handmaiden.”

The Eagle Huntress

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A completely engaging adventure on each of its multiple levels, Otto Bell’s “The Eagle Huntress” combines old-fashioned nature documentary with both a rousing sports competition angle and a front-and-center challenge to gender role expectations that translate universally beyond the remote Mongolian setting. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl, is instantly likable: a no-nonsense kid who earns top marks at her boarding school and can pin any and all of the boys at wrestling. Aisholpan intends to become a doctor, but in the meantime, she devotes herself to the male-only province of hunting game with golden eagles.

Aisholpan’s father Nurgaiv Rys is the latest in a twelve-generation line of eagle hunters, and Bell opens the movie with a stunning sequence in which the viewer learns the rudiments of traditional Central Asian falconry. Birds are collected directly from the nest during a brief window of flightless days just prior to full fledging (a later set-piece grippingly demonstrates this endeavor). According to the information presented in the film, a “bird lord” becomes the custodian of an eagle for a period limited to seven years. Once the raptor’s service concludes, the hunter returns the animal to the wild.

Aided by Simon Niblett’s nimble photography, which includes drone footage, human and animal-mounted cameras, and gorgeous wide shots that share the massive scale of the Altai mountain range, “The Eagle Huntress” showcases a unique father-daughter relationship en route to Aisholpan’s participation in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Editing to heighten the suspense surrounding Aisholpan’s chances as a first-time contestant and the inaugural female participant, Bell and Pierre Takal adroitly include portrait interviews with a series of skeptical elders dismayed by the change represented by Aisholpan.

In part because of the support Aisholpan receives from her parents and her grandfather, some critics have argued that “The Eagle Huntress” lacks a certain kind of interpersonal conflict or drama. In his original Sundance review for “The Hollywood Reporter,” Boyd van Hoeij goes farther, calling into question the film’s nonfiction bona fides, citing his “nagging suspicion throughout that there’s been more preparation for especially the set-pieces than would normally be the case on a documentary.” Considering the breadth of methodologies and styles in the evolution of the nonfiction film, Van Hoeij’s critique of the participatory aspects of Bell’s craft misses the target.

For cinephiles and documentary fans, the behind-the-scenes story of “The Eagle Huntress” is as thrilling as Aisholpan’s own journey. Director Bell saw breathtaking photographs of eagle hunters captured by Asher Svidensky in 2014, and the sight of Aisholpan – who was likely the only female apprentice of the skill on the entire planet – sparked him into action. Jason Guerrasio’s “Business Insider” story lays out the rest of the broad strokes: Bell exhausting his entire life savings along with another 12K loan; an appeal to Morgan Spurlock to come on board as an executive producer so Bell could complete shooting; recruiting Daisy Ridley as another executive producer and the movie’s narrator, and Sia for an original song.

Even without Ridley and Sia, who underscore the movie’s central theme of how 21st century gender expectations can be challenged anywhere, “The Eagle Huntress” makes for rousing entertainment in which no computer-generated effects of any kind are needed to communicate something awe-inspiring and, for young people growing up in the United States, otherworldly. During the screening I attended, my own seven-year-old daughter turned to me and asked, “Is this real?”

Rogue One

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Rogue One.”

Despite claims and/or brand management that position “Rogue One” as a “standalone” story within the franchise, Gareth Edwards’ feature, which takes place just prior to the events depicted in the original “Star Wars,” carries so much Lucasfilm DNA that it is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that the film exists outside of the principal Skywalker narrative. The central story, first dreamed up by ILM veteran/computer genius/visual effects supervisor John Knoll years ago, launches from the text of the famous original opening crawl, in which Rebel spaceships struck “from a hidden base” and spies managed to “steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.”

“Rogue One” immediately distinguishes itself from past “Star Wars” movies by dispensing with that familiar roll-up text and accompanying John Williams theme, asking viewers to rethink some of the previously essential requirements of a “Star Wars” film (the glowing blue Trade Gothic-style card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” remains). Considering the active transformation of the property by owner Disney – and the likelihood of seeing a Marvel Cinematic Universe model applied to a steady stream of future “product” – it makes sense that variations to the old formula would be tested.

Arguably darker in both aesthetic and execution than any of its predecessors, “Rogue One” counts as its greatest success the absolutely brilliant retconning of one of Lucas’ most gently ridiculed requests for our suspension of disbelief: it turns out that the exploitable flaw in the design of the Death Star allowing small proton torpedoes to penetrate a two-meter thermal exhaust port leading directly to the reactor system was engineered deliberately as an act of anti-Imperial sabotage by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the father of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).

The Galen/Jyn dynamic, ripe with the parent/child baggage that has driven so much of the primary “Star Wars” story since Vader’s revelation to Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back,” is Applied Characterization 101, but the nature of the father/daughter bond diverges from the “bad dad” history of the Skywalkers in intriguing ways. Jyn’s status as a quasi-orphan places her in the company of Luke, Leia, and Rey, but the manner in which her feelings of abandonment, skepticism, and distrust indicate unwillingness to side with the Rebels – who plan to assassinate Galen – unlocks the film’s appealing critique of the Alliance’s most unsavory tactics.

Later, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, who looks dashing in his Han Solo-on-Hoth-inspired parka), will verbalize with weary resignation that terrible things have been done on behalf of the Rebellion. He refers to spies, assassins, and saboteurs, including himself in that number. The acknowledgement is the most sustained, most nuanced move away from the simplified, morally unambiguous, good-versus-evil signature yet offered, and a welcome shading of the wars part of “Star Wars.” The full nature of Saw Gerrera’s (Forest Whitaker) extremism, even terrorism, as a Rebel cell leader is murkier, but the theme is established: “Rogue One” accepts a more mature vision of the toll of sustained armed conflict and life during wartime.

But beyond that, how is the film situated within the liminal space between the prequels and the original trilogy?

The expansive breadth of the “Star Wars” universe has invited arguments concerning canon since at least as early as November 17, 1978 – the CBS airdate of the “Star Wars Holiday Special.” Among other things, the lone television broadcast explicated the spiritual tradition known as Life Day, celebrated by red-robed Wookiees on their home planet Kashyyyk. Viewers learned about Chewbacca’s nuclear family, and also discovered that “Star Wars” could make room for variety show-inspired performances by Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, and others. The legacy of that endeavor, which some disavow and others relish, is the quintessential example of the many-things-to-many-people elasticity of “Star Wars.”

In Laurent Bouzereau’s “Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey” and elsewhere, J. J. Abrams subtly avoided direct denunciation of the prequels, emphasizing instead the various ways in which Episode VII would feel like an “authentic” “Star Wars” movie. The use of photochemical process instead of digital capture for principal photography and the valuing of practical effects over CGI are two examples reinforcing the position that certain “Star Wars” films are more equal than others. Some older fans in particular have been paying close attention to how Lucasfilm, under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, will or won’t honor the full continuity of “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones,” “Revenge of the Sith,” and the accompanying dubiousness of midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks.

In “Rogue One,” Easter eggs and callbacks to the original trilogy (from blue milk to a superfluous encounter with Ponda Baba/Walrus Man and his odious companion Doctor Evazan) outnumber the movie’s more tentative links to Episodes I-III, but the filmmakers offer at least a strong handshake to the prequels if not a warm embrace. For the anti-prequel purist, the appearance of Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa will be less acceptable than the digital mask of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, as it fortifies a bridge that might better be burned than crossed. And uncanny valley problematics aside, the Tarkin “performance” raises serious questions about the management and control of deceased actors’ likenesses (see the December 16, 2016 “Variety” report by Kristopher Tapley and Peter DeBruge for more).

“Rogue One” recalls another of the most frustrating and unwelcome saga additions cooked up by Lucas – the revelation that C-3PO’s memory had been wiped, conveniently erasing the droid’s conscious recollections of being the property of the future Darth Vader. That particular issue is mirrored in the handling of K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). As vibrant, funny, and alive as his more famous forebears C-3PO and R2-D2, the gray-plated wiseacre toiled in Imperial security prior to reprogramming by owner Andor. K-2SO, who provides the most consistent and reliable humor and tension relief in “Rogue One,” is an instant favorite thanks to Tudyk’s performance and the droid’s self-sacrificing heroics.

In a sharp essay, Mike Delaney addresses the conundrum of sentience, free will, and slavery related to the use of droids in “Star Wars,” tackling the knotty philosophical ethics swirling around choice versus the illusion of choice. While it is true that Owen Lars indicated a desire to have the memory functions of C-3PO and R2-D2 obliterated in the first “Star Wars,” legions of emotionally invested viewers rejected the notion that the beloved mechanical friends were anything less than conscious, self-aware, and capable of making decisions not tethered to coding.

Until the alterations of the prequels, fans could take comfort in the idea that C-3PO eluded erasure, a terrible fate not visited upon companion R2-D2, whose Wookiepeedia entry opens with the assertion that the droid’s avoidance of reprogramming and any major memory wipe has resulted “in an adventurous and independent attitude.” C-3PO and K-2SO may share permanent amnesia, but the latter, like the other members of Jyn’s do-or-die team, is a rogue on more than one level. Along with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the droid served the Empire, but we have no evidence that K-2SO would have, or could have, defected like a human. Isn’t that possibility more interesting?

Some of the same aficionados who decried the narrative parallels between “Star Wars” and “The Force Awakens” have praised “Rogue One” for its break from a climax focused on the destruction of a space station and the introduction of a set of largely “fresh” characters. While those two claims are not incorrect, “Rogue One” is nearly as dependent on elemental “Star Wars” tropes as Episode VII. Besides the previously noted associations, “Rogue One” contains the familiar sight of moisture vaporators, holographic messages, Rebels disguised as Imperials, sentinels outside the Massassi Temple, Mon Calamari admirals directing a major assault, old clearance codes that somehow check out, familiar Rebel pilots reciting call signs, the destruction of entire planets by the Death Star, and an obligatory variation on “I have a bad feeling about this.”

It also has one other thing: a glowing crimson energy blade ignited by the most famous Dark Lord of the Sith in the known universe.

Darth Vader’s role in “Rogue One” may be more limited than in his screen debut, but his presence is every bit as important. Vader haunts the world of “Star Wars” like the Flying Dutchman haunts the Seven Seas, and witnessing his power – freed from the albatross of Hayden Christensen’s flimsy interpretation of Anakin Skywalker – restores some of the faith that has been disturbingly lacking. James Earl Jones’ basso profundo might not be as commanding as it was the first time we heard it (forty years will do that), but “Rogue One” steps away from Vader as iconic corporate symbol, restoring him as a terrifying threat, tormented and broken, twisted and evil.

Nocturnal Animals

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Partially avoiding the sophomore slump, renaissance man Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” is less rewarding and accomplished than “A Single Man.” Adapted by the director from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” “Nocturnal Animals” is a stylishly designed noir that alternates between the terror of a West Texas road nightmare and the misfortunes of an icy Los Angeles gallerist in a precarious, toxic marriage. Ford can be commended for allowing the menagerie of miserable wretches on display to be so thoroughly and defiantly mean, but his film will leave many gasping for air.

Susan (Amy Adams) receives an advanced copy of a novel by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has titled it “Nocturnal Animals” in Susan’s honor. The papercut received by Susan as she opens the package is but the first portent that the contents of Edward’s fiction will haunt his ex, who is riveted by the unsettling page-turner. As Susan reads, the film shifts into the fictionalized world created by Edward, in which a family of three is waylaid by a trio of grinning monsters led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s swaggering Ray Marcus. Each time the horror escalates, Ford leaves the events of the manuscript to dramatize Susan’s shaken reactions, calling upon Adams to do some heavy lifting in the absence of a rich and complex character.

Additionally, Ford introduces a third thread, in which Susan reminisces about her life with Edward some two decades in the past. These glimpses into the circumstances that led to the downfall of her marriage include a confrontation between Susan and her mother Anne, a Texas blue blood who strongly objects to her daughter’s intention to marry a person deemed unworthy. In a curious bit of casting, Anne is portrayed by the great Laura Linney, who is far too young to be the parent of someone played by Adams. The two actors are only separated by ten years, and the age makeup doesn’t convince.

Occasionally, Ford shows glimmers of twisted humor, but the film takes itself too seriously to allow the juiciest amusements to pay long-term dividends. The L.A. art scene vampires, nicely represented by the chunky black frames and pointy shoulder pads of Jena Malone’s caustic Sage Ross, are comically juxtaposed with the ghoulish, manic, Texas troublemakers (in one scene, Taylor-Johnson wipes his ass while seated on an outdoor porch commode custom-plumbed by his smug redneck). Ford’s tone is often inscrutable, and nobody – including Susan, who may be about to get her just desserts – deserves much sympathy.

The pulpy “Nocturnal Animals” is much closer to a forgettable genre exercise like Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor” than to the supercharged fever dreams of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Not even the arresting opening images of obese nudes, photographed in silky slow motion, can clear a path for any statement Ford hopes to make regarding the business of art and the trap of artifice. Revenge has fueled many great movies, from “The Big Heat” to “Three Colours: White” to “I Saw the Devil,” but the ambiguities of “Nocturnal Animals” will leave you desiring a kind of satisfaction that proves too elusive and slippery for Ford and his collaborators to deliver.

I Am Your Father

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

With the October 2016 announcement that he would no longer attend international shows to meet fans and sign autographs in person, David Prowse closed a chapter of his life that some “Star Wars” aficionados had anticipated since a 2009 cancer diagnosis and a controversial 2014 claim that the Darth Vader portrayer had been suffering from dementia. Prowse, whose sour grapes and willingness to communicate with the press have run afoul of Lucasfilm gatekeepers on multiple occasions over the years, is the subject of Marcos Cabota and Toni Bestard’s documentary “I Am Your Father,” an uneven victory lap for the now 81-year-old performer.

Opening with the sight of inaugural cinematic Frankenstein monster thespian Charles Ogle and ending with a roll call of “men behind the mask” that includes Ben Chapman, Lon Chaney, and Max Schreck, “I Am Your Father” alternates between biographical portraiture fleshed out with plenty of excellent archival imagery and a much less satisfying thread in which self-described Vader superfan Cabota holds court with Prowse, determined to restage the unmasking scene from “Return of the Jedi” – in which Vader was played by Sebastian Shaw – with or without the permission and blessing of Lucasfilm. Needless to say, the formal request is denied, and viewers of “I Am Your Father” don’t get to see the finished clip, presented instead with the dubious reward of watching an audience react to it at a private screening.

Despite the unnecessary runtime padding via Cabota’s appearance, the filmmakers construct one plausible argument aiming to exonerate Prowse for any real and imagined damage he did to Darth Vader and the “Star Wars” brand in the eyes of Lucas and company. In a 1978 interview, Prowse, with uncanny powers of prognostication, accurately predicted that Vader would turn out to be the father of Luke Skywalker in the yet to be made “Star Wars” sequel. Later leaks, attributed to Prowse but likely sold by others, surrounded various plot points in “Jedi.” While Cabota and Bestard build a strong case defending Prowse, the nature of their film largely ignores other bones of contention, or for that matter, any real critique of Prowse.

Is David Prowse Darth Vader? Yes, but so is James Earl Jones, who in an interview clip magnanimously suggests his voice acting was merely a “special effect.” Bodybuilder Prowse, despite having appeared in Hammer horror films and “A Clockwork Orange,” will be principally remembered for wearing Vader’s cape and helmet, even if we never saw his face or heard his voice. Prowse’s work as the Green Cross Man, a road safety superhero he played in a series of public service announcements for Britain’s Green Cross Code campaign starting in 1975, is cited by the actor as his most personally satisfying career achievement, and the filmmakers craft a rewarding section on the spots and Prowse’s related visits with elementary schoolchildren.

Like many “Star Wars” fan films, “I Am Your Father” exposes the raw nerve between sanctioned content controlled by the copyright holder and the sense of personal ownership held by those for whom the saga is an almost all-consuming passion. Inevitably, Cabota and Bestard end up at sci-fi/fantasy conventions to get hot takes from cosplayers and pilgrims whose responses are at times as illuminating as the ones offered by Gary Kurtz and Robert Watts. In one sense, it is precisely because Prowse has been prohibited from participating in any official “Star Wars” events that he, like the community members described by Will Brooker, “raise(s) the specter of Lucasfilm as a tyrannical Empire, stamping out rogue interpretations where it fails to assimilate them, and by extension constructing the fan creators as a rebel alliance.”

Certain Women

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Master filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” based on stories by Maile Meloy, shares the quiet fortunes and misfortunes of three protagonists and the friends, family, and strangers in orbit around them. Set in Montana, the film moves at the director’s deliberately measured pace, a technique that suits Reichardt’s alliance with the western, the genre that perhaps best describes her body of work. As taciturn, secretive, and enigmatic as her best films, “Certain Women” withholds explanations and confessions, instead trusting the viewer to draw conclusions and fill in blanks.

In a “New York Times Magazine” profile, Alice Gregory argues the case for Reichardt as a maker of westerns, writing that her “shots are rife with the genre’s archetypal motifs — horses, trains, buttes — and the quiet stories she tells, of lonesome, seminomadic searchers struggling to maintain dignity in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, fill the screen as forcefully as any film that John Wayne was ever in.” Visions of John Ford ripping pages of dialogue out of his shooting script could as easily be transposed to Reichardt, who also understands the value of communicating in pictures instead of words.

During the movie’s opening sections, in which attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) demonstrates the patience of a farmer with desperate, needy, and unstable client Fuller (Jared Harris), Reichardt uncorks a sly comic sensibility suffused with Coen-like observations. Laura’s exasperation – Fuller idiotically refuses to accept her counsel until it has been corroborated by a male lawyer – is no match for her compassion, even if Dern’s vast range of nonverbal expressions suggests that she wonders how in the world she ended up right in the middle of Fuller’s mess, which comes complete with an armed standoff.

In another story, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) visit Albert (Rene Auberjonois), hoping to convince the failing, elderly man to part with a substantial pile of sandstone blocks that Gina would like to use in the construction of her new home. Gina’s bitter relationship with her teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) is exacerbated by Ryan, who annoys Gina by defending Guthrie. According to the director, Williams, one of Reichardt’s regular collaborators, “was so up for not caring if her character was likable,” but Gina’s iron determination to build an idealized place of domestic togetherness reveals a more sympathetic dimension.

While the veterans Dern and Williams bring expected nuance to their characters, it is breakout performer Lily Gladstone who resides at the heart of the film’s most fully realized storyline. Gladstone plays a lonely ranch hand named Jamie (listed only as “The Rancher” in the credits) who wanders into a night class on school law facilitated by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Jamie establishes a tentative friendship with Beth, and Reichardt and Gladstone perfectly communicate Jamie’s vulnerability and longing. While the stories are only loosely connected, Reichardt thematically links these individuals through their determination and stoicism, qualities echoed by Christopher Blauvelt’s lovely 16mm photography of the Big Sky landscapes, wide open spaces, and long stretches of highway that separate the small towns and the women who live in them.

Moonlight

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Admirers of Barry Jenkins’ excellent 2008 feature “Medicine for Melancholy” waited years for the filmmaker’s next project. “Moonlight,” one of 2016’s finest films, was worth that lengthy silence. In between the two movies, Jenkins made a handful of shorts and directed an episode of a TV series, but one viewing of “Moonlight” will convince anyone who loves the cinema that the prodigiously talented artist should keep telling long-form stories. Inspired by Tarell Alvin McRaney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins shares the story of a young man growing through adolescence to adulthood, lighting the journey with a dazzling command of moviemaking skill and a genuinely moving sense of humanity.

Presented in triptych and featuring different performers for each stage of protagonist Chiron’s maturation, “Moonlight” unfolds chronologically, beginning with Alex Hibbert’s bullied, nearly mute grade-schooler, dubbed Little for both his physical size and his practiced invisibility. Little’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), addicted to crack, cannot provide any comfort and stability to her son, so he often finds himself in the care of drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). “Moonlight” is saturated with stunning performances, but Ali is impossible to forget. In what could be the most perfect, most beautiful scene this year, Juan teaches Little to swim, gently buoying and cradling the child in the waters of the Atlantic.

That patient, powerful baptism connects a symbolic son to a symbolic father in ways that ripple through the complexities of their relationship: Juan is Paula’s dealer. Ali’s presence is missed in the subsequent sections of the film, but Jenkins’ turn to the emerging sexuality of teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is no less ambitious than the accomplishments of the first act. In an essential essay, Adam Shatz writes that “Moonlight” “is a film about the varieties of love that emerge in conditions of urban violence, not the varieties of violence that, as Baldwin suggested, have conditioned, and even prevented, the expression of black love.” It is the intersection of love and violence – in proximity through Chiron’s relentlessly homophobic classmates – that is the fulcrum of “Moonlight.”

In the film’s final section, Chiron is reborn as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a chiseled, muscular loner whose post-incarceration vocation selling drugs echoes Little’s childhood connection to Juan. Linked more overtly to Chiron’s memories of his first significant sexual experience with his friend Kevin (played as a grown-up by Andre Holland), the film’s concluding chapter is a miniature masterpiece of interpersonal vulnerability, revelation, and self-disclosure. Jenkins resists neat answers with a deliberate ambiguity that leaves plenty of room for something like hope, or as Jenkins has suggested, something like healing.

Reviewers often praise cinematographers whose craft stands out in the execution of a great film, but the names of color graders rarely make it to print. Jenkins worked closely with director of photography James Laxton and digital intermediate colorist Alex Bickel on the look of “Moonlight,” and the bold choices expressed in their collaboration demand recognition. An “Indiewire” article by Chris O’Falt details the strategies for expressing the “beautiful nightmare” of the film’s Miami setting. In keeping with the triple-casting/triple-division elements of the story, each segment emulates a different film stock (Fuji, Agfa, and a modified Kodak), and the technique pays off with an absolutely stunning palette that embraces the dreamlike subjectivity of Laxton’s prowling, mobile camera.

“Moonlight” is as much an auditory feast as a visual one. From the emphatic opening choice of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star” to the perfect placement of Barbara Lewis’ aching “Hello Stranger,” the music of “Moonlight” comes to life as another of the movie’s indispensable characters. In addition to the most soaring cinematic application of Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma” since Pedro Almodovar absolutely owned it in “Talk to Her,” “Moonlight” has a diamond in composer Nicholas Britell. Britell’s cues are an ideal complement to the story Jenkins tells so intimately, so urgently, so bracingly, and so hauntingly.

Arrival

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Arrival.”

Following Oscar-nominated breakthrough “Incendies,” filmmaker Denis Villeneuve put together a hat trick of beautifully shot features stylish enough to straddle the line between auteurist individuality/prestige and studio-massaged commercial aspirations. “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Sicario” are now joined by “Arrival,” a cerebral, or ersatz cerebral – depending on your tolerance for beautiful people expressing deep thoughts – science fiction drama in the thematic vein of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Aligned in several ways with recent sci-fi genre exercises embracing self-seriousness over action and adventure, “Arrival” lands somewhere between the mawkishness of “Interstellar” and the mourning mother headspace of “Gravity.”

Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist called to service by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber when a dozen massive UFOs descend from the sky to seemingly random locations across the globe. The geographical distribution of the so-called “shells” sets the stage for a tense standoff between political rivals, as power players including China and Russia monitor the sites to see who might blink first. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks interacts with the aliens, desperately struggling to decipher their communication before the military opts to use force.

Villeneuve directs the scenes of human-alien interaction with an exquisite, elegant simplicity that invites us to share Banks’ sense of awe at drawing face to face with intelligent life from another solar system. Separated by a large glass partition that suggests the window of a fog-enshrouded aquarium, the humans are greeted by two Lovecraftian heptapods who spray an inky substance from their extremities as a means of orthography. Dr. Banks and Donnelly decide to call the alien duo Abbott and Costello, even though Kang and Kodos may have been more accurate if on-the-nose monikers, physically speaking.

“Arrival” misses a few minor beats. Both Weber and the other major U.S. government representative, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, fail to register as fully dimensional people. The almost perfunctory cutaways to expository newscasts were done better and more efficiently in the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” another film that tests the idea of how humankind struggles to receive a game-changing gift. Some of Banks’ broad and tepid voiceover erases a few IQ points. “Arrival” is not the first time Villeneuve has been accused of the well-worn style-over-substance critique, but I appreciated the meticulous compositions and desaturated palette provided by cinematographer Bradford Young, even if his otherworldly visuals rank a notch lower than those provided by Roger Deakins on “Prisoners.”

Undoubtedly, some viewers will feel cheated by the revelation that the scenes of Banks taking care of her dying daughter are not flashbacks, but are instead flashforwards. We are well-conditioned to accept the former technique as a regular feature in narrative motion picture storytelling. By contrast, the flashforward is deployed much less frequently, and often for the kind of surprise we receive near the conclusion of “Arrival,” in the sense that our presumptions have been wrong and/or we have been deliberately misled. The “trick,” however, might just be the masterstroke of “Arrival,” revealing to the watcher the heptapods’ nonlinear experience of time in parallel to the process by which Banks attains that same knowledge.

City of Gold

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold,” which unfolds like a gustatory companion to Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” chef Andrew Zimmern summarizes the appeal of Pulitzer Prize-winning subject Jonathan Gold’s approach to food writing by saying, “…the great human ill is contempt prior to investigation.” That statement, which alludes to the way in which Gabbert weaves together her portrait of another celebrated, middle-aged white man by focusing as much on Los Angeles as geography/idea as she does on actual restaurant criticism, could also refer to those unconvinced by the sound of the director’s warm and sunny applause.

Inkoo Kang, who wrote that one of the movie’s shortcomings was a “probably inadvertent white savior narrative,” and Godfrey Cheshire, who detects the odor of “febrile self-consciousness,” raise worthwhile arguments regarding the privilege and elitism that could and probably should be addressed in a story where the democratization of culinary culture rubs shoulders with other established bastions of high art (especially when masquerading in the street at food trucks and strip mall storefronts). But Gold loves punk rock and hip hop as much as classical cello, and most  – myself included – aren’t going to be inclined to hate on him even if the movie fails to adequately unpack class, economic, and racial segregation.

The majority of critics and viewers are more likely to marvel at Gold’s appetite for fresh tastes, sounds, sights, and conversations, recognizing that one of the things Gabbert does very well is communicate the universal desire for Epicurus’ ataraxia – that lucid state of happiness and tranquility grounded in an appreciation of the here and now. In one of the movie’s best explanations of Gold’s charm as a writer, Reuters editor Sue Horton pinpoints Gold’s affinity for the second person, a technique that invites identification even if we’ve never dined on deer penis, hagfish, or as Gold himself has remarked, the “dodgier bits of the animal.”

Visits to past and recent favorite eateries allow Gabbert to fetishize dozens and dozens of images of what the less-charitable might refer to as “food porn.” From Chengdu Taste to Guerilla Tacos to Jitlada to Kogi to Meals by Genet, the parade of dishes will continue to inspire long lines for residents of L.A. and pangs of longing and jealousy for those who do not live there. Prowling neighborhoods in search of good eats demands driving music, and Gold’s affinity for an Eddie Hazel guitar solo, the early 17th century lute song “Flow, My Tears,” and Dre and Snoop trading verses on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” is as contagious as his enthusiasm for a new taqueria.

In 2013, Gold spoke at the UCLA School of Art and Architecture’s commencement, and Gabbert includes some of his remarks near the end of the documentary. Gold identifies himself as “an emissary from the world of failure,” mounting what is in essence a compelling argument on behalf of a liberal arts education as he articulates how we are shaped by the sum of our experiences – even if, especially if, we don’t end up doing what we originally planned. “City of Gold” might favor fantasy over reality, but it’s difficult not to be taken in by the observations that we are united by food and that cooking is what makes us human.

O.J.: Made in America

20 Jul 1980, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Nicole Brown and OJ Simpson --- Image by © Gary Leonard/Corbis

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Two decades have passed since the surreal and shocking events that transformed Orenthal James Simpson from USC legend, Heisman Trophy recipient, Buffalo Bills star, professional football Hall of Fame inductee, sports broadcaster, and actor into a divisive reminder of America’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with its legacy of racism. And while the seemingly bottomless coverage of the so-called “Trial of the Century” may have exhausted widespread interest in the years following Simpson’s acquittal, Ezra Edelman’s epic reexamination of the case, and the larger issues surrounding it, is a raw and meaningful reflection that regularly transcends the lurid, true crime components of Simpson’s twisted path.

Following a Sundance Film Festival premiere, Edelman’s sprawling, five-part, 467-minute documentary – part of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series – played theatrically in a limited engagement before television and on-demand availability. Edelman’s ambitions are immediately apparent in the more than 70 newly recorded interviews with instrumental figures whose own lives came to be at least partially defined by proximity to Simpson. Additionally, Edelman draws on a massive collection of archival images covering both Simpson’s rise to national recognition and the filmmaker’s parallel concern: the history of discrimination, profiling, and oppression of Black people by the Los Angeles Police Department.

As a result of the episodic nature of the primarily chronological presentation of the narrative, viewers will no doubt find some segments more compelling than others. For example, the meticulous and detailed background mined in the early chapters works infinitely better than the late coverage of Simpson’s bewildering downward spiral into a burning labyrinth of sleaze-soaked cash grabs in Florida and Nevada. The Las Vegas sports memorabilia robbery case, in which Simpson was sentenced to a term of 33 years in prison, tilts the saga into tabloid territory. One can sense Edelman’s reservations whenever dealer Tom Riccio opens his mouth.

Perhaps the most perceptive criticism of “O.J.: Made in America” was written by A. O. Scott, who observed that “the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.” In his review, Scott goes on to recognize that, in contrast to the examination of Simpson as a complex symbol, the fate of Nicole Brown “is treated as an individual tragedy, and there seems to be no political vocabulary available to the filmmakers to understand what happened to her. The deep links between misogyny and American sports culture remain unexamined.”

Considering the evidence of battery and abuse suffered by Nicole Brown at the hands of her husband, it’s a fair question to wonder why Edelman elected not to explore domestic violence with the same kind of thoughtfulness or thoroughness expended on the entrenched racist ideologies woven into the fabric of lawmaking and law enforcement. Edelman emphatically speaks to Simpson’s deliberate assimilationism prior to the murders of Brown and Goldman, and then connects the dots to the reclamation of the defendant by communities of color over the course of the trial. Those two themes are presented with substance and clarity.

Simpson will be eligible for parole in October of 2017.