Thursday, December 8, 2016

Moonlight Review

One of best parts of Oscar season is that there's always at least one movie that comes out of nowhere to be a phenomenal success in terms of everyone's reaction to the movie. If I'm being honest, I follow movie news so closely that it's hard for a movie to sneak up on me. I'm especially a sucker for the Oscars as I follow the Oscar predictions year round. Thus in addition to all the big blockbusters, I'm usually pretty good at keeping up on what the major Oscar contenders are. I enjoy having this knowledge of what's coming out, big or small. But I do love it when a movie can sneak up on me. Moonlight was the most recent example of this. I started hearing buzz from this movie when it hit the film festival rounds in September. It wasn't one of the highly anticipated festival hits. Unknown director. Mostly unknown cast. But once it started being viewed, slowly word of mouth caught fire and before too long it was officially on my radar due to how positive the buzz was. I didn't know much about it. I didn't even watch a trailer. But people loved it, so I became excited. I caught it in a local theater a week or so back and I will say that this is a good movie worth seeing. If I'm being honest, I'm not as madly in love with it as some people are. But yet there's still a lot to love here.

As far as what this movie is about, I'll do my best to talk in code so I don't spoil anything or even hint at certain things, but the basic overview is that this movie is about a black kid named Chiron growing up in Miami in some pretty harsh conditions. He's not the biggest fan of this thing called school and his mother is not quite the best example in the world. And the movie is split in three parts. Early life. Mid life. Adult life. So a somewhat comparable title here is Boyhood, another movie about a young kid growing up and experiencing life. Although Moonlight is not quite as long, detailed or epic as Boyhood. And it didn't take 12 years to film. Some saw the whole 12 year process as a gimmick in Boyhood. I saw it as a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime movie experience that will not, or at least should not be replicated. Other similar movies like Forest Gump or Moonlight have to play the recasting game for each stage in the person's life, which is tricky in its own right and a rather brilliant aspect of this movie that I will get to in a second. Boyhood kept the same cast for 12 years, coming back each year for a few weeks to film another segment of life and thus we literally got to watch this family grow up on screen over the course of three hours and I absolutely loved that experience.

Moonlight is a similar experience, but on a much smaller scale. I will say that there is a lot more to this movie than just watching Chiron grow up in a harsh Miami environment, but I'm not going to touch that with a 39 1/2 foot pole. That's called spoilers. This review would definitely be a much different review if I talked about those spoilers and thus there is enough substance here for a spoiler review, but I don't think that's going to happen. Just come talk to me after you see it and we can talk. All I'll really say is that there are two comparable titles to Moonlight that have come out in recent years that everyone but me practically drooled all over. I had certain issues with those two movies for certain reasons and thus when I pondered over how Moonlight approached it, I was much more pleased. It felt much more organic, real and genuine instead of the forced, pandering, political approach that the other two movies took. I hope that doesn't give anything away. My goal with this paragraph is to discuss an element of this movie that needs discussing and do so in a way that those who have seen it will know what I'm talking about while those who haven't will be confused.

Enough of that, now. I want to talk about the cast in this movie. As I referenced earlier, this takes the route of recasting Chiron each time we enter a new phase of his life instead of either trying to use makeup and hairstyle magic to make the same actor look older. Chiron's mother is played by Naomi Harris in all three stages, but Chiron is always different. I was super impressed with all three actors who played Chiron. He has certain personality traits and mannerisms that could've easily been lost with each new phase of his life, but each actor did a phenomenal job preserving the character and giving the audience the feel that this is the same character. It was as believable as Boyhood, which did use the same actor for the whole 12 years. Thus I have to give major props to Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who played Chiron. Equal props go to Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jarome and André Holland who play Chiron's friend Kevin. In both cases this felt like the same character each phase, thus the movie maintained a perfect continuity throughout the whole movie without losing anything as it went, which was very important for the specific story they set out to tell.

Next I want to talk about the supporting cast around Chiron. As I said earlier, I follow the Oscar buzz pretty closely and after Moonlight started catching fire, the huge name that has come up for this movie is Mahershala Ali for best supporting actor. In fact, he has enough momentum that he could end up unanimously walking away with trophy as the representative of Moonlight at the Oscars in case La La Land wins in all the other categories that Moonlight is going to get nominated for. With the "Oscars So White" controversy exploding last year, I'm sure the Academy will be anxious to bestow Mahershala with a trophy to prove to the world they aren't racist. It will shut everyone up. But will the win be deserved. Well, mostly. I won't dive into his character too much, but I will say he did a great job and his character is deep and fascinating. But he's only in a small portion of the movie. Did he get enough screen time to deserve an Oscar win? I don't think so. I'd rather see one of the Chirons get something or perhaps Naomi Harris. She was phenomenal in the movie as well and was in for much longer. Janelle Monáe would also be a great candidate. Or the Oscars could create a best ensemble cast category and give that award to this movie. That would be most appropriate here.

There's a lot more to say with this movie, but in an effort to preserve your experience, I am going to call this good. There's a lot of people that are crowning this the best movie of the year, which is why I got so excited to see this. Perhaps I went into the movie with my expectations a little too high, hoping to see yet another masterpiece (I've seen two in the last couple of months that I deemed worthy of perfect scores). A masterpiece is not what I got. This movie didn't blow my mind or make me stop and think for hours on end. Instead I got a very well put together movie that has some great, honest, real themes that I enjoyed. Instead of this being the next Boyhood for me, I think a better comparison would be Room and Brooklyn. Two very different movies from Moonlight, but two movies that were both touted as the best movie of the year. Neither ended up making my top 10 list from last year but both were solid movies worth seeing. I suppose not every movie needs to blow your mind. We don't have to jump onto IMDb and give movies either a 10/10 or a 1/10 with no middle ground like you often see when you check out user reviews. It's OK to have a movie that is simply a good, solid movie. And that's what Moonlight is. A good, solid movie that I will award an 8/10.

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