Moonlight–An Eclipse


MoonlightThis highly inventive film, “Moonlight”, chronicles the life of a young African American man from childhood to adolescence to adulthood (with three different actors) in the inner city of Miami. In three acts we see this coming-of-age story of a young boy who has to face poverty, and a drug-addicted mother (played by the Academy Award-nominated actress Naomie Harris). In the first act we see  bullying from other boys at school. Then we see him in the second act struggle to find his place in the world discovering his sexual identity as well as understanding his identity as black.

In the last act we see the outcome of an adult who is still fighting his demons and searching for answers. Each act focuses on our central character’s relationship with either his supportive mentor or his best friend.

The  story we see in  “Moonlight” is revolutionary in the way the two young black boys come to an understanding of what survival in a bullying environment will demand of each of them. This could be any child’s challenge in the school yard.

The acting is beyond reproach. Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (“Juan”) and Naomie Harris give flawlessly heartbreaking performances. As a viewer I found Ali so brilliant in such an appealing role that, for me, he’s the highlight of “Moonlight” and the film sags in the middle partly because of his absence.  I also thought the boy “Little” was so charming and the performance so raw it was astonishing for such a young actor to achieve.

The writing does not match the excellence of the acting. While there is a portrayal of deep compassion and sympathy for a fellow human being who is doing what we all are — navigating the complexities of doing the best we can in the world we are born into, scenes and dialog were not tight enough and there was a languishing on couches, at the dinner table, in the classroom which did nothing to contribute to the characters’ magic. Yet, there is magic too, in seeing a young boy grow up and accept a different idea of identity and masculinity than is expected.

The lugubrious pacing detracts from the searing and unforgettable plight of the main character. “Moonlight” would have sputtered out of gas in Act Three if it were not for the final scene with Kevin. The dialog is weak, more noticeable because the silence of the characters in key scenes is so powerful. The flow of the film is jagged. I recommend “Moonlight” for its originality and acting, but the writing and pacing, I thought, held it back from being an unquestionable winner.

La La Land–Insipid But Entertaining


La La Land

This 2016 Academy Award nominated musical (a record-tying 14 nominations), written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the wunderkind creator of the astonishing Whiplash, see my December 8, 2014 review) is this year’s can-do-no-wrong rom-com starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

La La Land is a bold resurrection of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1940-50s musical with a blend of nostalgia (using filtered-lens cinematography and costumes) mixed with the novelty of contemporary millennial life in Los Angeles. A flip-book of competing images of vintage and modern LA with twirling skirts and old-fashioned dancing, La La Land is all about dreaming for the big break in Hollywood.

An undeniable paean to the joy and ecstasy of following your passions, La La Land also touches upon the sacrifices to one’s personal life, to missed human connections and to other dreams that will never come true. Part “Never-never Land” and part “Singing in the Rain”.   The conventional storyline –love vs. ambition–never really rises above the forgettable.

Perhaps the most interesting interlude in the film, however, is Mia and Seb’s friend, Keith (John Legend) whose relaxed approach to the commercial aspects of being a musician challenge Seb’s dogmatic “purist” views of selling out to music venues. The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise. I loved this observation.

The cinematography and special effects are the best part of this movie. Except for the song “City of Stars”, the music is more competent than dazzling. You’re more likely to remember what you saw than what you heard.

Where is La La Land going? Is this L couple going to make it after all? Should we care? La La Land suffers from what it is supposed to parody: Hollywood’s addiction to artifice and self-congratulation.By the end, La La Land is an imperfect film that entertains, partly because it is a pleasant surprise to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

Sometimes a movie comes along that is entertaining and refreshingly light when we desire that intensely. Right for this moment, viewers can happily forgive La La Land for not being very good but a deliciously tasty confection of sound and color. I really expected more given all the awards and accolades.

“The Break”– Or, The Nervous Breakdown?


The Break NetflixThe Break (La Trêve) is the first French-language Belgian TV crime drama now available as a Netflix Original. The Break is now my newest addition to my ever-growing listicle of bleak, grim, moody, obsessive dramas from around the world, many Scandinavian “noir”. This is a must-see.

The main character, police detective Yoann Peeters (the extraordinary Yoann Blanc)has moved rather reluctantly from Brussels to his hometown village of Heiderfeld. After the death of his wife and an internal affairs investigation that left his professional reputation compromised, Peeters is searching for a new start with his teenage daughter Camille.La Treve2

Almost immediately the body of a nineteen-year-old soccer player, Driss, is pulled from the river by a fly-fisherman and ruled a suicide by the police commissioner. Peeters suspects murder. The deeper he   investigates, the more suspects appear with unsavory connections,   often racist pasts, and other secrets both desperate and depraved.    His partner, an inexperienced young Sebastian Drummer, is a Heiderfeld native, who believes there can be no murderers in his peaceful hamlet. Peeters, on the other hand, believes anyone is capable of murder.

Soon Peeters’s investigation is thwarted by practically everyone in town leading to shocking plot twists.   Horrifying secrets surface from the bowels of a bucolic, picturesque community centered on farming, horses, and cows. The lush rolling hills in the Belgian countryside disguise the nightmarish tectonic shifts roiling in our imagination.  The Break

The Break is an adrenaline rush for viewers who enjoy crime and suspense. Decoding the criminal methods and identifying the murderer are surprisingly challenging. The first seven episodes (out of ten) each begin with a unique dream, conflating the imagined with the real. A forensic psychologist treating Peeters adds to the surreal difficulties of grasping truth from lies, insinuating that the truth has to be excavated with patience and determination. At least eight different suspects could be the murderer as more clues and more damaged characters are revealed.

The cinematography is muscular and the lighting haunting, insinuating the unexpected and  hidden violence within a web of complicity and deception. Uncontrollable violence is hinted at–in Peeters himself. While it might seem as if Nordic noir has reached saturation point, this drama suggests there is more to discover. Season 2 of The Break is projected for the end of this year!

“Department Q Trilogy”–Danish Noir


Department QBased on Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestselling crime thrillers, the riveting Department Q series has become one of Denmark’s most popular cinematic exports. The entire series has been released on video on demand (through Netflix).  This series needs more visibility and exposure–it is a viewing must!

A heart-pounding series of ingenious twists and shocking surprises, the trilogy–The Keeper of Lost Causes ( 2013), The Absent One (2014) and A Conspiracy of Faith (2016)–involves three cold cases no one else expects to resolve. Detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his partner, the Arab Danish officer Assad (Fares Fares), shrewdly undertake cold cases with seemingly dead ends. No clues, no suspect.

That is the core appeal of these three two-hour police thrillers. Each of the three films tells a discrete story, and one doesn’t require viewing to understand the other two. Nonetheless, I highly recommend seeing them in the order of production (“The Keeper of Lost Causes” first) because the relationship between Mørck and Assad builds and becomes quite an unusual complementarity of personalities, not the usual buddy-cop story line.

Department Q- The Keeper of Lost Causes

The protagonist, Mørck, seems at first like a stereotypical lone-wolf detective. He is bitterly resigned to cold cases in the basement–Department Q. Soon Mørck and Assad are defying orders and spending their days out in the field, uncovering clues across national borders into Sweden and Norway.

The use of violence in the Department Q series may be uncomfortable for some viewers, since the victims are often young women or children. The violence is rarely depicted on screen you know it is there.

Fans of Danish noir will draw comparisons with “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Bron”, “Headhunter”, and “The Killing” and will find the intricacy of the cases emblematic of this distinctly Danish pitch-black brooding crime genre.   The sharp critique of how vengeance manifests itself and how deep its roots are permeates all of these expertly plotted narratives. Department Q left me on the edge of my seat–had to binge view two of them!