Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: fun characters, fun music, fun scenes


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James Gunn returns as writer-director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this week and from what Marvel Pictures head honcho Kevin Feige recently said, Gunn’s work on the sequel has earned him a place in the brains trust of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe); this is the core team who are responsible for building the ever-growing interconnected body of films which started with Iron Man in 2008 and now encompasses 15 films with 7 more to come by May 2019.

Gunn brought a new dimension to the MCU with the first GotG film in 2014; these characters were known only to Marvel fanboys and so, unencumbered by preconceived audience expectations, the studio was able to experiment with a different look (a brighter colour palette) and tone (a self-aware comedic sensibility, more violent, edgier language) compared to the previous Marvel films. And of course, there was the ‘Awesome Mixtape’ of 70’s tunes, a risky approach which paid dividends in spades and really brought some of the scenes alive.

In Vol. 2, Gunn builds on those successes with a bigger budget – using a fresh batch of music from the ‘Awesome Mixtape 2’, he goes for a more ambitious audio-visual experience (including a couple of intricately choreographed set-pieces) but most importantly, he continues with the character development, fleshing out some key characters, not just Peter Quill, but also Yondu, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon and introducing interesting new ones like Mantis and Ego.

Stand-out characters

Of course, all the 5 members of the GOTG team are appealing in their own way and we know that Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Star-Lord and Gamora respectively are effectively the romantic leads with the most screen time. But all credit to the director and to the visual effects teams for elevating the other 3 members (2 of whom are CGI) and ensuring they are more than just comic relief. Outstanding voice work by Bradley Cooper makes us forget that we are empathizing with a bunch of computer pixels arranged to look like a talking raccoon. Likewise, Dave Bautista as Drax, while mostly serving as comic relief, also provides one of the strongest emotional beats to the film in the scene where he sits on the steps of Ego’s palace with Mantis and reminisces about his daughter. And of course, Baby Groot is oh-so-cute in every single scene and has 3 significant set-pieces in the film – one is the opening title sequence, the second involves his attempts to steal a new ‘head fin’ for Yondu and the last has him trying to set off a powerful explosive device.

Beyond these 5, James Gunn manages to give sufficient space to develop the characters of both Yondu and Nebula who return with larger roles that fill out their back story.

Among the new characters, French actress Pom Klementieff makes quite an impact as the empath Mantis and rising Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki chews up the scenery as the high priestess of the Sovereign race.

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Visuals and songs perfectly matched

Complex battle scenes fought in three-dimensional space are the order of the day in scifi blockbusters these days. Although all the different moving parts in these battles can now be pre-visualized and choreographed using 3D computer models, it still takes a degree of skill to make the scene comprehensible and entertaining. In GotG Vol. 2, director James Gunn shows off this skill in abundance, not just in terms of visual imagination, but also in the juxtaposition of those visuals against a superb collection of 70’s songs. My favourite scenes are:-

  • Battling the inter-dimensional beast/ title sequence – Mister Blue Sky by ELO: Accompanying what James Gunn describes as “the most hugely insane shot I’ve ever done” at the start of the film, the song powering the scene puts a smile on your face and gets your feet tapping.
  • Arrival at Ego’s planet – My Sweet Lord by George Harrison: This song really showcases the power of Ego (Kurt Russell) and what he has created on his lush and gloriously beautiful planet.
  • Yondu takes revenge – Come a Little Bit Closer by Jay and the Americans: Revenge is sweet, especially if it can be choreographed to music while the main characters walk through the mayhem in majestic slo-mo!
  • Battle at Ego’s planet – Wham bam shang-a-lang by Sliver: Reminiscent of the way in which Beastie Boys’ Sabotage punctuated the attack on the USS Yorktown space station in Star Trek Beyond, this little known song is the perfect choice to herald the start of climactic battle scene.
  • Ravager funeral – Father and Son by Cat Stevens: Given that the main theme of the story is father-son relationships, this funeral scene which takes place to the tune of Cat Stevens’ tear-jerker song forms the perfect coda for the film.

After the movie ends, stay back for not 1 or 2, but 5 mid-credits stingers.

I know critics are not giving this one as high ratings as the first movie, but it’s normal for critics to be disappointed and it’s so difficult to break new ground with a sequel and still give audiences the familiar elements they have come back for (yes, we know Empire Strikes Back is an exception). I’ll look forward to seeing these adorable “rogues with hearts of gold” in GotG Vol. 3 at some point of time in the future and as part of the larger Marvel ensemble in Avengers: Infinity War next summer.

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Best film winners at the Japanese Academy: Our Little Sister


In October 2014, I had written a bunch of posts about contemporary Japanese films which I’ve loved watching (and feel like re-watching). All have won or been nominated for best picture at the Japanese Academy awards – Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (1997), Spirited Away (2001), The Twilight Samurai (2002), Hula Girls (2006), Departures (2008), Confessions (2010) and Tokyo Family (2013).

I’ve just watched another film to add to that list, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015). The 54-year-old Kore-eda is emerging as one of my favourite Japanese directors, with memorable family dramas like Still Walking, I Wish and his Palm d’Or nominated 2013 film Like Father, Like Son. Each of these films explore relationships involving parents, children/ siblings which are affected by death or separation.

Our Little Sister is the story of the 3 young Koda sisters, who live together in a quaint old house they have inherited from their grandmother, in the seaside city of Kamakura just south of Tokyo.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the middle sister, Yoshino who’s just spent the night at her boyfriend’s place. She wakes up early and gets back home in time to wake up the tomboyish younger sister, Chika. We then meet the strict older sister Sachi, who is the proxy ‘mom’ in the house. As the three sisters settle down for breakfast and banter, we realize they have just received news that their father has passed away. Through the conversation we understand the background, how he divorced their mother to marry another woman and then when the 2nd wife passed away, he moved to remote Yamagata prefecture in the North and married a 3rd time. Now with his death, he leaves behind the 3rd wife and a daughter from the 2nd marriage. This daughter is the subject of the movie title.

At the funeral, the three sisters meet their 13-year-old half-sister Suzu. Her calm demeanour and impeccable manners during some awkward funeral scenes immediately make an impression on the Kodas. As Yoshino says, “she’s got it together!” On the other hand, they are not particularly reassured by the overwrought widow who is so reluctant to greet the mourners at the funeral that she attempts to pass this responsibility onto Suzu. As the sisters board the train to return home, Sachi makes an impromptu offer to the young girl to come stay with them at Kamakura. The sisters are delighted when Suzu agrees.

And so begins the story of Suzu’s new life with the three sisters, settling into her new school and meeting others in their small circle of friends and relatives. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but is really an examination of these young individuals, how their interconnected lives now expand to accommodate this shy but likeable newcomer.

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I liked how the 3 sisters’ personalities/ preferences are brought to life in small ways, like the different styles of their funeral dresses, or their food preferences – Sachi likes healthy food, Yoshino likes drinking and Chika eats everything! The youngest, Chika is the most uncomplicated of the lot, too young to have been scarred by their parents’ breakup or to have experienced heartache in a personal relationship. She enjoys the simple things in life – mostly involving eating and hanging out with her equally uncomplicated ex-mountaineer boyfriend (who innocently offers to show his toe amputations while they’re all eating breakfast!). Sachi, being the oldest, has the strongest memories of their father and greatest anger for being abandoned by him; his departure not only robbed them of a father but also caused their mother to have a breakdown and abandon the daughters, forcing Sachi to grow up overnight. She therefore resents Suzu’s mother for being the woman who caused this disruption. But the irony is that Sachi herself is in a relationship with a married man, the doctor who works at the same hospital where she is a dedicated and highly respected nurse.

Young Suzu who has settled well into the new town, picks up on Sachi’s pent-up feelings and worries that she will be blamed for being the daughter of the woman who disrupted their childhood. But Sachi’s natural maternal instincts take over and she assures Suzu that her place is here with her three sisters. The two go up to a solitary hilltop spot overlooking the town and yell out their anger and frustration at their respective parents. As Suzu cries on Sachi’s shoulder, united in love and pain, Sachi becomes both elder sister and proxy mother to Suzu.

The film ends as it begins, with a funeral…of a kind and motherly restaurant owner Ninomiya, whose place the girls frequented. As they reflect on life and death, the 4 sisters walk along the beach and enjoy their time together.

The film was a big success at last year’s Japanese Academy awards, snagging Best film and Best director awards. Teenager Suzu Hirose won Newcomer of the Year for her portrayal of ‘little sister’ Suzu. Haruka Ayase was nominated for Best Actress for playing the oldest sister Sachi.  Masami Nagasawa and Kaho both received nominations for Best Supporting Actress for playing the middle and younger sisters Yoshino and Chika respectively. I feel that this is the most accessible and light-hearted of the 4 Kore-eda films I have watched so far and definitely recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary Japanese drama.

Logan: Jackman signs off Wolverine on a high note


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Hugh Jackman debuted the Wolverine character in 2000’s X-Men, which also kicked off the sustained and successful run of Marvel characters on film. Seventeen years later, he is retiring the character in Logan, the third standalone Wolverine film and the 7th time he has played the clawed mutant (besides 2 cameos).

What’s different this time and why is everyone praising the film? Director and screenwriter James Mangold was given a lot more freedom by the studio, which included allowing it go violent/ R-rated, in keeping with the nature of the character (we can thank 2016’s Deadpool as well, which gave Fox the confidence to approve an R-rated comic book film, realizing it wouldn’t affect box office income).

The result is a very satisfying film, filled with plenty of blood-soaked violence and more importantly, with vulnerable characters who we care about. The first hour and a half is so engaging that one doesn’t realize the time going by. We are introduced to aged and decrepit versions of the invincible characters we have known since 2000. Professor X (played by 76-year-old thesp Patrick Stewart) now in his 90’s and is losing his mental faculties, spends most of the day in a drug-induced stupor. Wolverine’s healing ability is fading (he’s over 140 years old, in case anyone’s still counting) and he has been reduced to earning his living as a limo driver  (driving an uber cool Chrysler stretch)! With no new mutants born in the past quarter century, the X-Men have died out and have become a sort of urban myth, good enough only to feature in comic books. We also meet an intense, mute child Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen, daughter of British actor Will Kean and Spanish actress Maria Fernandez Ache), who is on the run from a bunch of heavily armed bad guys, led by the cybernetically enhanced Pierce (played with great flair by a charismatic Boyd Holbrook). What we get when they all come together is a road trip/ chase movie, featuring a good mix of action, poignancy and some dry humor.

Wearing its R-rating on its sleeve, Logan allows Wolverine fans to see him in his famous ‘berserker rage’ mode more than once. But he’s not the only one. The scene in the first act in which Laura explodes into action and reveals her capabilities is shocking in its violence and intensity. Even Wolverine is stunned. There is another great ‘armrest gripping moment’ at a casino when we get a glimpse of why Charles Xavier’s mind is classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

At the other end of the spectrum, I really liked how the second act brings our heroes in touch with regular people, in this case a family who invites them to dinner. This reminded me of a similar scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which we find that Hawkeye has an entire family hidden away on a ranch. I feel that this sort of interlude helps to humanize the superheroes and brings the audience closer to them.

The third act was the weakest part of the movie for me, simply because it featured the obligatory action showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, with not much else. Perhaps the only unpredictable part of this formulaic sequence was what would happen to Wolverine at the end.

Before watching the movie, I had read all about how it plays out like a Western. Mangold has previously directed an excellent Western called 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 classic. Even his 1997 breakout film Cop Land can be seen as a sort of modern-day Western with Stallone’s quiet, unassuming sheriff unexpectedly coming up trumps in a final showdown against the corrupt cops living in his town. True enough, all the visual cues in Logan are straight from a Western – the characters look weather-beaten and a lot of the action takes place in sunburnt, dusty locations. And of course, there is the overt reference to the famous 1953 Western Shane, the purpose being to establish the parallels in the relationship between the gunfighter and the boy in Shane and Wolverine and Laura in Logan. Frankly, I thought that this part of the script was a bit heavy-handed, especially when the girl spouts the entire dialogue from the closing moments of Shane, having watched it just once in a hotel room previously.

I also had my usual issues with that ‘home video’ look of night time scenes because of the use of digital cameras, which tend to capture a lot of information (very useful in low light conditions), but can create a ‘flat’ look devoid of texture. DP John Mathieson has used the Arri Alexa camera which is very popular and usually produce a very film-like effect, especially when combined with Panavision lenses (like you see in Mad Max: Fury Road or Rogue One), but am not sure what low-light combo was used here and why some of the night scenes look so terrible. Given that the film takes so much inspiration from Westerns and from Shane in particular, how cool would it have been to have shot it in real film to mimic the glorious Technicolor of Shane.

Considering that the movie is set in 2029, there isn’t much that appears futuristic about it. The only indications are the driverless trailer trucks on the highway and the reference to tigers being extinct.

Overall, it’s a very powerful movie and a wonderful way to end a trilogy, especially one that started so unpromisingly with the universally panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The X-Men films spin off into new directions now, with new teams coming up in Josh Boone’s X-Men: The New Mutants and Joe Carnahan’s X-Force. There will also be another entry called X-Men: Supernova in Bryan Singer’s continuing series featuring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the younger versions of Prof X, Magneto and Mystique. But it looks like this is the end of the road for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s characters…and they should both feel proud of signing off with a bang.

Andrew Garfield plays a different kind of superhero in Hacksaw Ridge


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Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair after a gap of 10 years with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor. The commercial and critical success of this film is also a sort of redemption for Gibson after being a Hollywood pariah for several years following his various domestic and personal issues which were acted out very publicly.

Gibson’s film is about real-life American Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious objector’ who was a medic in World War 2 and performed such feats of heroism in the Pacific theatre that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. Interestingly, although this is a film about an American Infantry division, most of the key actors are not American. Doss is played by Englishman Andrew Garfield and in order to qualify for tax incentives while shooting in Australia, the film features a predominantly Australia/ NZ cast with the likes of Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffith, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy and even Gibson’s own son Milo. The most significant American actor in the film is Vince Vaughn in a welcome departure from his usual low brow roles; he plays the Army sergeant Howell, the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold who is part of some genuinely entertaining moments in the early part of the film while Doss is in Army training camp. In some real-life footage at the end of the film, we see the real Desmond Doss and if anything he is even skinnier and lankier than Andrew Garfield. When Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) first sees Doss at the training camp he says, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques!” and then turns to his assistant saying, “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.”

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As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield plays a bigger superhero than he ever could have in any number of Spider-Man films. In a squirm-inducing and almost unwatchable battle scene in the final act, Doss keeps going and going, like the Eveready bunny; powered by prayer and determination, he rescues more than 75 wounded soldiers from the top of ‘Hacksaw ridge’ on Okinawa island while under constant fire and bombardment. Like a marathoner who thinks “just one more stride”, Doss says “O Lord, help me get one more, just one more” and then goes back into the battlefield to find another wounded man. Garfield is perfectly cast and I can’t think of any other A-list actor who can play a character who is so pure and uncomplicated in his beliefs.

Hugo Weaving, who film fans will know as Agent Smith from the Matrix films or Elrond from Lord of the Rings does an outstanding job playing Doss’ alcoholic father, a WW1 solider whose self-hatred and violent nature was one of the key factors that fuelled Doss’ determination to follow a non-violent path as an adult.

Gibson as director brings several different moods and tones into this film. There is a lovely romantic interlude in the first act as Doss courts his wife-to-be, a nurse at the nearby hospital. Then there are the very entertaining training scenes in the 2nd act featuring Vince Vaughn’s Sgt Howell familiarising himself with the company of new recruits. This quickly morphs into intense drama as Doss stands his ground while the Army tries to get him discharged and court-martialled for failing to pick up a weapon. The battle scene in the 3rd act plays like something out of Starship Troopers or Aliens, with Doss’ company virtually overrun by hundreds of Japanese troops who keep coming and coming and coming. I felt it was even more brutal than the opening Normandy beach scenes in Saving Pvt. Ryan (and I know that film kept me awake the whole night). And then at the tail end of the movie, in the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson injects a sort of spiritual mysticism into the scenes of the troops going into battle seemingly protected by the aura of Doss’ presence and his prayers.

At a time when the world is polarized into opposing camps with rigid beliefs and unyielding positions, this film throws a light on the power of a person’s convictions and how far he will go to safeguard them. It asks the question of what is right and what is wrong. Is right and wrong determined by the number of people who believe in that position? Can a man be right about something even if he is in the minority or perhaps, the only person who believes in it? History has shown us that indeed this can be the case, with philosophers, scientists, religious and social reformers all having had to wade against the tide of public opinion to put forward a new idea or be given the freedom to live by their beliefs.

With the stiff competition at the Oscars this year, I suspect it will be Moonlight or La La Land taking away best picture and best directing Oscars and I think Casey Affleck should pick up the statuette for Best Actor. So it’s possible that Hacksaw Ridge will come away empty handed although it could be a front runner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, given all the sound engineering required for the battle scenes. Irrespective of the outcome of the Oscars, this film is a must-watch, both for its story, for Mel Gibson’s mature directing and for the fact that it forms part of the increasingly impressive body of work that Andrew Garfield has built up in the past few years, starting with The Social Network in 2010, the 2 Spider-Man movies (in which he was the saving grace), 99 Homes and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. All this by the age of 33. Next is another possible ‘award-magnet’ role as a paralyzed polio survivor in Breathe directed by ‘Gollum’ actor Andy Serkis. As for Mel Gibson, I am so thrilled to see him return to the mainstream and that too with such success. I’ve loved all the movies he has directed (except Passion of the Christ which I haven’t seen), his visceral style and look forward to what comes next.

Three feel-good/ coming-of-age films from around the world


In October 2014, I wrote about a new crop of ‘coming-of-age’ films that were launchpads for future movie stars. The movies I covered in that post featured actors like Ellen Page, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. More than two years later, all of their faces would be recognized by most movie goers and they are all getting opportunities to work on bigger (not necessarily better!) movie projects.

In the past few days, I’ve watched four very different coming-of-age films. One of them is Moonlight, which I wrote about earlier today. The other three are set in three different continents – Africa, Asia and Australia – and feature young protagonists who overcome social and cultural barriers to achieve their dreams. Although one might say that the challenges of growing up are universal across cultures, these films showcase those challenges in the unique framework of each culture (African, Indian and New Zealander).

Queen of Katwe

This is as much a coming-of-age story as an inspirational sports drama. Set in Uganda and based on true events, Queen of Katwe tells the feel-good story of a 10-year-old girl Phiona Mutesi who goes from a life of poverty in the slum of Katwe to becoming one of the first female players in Uganda to be awarded a FIDE title. The film is directed by Mira Nair and is anchored by two well-known actors of African origin – David Oyelowo (Nigerian parents) and Lupita Nyong’o (Kenyan parents). Oyelowo plays the coach who teaches slum kids chess as part of a missionary outreach program. And Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, a single parent who strives hard to keep her dignity while raising her kids in dire poverty. The star of the film of course is first-time actress Madina Nalwanga who plays Phiona, with great spirit and authenticity…well she would, she herself comes from a poor neighborhood of Kampala and grew up struggling to make ends meet. The film chronicles the many trials – both physical and emotional – that Phiona has to go through before she can realize her potential.

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Dangal

Very similar thematically to Queen of Katwe is Indian crowd-pleaser Dangal (“wrestling competition”), the latest film from producer-actor Aamir Khan. This too is based on a real-life story, of two sisters Geeta and Babita, from a conservative part of India who are coached by their ex-wrestler father to become world-class wrestlers, eventually winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. The film is marketed as an inspirational sports drama, but it is as much a story of the girls’ rite of passage…dealing with teenage angst, rebelliousness and search for identity, they also have to manage the physical rigors of training and the emotional expectations of their father. The movie features standout performances from the young actresses who play the two sisters as pre-teens and as teenagers; Geeta is played by Zaira Wasim and Fatima Shaikh; Babita is played by Suhani Bhatnagar and Sanya Malhotra. Like all good Indian melodramas, there are equal measures of laughter, tears, drama and intense emotion.

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Last but not least comes this quirky film from New Zealand. Billed as a comedy, it’s another feel-good story anchored by a respected actor (Sam Neill from Jurassic Park) and featuring an eye-catching and assured performance from a young talent (14-year-old Julian Dennison). Released in NZ in March 2016, it went on to become the highest grossing local film, has a Metacritic score of 81 and has picked up various awards at film festivals around the world. Dennison plays a troubled juvenile delinquent, Ricky who is assigned a foster home in a remote ranch managed by the affectionate Bella and her grouchy husband Hec. After some initial issues, Ricky settles in and builds a strong bond with Bella. But then she unexpectedly passes away and Ricky learns that child welfare services are coming to take him away again, because he cannot be in a home without a female guardian. Ricky and Hec, who initially dislike each other, end up going into the wild bushland and spend 4 months on the run from a comically evil child welfare worker and a posse of law enforcement officials. During this time, the young boy learns to take on responsibility and the old man gets some of his rough edges smoothed off. Eventually the chase comes to an end and Ricky is back in the hands of child welfare and Hec is stuck in an old-age home. But soon after, Ricky finds a new foster family and he asks Hec to join them and go back to the bush for some new adventures. Director Taika Waititi handles action and comedy with equal ease and so I am looking forward to seeing him apply that wry comic sensibility to the relationship between Thor and the Hulk in his next film Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel Studios!

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Moonlight shines with soul-stirring performances


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Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.

Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.

The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.

I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.

The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.

At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.

This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.

Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster

I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.

The Hollywood Western blazes new trails


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When Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won multiple Oscars in the space of two years in the early 90’s it looked the Western was making a comeback after many years in the cinematic wilderness. Indeed, Costner returned to the screen soon after in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp in 1994, while Kurt Russell played the same character in Tombstone (1993).

Unfortunately, the resurgence was short-lived. There were no major Western projects subsequently from either studios or big name film makers. Movie goers in the next 25 years have preferred to watch dinosaurs, aliens, wizards, elves, robots, pirates, vampires, spies and superheroes – both real and computer-generated for their big screen entertainment; anything other than cowboys, it seems. One of the reasons is the globalization of Hollywood; big studio productions today earn as much as 70-80% of their box office revenue from outside North America. Movies are a product and the product needs to appeal to international tastes; therefore making a period film rooted in a very specific geographical and cultural setting is not smart business sense.

So it has been a dry spell for those who are spellbound by the amber colors, wide vistas and gritty characters that define the essence of a Western. Sure, there have been a few here and there, most of which have been really good, such as Ang Lee’s Civil War epic Ride with the Devil (1999), Costner’s own return to the genre with Open Range (2003), Ed Harris’ entertaining Appaloosa (2008), Andrew Dominik’s little seen but much acclaimed The Assissanation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen Bros.’ remake of True Grit (2010), Jared Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden (2012) and Quentin Tarention’s Django Unchained (2012) – although that last should probably be called a ‘South-western’…

And when big studios have entered the genre, they have ended up with big budget disasters like Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013).

But interestingly, in the past two years, there has been a spike in the number of Westerns produced. They are almost all small scale, independent productions but all have strong scripts and notable performances from well known actors. Some of these films are interesting hybrids, integrating other genres like horror, whodunnit or thriller or moving it into a modern day setting:

The Homesman (2014): This wonderful understated film directed by Tommy Lee Jones has him playing a dour ornery drifter (as only he can) who is employed by a devout settler (Hilary Swank) to transport 3 mentally ill women from their isolated farming community back to civilization. Swank’s acting received several awards but somehow got missed out by the Oscars. Look out for some other big names in small roles!

The Hateful Eight (2015): Tarentino stayed with the Western genre in this follow-up to Django Unchained. With more than half the movie set inside a log cabin in the midst of a winter storm, this one plays more like a locked-room mystery or whodunnit rather than a regular Western. Fantastic performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Walton Goggins.

Bone Tomahawk (2015): Directed by first-time director S. Craig Zahler, this film features Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson on the trail of cannibalistic natives living in a cave in the hills, who have kidnapped several people from their town. It’s a wonderful character piece (much like The Searchers), with a truly scary 3rd act and one of the most horrifying screen deaths you will see anywhere!

Slow West (2015): This one is also directed by debutant film maker, John Maclean. This buddy movie has Kodi Smit-McPhee playing a young man on a cross-country journey in search of the woman he loves with Michael Fassbender as the mysterious stranger who befriends the naive young boy and decides to help him on his quest.

In a Valley of Violence (2016): This film is produced by horror experts Blumhouse Productions and director Ti West. This is a typical revenge story of the mysterious stranger who gets into a fight with some bullies while passing through an isolated town, then goes back to take revenge on the men when they attack him and leave him for dead. The director throws in a few ‘horror’ beats for good measure (because he can!) and there are some fun comedic elements in the 3rd act dialogue. Ethan Hawke and good old John Travolta make this one worth watching.

Hell or High Water (2016): Coming fresh off 3 Golden Globe nominations, indie film maker David Mackenzie puts together a modern-day Western, with two bank-robber brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on the run from experienced lawman Jeff Bridges. Like Travolta, Mr. Bridges has been doing this acting thing for so long that he can probably dial in a performance in his sleep. The first two-thirds of the film is genuinely engaging although I did feel that the film stumbled a bit as it reached a predictable shootout finale.

I don’t know if this is another blip on the radar and if we will go back to another barren stretch in the next few years. Hopefully all these new films have been profitable and studios discover that it makes good business sense to make good Westerns!