Moonlight shines new light on the inner city

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; based on his play
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is the best new American film I’ve seen this year.

With the advantages of a white skin, it’s easy to assume certain stereotypes of those on the margins–especially African Americans living in what is now called the inner city. Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins find human truth behind those stereotypes in this remarkable film.

This is Jenkins’ first feature film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. He’s made a huge improvement over that interesting yet flawed first try.

McCraney sets the story in three distinct chapters, each one focusing on a different time in the protagonist’s life. Jenkins uses three different actors to play the main character. In the first section, Little, Alex R. Hibbert plays him as a child, caught between his troubled, single mother and the drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father. Ashton Sanders plays him as a teenager, and a target for bullies, in Chiron. Trevante Rhodes, muscle-bound and dripping with gold, plays the adult. A drug dealer by trade, he looks like the stereotypical scary thug. But he’s really a shy, confused, lonely, gay man deep inside the closet.

Only Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mother, appears in all three sections.

Mahershala Ali (one of the most interesting actors around today; you’ll probably recognize him from Game of Thrones) carries the first section as the head of a drug-dealing operation. That defines him clearly as a villain by normal Hollywood standards. But to the young Chiron, he’s a gentle, kind man who recognizes that this child needs more parenting than his mother can give. Among other things, he takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim.

In one scene, Chiron asks about the word faggot. His surrogate father tells him that it’s word people use to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the confused child that if he turns out to be gay, that’s fine.

Only one brief line suggests a violent side to the drug kingpin’s line of work. But even there, it’s about self-defense.

The bullying Chiron suffers in the first two sections make a prologue for what he is in the third. At first glance, he’s the super-macho gangsta that no one will mess with. But on the inside, he’s still the scared and lonely little boy.

Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell avoid the musical clichés of “in the ‘hood” movies. Rap pops up only briefly in the third act. Most of the music is rich and symphonic, with some recognizable classical pieces.

This isn’t a story of tough dudes in the ghetto. It’s the story of a confused young man trying to make his way in a scary world.

A Man Called Ove returns to community

A- Comic drama

Written by Hannes Holm, from a novel by Fredrik Backman

Directed by Hannes Holm

Even the most warn-out, commercial plots can work when the filmmakers do something original with them. And that’s very much the case with this dramatic comedy from Sweden.

Consider the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, until good-hearted people melt his resistance and remind him what love and community are all about. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this overused device new again by adding a very real sense of darkness, and a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life.

He also makes the film, when appropriate, very funny.

When we first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgård), he lives by himself in a condominium within a gated community. He boils with anger at every minor transgression of the community’s rules. He threatens cats and small dogs.

He shows tenderness only to the dead. He visits his wife’s grave every day.

He’s already mad at the world when, early in the film, something happens that gives him something to be mad about. He’s fired from his job after decades of service.

With apparently nothing else to look forward to, he attempts suicide. Several times. But every time he tries, something–usually other people–interferes. He finds himself reluctantly helping them instead.

These suicide attempts also launch many of the film’s several flashbacks. Holm and cinematographer Göran Hallberg bathe these scenes of Ove’s youth in a nostalgic glow, and show much of what had been wonderful in his life. His widowed and working-class father loved him and taught him not only a sense of right and wrong, but also the mechanical and carpentry skills that would serve Ove throughout his life. He had a long and very happy marriage to a wonderful and generous woman who loved him deeply.

But the flashbacks also showed the many losses in his life. Tragedy, in the form of horrible accidents, destroyed much of his happiness. And as a builder who could work wonders with his own hands, he learned to hate the “white shirts” who always found ways to take away what he had created.

When he’s not remembering the past or trying to kill himself, he’s reluctantly spending time with other people in his community–especially the family that just moved in. It’s a mixed-race family, with a white husband, an Iranian wife, and two adorable daughters. Another child is on the way.

The very pregnant mother, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), becomes the major force to bringing Ove back into the human race. She’s open, friendly, and cheerful. After her husband is injured in a domestic accident, she keeps coming to Ove for help, and much to his surprise, he provides it. Much against Ove’s own wishes, the kids bond with him.

The concept of modern Sweden as a melting pot is a minor theme here. Grumpy as he is, Ove never once uses a racist slur. He reluctantly takes in a young, brown-skinned gay man who has been thrown out by his homophobic father.

The best feel-good movies have a dark and disturbing core. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life. A Man Called Ove, with its disappointing ending, doesn’t reach the magic of Frank Capra’s masterpiece. But the film shows us the inevitable tragedy of human life and the ability to heal–and all done with good, dark humor.

Chimes at Midnight Blu-ray Review

Orson Welles boiled down five related Shakespeare plays, found the comic tragedy at their core, and created a masterpiece. Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, has been unavailable in anything like a complete version for decades. With the recent theatrical restoration, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray based on that restoration, it’s finally available in all of its troubled glory.

Chimes takes its story, inspirations, and most of its dialog from Henry IV Parts I and II, concentrating on Shakespeare’s ultimate loveable scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff (played, of course, by Welles, himself). Fat, drunken, and duplicitous, Falstaff embraces life and all the joys it provides. His self-serving yet occasionally wise philosophy provide much of the comedy. But age and rejection will turn him into a tragic figure. (A smattering of dialog comes from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor–a comedy Shakespeare wrote to exploit the popular Falstaff character.)

The plot: King Henry IV (John Gielgud) faces insurrections in his kingdom and his family. The family problem involves his son and heir, Hal (Keith Baxter). Prince Hal ignores his royal chores, preferring to spend his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with Falstaff and his friends. Hal is caught between two worlds and two father figures, and his inevitable decision to take on his responsibilities will break Falstaff’s heart.

Welles created a believable and effective medieval world on an extremely limited budget. Mistress Quickly’s inn (no one seems to believe her claim that it’s not a bawdy house) is large, specious, and filled with raunchy joy. And yet the king’s austere and forbidding castle looms over it.

A seemingly large battle, brilliantly edited to disguise the thin budget, makes up the film’s centerpiece. Close-ups of mud and dying soldiers, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes fast, plays against a haunting music score that avoids heroics.

And through that battle, Welles provides comic relief as a Falstaff in absurdly fat armor, trying to find the safest spot on the battlefield. And his words condemn the romantic view of war: ” What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.”

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey–although Rey’s voice was dubbed in by someone else. Keith Baxter, who never gained true movie star status despite his looks and talent, plays the second lead, Prince Hall.

Chimes at Midnight has been a difficult film to see, at least in a decent form, for decades. It’s good to have it back.

How It Looks

Edmond Richard beautifully shot Chimes at Midnight in black and white (Welles called black and white “the actor’s friend”). The short lenses, deep focus, and strong contrasts makes this very much an Orson Welles film.

Criterion’s 1080p transfer does it justice. This is a beautiful disc. The image is pillarboxed to 1.66×1–the standard European widescreen of the time.

How It Sounds

The film’s audio has always been its one big weakness. Like most of Welles’ European films, the dialog was recorded after the film was shot. The words and the actors’ lips don’t always match–especially near the beginning. Sometimes, a minor character talks in what is clearly Welles’ own voice. It’s distracting.

The restoration fixed the soundtrack about as well as it could be fixed. But for some strange reason, the uncompressed, 24-bit, mono LPCM soundtrack was transferred at a very low volume. You have to turn up the audio to hear it properly.

And the Extras

Criterion shot four new interviews for this release. All of them are shown in 1080p, with clips from the films and stills from Welles’ life.

  • Poster and article: Inside the package, you’ll find a folded sheet of paper. One side has an expressionistic illustration of the characters from the film. The other contains an article by Michael Anderegg that places the film in the context of Welles as an interpreter of Shakespeare on the stage and on film.
  • Timeline: Like all Critierion discs, this one has a timeline where you can add shortcuts. It also has a bookmark feature, that lets you insert the disc and get back to where you left off.
  • Commentary track: By James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. Interesting. He talks about the characters, the stage version made before the movie, the camera work, and just about everything. But Naremore made one serious mistake, assigning a scene from one play to another.
  • Keith Baxter interview: 30 minutes. He discusses the making of the stage and film versions, and working with Welles and Gielgud.
  • Beatrice Welles interview: 15 minutes. Orson’s daughter was only nine when she played a role in the film. Here she discusses what it was like having Orson Welles as a father. Interesting at first, but it gets dull.
  • Simon Callow interview: 32 minutes. An actor and a Welles biographer, Callow played Falstaff in a 1998 production of the Chimes at Midnight stage play. Here he discusses Welles and his identification with Falstaff, as well as how the film was made and barely distributed. This is the best of the four new interviews.
  • Joseph McBride interview: 27 minutes. Yet another biographer. This interview covers a lot of what’s already in the Callow interview, but it has some original content, as well.
  • The Merv Griffin Show: 1080i (although it looks like standard definition), 11 minutes. This excerpt from a 1965 episode has Griffin interviewing Welles in his editing room while he adds finishing touches to the movie. It shows the editing tools of the day, and some footage of the battle scene. Welles discusses both this film and some career highlights.
  • Trailer: 1080p; 2 minutes. Clearly a new trailer for this restoration. Fun.

The disc goes on sale August 30.

Love, romance, and a whole lot of problems bubble up in The Intervention

B+ Comedy-drama, but mostly drama

Written and directed by Clea DuVall

All romantic relationships have problems, and those problems provide fodder for this very funny relationship drama (or maybe it’s a very serious comedy). But according to Annie (Melanie Lynskey), only one couple is supposed to have problems here, and everyone else is supposed to be on the same page about the only conceivable solution: divorce.

Annie knows with absolute certainty that her married friends, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza), need to go their separate ways. And when we first meet the unhappy couple, we understand her certainty. They treat each other with behavior so passive aggressive that it’s just one step away from aggressive aggressive. So Annie organized this big weekend shindig so that she and other friends of Ruby and Peter can help them see the light.

But Annie’s pretty messed up herself. Engaged to Matt (Jason Ritter), she keeps postponing their wedding. What’s more, she has a very serious drinking problem. (Actually, everyone drinks pretty heavily here, but Annie’s problem is considerably worse than the others.)

Also in attendance is Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall, who also wrote and directed) and her girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne). Sarah worries that Jessie is a little too interested in younger women.

And speaking of younger women, Jack (a friend of Peter’s played by Ben Schwartz) arrives with a new and barely legal girlfriend oozing sexuality in everyone’s direction (Alia Shawkat). Her name is Lola; no screenwriter gives a character that name without a good reason.

As everyone tries to solve Ruby and Peter’s relationship problems, their own complications bubble to the top. And people are soon getting angry with their partners and hitting on other members of the gang.

Almost the entire film is set in an extremely large and expensive mansion and estate in the south. Ruby and Jessie apparently came from a very wealthy family. For what it’s worth, everyone here is white, and everyone except Sarah has dark hair. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional.

Don’t expect a laugh fest, but don’t expect a tragedy, either. Most of the characters are likeable, and all ring true. The Intervention isn’t trying teach a lesson; or if it is, the lesson is to be tolerant of your lover’s faults.

Not sage advice, but worth knowing.

Coming of age in a sad, sad world in James Schamus’ touching Indignation

A Coming of age drama

Written and directed by James Schamus

From the novel by Philip Roth

Most coming of age movies leave you feeling optimistic. No matter what horrible things happen to the protagonist, you know that everything will come out alright.

Not this time.

In James Schamus’ directorial debut, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil.

Marcus, the son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, is the first member of his family to go to college. Aside from learning and finding a good career, he has another very good reason for embracing higher education. Indignation is set in 1951, and a college deferment will keep him out of the draft and thus out of Korea.

His stellular grades have gotten him a scholarship for the last college you would expect to find a boy of his background–an very Christian college in Ohio. He’s not the only Jew on the campus–there’s even a Jewish fraternity–but even with Jewish dorm mates he still feels like an outsider. Every student is required to attend regular chapel services.

Marcus is an exceptional student, but he doesn’t play well with others. He studies, he works in the library, and he considers himself too busy to have a social life. He refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, and he doesn’t get along with his Jewish roommates.

In one amazing, powerful, and very funny scene, Marcus and the deeply religious dean go at it, arguing about compromising, socializing, and faith. Marcus isn’t just a Jew; he’s an atheist; Bertrand Russell is his hero. The dean is horrified.

Despite his hermit-like tendencies, he manages to get the notice–and then the affection–of the very beautiful, blonde, and experienced Olivia. At first glance, she’s the cliché of the gorgeous shiksa that every Jewish man of that generation wanted. But she turns into someone far more interesting. She’s a troubled soul with a history of drinking. And when he avoids her, she understands what’s going on in his head before he does.

Two paragraphs back, I describes a scene as “very funny.” For a tragedy, Indignation provides a surprising amount of laughs. This doesn’t break the films overall sadness; it deepens it.

James Schamus is one of the most interesting unsung people in the American cinema today. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of James Schamus–even if you don’t know it. He wrote and produced most of Lee’s films. He ran Focus Films and turned it into one of the best arthouse distributors in the country (and then he was fired). Now he’s finally helming his own films.

Judging from his first try, this 57-year-old first timer has a promising career ahead of him.

Adapting Shakespeare: Ran and Chimes at Midnight

400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.

Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.

But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.

Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.

The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.

Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.

Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.

Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.

It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.

But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.

I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.


William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.

Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.

But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.

He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)

While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.

Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.

I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.

Late Spring at the Pacific Film Archive

As people grow, the way they relate to their family inevitably changes. Some fight the change, and others accept it.

I went to the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night to see Yasujirô Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, Late Spring, about a young woman resisting change. She wants to stay with her widowed father, but he senses that it’s time for her to make a life without him.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27, and seems completely happy living with and taking care of her father (Chishû Ryû). No other actor in the history of cinema could radiate kindness and joy like Hara, and she makes us know with absolutely certainty that she’s contented in her life.

But her father worries about her. Most women her age are married. If things don’t change soon, she will be lonely after he’s gone. So, with the help of friends and family, he searches for a suitable husband and–with far more difficulty–convince her to marry.

Today, a film about a woman being pressured into marriage would carry a strong feminist message: A woman can lead a full and happy life without being chained to a man. I’m not entirely sure if Ozu felt that way when he made Late Spring. Probably not, but the film actually works within that point of view. After all, she doesn’t meet that perfect man. But Ozu never looks down on the father and the others trying to bring Noriko to the alter. They’re clearly acting on what they believe are her best interests.

Besides, Noriko is already chained to a man she loves–her father.

Noriko’s reluctance to change makes her judgmental of change in others–a surprising character trait on someone so warm and friendly. She calls a divorced male friend “dirty” (with a smile) because he remarried.

Late Spring is shot and edited in Ozu’s patented simple, elegant style. Especially in interiors, he kept the camera low–only a few inches from the ground–and rarely moved it. You take in the room and see how everyone reacts to each other.

Ozu’s slow editing pace helps bring you into the world of the characters. He shows us a tea ceremony, trolley rides, Tokyo and rural streets, and a good bit of a Noh play. As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I found these moments fascinating and enlightening. But I couldn’t help wondering how these scenes may have effected Late Spring‘s intended audience. For them, much of this must have felt like boring old life.

While Ozu’s camera stays on day-to-day life, much of the story is concealed–another common part of Ozu’s style. For instance, we never see the man everyone is pressuring Noriko to marry.

Late Spring has recently benefited from a new 4K restoration, and the PFA screened it off a 4K DCP. I’m getting a little tired of praising the latest 4K restoration; starting with Children of Paradise in 2012, they’ve all been gorgeous. Late Spring’s restoration had a few washed out moments, but other than that, it looked great.

Late Spring will screen again on Sunday, July 17, 5:00.