December 2, 2016

November 2016 Viewing Diary

Rory and Lorelai re-connect at the kitchen table in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It’s common for pop culture fans to chronicle every part of our daily habits. It’s a way to prove to ourselves that we’re consuming great content. Letterboxd benefits greatly from cinephiles’ need to keep track of our movie watching. When you’re the type of person that sees multiple films a day, it’s hard to remember everything. I’m going to start tracking both my movie and TV watching in posts like this one. While I’m starting with a monthly schedule, I may increase the frequency to avoid such a long post. Seeing everything in one place solidifies just how much content I watch. It’s a little frightening.

I’ll admit that this idea is hardly a new one. Many bloggers do a similar activity and write posts listing what they’ve been seeing. I’ve stolen this format directly from Sheila O’Malley, one of my favorite online writers. She also compiles both movies and TV every month in one big article on her blog The Sheila Variations. Her work is definitely worth your time.

This first post is very Gilmore Girls-heavy, which isn’t a normal trend. My wife and I watched the entire series this fall to prepare for A Year in the Life. It was a good way to keep track of all the various story lines and characters. Plus, I had never seen the final three seasons until this binge viewing. Next month should look very different without all the Gilmore Girls episodes.

Gilmore Girls Episode 7.4, “’S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous” (2006, Victor Nelli Jr.)
This is probably the peak of the Christopher/Lorelai relationship in terms of charming moments. It’s hard to argue with a guy that sets up an outdoor movie theater to watch Funny Face. The way he throws money around gets old fast, though. Emily getting arrested is the highlight, and it feels like the new showrunners are starting to find their way. It won’t last long, though.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.5, “The Great Stink” (2006, Gina Fattore)
It’s hard to watch this episode and not think of Clare Clark’s book of the same title. That story takes place among the sewers of London, so it’s quite different. The main story brings an unseen Sherry (sorry, Madchen Amick!) wanting to bring GG to Paris. Christopher’s daughter is mostly just a plot device, and that’s definitely the case here. Lorelai and Christopher just don’t seem to work as a couple, but we all know where this is heading. It’s not good.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, Richard Linklater) - Review
I hesitated to see Richard Linklater’s most recent film, and I have no idea why. On the surface, the story of a bunch of college guys trying to pick up women is shallow. I shouldn’t have doubted Linklater, however. It’s such a light and clever movie that finds heart in even the smallest little competitions among the young athletes. It’s such a breezy hang-out movie!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.6, “Go, Bulldogs!” (2006, Wil Shriner)
Poor Luke. After breaking up with Lorelai, he’s stuck dating April’s swim coach. Their date is cringe-inducing and falls into the typical “crazy woman” trope. Not cool, Gilmore Girls. Once again, Richard and Emily save the day with their visit to Parents Day’ at Yale. Unfortunately, Christopher again has no idea what to do with his money and acts ridiculous.

Drunk History, Episode 4.6, “Siblings” (2016)
One of my favorite parts of Drunk History is the way that it spotlights lesser-known historical figures. I knew nothing about Katharine Wright’s (Jenna Fischer) contributions to the Wright brothers’ success. This episode also includes fun appearances by Elizabeth Olson and Rachel Bilson as the Kopp sisters. When you add that to Lauren Lapkus narrating the Wright story, it’s a great showcase for female performers.

Survivor, Episode 33.7, “I Will Destroy You” (2016)
It's shocking to see Michaela go home after she received so much attention from the editors. They’ve done a good job of hiding the winner and not showing their hand. I suspect that we’ll see Michaela again soon; she’s such a big character and a strong athlete. Survivor needs to cast more alpha female players, and Michaela is perfect because she’s also fun.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.7, “French Twist” (2006, David Babcock)
This is the low point of season seven and possibly the entire series. I know that Lorelai is still rebounding from Luke, but marrying Christopher on a whim seems way out of character. The shots of Paris are also really unconvincing. I don’t mean to be too tough on the TV budget, but something is just really off about this entire story.

Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987, Pennebaker) - Review
I subscribed to the new streaming service Filmstruck this month and love it. There are so many blind spots that I’m planning to uncover in the near future. My first screening was D.A. Pennebaker’s short film of Otis Redding’s entire set at Monterey Pop. Redding was only 26 yet brought so much power to the stage. It’s tragic to note that he died less than six months later.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.8 “Introducing Lorelai Planetarium” (2006, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s a relief to see the beginnings of a new start for the Luke/Lorelai friendship. Even though I wasn’t spoiled, I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire season apart. It’s good to see that at least Rory isn’t excited about Lorelai’s marriage. David Sutcliffe does his best as Christopher, but the show uses him too often as a plot device to separate Luke and Lorelai. It’s a tough position for any actor, especially with so many fans on Team Luke.

Jimi Hendrix plays Monterey Pop in the documentary Jimi Plays Monterey.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, Pennebaker) Review
Here's another full performance from Monterey Pop that drew a lot of attention. Hendrix was largely unknown in the U.S. at the time, which is hard to believe. His charisma on stage is matched by few others, and the music holds up well. It's a treat to see the entire set from such an important show.

The West Wing, Episode 2.7, “The Portland Trip” (2000, Paris Barclay)
I’ve been following along with The West Wing Weekly podcast since the start. I watched the show originally but didn’t see every episode in the pre-DVR days. I also dropped out at some point in the middle. It’s been great to revisit the show on a relaxed schedule. “The Portland Trip” has some interesting parallels to modern discussions on gay marriage, especially in the Trump era. It also includes some of the show’s unfortunate writing for its female characters. Donna takes the brunt this week as she worries about her love life following a failed date.

Survivor, Episode 33.8, “I’m the Kingpin” (2016)
Merge time! I have to admit that casting did a great job this season. Even the goofball characters like Taylor are entertaining. There are very few players that don’t bring something to the table. One downside is the high proportion of women being voted out of the game. There are only three left, and only Paul has left from the guys. I suspect that will change soon.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to the Artist (1979, Saul J. Turrell) - Review
I also caught this 30-minute documentary on Filmstruck, and I’m looking forward to diving into Robeson’s performances. He also was an outspoken activist, and the film barely has time to dive into that side. It’s a good primer on Robeson, a star whose past has mostly been erased.

Stargate Universe, Episode 2.7, “The Greater Good” (2010, William Waring)
This episode is one of the highlights of season two and moves the story forward considerably. We finally learn about the Destiny’s mission from Rush, who faces a beating from Young after Eli discovers the bridge. “The Greater Good” feels like a mid-season finale, especially when you consider the cliffhanger ending. A lot happens, but it sets up an even greater conflict to come.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.10, “Merry Fisticuffs” (2006, Jackson Douglas)
Also known as the episode with the amazing moment when Luke and Christopher brawl, this one moves us closer to the end of the unfortunate Lorelai/Christopher marriage. It can’t come soon enough, though I know the writers have to drag it out further into the season. There’s also the Marty issue with Rory, though the less I say about those scenes, the better.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.11, “Santa’s Secret Stuff” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Lorelai struggles to write Luke a letter of recommendation in his custody battle for April. She ends up writing a love letter that ends her marriage, but we’ll talk about that later. Right now, it’s all about the holidays and trying to be a new family. It’s not going very well.

Drunk History, “Election Special” (2016)
When the election results started going poorly, I had to step away or risk getting too depressed. A helpful remedy was the “Election Special” on Drunk History, which compiled earlier segments that focused on the Presidents. I’d seen them all before, but it was a cool break from a bad night.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.12, “To Whom It May Concern” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
This episode is such a relief. This season is inconsistent, but they handle Christopher’s exit well. His discovery of the letter just confirms his suspicions about being the rebound guy. Their fight is the beginning of the end of their relationship. There’s also the odd moment where Sookie learns that she’s pregnant again. It’s odd but makes sense given Melissa McCarthy’s pregnancy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.13, “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Luke has been lost for much of the season, so it’s cool to see the way that he reacts to Richard’s collapse. He’s there for Lorelai and will do anything regardless of past issues. Christopher is not so thoughtful. I also noticed that Gilmore Girls spends a lot of time in hospitals. This isn’t Richard’s first visit, which feels sadder given Edward Hermann’s passing.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.14, “Farewell, My Pet” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
I’m glad the show didn’t spend the full season on the end of the Christopher relationship. We still have eight episodes to go, and it’s great to focus on something else. Thankfully, it won’t be the new TA at Yale that makes Rory lose her mind in the bookstore. That scene recalls the way she acted with Dean in season one, and it’s a weird look for Rory here.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.15, “I’m a Kayak, Hear Me Roar” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
I don’t mind Logan on the whole, but his business issues are boring. This does bring the welcome return of Gregg Henry as Mitchum Huntzberger. I can’t believe one word the character says; he reminds me a little bit of a younger Trump. In the ongoing saga of Luke having no fun, he’s stuck with Liz, T.J., and the baby in his small apartment. Poor guy.

Michael Shannon helps his son in Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special.

Midnight Special (2016, Jeff Nichols)
Michael Shannon is the perfect collaborator for Jeff Nichols because he excels in understated roles. All we need to do is look at Roy’s face to grasp the turmoil inside that guy. He loves his son but doesn’t understand forces beyond him within the boy. Nichols drops us right into this story and creates a sci-fi story that grows with more time after seeing it.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.16, “Will You Be My Lorelai Gilmore?” (2007, David Paymer)
It’s time for Lane’s baby shower, and I remember now why I dislike Logan. It’s hard to sympathize with a rich kid who bolts at the first sign of trouble. He’s like a mini-Christopher! It is good to have more attention on Lane, who gets little to do in season seven besides having a baby. I do like Zack’s attempts to bond with Luke, who likes the kid but has no idea how to act.

Survivor, Episode 33.9, “Still Throwin’ Punches” (2016)
We finally lose a guy on Survivor! As an added benefit, the victim is the dim-witted Taylor. He was never dull, but there’s only so much goofiness you can take. I still don’t understand his skills with mason jars beyond just putting food in them. Following this episode, I wrote a RHAP blog about how going big and not always good strategy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.17, “Gilmore Girls Only” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Amazingly, Mia has actually aged backwards since her first appearance. This time she’s played by Kathy Baker as a bohemian type. Despite covering familiar territory, the road trip for Emily, Lorelai, and Rory has some fun moments. I again like the continued way that Lane and Zack are connecting with Luke. It gives him more to do before he’s ready to reconcile with Lorelai.

Drunken Angel (1948, Akira Kurosawa) - Review
I’ve only seen 10 of Kurosawa’s films, so I still have a long way to go. I’ll be taking advantage of Filmstruck to catch up with many of them. My first choice was Drunken Angel, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune. It’s a pretty straightforward noir story, but it clicks due to way Kurosawa captures a mood of post-war melancholy.

Drunk History, Episode 4.7, “Landmarks” (2016)
There are quite a few inspired choices for the guest actors in this episode, including Taylor Schilling and Liev Schreiber. The pleasant surprise is John Cho playing William Shakespeare. It’s a subtle way to remind us that perhaps our preconceived notions deserve a push away from the obvious. We’ll see that move again in the Alexander Hamilton episode in a few weeks.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.18, “Hay Bale Maze” (2007, Stephen Clancy)
This season feels so much lighter without Lorelai’s marriage hanging over it. We get the chance to enjoy Taylor’s gigantic hay bale maze, which surprises everyone by actually being fun. Luke and Lorelai also finally talk openly about their issues; we’re in store for great things soon!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.19, “It’s Just Like Riding a Bike” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Paris is one of the show’s best characters, even when she’s acting ridiculous. Her freak-out about which school to choose is fun, though it does go on for quite a while. We also get to see Lorelai riding through town in a bike, which is a good image. The rest just blurs into the background. I think that I’m wearing down and ready to finish this project.

Morris from America (2016, Chad Hartigan)
While the story felt a little too conventional, the performances from Markees Christmas and especially Craig Robinson make it worthwhile. The scenes with the two actors have great heart and never strike a false note. The scenes away from the pair don’t always click, especially with some of his German classmates. Even so, the laid-back style doesn’t oversell the stakes.

The Walking Dead, Episode 7.3, “The Cell” (2016, Alrick Riley)
It was hard to dive back into The Walking Dead after the vicious season premiere. The show reveled in watching Negan beat several characters to death; it was all too much. Following the election, I also wasn’t thrilled to dive back into such a dreary show. We finally caught the third episode, and it felt mostly like a retread despite convincing work from Norman Reedus.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.20, “Lorelai? Lorelai?” (2007, Bethany Rooney)
I’d heard a lot about the big Luke/Lorelai karaoke scene, and it did not disappoint. The looks from both of them say it all. They belong together and need to set aside all the obstacles. Season seven gets a lot of flak (much is deserved), but it finishes strong. Despite all the odd detours their characters have taken, Lauren Graham and Scott Patterson totally sell this moment.

The West Wing, Episode 2.8, “Shibboleth” (2000, Laura Innes)
It’s time for the Thanksgiving episode, which brings C.J. a few surprise guests in her office. Allison Janney’s interactions with the turkeys are a comic highlight. The main plot involves Chinese Christians looking for asylum in the U.S. after fleeing their country. While the story is a bit on the nose for the holiday, it works better than expected. There’s also a nice moment between Bartlet and Charlie around carving knives at the end.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.21, “Unto the Breach” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s time for Rory’s graduation from Yale, and it brings a surprise marriage proposal from Logan. The show handles this familiar situation well; Rory is not ready to become Mrs. Huntzberger. Beyond the graduation, this episode is really a set-up for the finale. Luke and Lorelai are figuring out their future (and being weird to each other), and the town is ready for a big party. Plus, Kirk in a box! That moment sells the episode on its own.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.22, “Bon Voyage” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Whew. I enjoyed seeing the entire series in a short time, but I’m ready for some other shows. Of course, there’s still A Day in the Life coming shortly (see below!). It’s funny to note that Rory leaves to go cover Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign in Iowa. Those were the days! The show ends well, particularly with the whole town saying goodbye to Rory (and us). I loved the last scene of Richard and Emily with Lorelai. As a dad, his final words really hit home for me.

Mahershala Ali teaches a young boy to swim in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight.

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) - Review
Believe the hype. This is easily one of my favorite movies from this year. The main reason is the performances, particularly from the three actors playing Chiron. Mahershala Ali also gives a supporting performance that’s going to win a lot of awards. Moonlight is the type of film that only grows stronger as I think about it more. We feel so much for the characters, especially Chiron. Jenkins builds such an emotional connection with the audience; there’s no distance.

Drunk History, Episode 4.8, “Food” (2016)
I wasn’t as engaged by this episode, though Tess Lynch has great fun talking about the artichoke wars. Michaela Watkins also stands out as Julia Child in a story that was brand new for me. Drunk History spotlights so many talented women that deserve a lot more attention.

Westworld, Episode 1.2, Chestnut (2016, Richard J. Lewis)
I reviewed the Westworld premiere “The Original” back in early October but just never found my way back to the show until now. The show has good production values and talented actors, but it’s also really proud of itself. The puzzle box mystery has promise, yet I’m finding it hard to connect with any characters. This episode’s highlight is Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) haunting memories of another time or place. She also wakes up during an inopportune surgery behind the scenes. Newton and Evan Rachel Wood are the main reasons to tune in at this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.10 and 33.11, “Million Dollar Gamble” (2016)
This two-hour episode is easily the highlight of the season. The first hour includes lots of interesting strategy and the departure of a key player. And that’s just the appetizer for the chaos of the second Tribal Council. The rock draw is so tense! The stakes are high for everyone involved, not just the players trusting luck to survive. We’re in store for a great finish.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)
When I was a kid, we had a small number of VHS dubbed movies and watched them repeatedly. One of them was The Great Muppet Caper, which I remembered as being a big step down from The Muppet Movie. I was surprised by all the clever gags that went over my head as a kid. It’s still not as great as its predecessor, but the gap is smaller than I thought.

Drunk History, Episode 4.9, “Hamilton” (2016)
Lin-Manuel Miranda gets a full episode all to himself, but it doesn’t feel padded. I love the choice to have Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza play Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s another cool way to subvert our expectations and spotlight diverse comedians. Miranda is clearly a fan and has a blast with Derek Waters. The moment when Questlove calls them is so funny because the Roots’ drummer is giddy about the show. The enthusiasm is everywhere.

The West Wing, Episode 2.9, "Galileo" (2000, Alex Graves)
It's easy for me to enjoy an episode where a character gives a rousing speech about exploration and the space program. Sam gets that honor and is helped by the soaring music behind him. "Galileo" is a breezy episode that gives Janney plenty to do, which is never a bad idea. Even when there's a crisis involving a Russian missile silo, the episode still flows smoothly. It's one of my favorites of the season to this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.12, “About to Have a Rumble” (2016)
There was no way that Survivor could match last week’s insanity, but this episode came close. Jeff talked a lot about “love” during the family visit, and everyone cried. It was really after the immunity challenge when the fun began. Will openly talked about shoring up his resume, and Ken topped him with an even dumber idea. Adam won everything this week; he got rid of the advantage, won immunity, and played the idol for Hannah. It doesn’t matter that the votes were 5-4 against Zeke. The move will help Adam a lot if he makes the end.

Westworld, Episode 1.3, “The Stray” (2016, Neil Marshall)
It’s confusing to keep track of the different story lines (time periods?) in the show at this point. The pursuit of the cultists is well-done, yet it raises a lot more questions. Are they humans that have taken up residence at the park? The bullets were ineffective, which means that’s the likely situation. And what was up with the stray guy hidden in the rocks? So many questions. I don’t mind not having the answers, though the writers are playing a dangerous game.

Alia Shawkat stars as Dory in Search Party.

Search Party

For these last two entries, I’m combining all the episodes into one section. We’re already more than 3,000 words into this article. If you made it this far, nice job! Also, a show like Search Party is only loosely separated into episodes. TBS released all 10 at once online and aired them within a five-day period. This was a smart choice for this show, which wouldn’t click so well as a weekly show. It’s great to see a starring role for Shawkat, who deserves a lot more attention.

Search Party is tricky to explain because it doesn’t hit the expected beats. It’s a mystery but regularly gets distracted by random subplots. On the other hand, these detours lead to good comedy. It seems like Shawkat’s Dory is the one character that isn’t self-centered. What’s apparent by the end (which really surprised me) is that she’s on the same plane as her friends. They’re not despicable people, particularly compared to some other characters. The show flies by and includes quite a few lively supporting performances. There’s rarely a dull moment, and the season’s length feels just right for the half-hour series. Check out this surprising little gem.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It seems fitting that I would close this diary with the show that occupied a majority of my viewing time this month. Expectations were sky high for this revival, and it mostly delivered. I loved getting the chance to spend time with these characters again, particularly the citizens of Stars Hollow (except Andrew). Kirk should be on my TV as much as possible. I’ve read quite a few critical pieces about A Year in the Life, and they usually make good points. There are some issues, particularly with Rory’s story line. On the other hand, her arc wasn’t so dominant to drown out what worked so well.

The heart of the four 90-minute episodes is actually Emily’s story. She becomes the third lead Gilmore and makes us root for her happiness. Seeing her just enjoying her life on Nantucket after Richard’s passing is such a relief. Kelly Bishop excels at playing Emily’s nasty side, and that’s still present frequently. What I loved was seeing her let all that anger slide away. She had fun belittling her fellow DAR members (“bullshit!”) and scaring the kids at the whaling museum. It was also good to watch her dismissing Ray Wise’s nice but dull suitor.

I should take a moment to talk about Rory’s misadventures as a freelance journalist. It’s hard to feel too bad for a woman that flies to London and has multiple large houses open to write her book. The show just doesn’t know what to do with Rory; she needs a conflict to overcome. This time it’s really an internal conflict. The lack of realism with the journalism scenes doesn’t bother me too much; this is a show that once included a ridiculously giant pizza. It’s just too bad that we didn’t care as much about Rory in these episodes. Even the last four words drew more of a “what?” reply than compassion for her.

I was more invested in Luke and Lorelai’s relationship. If they were not together at the end of “Fall”, I would have been angry. Those two deserve each other, and it’s sad to see them still a little distant here. I did love their big scene, which mirrors the break-up at the end of season six. Luke refuses to let that happen again, and Lorelai’s right there with him. It’s just a sweet way to bring together characters that have been through so much. I wish A Year in the Life could have ended before Rory’s reveal. However, it does open the door for more episodes.

I suspect we’ll see another run given the huge interest in this revival, but I have mixed feelings. There will be fewer cameos (sorry Dean and Jason!), and we’ll need more than Rory’s pregnancy to make it work. Lorelai is preparing to buy another inn, so her story isn’t finished. If they do continue, I’d like to see new characters. The forgettable Paul does not count. People like this world; let’s expand it and tell a few new stories.

November 23, 2016

Moonlight Review (Barry Jenkins)


Moonlight and the Importance of Personal Films

In times of great sadness and fear, it’s understandable for cinephiles to huddle up and retreat towards escapist fare. Why face down issues that will only heighten stress? I’ve definitely pulled back from the daily barrage of distressful post-election news. My movie watching has shifted more to personal stories than blockbusters, however. Recent films like Certain Women and Morris from America feel more essential as chaos erupts on a larger scale. A timely example is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which portrays a convincing life across three unique performances. 

The story focuses on the life of Chiron across three time periods as he grows up in the South. What sticks with me about this film is the thoughtful way it approaches his experiences. Chiron isn’t a symbol of the current state of masculinity or race, though you can read plenty into his story. That approach dismisses the heart that’s present during each segment. We’ve seen schoolyard bullying, neglectful parents, and social isolation on screen many times. Moonlight stands apart through its emotional connections with the audience. When Chiron takes punches, we feel every one. There is no real gap between on-screen events and our experience.

This bond doesn’t mean this film is too broad or universal, however. Working from a story by Tarell McCraney, Jenkins presents an individual tale of struggle. Chiron’s classmates identify him as a homosexual well before he understands it personally. Throughout his childhood, everyone (including his mom) puts Chiron in a box and refuses to accept him. The opening scene involves other boys chasing him into a run-down building. This constant pressure makes him a nearly silent member of the community. There’s no sanctuary at home either. 

The opening act centers on Chiron (known then as Little) finding a friend in Juan (a remarkable Mahershala Ali). Their father-son relationship brings much-needed warmth to the first act. The scene of Juan teaching Little (Alex Hibbert) to swim reveals their unspoken connection. They’re doing an everyday thing like so many families. Juan is a drug dealer, but his job is inconsequential compared to his love for Little. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is a sharp contrast from Little’s manipulative mom Paula (Naomie Harris). This family unit brings normalcy, but it’s short-lived. There’s always the trip home to bring life crashing down to earth. 

The performances from Ali and Monae (in her first movie) strongly connect because they’re playing realistic people and not obvious saints. Juan sells drugs to Paula and plays a role in her downward spiral. Teresa does her best to help Chiron as a teen yet can only give a brief reprieve. The bullying gets worse and threatens more than just minor bodily harm. When Chiron (Ashton Sanders) stares into the mirror with blood streaming down his face, he seems capable of anything. The stone-cold look on his face when he returns to school is frightening. Even the strongest person can only take so much grief before he cracks. 

A pivotal relationship for Chiron is with his childhood friend Kevin, who is important to all three acts. Their re-connection in the final chapter provides a lot of heart and regret. André Holland plays Kevin as an adult with so much grace. No one understands what Chiron (known as Black on the streets) is experiencing better than Kevin. Their diner reunion brings some respite to a guy who’s closed off almost everything. He barely resembles the kid and teen we met but still has that soul beneath all the barriers. The sweet image that closes this scene offers a glimmer of hope. They’re still living in the same unkind world, yet can find comfort with each other.

It’s surprising to note how much Black differs from the guy we knew at a younger age. He’s a small-time criminal with gold teeth and a bulky frame. This world beat the quiet, emotional kid into submission. Black has grabbed a little power and won’t allow others to best him. Trevante Rhodes’ performance as Black doesn’t overdo the gloom. There are cracks in the façade, especially when Kevin calls. We still want Black to succeed and be himself. Rhodes says plenty with limited dialogue as the barricade slowly dissolves by the end. 


Moonlight takes its time and gives us a chance to understand Chiron’s world. Jenkins’ confident direction allows the scenes to flow naturally. The first act is quieter and conveys a sense of discovery from the young boys. The teenage era is more frenetic as the confusion and outside pressure grows. A languid certainty pervades the final act, where Black meanders through his life. That feeling shifts when he chooses to visit Kevin yet still has the quiet regret of adulthood. Jenkins’ personal connection to the material draws us into the story without forcing the issue.

It feels shallow for me to use this film to help calm my nerves about our future. On the other hand, it’s essential to support quality art from diverse voices. I can’t change the election results, so small choices make a difference. It all matters. The films, music, and literature that we support are important. It’s up to us to recommend work that expands our worldview. They aren’t just message movies either. It’s a lot harder to take a linear view of the world after exposure to a wider landscape.

Moonlight depicts the dark side of our social norms, but it’s not cynical. By showing the humanity of characters like Kevin, Juan, and Teresa, Jenkins delivers a picture that can raise our spirits. Life is a struggle, particularly for anyone marginalized like Chiron. Few give him a chance, but he’s still living out each day. When Chiron ultimately opens up to a friendly face, it reminds us that love is possible. The quiet ending offers peace and a little hope, through the internal conflict never really ends. 

November 18, 2016

Drunken Angel: Kurosawa’s Grim Look at Post-War Japan

Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura star in Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel.

There’s little renewal in post-war Japan seen through the lens of Akira Kurosawa. The citizens walk the streets with a semblance of normalcy, but grim reality lurks behind the scenes. Kurosawa’s first shot in Drunken Angel reveals the poisonous sludge of a sewage dump right next to people’s homes. He returns to this image repeatedly to nail home the idea of a world devastated by human cruelty. It’s not a stretch to connect this theme with destruction in Japan near the end of World War II. Tensions are high in a toxic environment where even the high-rolling yakuza bosses look miserable.

Released in 1948, the dark crime drama builds a sour atmosphere where the threat of tuberculosis (and worse) hangs over everyone. Local doctor Sanada (Ikiru’s Takashi Shimura) works to stem the tide, but stubborn people rarely take his advice. His drunk tirades seem more like crazy rants than helpful tips, however. When your doctor is screaming and throwing things at you, he doesn’t seem reliable. The local yakuza Matsunaga (a surprisingly young Toshirô Mifune) is seriously ill, but slowing down refutes his lifestyle. It’s hard to resist alcohol when temptation exists at every corner. There’s also the honor code and its false sense of pride in martyrdom.

The “angel” in the title refers to Sanada’s drive to help patients, though he’s hardly pure. Alcohol is his daily vice. One clever shot brings his face parallel to the next cocktail. The obsessed look on Shimura’s face as he licks the top of the glass says it all. This unquenchable drive for alcohol makes Sanada the town fool despite his successes. He cures a teen girl and barely enjoys it. Failures like Matsunaga hang over him, at least for a time. Their relationship shifts between hatred and friendship at a moment’s notice. The repeated trend of their brutal squabbles nails home the point. They’re like ferocious animals but are kindred spirits through a mutual need for self-destruction.

Guitar music from the unnamed player (Sachio Sakai) frequently playing in the background and sets the mood. He sits outside the bog and strums a mournful tune while the doctor tries his best inside the house. It’s a clever way for Kurosawa to set up the sense of place in various settings. There’s always a reminder of the polluted water and ugly structures right outside. It’s also an inventive method for Kurosawa to keep bringing us back to the destruction. When Matsunaga passes out at one point, the camera drifts along the water back to the guitar player. The journey through the muck is more important than the destination in that case.

Another theme is debunking any honor code among the yakuza, a legendary group that resembles petty criminals backstabbing each other for power here. Matsunaga tries to match the tough yakuza reputation, but there’s still a little heart beneath his gruff exterior. The older bosses are much worse. Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto) returns from jail and acts like he owns everything. He even grabs the guitar (which seems like a violation) and plays “The Killer’s Anthem” — his favorite song. Okada uses intimidation and the threat of retribution over actual violence. Women are his to do with as he pleases, and few dare cross him. There’s a strange familiarity with his approach and that of our recently elected president. He may be friendly on the surface, but that smiling face hides the monster underneath.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) battles Okada in front of mirrors in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel.

Kurosawa’s messages are fairly obvious, but Drunken Angel still packs a visceral punch. The main reason is the remarkable work from the two lead actors. This was the first collaboration for Kurosawa with Mifune, who starred in some of the director’s top films like The Seven Samurai and Rashomon. Mifune gets the flashier role and makes the most of it. By the end of the story, Matsunaga looks more like a pale vampire than a human being. In one shot, there’s a surprisingly close resemblance between Mifune and Max Schreck as Nosferatu. Matsunaga is already half-dead before his bosses turn the screws on him. Mifune plays wide-eyed insanity so well, but there’s little glee this time. It’s a tragic look at a guy committed to a code that doesn’t exist.

One standout sequence is a surprisingly lively dance number with jazz singer Shizuko Kasagi belting out an original tune called “Jungle Boogie”. There’s no connection to the Kool & the Gang version beyond the funkiness. This scene is energetic but also reveals the end of Matsunaga’s success. Okada is about to scoop up his girl Nanae (Michiyo Kogure) and steal his territory. Matsunaga also seems “like a punk” to the onlookers when compared to the veteran. He is all raw emotion, while the more sinister Okada stays grounded (at least for now). The scene ends with a jarring cut to Sanada smacking Matsunaga that drops us back in reality.

What keeps this picture from becoming too nihilistic is the heart from Shimura in the title role. In one comic moment, he repeats the phrase “I absolutely refuse” when asked to help Matsunaga. A quick cut shows him doing exactly that in the next moment. These moments of levity from Sanada keep us connected to him right to the end. One subplot involves the hiding of Okada’s former girlfriend, who now lives with Sanada. Kurosawa sets this up as a key plot point, but it strangely disappears in the final act. Sanada’s defiant choices are another way to separate him from the immoral yakuza. He’s still a good guy trying to make a small difference.

The final showdown between Matsunaga and Okada has no resemblance to grand showdowns between good and evil. It’s a vicious hand-to-hand fight that includes Matsunaga puking out blood and both guys sliding around in paint. Okada loses his aura of cool and reveals his true colors as a thug. This ugly look at violence makes a clear point about the lack of glory in battle. Sanada’s comment that “human sacrifice has gone out of style” also directly references the kamikaze fighters during World War II. Matsunaga’s efforts to die a good death look foolish and spring from a corrupted belief system in a post-war culture.

There’s an interesting silver lining in the end of Drunken Angel that offers a glimmer of hope. When the cured teen arrives with her diploma, she’s a vision of a possible brighter future. Kurosawa ends the movie by pulling back the camera and revealing the crowd of citizens going about their lives. On one hand, no one cares about Matsunaga and his scattered ashes. It’s a callous society, yet it keeps moving forward. The swamp remains as a blight from the past, and even a rational guy must realize there’s still a long way to go before real progress.

Drunken Angel is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available through Criterion.

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