Here’s my take on two movies that were loved by the critics, and another one not so much. Guess which one I liked best?
Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, 1 h 50 min
With a 98% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, this is the most critically acclaimed movie in recent memory. It will undoubtedly be an Oscar contender due to the reviews, but partly due to the criticism the Academy has received for the lack of diversity in its nominations.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a black youth, at three different stages of his life. As a small boy – his nickname is “Little” – he is either picked on or ignored by the other kids. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a crack-addict. He is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a sympathetic local drug dealer, and his kindly girlfriend,Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but Paula's addiction intensifies. In the most moving scene in the film, “Little” (Alex Hibbert) asks Juan if he sells his mother drugs. With his head hung in shame, Juan silently nods that he does. “Little,” who has found in Juan the only father figure he’s ever had, resolutely but sadly walks away.
In the second act, Chiron is a skinny teenager (Ashton Sanders). He is still ostracized, and the bullying from the high school Alphas is more brutal. To make his life even more confusing and hazardous, he has his first gay experience with his best and only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner). When Kevin betrays him, he snaps and breaks a chair over his main tormentor. After the beatings and abuse Chiron has endured, he is the one sent to prison.
When he finally gets out, Chiron has been magically (and somewhat improbably) transformed into “Black,” an angry ex-con with a weight lifter’s upper body (Trevante Rhodes). His whole life has become a slavish imitation of Juan, down to being a drug dealer with a tricked out car and a black head wrap. But he reconciles with his mother, now in rehab, then reconnects with Kevin.
Is Moonlight deserving of all the praise it has received? No doubt the acting is first-rate. All three of the young, inexperienced actors playing Chiron give understated, affecting performances. The professionalism of Harris and Ali make for a solid core. The filming is daring, sometimes wrapping 360 degrees around the actors and so tight that you experience Chiron’s life much as he does. Certainly this is a sensitive, wrenching depiction of the incredible difficulties faced by a young black kid who is different from his peers in ways big and small.
But how illuminating is Moonlight? Barry Jenkins has clearly poured his heart into this film, and I don’t want to downplay his efforts. But I didn’t learn much from it. It is very clear that being bullied and having a drug-addicted mother is devastating to any young child, black or white. The problem of being gay in such a macho culture is isolating but hardly surprising. The terrible effect of prison on anyone so adrift as Chiron seems inevitable.
If Moonlight has the limited goal of sensitively illuminating the unique problems of one young man’s life, it succeeds. If there is a broader purpose to bring a new and better understanding of how difficult the path is for young black men in general, there should have been situations that were more nuanced.
Aquarius, written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2 h 22 min
This is a simple story. The widowed Clara (the still luminous Sonia Braga) is the last holdout in a small apartment building overlooking the ocean. She has raised her family there, and she can’t bear to leave the home that holds all her most cherished memories. The owners of the building want her out, so they can build a high-rise that will capitalize on the location.
The unscrupulous owners will do anything they can to get her to leave: loud music, orgies, homeless people, filth in the stairways. But Clara is principled and stubborn, and she won’t leave.
That’s about it for two hours and 20 minutes, longer than a typical Hollywood “blockbuster.” Clara gazes out at the sea a lot, has daydreams about her life, some jarringly sexual, and argues with her family about why she refuses to move. I’ve heard it suggested, that Aquarius is really about Brazil's corruption and brutality. But this is a very personal story, and seeing Clara, an upper middle class writer, as representative of the people of Brazil is a stretch. A two-hour-plus stretch.
Braga is definitely first rate as Clara. Like Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, she has made the long transition from sex symbol to an actress of remarkable depth. Her performance inhabits Clara with beauty and steel, and she is so engaging and sympathetic that the story initially draws you in.
But the whole thing is probably an hour too long and that makes it dull. Halfway through you are thinking, “I get the point. Now what?”
The critics didn’t like this, but I did. It’s a taut, exciting drama with an surprise ending.
You first meet Christian Wolff as a young boy with severe autism, but a singular talent for math and a manic obsession to seeing things through to conclusion. What better qualifications for an accountant!
His parents consult with a doctor in charge of a center that treats autistic children, including his own daughter, but Christian’s father refuses to admit the boy. Eventually his wife, unable to bear the strain of raising a special needs child, abandons the family.
Fast-forward and Christian (Ben Affleck) is using a strip-mall storefront as a cover for his work as an account/hit man. His activities are directed and monitored by a female voice that contacts him through computers and cell phones. A dogged Treasury official (J. K. Simmons), who is nearing retirement and wants one last score, is investigating Wolff. “She” provides a legitimate cover for him to audit a robotics firm. There he meets Dana ((Anna Kendrick), an innocent, in-house accountant who has found discrepancies buried in the company’s books. Given his impenetrable demeanor, Christian surprisingly establishes a close connection with the pretty whistle-blower.
Besides the treasury official, he also has to contend with a deadly, hired gun, known as The Assassin (Jon Bernthal). It’s fun to watch the twist and turns, as Wolff, true to form, is not satisfied until he unravels all the chicanery at Living Robotics and takes on his pursuers.
The Accountant aspires to the higher purpose of showing how well autistics can function in society, but it’s really a fun, old-fashioned thriller.