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A Very Murray Christmas

July 22, 2017

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: Bill Murray, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus

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Synopsis: A laconic Bill Murray runs the gauntlet of PR types trying to make him do a very commercial Christmas special…

Review: Presenting almost exactly the same conceit as Sofia Coppola’s earlier work, Lost in Translation, yet without that film’s masterly ability to capture that transitory air of epiphany one often encounters on fleeting foreign travels, A Very Murray Christmas‘s success is more or less predicated on the degree to which the viewer finds the persona of Bill Murray innately charming.

The loose set-up of A Very Murray Christmas uncannily echoes Lost in Translation, with a jaded, put-upon Murray being harassed by PR types who need him to conform to the stereotype of the Christmas special format he’s about to do, when Murray would rather idle around with an ideal cast of pals and celebrities (including the likes of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus who do eventually appear in Murray’s drink-inspired reverie).

Outside of that, it’s pretty indulgent, unexceptional fare. The whole idea of Bill Murray is that he’s funny when he’s not trying to be, and that his persona works best when scored against substantial narratives or absurd scenarios. Here, there are one or two inspired moments amid the film’s overall aimlessness and raggedness: Murray and Chris Rock’s duet to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is amusingly filmed by Coppola (the only time you’re aware that this is a work by her) through a pastiche of the old-school music video fad for cheesy fades, dissolves and split screens. That aside, there’s really nothing else of worth save for the interesting footnote that Maya Rudolph belts out her song amazingly well, which is a reminder that she’s actually the daughter of the late soul singer, Minnie Riperton. (July 2017)

The Full Monty

July 21, 2017

The Full Monty (1997)
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Actors: Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, Tom Wilkinson

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Synopsis: A group of unemployed Sheffield men join forces in the unlikeliest of ways – as a male striptease act – to raise enough money so one of their tribe, Gaz (Robert Carlyle), can afford his child support payments.

Review: For such an uncomplicated – and, in some respects, prototypical – film, The Full Monty stands the test of time because it is superior sentimental social commentary executed to a T. Following in the tradition of more “upmarket” British cinematic exports of a loosely similar bent like the Ealing Comedies or the films of Ken Loach, The Full Monty carries beneath its feelgood trajectory an exquisite air of gallows humour mixed with a dash of melancholy and a wee sprinkling of empathetic leftist politics.

The inclusion of the opening Sheffield promotional film, City on the Move, ironically sets up the juxtaposition between the Steel City’s pomp and the depressed, slate-grey canvas of its present which is the crucial backdrop to the story. Director Peter Cattaneo takes other opportunities to characterise the post-industrial moribundity of Sheffield by having the hapless protagonists bemoan their lot at numerous vantage points in the city’s steep streets and parks that showcase the bleak urban panorama around them.

Amid this omnipresent dankness, the spirit of the motley crew of would-be strippers necessarily lightens the tone. The two performances which, in particular, give life to the story are those of Tom Wilkinson and Mark Addy. This was the film that gave Wilkinson a deserved late shunt into the limelight. His depiction of the buttoned-up, nominally middle-class Gerald – who has been living a charade for the last six months (getting suited to go to “work” each day to appease his aspirational wife, when in reality he’s simply been making unsuccessful sorties to the local job centre) – is a masterclass of strangulated male pride. Addy’s portrayal of happy-go-lucky “fat” lad, Dave, is equally superb. Addy absolutely nails his one liners, especially in a sequence where he undercuts the optimism of his fellow strippers during a tanning session in Gerald’s house. And the slightly treacly subplot of Dave having body image issues on the eve of the show (surely a phlegmatic boozer like him would have reconciled himself to his rotund state?) works, through the extremely well acted scenes between Addy and Lesley Sharp (playing Dave’s wife).

Even if The Full Monty‘s mammoth success set in motion an era of mainstream, calculatingly populist ‘feelgood’ fare that to some extent still exists today (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel anyone?), its skill as a film deserves as much remembrance as its place as a significant British cinematic pop cultural reference point. (July 2017)

Toni Erdmann

July 15, 2017

Toni Erdmann (2016)
Director: Maren Ade
Actors: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu

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Synopsis: Sixtysomething prankster, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), decides to pay a visit to his workaholic, corporate daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), in an attempt to inject some fun and joy in her life.

Review: Festival darling and a film garlanded with 5* reviews wherever you look, Toni Erdmann is a proficient enough exploration of its essentially one-note sociological exposé, though I find it hard to believe this euphoria is entirely objective but perhaps more a snowballing of unconscious critical consensus.

At the heart of Toni Erdmann is a fairly basic, but well explored, conceit: a sour-faced thirtysomething woman, Ines, sleepwalking into existential torpor through her submission to the tyranny of her corporate life (this is telegraphed in early sequences by her conservative, business wardrobe, her continual obsession with her mobile phone, and her perpetual unsmiling demeanour), is given a deceptively sentimental life-lesson by her eccentric father.

The corporate satire is decently enough conveyed, though it’s rhetorically obvious. The play on sexual politics in particular, though a salient story to tell in exposing the business world’s inherent patriarchal ethos and how it attempts to neuter femininity, is at times quite unsubtle. This transmits most obviously in the repugnant character of Tim (Ines’ “sleeping partner”) who is easily manipulated into humiliating sex acts by Ines that satirise his lame masculinity, and who acts like a chauvinistic idiot when off on drugs in a nightclub – pouring women their drinks with a champagne bottle aggressively pinned to his crotch.

Even the “epiphany” scenes in the film’s final third – the Whitney Houston karaoke moment, and the “surprising” birthday party – are perhaps a touch obvious, and feel more like that’s the change the writer wants to impact on her character at that point in time, than necessarily the more muted and realistic result of how Ines might have reacted to her father’s provocations. Unless I’m missing something, and it’s a double-bluff and a satire of viewers who will try to ascribe pat literalism to the lyrics of Houston’s paean to self-determination, to say that this moment justifies Ines’ catharsis is far too accepting of the filmmaker’s manipulations.

Perhaps the underlying issue with the film is that it’s too conceptual – more suited to a TV serial, extended comedy sketch, novel, or maybe even an academic thesis. Even the two main characters fall elusively short of three-dimensionality; ciphers of the writer’s scheming. To me, the film had most resonance in its quieter moments, away from the rhetorical game-playing. Winfried falling asleep by his ailing dog on the porch, before waking up a few hours later to note that his dog had poignantly trotted off to die alone in the wooded part of the lawn, was a more convincing testament to the film’s message of transcendence than the main “Toni Erdmann” set up of the narrative that takes place in Bucharest thereafter. (July 2017)

Top 20 Blockbusters

July 9, 2017

Being summer time, my colleagues at One Room With a View have curated a series of articles on the phenomenon of the “blockbuster” movie. This will culminate in a top 50 of blockbuster films compiled from the votes of the dozens of contributors. For what it’s worth, my personal top 20 is listed below. What I think, perhaps, the most interesting part of the exercise has been is to try to understand what the term “blockbuster” even means. It’s not a genre in its own right (more a smorgasbord of multiple genres), so what exactly does it constitute? A sense of spectacle? Populist intentions? Does it need to be appear moneyed? Does it need to make money? I’m not entirely sure, but here’s my list:

20. Inception (2010)

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A work that straddles the line between the epically profound (all the riffing on the immutability of time and the relativity of perception) and epically irritating (all the redundant action baggage and the reams upon reams of plot exposition). What’s not in doubt is that this is a blockbuster with a capital “B”, and, ultimately, it seems churlish not to admire the aspirational bent of the film. Nolan is trying to make complex ideas accessible through a popular genre and format – and for that he should be applauded.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/inception/

19. The Dark Knight (2008)

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A dazzling, virtuoso work, where Nolan was able to elevate that most popular of genres – the graphic novel adaptation – and turn it into something intelligent, emotional and spectacular. Unquestionably the high point of Hollywood’s seemingly never-ending dalliance with superhero mythology.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/the-dark-knight/

18. Face/Off (1997)

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It may lack the professional sheen and cogently developed thematics of a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, but John Woo’s Face/Off is one of the most relentlessly demented and enjoyable of action joyrides ever committed to celluloid. It’s an absolute triumph for its two lead actors, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and it’s a work where the sheer sense of theatre and delirium almost scorches off the screen.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/faceoff/

17. The General (1926)

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Pure spectacle. A near perfect blend of gripping action sequences and the most mordant undercurrent of humour. Buster Keaton’s logistical genius as a filmmaker was at its peak here.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/the-general/

16. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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What could be more “blockbuster” than the James Bond franchise? It’s cinema’s longest running saga – 24 films and 55 years at the last count – and its ingredients are ready made for this category: drama, action, extravagant budget, huge box office. Perhaps the most underrated Bond movie is George Lazenby’s sole effort, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s certainly one of the most spectacular Bonds with some truly brilliant Alpine sequences and stunts, and a majestically taut heist scene in Bern.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/on-her-majestys-secret-service/

15. Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No

And the first celluloid Bond to kick the whole saga off was the quite brilliant Dr. No. It laid the foundations for all the blockbuster elements that would make the series such a huge success going forward, but it was a classy, riveting thriller in its own right. It contains a brilliant late reveal of the macabre villain Dr. No, and Bond’s killing of Professor Dent is the finest scene in the history of the Bond series – analysed below: (https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/scene-analysis-dr-no/)

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/dr-no/

14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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1939 was a great year for the movies: Gone With the WindStagecoachDark Victory and Wuthering Heights to name but a few. Topping them all though is the timeless classic, Vincent Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. It truly does honour the term ‘blockbuster’. In fact, spectacle is the literal essence to the story – from the musical, joyous element, to the immemorial fades from monochrome to colour, and then back to monochrome, representing the subtly profound morals about childhood, adventure and the sanctity of the home.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/the-wizard-of-oz/

13. Interstellar (2014)

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Christopher Nolan’s most underrated film, and his most ambitious attempt to merge popular spectacle and a recognisably bankable genre to complex philosophical ideas. In this film, it’s the highly scientific and emotionally resonant concepts of temporality and relativity melded into a grammar of pending apocalypse, shuttles launching into space, fight scenes, and epic races against time.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/interstellar/

12. Goldfinger (1964)

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Perhaps not the best Bond movie, but easily the most definitive. This is the Bond template – the one that all subsequent producers and directors have consciously and subconsciously come back to ensure its prototype is adhered to: iconic villain, brutal henchman, spunky Bond girl, and ridiculous conspiracy.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/goldfinge/

11. West Side Story (1961)

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It’s hard to believe now, but 50-60 years ago, the Western and the musical were considered staple blockbuster fare (much akin to the superhero and action genres of today). West Side Story stole the hearts and minds of its audience with its sheer vivacity, brilliant realisation, and performances of heartbreaking pathos from the likes of Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.

10. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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Comfortably the best of the seven (or does Rogue One make that eight) Star Wars movies. It’s where Lucas’s vision for his Star Wars universe (although the movie is technically directed by Irvin Kershner) was at its most mature, expansive and pure: truly ensconced in story, characterisation and spectacle before the saga’s subsequent descent into juvenility and techno fetish. It’s the one Star Wars sequel that feels like an ongoing snapshot of its rich universe rather than a neatly packaged exercise in fan servicing.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/the-empir-strikes-back/

9. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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The sheer exuberance and viscerality of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers makes it a blockbuster musical par excellence. Centred around the conceit of seven backwoodsman brothers having to court seven women from the posh town across the county, some of the action sequences, fights, dance routines and songs are musical perfection – a guaranteed smile generator.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/seven-brides-for-seven-brothers/

8. Modern Times (1936)

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Charlie Chaplin just has to be on this list. His films were incredibly popular around the world, elevated him to the top of the Hollywood tree, and were some of the most visually ingenious works ever made. His satirical parable, Modern Times, is the apotheosis of his magical style. It’s a radical treatise on modernity wrapped in a funny, sentimental and entertaining narrative. It features some of the most iconic images in film history, most famously when Chaplin’s own factory operative gets whisked down the assembly line and swallowed up by the clockwork machinery he’s working on. *Please note this is a reworked excerpt from my contribution to One Room With a View’s Top 50 Blockbuster Movies feature*

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2017/06/23/moderntimes/

7. Heat (1995)

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Michael Mann is a real rarity: an auteur who seems more than comfortable working within the framework of blockbuster cinema. His films fit into recognisable, popular genres; he casts bankable A-list actors; his aesthetic is high on spectacle; and a lot of his works can slip into the multiplex and make decent box office. And yet…It’s almost as if Mann makes designer genre films – the blockbuster for the discerning punter. Never was this more in evidence than in Heat – a gorgeously sensual LA heist movie that played on the cult residue of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s New Hollywood glory days and gave them their finest mature roles bar none. *Please note this excerpt features exactly in my contribution to One Room With a View’s Top 50 Blockbuster Movies feature*

6. The Big Sleep (1946)

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Before you shout me down with accusations that film noir cannot be a blockbuster, it neglects the fact in the ’40s and early ’50s, it would have been a more prominent genre in Hollywood’s output, and The Big Sleep was a conscious, commercial playing of the now legendary repartee between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That the film wound up being one of the finest American films of all time was just a very happy by-product of that.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/the-big-sleep/

5. Miami Vice (2006)

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I bloody love this film; there’s a reason one of its images features as the header of this blog. Miami Vice is so cool, so stylish, so sensuous. I know some commentators found its über-seriousness a problem but I loved that sense of swoon and fatalism. It’s one of the greatest action movies ever made and one of the most underrated American films of the new millennium.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/miami-vice/

4. Infernal Affairs (2002)

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The best action movie I have ever seen. There’s a reason why the canny Martin Scorsese was so attracted to this as source material for his generally decent re-imagining, The Departed. Watching it was the most breathless and purely thrilling experience I have ever had in a cinema. Stellar stuff!

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/infernal-affairs/

3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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It has the epic majesty of the Hollywood greats of its era – The Wizard of OzGone With the Wind  – coupled with the skill and verve of the classic musicals. It’s hard to think of a film where in a sense the medium, the canvas is the story. Of itself, as a piece of drama, it’s decent enough; but the blockbuster scope of the film – glorious Technicolor, incredibly ambitious cinematography, the schema of having a family’s travails charted across the peaks and troughs of an actual year – makes it something incredibly poignant and resonant. It’s true testament to the genius of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/meet-me-in-st-louis/

2. The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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The war movie is a worthy genre for blockbuster consideration, but how about a war movie produced from inside the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War? The trick is the context. The Cranes are Flying was the definitive ‘Thaw’ war movie, symbolising the country’s attempt to reposition its social history after the corrosive legacy of Stalinist doctrine and censorship. The Soviet Union suffered like no other country in the Second World War, and The Cranes are Flying is a ballad to that sentiment. Filmed by legendary cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, of I am Cuba fame, and the great filmmaker, Michail Kalatozov, it is quite simply one of the most visually stunning, expressionistic and epic anti-war films ever made. The scene of Tatyana Samoylova’s heroine receiving the crushing news of her love’s demise at the story’s end, and her subsequent actions, is one of the most moving cinematic depictions of grace I’ve ever seen.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/thecranesareflying/

1.Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Perhaps the most purely beautiful film of all time. The medium in a sense is the story. It’s a blockbuster in every sense; an epic and entertaining parable of innocence, betrayal and redemption set against the backdrop of modernity. Many commentators say that the late silent period was the closest cinema ever got to perfection, and Sunrise is the ultimate testament to such a reading.

https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/sunrise/

Song to Song

July 9, 2017

Song to Song (2016)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender

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Synopsis: Three players in the Austin, Texas music scene fall in and out of love.

Review: You won’t find a more ardent champion of the work of Terrence Malick than this writer, but Song to Song is the first time where his signature aesthetic, to me, felt more reductive than transcendent.

There have been two points over which I’ve always defended Malick (and will continue to defend him on his first seven films). The first common criticism is that his films are in some way “inferior” because they refute the desire to grasp onto fully realised narratives and character arcs. That always struck me as a misguided accusation. To use a literary analogy, it would be like chastising an abstract poet for not writing a page-turner of a novel. The other recent fad in the anti-Malick bandwagon is to lament that his films are increasingly hermetic in their earnest prioritising of rather remote, moneyed, prettified crises. Again, that had always appeared a redundant reading when Malick’s films are so clearly interior, detached and depoliticised, and anyway, Knight of Cups is the only work where Malick’s protagonists present as obviously rich and louche.

I say all this because, sadly, Song to Song will provide more mileage to those Malick naysayers, and I’m more inclined to jump on board with their misgivings this time around. Where Malick’s previous films always transcended the immediacy of their social setting, and the central characters’ troubles appeared sympathetic and profound, here the three main players’ woes are irredeemably precious, bourgeois and narcissistic. Where all those previous films were in some way purposeful exercises in distanciation and existentialism, this is almost a conventional drama – although captured in his now distinctive, free associative form. Thus that drama plays out unconvincingly as a fatuous exposition of faux emotional grandstanding. This time, Malick only seeks to valorise the emotional malcontent and relationship dilemmas of his disaffected players. They don’t seek transcendence and salvation from their lot, just pity and luck in finding the right partner.

Malick’s visual language plays out as a microcosm of the wider problems to his approach in this film. While the cinematography, documentation of architecture, and editing all remain unparalleled (I doubt I’ll see a more beautiful film this year), it does present as rather relentless and formless. The performative improvising of the actors, portentously caressing each other over barren beds in uninviting modernist apartments, really does come across as far too overused a trope now (a couple of times is fine, but there must have been over a dozen such sequences here). Also, the affair between Rooney Mara and Berenice Marlohe’s characters came dangerously close to female objectification and could easily be satirised as a form of uncool, softporn male lesbian fantasy.

Last year’s Knight of Cups, a not wholly dissimilar film visually from Song to Song, was ironically one of Malick’s finest films yet, but this shows that with an askew dramaturgy, and the incorrect application of his rather fey, doom-laden and improvisatory aesthetic, Malick will only end up providing the sort of film his worst critics will gorge on all day long. (July 2017)

Top 10 Movie Moments of 2017 so far…

June 28, 2017

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Follow below link to see ten highlights from the film world so far this year, as suggested by my colleagues at One Room With a View.

I wrote the piece on stellar French film, Heal the Living.

https://oneroomwithaview.com/2017/06/28/top-10-movie-moments-of-2017-so-far/

Moonlight

June 25, 2017

Moonlight (2016)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Actors: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes

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Synopsis: A snapshot of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as he goes through three stages of his life from child to adult. In particular, how he begins to reconcile feelings about his own sexuality and identity.

Review: There’s a lot to admire in Moonlight. Films shouldn’t be judged on their socio-political content alone, but naturally, Moonlight‘s relative novelty as a piece on working class black male identity in the US (especially with the additional undertow of the main character beginning to conscience possible homosexual feelings) commands interest. In fact, this notion of making an aesthetic out of black male culture is probably Moonlight‘s prime triumph. It finds a watchful, plaintive ambience for documenting the legacy of machismo and problematic identity politics at the heart of young black male culture. One of my colleagues at One Room With a View put it very well with their piece on the performativity of masculinity and clearly a lot of work was done in making the three actors who play Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – all develop a core solemnity and inner pain that is so key to understanding their journey.

Unfortunately, around that compelling character interiority, the additional tapestry of Moonlight is much less convincing. The aesthetic is lovely, but the dramaturgy is extremely didactic. Having the mother buy drugs from the father figure is too convenient, and is a dialectic stolen from a loosely similar – but superior – story about a young African-American coming of age, Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson. Also, the use of Tomas Mendez Sosa’s “Cucurrucucu paloma” to inflect some pathos was a clear sign of Barry Jenkins pilfering other arthouse films (Wong’s Happy Together and Almodóvar’s Talk to Her spring to mind) for their tropes, and some of his filmmaking – distorted lenses, light reflections – betrays that too.

Outside of Chiron the character (and the actors playing him), some of the other performances and casting jarred – particularly Naomie Harris as Chiron’s supposedly druggy mother. Even though she had a crack a decade earlier in Miami Vice, her Miami accent is so inauthentic. Her opening gambits of “and who is you?” and “you gots to come home” stood out like a sore thumb, and just generally, against the naturalism of the Chiron actors, Harris’ method grandstanding seemed totally inappropriate. Dare I say, it’s almost a case of stealth racism. It would be like casting Rosamund Pike as the Ozarks mother in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, but just because we see Harris as black, we don’t see the need to probe further into the specificity of the character’s ethnicity, dialect and culture – there are many variants in the African-American community as there are in any other race. A look at Claire Denis’ stellar work in France – namely, 35 Shots of Rum, is a good reference point here.

It’s almost as if Harris is emblem for Jenkins’ uneasy attempt to meld together various commercial, aesthetic and socio-political considerations. If not always entirely successful, at least he tried, and there are some really fine moments that do elevate Moonlight(June 2017)