Moonlight

For F*** Magazine

MOONLIGHT 

Director : Barry Jenkins
Cast : Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 51min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Homosexual Content)

            The Best Picture winner at the 89th Academy Awards finally comes to Singaporean theatres. This coming-of-age drama centres on Chiron (Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes at different ages), who grows up in Liberty City, Miami, Florida. Chiron’s mother Paula (Harris) is a drug addict, and the shy, often-bullied child finds a mentor figure in Juan (Ali), his mother’s drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Monáe) look after Chiron, and the bond that Chiron forms with Juan and Teresa earns Paula’s jealousy. Chiron’s only friend is Kevin (Piner, Jerome and Holland at different ages). While Chiron and Kevin are close, their relationship is charged. Chiron finds himself the target of relentless bullying from Terrel (Patrick Decile), whom Kevin is friendly with. As he moves through life, Chiron must come to terms with his sexuality and his sense of self.

Moonlight is based on playwright Tarell Alvin McRaney’s unproduced semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. When Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins was looking to make his second film, he was introduced to McRaney’s script through the Miami-based Borscht arts collective. It turns out that both Jenkins and McRaney grew up in Liberty City. Jenkins adapted McRaney’s script into a screenplay, changing the structure to make it a linear story that tracked Chiron’s journey from child to adult. In the original play, the three chapters ran simultaneously. Jenkins and McRaney eventually won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

A large part of Moonlight’s appeal is that even though it has made history as the first film with an entirely black cast and the first LGBT+-themed film to win Best Picture, it doesn’t come off as a film that’s overly self-conscious about its game-changing status. Moonlight covers ground that we’ve seen in many coming-of-age films before, but it has a distinct freshness to it. In its sincerity, Moonlight never becomes self-indulgent. Jenkins pulls off multiple balancing acts, one of which being the ensuring the film maintains its authenticity, while keeping it relatable no matter what the audience’s background is. Because it is partially inspired by McRaney’s and Jenkins’ own experiences, the dialogue sounds honest and real.

The presentation is slick without sacrificing personality. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton were intent on avoiding what they called a “documentary look”, and as such, the images are rich and pop with colour. Each of the film’s three segments is graded in such a way as to imitate different kinds of film stock. This is not something most viewers would notice (this reviewer certainly didn’t), but it contributes to it registering on a subconscious level that there are subtle differences between each distinct section. Composer Nicholas Britell’s chamber music score is exceedingly lyrical, enhancing and enriching the emotion generated by the story and the performances.

Moonlight’s theatre DNA is evident in how much hinges on the performances. Unlike on the stage, film allows the use of closeups, and a lot of the story is told in subtle changes of expression, and the pain that ebbs and flows behind Chiron’s eyes. Hibbert’s Chiron is quiet and shy, Sanders’ teenaged Chiron lanky, awkward and frustrated, and Rhodes’ adult Chiron muscular and sure of himself – or at least, that’s the image he projects. The character of Chiron is developed with such care that it seems like the audience is watching a sculpture taking shape before their eyes. He’s a work in progress that we are witness to, and the audience observes Chiron construct his defences and his persona. The impact that Chiron’s environment and his interpersonal relationships have on him are organic and satisfyingly fleshed out.

Backing up the young actors who play Chiron and Kevin at different ages are reliable performers Ali and Harris. Ali’s screen time is relatively brief, but the character is a crucial one in Chiron’s story. Juan is a drug dealer with a heart of gold, yet Ali’s Oscar-winning portrayal rises far above the stereotypes that come to mind on hearing that description. Harris’ turn as Chiron’s broken, drug-addicted mother is even more impressive when one learns that because of issues with her visa, the British actress shot all her scenes in three days, in between the promotional tour for Spectre. Singer Monáe, arguably the breakout star of Hidden Figures, commands the screen. Teresa is gentle, yet it’s clear that she isn’t someone to be trifled with.

Moonlight has been hailed by black and LGBT+ activists alike as an unmitigated victory, a giant leap forward for the representation of both groups in mainstream popular culture. Moonlight isn’t an ‘issues film’ and its filmmakers aren’t merely jumping on a soapbox and preaching their point of view – its strength is in wearing its heart on its sleeve. While there is commentary on sexuality and race, especially with regards to the perception of black masculinity, all this is in service of the character. It adds up to a work that is captivating, sensitive and powerful.

Summary: Believe the hype: Moonlight reinvents the coming-of-age drama genre with subtlety, style and soul. Its arrival in Singaporean theatres is better late than never.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

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Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

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Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

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The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

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Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

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While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

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Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong