Archive for February 4, 2017

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Regular readers around these parts probably figured it was only a matter of time before I got around to casting my supposedly critical eye on writer/director James DeMonaco’s summer 2016 release The Purge : Election Year given that I had generally good things to say about the first two films in this so-called “evolving franchise,” but seeing as how I never got around to catching it while it was playing in theaters, you fine folks are stuck with a “better late than never” appraisal since I just got it on DVD (a “bare-bones” rental DVD, I hasten to add, so I’m afraid I can’t discuss whatever extras the “real” disc might offer) from Netflix the other day and gave it a watch last night. There’s a better than good chance that many of you reading this have probably already seen it, I suppose, but what the heck — I’ve got a few things to say about it regardless of whether or not you’ve already had a chance to form your own opinion.

First off, let’s be perfectly honest — despite the wrinkle of having this story center on the desperate struggle for survival of anti-Purge presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (played by Elizabeth Mitchell), this is pretty much the “taking it to the streets” premise of 2014’s The Purge : Anarchy all over again, but frankly the tight, insular, single-location setting of DeMonaco’s first flick was probably a more successful conceit in terms of exploiting a concept like this to its fullest. I also find it highly absurd that the so-called “New Founding Fathers Of America” would allow an opposition candidate like Senator Roan to rise to prominence in the first place since they seem like an outright fascist outfit, but whatever. We’ll just file that under “Requiring Greater Suspension Of Disbelief Than Most” and move on from there.

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Besides, just because they didn’t try to kill her before doesn’t meant they’re not going to give it their level best come Purge Night. Our one-woman resistance force starts out with only her loyal bodyguard, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) for protection, but in fairly short order they’re joined by tough-but-kindly deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), his protege who operates a mobile triage unit (or, if you prefer simplicity, an ambulance), Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), and his principled-but-quiet part-time (I’m assuming, at any rate) employee, Marcos (J.J. Soria). And that’s not all — after a few near-death skirmishes, our ragtag rebels are joined by a decidedly less ragtag, and considerably larger, band of rebels who are determined to do considerably more than help Charlie win the election, they’re out to guarantee her victory by assassinating her NFFA-endorsed opponent.

Cue some pretty heavy moralizing of the “if-we-kill-him-we’re-no-better-than-they-are” variety that grates almost instantly and infects an otherwise enjoyable-if-predictable ultraviolent romp with an unwelcome strain of ineffective and largely redundant earnestness. We already know this whole “Purge thing” is some sick and evil shit, after all, we don’t need to have that viewpoint amplified in stereo.

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Are you getting the distinct impression that I was decidedly less impressed with The Purge : Election Year than previous entries in this series? Well, you’re exactly right — most of the principal cast turn in competent (if unmemorable) performances, and DeMonaco hasn’t lost his flair for for visceral, bloody, dystopian action, but it really does feel like this premise has been stretched as far as it can possibly go, if not a bit further. And that’s probably this flick’s most glaring and irredeemable flaw — it’s not especially bad (or good) when taken on its own merits, but it’s what it’s not that’s actually of much more concern than what it is.

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Ya see, The Purge : Election Year plays out like nothing so much as a natural conclusion to a trilogy. Not a particularly inspired conclusion, mind you (and the whole thing probably seemed considerably more relevant before the real election validated the absurd in ways no fiction could even dream of), but at least a logical one. Except it’s not. DeMonoaco is already at work on a fourth flick, and that relegates this one from the role of “big finale” to that of “mediocre stopgap measure.” I’ll be the first to admit that it’s blatantly unfair to hold the fact that there’s a future installment coming in this series against the present one, but them’s the breaks, I guess : if this had been the end of the road, it would have been essential viewing for hard-core Purge fans, at least, if no one else, but as things stand, shit — it turns out it’s one that even they can skip.

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I missed writer/director Barry Jenkins’ much-hyped Moonlight on its first pass through theaters, but now that it’s back for a return engagement thanks to a wheelbarrow-full of Oscar nominations, I found myself without a valid excuse for missing out a second time. Sure, sometimes the PR machine that kicks into high gear during awards season puts its muscle behind a lackluster effort that leaves you scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss was about, but everything I’d read made it seem like this flick was the real deal — it sounded timely, topical, authentic, and exceedingly well-made, and on the whole, bets don’t come much surer than that.

For those unfamiliar with the particulars, Moonlight follows the story of a bright, sensitive, and quiet African-American kid growing up in and on some of the meaner streets of Miami, and wears its conventional three-act structure on its sleeve by first focusing on its protagonist as a nine-year-old nicknamed Little (played with amazing confidence and nuance by Alex R. Hibbert), then a troubled sixteen-year-old who answers to his given name of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and finally as a mid-20s “gang-banger” who answers to the street name of “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Jenkins’ script (with a “share” on the story credit given to Tarell Alvin McCraney) is a surprisingly subtle and largely internalized yarn that eschews anything even vaguely resembling the moralizing we see in so many films that fit into the broadly-defined “troubled youth” sub-genre, and that deftly navigates the tumultuous and complex evolving relationships that Little/Chiron/Black has with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris); father figure/mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae); and best and only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, respectively), while at the same time remaining almost intensely introspective from start to finish. It’s a tightrope act of the most daring and potentially treacherous sort, to be sure, but it sure seems effortless enough in the hands of this — and I don’t say this lightly — amazingly talented cast. Literally no one turns in a performance that could be called less than stellar, and some (Ali, Hibbert, Sanders, Rhodes, and Harris) are downright historically memorable. If you’re an aspiring actor, particularly an aspiring actor of color, this flick is a veritable clinic that should be required viewing.

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And ya know what? The same goes for the rest of you, too. Moonlight treads brave thematic ground in its presentation of the life of a young, gay black man coming of age in a hostile environment and subsuming not only his sexuality but his very happiness for the sake of survival, and takes a highly gutsy non-judgmental approach to the contradictions about urban life inherent in so many of its characters : Juan is the closest thing to a decent role model Little has, but he’s also a drug dealer who sells his youthful charge’s mother crack; Teresa is a kind-hearted woman who’s willing to look the other way when it comes to how her boyfriend makes a living; Paula is a desperate addict who would probably like to do the right thing but doesn’t even know how to anymore; Kevin is the only person to show physical and romantic love for Chiron as a teen yet is also willing to punch him in the face to “prove” his manhood; etc. It would be easy — shit, too easy — for Jenkins to editorialize on any or all of this, but he shows downright heroic restraint in not doing so, as well as a tremendous amount of faith and trust in his audience to form their own conclusions without him telling them what they should think. The warm patina added to the proceedings by the quietly Euro-stylized cinematography of James Laxton gives the film a unique and and highly personal “final touch” in stylistic terms, and the end result of all these meticulously-executed elements is more than just a bit, dare I say it, magical.

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So, the question that comes immediately to mind after all this heady praise is a very valid one indeed — is Moonlight, in fact, the best film of 2016?

I wish I could answer that with anything other than a blunt and honest “who the hell knows?,” but I can’t. I haven’t seen a good number of the films nominated for Best Picture, much less all the great ones that didn’t get a nod from the Academy, but I will say this much — it’s probably the best film that I saw, and odds are very good that if you check it out, you’ll agree. I’ve been rifling through what passes for the contents of my mind since seeing it looking for some grounds — any grounds — on which I can proffer even mild criticism for what Jenkins has achieved here, and I have to admit : I’m coming up empty. I can’t think of a more powerful or unqualified endorsement than that.

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We’ll know in fairly short order whether or not the Hollywood establishment agrees with the glowing assessments offered by myself and other amateur and professional critics for Jenkins’ entirely unpretentious character-driven masterpiece, but something tells me that, Best Picture Oscar in tow or not, Moonlight will stand the test of time more steadfastly than its competitors simply because, for all its contemporary relevance, the story being told here, and perhaps even more crucially the way in which it’s told, are well and truly timeless.