A Quick But Satisfying Bite

I missed The Shallows when it was in theaters last year. I’d wanted to see it since it received good word-of-mouth and a decent Rotten Tomatoes rating in the mid-seventies. Jaws has been a favorite movie of mine since I first saw it in 1975, at the same time I was reading the book. Another one I enjoyed was Open Water, a film that effectively mined the primal terror engendered by sharks, and raked in $30 million on a budget of $120,000. I figured The Shallows would be in a similar vein. Now it’s come to Starz so I was able to catch it (you could say).

Working from a script by Anthony Jaswinski, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has crafted a tight and focused movie. He’s done both horror and thrillers in the past, helming Orphan, Unknown, and Non-Stop. The Shallows has one main character and a handful of supporting roles, so the burden for making the film work is on Blake Lively. She’s on screen for almost every second of the film’s 86 minute running time. Think The Revenant in a warm climate.

Lively plays Nancy, a medical student who’s dealing with the loss of her mother. She’s gone in search of a special beach in Mexico that her mother had visited when she was Nancy’s age. With the help of Carlos (Oscar Jaenada) , Nancy finds the beach and then surfs the cove there with a couple of locals. She stays out when they leave to make a last run, but during it she’s attacked by a Great White that slashes open her thigh. Only 200 yards from shore, she finds herself in an ultimate fight for survival.

Collet-Serra follows the playbook that Spielberg accidentally wrote. Bruce, the mechanical shark of Jaws, malfunctioned so often it only makes brief appearances in the film, which increased the terror. With a CGI shark, there aren’t any of the problems that plagued Spielberg, but Collet-Serra still limits its appearances to a total of 4 minutes screen time. Instead the horror is communicated by a blossom of blood in the water, or Lively’s reaction to a would-be rescuer’s fate. (Collet-Serra does, though, give a short cut that rivals the dropping foot in Jaws.)

Lively demonstrated with Age of Adeline that she had the strength as an actor to hold a film. While she is a classic beauty who summons up memories of the classic Hollywood stars of the 1940s like Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake, she matches those looks with intelligence and determination. In 1999, the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough featured Denise Richards cast as a nuclear scientist. It was truly painful to watch. Here, though, it’s no stretch to believe Lively as a medical student. She took the role partly because of her husband Ryan Reynolds’ similar minimalist film, 2010’s Buried. With one exception she did her own stunts throughout the movie. At one point late in the film she winds up with a bloody nose; that actually happened and it’s her blood. The exception: Lively didn’t know how to surf, even though she was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, just over the hills from Malibu. A professional was brought in for the scenes when she was actually surfing.

Much of the filming was done in a tank with green screen. For anyone who’s studied the filming of Jaws, you know open water filming can be deadly for a budget. It came close to scuttling Spielberg’s career before it ever got going. Collet-Serra, though, did some location filming along the Gold Coast of Australia, substituting for Mexico, and included actual footage in every green screen scene.

This taut film did well in the theaters, grossing over three times its budget. If you’re an aficionado of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, or if you like thrillers that actually do thrill, make sure you check out this film.

The Second Book of Job

Most people are acquainted with the beginning and the end of the Biblical story of Job. They know about God letting the Accuser, Satan, test Job’s devotion through all manner of calamities. (The book reflects an earlier Hebrew understanding of Satan as a servant of God, before influences from cultures that conquered Israel turned it into an adversarial relationship.) Job passes the test and has all he’s lost restored to him plus more beside. In between, though, there are 36 chapters of dialogue between Job and three of his friends – though with friends like these you don’t need enemies. They’re convinced that Job has sinned, because why else would all these calamities happen to him, and they basically tag-team Job to get him to confess. Job resists and keeps his faith in God. In the end God re-enters the scene, puts everyone in their place, and honors Job’s faithfulness. In a way, you could think of the new movie The Shack, and the book on which it’s based, as a different version of Job. In this case the calamities have broken Job’s faith, and instead of facing unhelpful friends, Job goes directly to an encounter with the Trinitarian God to gain understanding of suffering and grace.

Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) grew up in the church, but it was a toxic relationship. His father, a church elder, was a closet drunk and wife-beater. Mack breaks his silence in the church to help his mother, but instead of receiving help he ends up being beaten himself by his father. A couple of decades later, the adult Mack is living in Oregon. He’s married to a wonderful woman, Nan (Radha Mitchell), and they have three beautiful children: Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe), and Missy (Amelie Eve). They attend church with their neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), and Nan and the children have a close relationship with God, who Missy calls Papa. Then, while the kids are camping with Mack, Missy is kidnapped. The FBI believes she’s been taken by a predator who’s struck five times before. While canvassing the area, they find Missy’s dress and blood on the floor of a dilapidated shack, but her body’s never found.

By that winter, Mack is a shell of a man, devoured by his grief. Then a note appears in his mailbox, addressed to Mack only by name. It says they haven’t talked for a long time and if he’d like to meet, then come to the shack the next weekend. It’s signed Papa. Mack goes to the shack, wondering if it’s a ploy by the man who took Missy. Instead as he approaches the building he steps from winter into a beautiful summer day and finds the shack changed into a lakefront cottage. Inside are Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

It took ten years for this bestseller to make it to the screen. At one point Lionsgate was the primary production company, and Forest Whitaker was attached as director. Summit Entertainment took over for Lionsgate, though they’re still a distributor. Whitaker dropped out and Stuart Hazeldine was selected instead. Hazeldine was known mostly as a script doctor, having done uncredited rewrites for Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he’d also received good reviews for his debut feature, a psychological thriller entitled Exam. The Shack had a modest budget for a major US feature these days – $20 million – and Hazeldine makes it look like he had five times the money with which to work. The screenwriters – John Fusco (Hidalgo), Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham – created an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to the original book.

Worthington, Spencer, Mitchell, and McGraw are all well-known and bring a competency to the movie that is too often missing from what’s identified as Christian film. Often that’s used as an excuse: “It’s a good film for a Christian movie.” The Shack doesn’t need that qualifier; it’s a good film that happens to deal with Christianity (more on that later). Spencer is wonderful as the personification of God throughout most of the film, in particular for her ability to deliver witty zingers to Mack while still communicating deep love. I will note two minor quibbles with Worthington: early in the film, he shows Mack’s depression by speaking so softly you can hardly hear him; later, when emotions come out, so does a trace of his Australian accent. Otherwise, he was effective in a challenging role.

The film also features Graham Greene and Alice Braga in smaller roles, though they are integral to the story. A pleasant surprise was the performances of Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara as Jesus and the Holy Spirit respectively. (Sarayu, the name used for Matsubara’s character, is the Sanskrit word for “wind,” which is how the Spirit is described in the Bible.) Alush is an Israeli actor who’s blessedly natural in the role. He’s also not blond or blue-eyed, which is a large step toward authenticity in my humble opinion. Matsubara comes across at first as delicate and ephemeral, but later we also see her strength. Megan Charpentier is also excellent as the daughter who comes close to following her father’s path.

Usually films dealing with Christianity or the Bible wind up at two ends of the spectrum:  faithful but amateur, or high-end mush. This can be seen in a couple recent releases. On the faithful amateur side there’s God’s Not Dead, with its stiff acting, cardboard characters, and a script that had the subtlety of a 2×4 to the head. (You could also include any film that Kirk Cameron’s done in the last two decades.) On the other side you have high-budget Hollywood pictures that make a complete mess of the story, like the Russell Crowe Noah or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The satirical site the Babylon Bee recently ran a story that the Oscars would hand out an award for the least-offensive Christian movie this year. “Academy members reportedly sat through hours of grueling Christian films in an effort to select the one that was the least offensive in terms of quality, production value, writing, and acting.” As with all satire, it’s just a little bit past reality.

The Shack charts a different course by dealing realistically with problems that so many people face – problems that have driven people away from God. The old question that sums up the stumbling block for many people is, “How can God be a God of Love when He lets these horrible things happen?” The Shack confronts that question straight on, in a way that is both spiritually valid, and emotionally raw. The author has said that the shack is a metaphor for the soul.

The book was written by William P. Young as a way back from his own spiritual nadir. He’d been a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, living among the cannibal tribes until he was six and sent off to boarding school. At the school there was systematic abuse, a Protestant version of the Catholic priest scandals, and Young was a victim. While he was outwardly okay with a wife and family, inside he was broken and reached bottom after having an affair with one of this wife’s friends. He wrote “The Shack” over the course of six years as he struggled with the nature of God in light of what had happened to him. When he finished, he printed copies and gave them to his family as a literary mea culpa. Following that, he tried to get it published. Twenty-six publishers rejected it, so Young self-published. Word of mouth pushed it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback novels, with it selling over 4 million copies in a little over a year. Young now has an arrangement with the major publishing house Hachette.

While many have embraced the story, there has also been a strong negative reaction to it among Evangelical Christians. Some object to its portrayal of God as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious asian woman; they claim it promotes feminism, or a form of goddess worship. Others say it’s just a novel or just a movie but it shouldn’t be taken in a theological way. A professor at a conservative Christian college in Portland wrote an article about the book calling it “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” His main problem with it is termed “universalism” which is the idea that all humanity can be saved by God. (It’s the same controversy that caused the Evangelical church to disown Rob Bell when he published “Love Wins.”)

There is a strong strain of paternalism in some branches of Christianity. The thought that God could exhibit female traits strikes them as heresy, even though in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” This insistence on the dominant male God has become a stumbling block for many today who, because of abuse or other family problems, cannot relate to the idea of God as a loving father. In fact, Papa explains to Mack that that’s the reason for her form. (Later in the movie, Octavia is replaced by Graham Greene for a sequence because, as Papa then tells Mack, “For what you face now you need a father.”) For me, my answer for this is: If you proclaim God as omnipotent – all powerful – then why limit God by your own prejudices?

While The Shack is written as a novel and presented as a film entertainment, that doesn’t negate it as a source of theological thought and reflection. For many, the novels of C.S. Lewis, such as the Narnia series or “The Screwtape Letters,” are as much theological commentary on life as they are novels. And it should be remembered that almost all of the popular imagery of heaven and hell comes not from the Bible but from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in 1320.

Universalism flies in the face of conservative Christianity because of their strong focus on sin and repentance. It has its seed in the Protestant Reformation, which was partially the result of the Renaissance Popes monetarizing grace through the selling of indulgences – basically “Get out of Hell Free” cards. As happens, reactions can go far to the other side of the spectrum. Later in the Reformation some put forward the idea of predestination, that a person is formed as righteous or fallen before birth and there’s nothing they can do about it. That teaching has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, but some believers are offended at the idea that people they consider horrible sinners could still receive grace from God.

The Shack, though, features a sparkling explanation of grace and redemption through the course of the film. The answers it gives aren’t easy or simple, since the questions aren’t easy or simple either. But for those who bring up universalism as their complaint against the film, they should remember that after the rich young ruler went sorrowfully away in the gospel, the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus’ response was. “For man some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Again, we shouldn’t let our human understanding and prejudices shrink God down to our size.

So some Christians will be upset that The Shack doesn’t fit their notion of God. I heard someone created a meme with a picture of the shack along with every heresy they believe the story contains. Other Christians will find it illuminating and affirming (I’m one of those). The focus is on restoration and renewal of the relationship between Mack and Papa, and through that the restoration of the reader/viewer’s concept of God. Throughout the movie, the dialogue gives you plenty to think about, but it goes down like a cup of fresh, cold water.

But what if you feel like you are a Job, burdened and broken? What if you’ve lost any belief in God, or have turned away because God now seems to be the mascot of politics and of those who put condemnation before love or grace? What if you know your own shack is run down and hardly habitable, but you see no way to repair it? Then please do see this movie.

Third Time’s The Charm

I’ve often lamented that in a movie trilogy, the first one’s often good, the second’s better, and then the third turns out to be a load of crap. Superheroes are particularly at risk of this. After two decent films, the Christopher Reeve Superman series added Richard Pryor to the third movie and jumped the shark bigtime. Val Kilmer’s turn as Batman was a step down, with Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones not just chewing the scenery but ripping it apart with their teeth. Tobey Maguire in Spider-man 3 actually made me cringe – twice! And then there’s X-Men: The Last Stand. It almost was for the series.

But the Wolverine movies have flipped the script. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was awful, though it did serve a purpose by so badly mauling Deadpool’s character that Ryan Reynolds had to make his own movie. 2013’s The Wolverine was better, though the ending was a mess. But now with Logan, the series has its strongest outing with Hugh Jackman’s last turn in the title role. It’s not the best superhero movie ever, but it’s really good, and Jackman gets to go out with a bang.

By 2029, the world of the X-Men has collapsed with most of the mutants gone after years without new mutant births. Those left hide in the substrata of society. Logan (Jackman) works as a limo driver, ferrying drunk bachelorette parties and rude businessmen around El Paso, Texas. He lives on the Mexican side of the border in a deserted factory with an enfeebled Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose once-all-powerful mind is breaking down, and the albino Caliban (Stephan Merchant), who nurses Charles while Logan works.

On a funeral job, Logan is approached by Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), seeking his help for a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen). Gabriela wants to get Laura to North Dakota near the Canadian border, to a fabled sanctuary for mutants called Eden. She tells Logan that Laura is just like him, a description that’s soon confirmed. But Logan’s also approached by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a smooth-talking mercenary with a mechanical left forearm and hand. Pierce works for Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and has been tasked with cleaning up a mess. Part of the mess is Laura.

As with The Wolverine, James Mangold directs. He also came up with the story and co-wrote the script with Michael Green, who’s currently bringing Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” to Starz, and Scott Frank, who’d scripted The Wolverine and who also did Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Minority Report. They keep the film tightly focused while the action flows like waves throughout the movie, building to the climax. One interesting aspect to the story is they’ve incorporated the comic book world into the plot, as if the comics were inspired by the real characters. It actually works.

Over the course of 17 years and 9 movies, Jackman’s Wolverine has become the iconic character in the X-Men series – an evaluation with which Deadpool would definitely agree. He’s always exciting to watch, even with his one-profane-line cameo in X-Men: First Class. Here though he plays a much more human and humane version of the character, facing mortality for the first time. Likewise, Patrick Stewart gets to play Professor Xavier as King Lear, betrayed not by family but by his own mind. As Laura, Dafne Keen is a fitting foil for Jackman. She’s the daughter of Will Keen, who’s mostly appeared on British TV series such as “Wolf Hall” (as Thomas Cranmer) and the recent Netflix hit “The Crown.” Laura is a key role to make the film work, and Keen owns it.

The production benefited by following in Deadpool’s wake, since that movie proved that a superhero film didn’t have to be constrained to fit a PG-13 rating. Logan earns its R rating with hard-edged action beyond what’s been seen in the X-Men franchise thus far. It’s not gratuitous but fits with the life-or-death stakes in the story.

Wolverine was Jackman’s first role outside of Australia, and it was only a scheduling conflict for the actor originally cast in the role, Dougray Scott, that allowed Jackman’s casting 3 weeks after shooting began. Now he’s conquered stage and screen (and Deadpool’s heart) and is a major star. It’s fitting that he gets to give a farewell performance in the role.

I’ve mentioned Deadpool several times during this review, partly because in a number of venues a teaser trailer for his next film is attached to Logan. It’s also on YouTube and can be viewed here. Minor spoiler: the scroll at the end is a book report on “The Old Man and the Sea” as written by Deadpool. Enjoy.

Google It

“Based on a True Story” can be a warning that the filmmakers have taken so many liberties the “true” of the story has been lost. On the other side of the equation, it can instead tell the audience that an unbelievable story actually did happen. Lion is an example of the latter.

In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in a village in western India with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. It’s a hard life – Saroo assists his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in stealing coal off a moving train to barter for milk – but they are a loving, close family. When Guddu heads for a job in a nearby town, Saroo talks his brother into taking him along to work. But when they arrive Saroo is too tired and only wants to sleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench at the town’s train station, with the admonition not to go anywhere.

Saroo awakens to find the station completely deserted. A group of railway passenger cars have been left on a siding, and Saroo enters a car to find a better place to sleep. When he awakens, the cars have been locked and hooked to a train headed to the main railroad yards in Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Saroo manages to survive in the city, though not without several close calls, in particular from people who exploit the city’s street children. Through good fortune he’s adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Hobart, Tasmania.

Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), is still close to his adoptive mother and father, John & Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), and has a romance blooming with Lucy (Rooney Mara) whom he met at hotel management school. At a party with others students of Indian descent, a plate of food releases memories of his lost life. He only knew his mother as “mama” – no proper name – and what he remembered as the name of his home village didn’t match anything on the maps. About all he remembers as a landmark are water towers by the train station. One of the party goers suggests using a new computer program to backtrack his route. The program: Google Earth. (Google assisted the production, including providing images from the time frame of the film.)

This is the first feature for Garth Davis, an internationally acclaimed director of commercials. The screenplay by Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, splits the movie into two almost equal pieces between the young Saroo and his later quest to find his family. Davis, assisted by cinematographer Greg Fraser, captures both India and Tasmania in a rich, intimate way. While Davis and Davies hadn’t done much feature film work before Lion, Fraser is one of the preeminent directors of photography in Australia. In the last decade his films include Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher and Let Me In.

This is a more mature performance from Dev Patel, who became a star with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures as well as appearing in HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He gets top billing, though he doesn’t appear until the last half of the film. However, he makes the most of his time and deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he’s received, as well as the win in that category at the BAFTA awards. While he’s tended toward gawky characters in previous projects, this could be the beginning of beefcake roles for Patel who shows smoldering good looks and a buff physique.

Nicole Kidman is also nominated (Best Supporting Actress) for her restrained but deeply felt performance. At the end of the film we see real footage of the real Sue Brierley and realize Kidman nailed the embodiment. But the major delight is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The camera reads his emotions like a book. In his first role he holds together the first half of the movie, and hold it he does.

I don’t know if this Sunday night will bring any golden statues for Lion. Along with Patel and Kidman, Davies and Fraser are nominated along with the film’s score, plus a Best Picture nod. The picture, though, has aimed to have an effect long after the lights go up in the theater. In India, 80,000 children go missing each year. It’s the equivalent of losing the population of Indianapolis each year. There are also 11 million children on the streets of India, roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Los Angeles. The film’s production companies, See Saw Productions and the Weinstein Company, have launched the LionHeart foundation with the Charity Network to help India’s street children.

I do suggest you bring along a tissue or two when you see Lion.

The Rule On Gold

I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.

The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.

When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.

The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.

Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.

As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.

The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.

Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.

A Life In Three Pieces

On the face of it, the award-winning film Moonlight fits into that most stalwart of literary genres, the coming-of-age story. Whether it’s Great Expectations, The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, the form deals with the passage from childhood to adulthood, and all the snares and traps along the way. It has also chronicled the Black experience with I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings, Black Boy, and Native Son. Moonlight, though, turns this into a coming-to-peace story, overcoming prejudice and hate.

It’s a story in three pieces, with three different actors portraying the central character. The movie’s poster beautifully conveys this – take a close look at it. Highlighting the trilogy, the main character’s name changes with each segment. Little (Alex Hibbert) is a painfully quiet boy living in the Daly City area of Miami. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and Little is constantly bullied by neighborhood boys. He finds an unusual mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer in the area. In High School, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still faces the bullying. He finds one moment of peace and acceptance with another boy in his school, only to have it destroyed. As an adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes) has followed a path that has him acting out the role of his mentor, Juan. Then a late-night call offers the chance for restoration.

Director Barry Jenkins had done short films and one micro-budgeted feature before, but Moonlight received support from production companies A24 and Plan B to the tune of $5 Million. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s company, and Pitt serves as an executive producer. That’s a long shoestring, but still a shoestring budget these days. Jenkins also wrote the screenplay based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s a movie where silence speaks eloquently. Hibbert as Little has maybe one paragraph’s worth of dialogue during his section of the movie, but his body language speaks volumes.

Harris is the only actor who appears in all three sections. Most people know her as Moneypenny in Skyfall, though I remember her from 28 Days Later. Here she steps it up several notches to offer a searing portrait that’s been rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar after also receiving nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. It’s an extremely talented category this year with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams, but Harris is deserving of consideration. Mahershala Ali is also Oscar-nominated, and after his surprise win at the SAG awards he has momentum going for him. While physically imposing, he gives a restrained, even tender performance as Juan. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes combine for an indelible performance that blends perfectly. At the end of the film when Black takes center stage, you still feel Little and Chiron inside him, which makes it all the more emotionally impacting.

Along with the acting nominations, Jenkins has nominations for best director and adapted screenplay. The movie also received nods for cinematography, original score, editing, along with best picture of the year, for a total of 8. James Laxton’s cinematography is excellent, making you feel the heat of the sun-drenched days, though at night the world becomes rich and beautiful in the moonlight. Jenkins remembered when he was growing up in the Miami area how people’s skin glowed in the sun. Most movie makeup for Caucasian skin involves powder to dampen shine, but for Moonlight Jenkins used oil to capture the sheen he remembered.

The power of film is to put the audience into situations – and into skins – that are on the surface different from their own experiences. In doing so it makes those situations and people understandable and relatable. When it does its work right, those feelings persist so the understanding remains long after the lights in the theater come up. Moonlight accomplishes that with devastating power, but also in the end with hope.

Gotta Sing. Gotta Dance.

Last night I watched one of the best musical films ever made: Singing in the Rain. The switch from silent films to talkies, the focus of the movie, made musicals possible. To date ten musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar. Now, with La La Land there’s a chance it will become eleven.

La La Land works both as a neo-musical as well as an homage to the genre. In Singing in the Rain, you have the meet-cute device of Gene Kelly jumping into Debbie Reynolds’ car, then Debbie jumping out of a cake in front of Kelly. La La Land gives these a decidedly modern-day twist – Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) first sort-of meet during a minor moment of road rage, and it takes two more incidents before they finally get together.

Mia and Sebastian have both come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, though the closest she’s gotten to the business is working as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who’s reduced to playing background music at a restaurant. When he slips in some of his original compositions, the owner (J.K. Simmons in a sparkling cameo) fires him on the spot. His dream is to open his own club where he and others can play jazz, the most American of all musical styles. Fate brings the two dreamers together as they pursue their dreams, but can the relationship survive success?

La La Land was a passion project for writer/director Damien Chazelle, who also explored the dedication necessary to succeed as a musician in his 2014 film Whiplash. In the era of Singing in the Rain studios turned out dozens of Hollywood-style musicals every year, but now if you eliminate animated films you might get one or two a year, most of them adaptations of Broadway shows. Since 2010 you have Les Miserables, Rock of Ages, Annie, and Into the Woods, with the middle two being rightly forgettable. La La Land embraces the break-into-song-or-dance motif of the classics, while grafting it into the modern world. The opening production number is staged during a traffic jam. Chazelle lets his camera follow the action in long, flowing takes.

The score by Justin Hurwitz, with song lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, is gorgeous, and accounts for three of the film’s 14 Oscar nominations: Best Score and two Best Song noms (“City of Stars” and “Audition,” which becomes the climax of the film). It’s also an excellent argument for the place of jazz in music today, as well as a real introduction to the genre for people these days who casually say they don’t like jazz.

A personal kudo to Ryan Gosling for learning the proper fingering for the music he plays. I don’t know if he actually plays the piano or if he just fakes it incredibly well, but Chazelle doesn’t cheat as many movies do by not showing the keyboard. That’s a pet peeve for me, kind of like Neil DeGrasse Tyson being upset when a film shows the incorrect alignment of stars in the sky. It’s not something most people will notice, but if you are one of those people it becomes a major factor. Gosling, though, nails it.

I don’t know what will happen Oscar night. Both Stone and Gosling have been nominated for their roles, and deservedly so. They have a definite chemistry on screen. This is now the third time they’ve been paired, along with Crazy. Stupid. Love. and Gangster Squad. Could they be the next Hepburn/Tracy? I wouldn’t mind that. But their categories have strong competition with Denzel Washington, Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, and living legend Meryl Streep all in the running.

If people want the Hollywood ending, Gosling and Stone would walk away with their golden statues. But you don’t always get a Hollywood ending, and real life is more complex, messier, and usually more satisfying.

Thankfully La La Land has both options covered.