(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) Somewhere in my notional Critic’s Lexicon, there’s an entry for “spotlight rot,” or the tendency for genre work to curdle in appreciation when brought to a wider audience. This phenomenon is most visible during award season, as larger and more generalist viewers take a look at nominated works. What was, up to then, a critical darling of a small group of nominators can wither when considered from audiences who may not be initially sympathetic to the work’s goals and shared assumptions. So it is that Moonlight is, without a doubt, a rather good intimate drama depicting the journey of a young black man as he confronts his homosexuality in an environment that isn’t welcoming to his nature. It’s a film shot with skill by writer/director Barry Jenkins, structured unusually enough to beg attention and blessed with impressive performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe (who’s good and lucky enough to be in two Oscar-nominated movies this year). But taken out of that context, lauded as one of the year’s best picture and seen from another perspective, however … it does feel rather dull. Matter-of-fact. Imperfect. The rigid three-act structure elides a lot of details and forces the rest in a small window. (Confining Mahershala Ali’s performance to the first act seems like a wasted opportunity.) The small budget of the film quickly shows its limits. And the point here isn’t that Moonlight is a lesser film—after all, it memorably won the Best Picture Oscar in one of the institution’s most unbelievable presentation screw-up. But the spotlight that the film gets as !!BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR!! almost diminishes what it manages to accomplish with very little at its disposal. Time will tell if the film ages well … but it’s very possible that future film critics will wonder why it outclassed La-La Land and other contenders … and then we’ll have to explain #oscarssowhite … and maybe Trump. Sometimes, even small movies get swept up in big movements.
(Video on Demand, November 2015) With a few modifications, Southpaw would have made a splendid Rocky II: It begins with a boxer in the prime of his life, winning fights, enjoying his money, loving his wife and doting on his daughter. But it doesn’t take much for all of it to be taken away, and much of the film is spent going through this riches-to-rags story and then looking on as the protagonist digs himself out of the hole he’s fallen into. It’s a relatively familiar story (although the triggering incident twenty minutes in the film will surprise many who haven’t seen the trailer), but it’s generally well-executed enough. What really shines here is Jake Gyllenhall, physically pumped-up and ripped to a degree that may shock fans who aren’t used to seeing him in such peak condition: beyond the physique, he brings his usual intensity to a role far more aggressive than most of his previous performances and the result is often mesmerizing. (Compare him in Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler for an astonishing slice of filmography spanning just three years) Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams don’t exactly stretch themselves in supporting roles, but they each bring what they do best. Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson and Naomi Harris have all-too-brief minor roles, while Oona Laurence is remarkable in a tough child performance. Director Antoine Fuqua thankfully leaves some familiar tics behind in delivering Southpaw (it’s not quite a gratuitously violent nor as obsessed with police elements as many of his previous films, or instance) and he’s able to direct familiar boxing scenes with a good amount of power. It’s not quite a feel-good film (despite the triumphant ending, viewers will have to crawl along a lot of mud alongside its protagonist to get to the good parts) but it’s satisfying enough. Southpaw’s not meant to be subtle, but it lands its punches.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.