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Fretts on Fall’s Films: Feast or Famine?

November 27, 2016

 

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For me, Thanksgiving means three things: food, football and films. While most Americans retreated into the childish fantasies of Moana and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (and who can blame them after the traumatic election?), I sought out Serious Movies for Grownups. The results were mixed — which is more than I can say for the election.

Brad Pitt dominated the weekend for me, but not in the way you might think. Yes, I saw his new World War II romantic thriller Allied, but it was a film he produced through his Plan B company but didn’t star in, Moonlight, that really blew me away. Allied is a diverting B-movie that’s mostly interesting as a metaphor for marriage, and an apt one given Pitt’s split from Angelina Jolie. Like the film that birthed Brangelina, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it’s about husband-and-wife spies pitted (pun intended) against each other.

I’d long pooh-poohed Pitt as little more than a pretty face until he won me over with grittier and more winning performances in films like Babel and Moneyball. I’m sad to say he’s back to coasting on his waxy good looks again. Marion Cotillard plays it cool as his bride, and overqualified supporting actors like Jared Harris (who’s amazing as a depressed redneck in Certain Women) and Simon McBurney (Magic in the Moonlight) are largely used as cogs in the workmanlike plot by Steven Knight, author of much better films like Locke and Eastern Promises. Director Robert Zebecks makes it all look sleek and pretty, but in the end, Allied boils down to a simple question: Can you trust your wife? And that’s a hokey premise, no matter how engrossing the execution.

Moonlight, by contrast, explores issues of Black masculinity I’ve never seen on screen. (That’s not to say they haven’t been explored, just that I haven’t seen a movie that did.) Cowriter-director Barry Jenkins’ structure is simple: He checks in on three stages in the life of one man, variously named and nicknamed Little, Chiron (pronounced Shy-ron) and Black. The actors who embody this character — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — are uniformly remarkable.

An undersized, slightly effeminate kid, Little gets bullied but is taken under the wing of a Cuban-American drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali, who’s come a long way from Crossing Jordan), and his lady (Janelle Monae, who acts as beautifully as she sings). With a drug-addicted mother (a heartbreaking Naomie Harris), teenage Chiron seeks comfort in the arms of a male classmate and ends up paying a horrible price for it. Later in life, Black remakes himself in the image of his only strong male role model, Juan. A not-so-chance reunion with his former high-school paramour (now played to perfection by Andre Holland) triggers an identity crisis, and not just a sexual one.

Jenkins allows the story to unfold slowly. The dialogue is minimal and poetic, and the visuals are intoxicatingly lovely. The story seems more relevant than ever now that we have an actual bully inheriting the bully pulpit of the White House. When Juan coaxes Little out of an abandoned “dope house” where he’s holed up to escape his tormentors by saying “It can’t be any worse out here,” there’s a sad echo of the President-Elect’s “What the hell have you got to lose?” For moviegoers of all races, genders and sexual orientations, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeing Moonlight.

The same holds true for Loving, another leisurely paced, gorgeously filmed story of a forbidden romance. Tragically, this one’s based on a true story, the interracial-marriage case that took place in my home commonwealth of Virginia and was resolved a year after I was born. Yet I never learned about it in school. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, burying himself fully in his character), a white man, and his African-American wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga, whose praises I’ve been singing ever since I saw steal her 2012’s  The Samaritan away from Samuel L. Jackson), were persecuted and prosecuted for nearly a decade for the crime of being married.

This is another film that has a sudden timeliness as the new administration threatens to roll back recent gains in marriage equality. If you’ve ever doubted the importance of the Supreme Court, you won’t after seeing Loving. Yet writer-director Jeff Nichols doesn’t preach; he just tells the story in a straightforward fashion, and it’s all the more powerful as a result. His frequent collaborator, Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Midnight Special), contributes an indelible cameo as a Life magazine photographer, and comic Nick Kroll brings a sly sensibility to the role of one of the Lovings’ lawyers.

If only cowriter-director-star Warren Beatty had made such good use of the teeming ensemble he assembled for Rules Don’t Apply, his first film in 15 years. It’s a strange mess, and not only because notable actors like Ed Harris, real-life wife Amy Madigan, Dabney Coleman and Paul Sorvino inexplicably show up for one disposable scene each. Beatty worked on the film for 30 years on and off, and it took four credited editors to piece it together. I have no idea what he was going for: a Howard Hughes biopic (Beatty plays the reclusive mogul in the late ’50s/early ’60s, when the star was launching his Hollywood career)? A romantic comedy—or is it a melodrama?—about one of Hughes’ drivers (a bland Alden Ehrenreich) and one of his contracted actresses (an even blander Lily Collins)? A floor wax? A dessert topping?

I do understand Beatty’s fascination with Hughes: They’re both press-shy, deeply political mavericks who love to surround themselves with beautiful young actresses. But with better cinematic portrayals of the eccentric magnate like The Aviator and Melvin and Howard already in existence, why trot him out again and set him in the middle of this ill-conceived misfire? The primary difference between Hughes and Beatty, however, is that the longer Howard stayed out of sight, the more people were fascinated by him. Warren has been absent from screens for so long that people have ceased to care about him — or, in the case of the younger generation, even know who the heck he is. A 79-year-old legend, Warren Beatty may feel like the Rules Don’t Apply to him, but when it comes to the box office, they still sadly do.

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