MOONLIGHT (USA/15A/111mins) Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert THE PLOT: ‘Moonlight’ tells the story of a young black man, from childhood to adulthood, as he struggles to find who he is, and overcome the circumstances of his family life, in a rough Miami neighbourhood. THE VERDICT: Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and nominated for eight Oscars, Moonlight is a story that could easily have been stereotypical and obvious, but turns expectations on their heads, focusing on the formative events experienced by a young man named Chiron, which shape the adult he becomes.
‘Moonlight’, written for the screen by director Barry Jenkins, is divided up into three chapters; Little, Chiron and Black, references to the names that the lead character answers to throughout his life. Although Moonlight is a film tinged with drug addiction and violence, there is little of this shown on the screen; the story is mainly told through Chrion’s eyes, and he manages to avoid – or ignore – the worst things that happen around him.
Since the film is divided into three chapters, three actors play Chiron throughout the course of his life; Alex R. Hibbert, as young Chiron or “Little”, as his bullies call him, makes the character quiet and pensive, yet observant of everything that happens around him. “Little” is a sponge who absorbs everything going on around him, and draws the audience into the story of this person. Ashton Sanders takes on the role of Chiron in his teenage years, and although it is clear that this is the same character, his time in the world has roughened some of his edges and made him faster to anger. Sanders makes the character vulnerable, but not weak, and makes the characters realisations and strength come from a relatable and believable place. Finally, Trevante Rhodes plays Chrion – or “Black” as he is called – as an adult. The vulnerability is still present, but there is a longing underneath the surface, that Rhodes allows to ebb and flow throughout his performance. Elsewhere, Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer whose product is tearing Chiron’s life apart, but who takes the young boy under his wing, becoming a father figure and mentor to the child. Ali makes Juan the perfect blend of frightening and protective, although the threats lingering in his eyes rarely come to pass. Naomie Harris plays Chrion’s drug addict mother Paula, bringing great tragedy to this addicted woman, who believes she loves her son, even as her behaviour destroys him, and Janelle Monáe plays the kind and gentle Teresa.
As director, Barry Jenkins allows the story of ‘Moonlight’ to unfold as the film goes on. There are elements of homosexuality and sexual awakening peppered throughout the film, but these are never laboured, they are carefully handled and never does sexuality become the defining element of any character. The film is well paced and engrossing, even in the quieter moments of the story, as the audience learns just who Chiron is, and how the events of his life have shaped him. The film is well shot by James Laxton – although some moments are a little too shaky for big screen viewing – and every performance in the film feels real, engrossing and utterly engaging.
In all, ‘Moonlight’ is a slow film that unfolds throughout its running time. The story is carefully dealt with, and it is a delight to watch a character grow and be shaped by the defining moments in his life. The entire cast do well in their roles, with Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Alex R. Hibbert easily stealing the show. This examination of African American youth and identity could easily have been defined by drugs, violence or sex, but while all three are present in the film, none of them overpower. Such is ‘Moonlight’’s wonder. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
FENCES (USA/12A/139mins) Directed by Denzel Washington. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby THE PLOT: In 1950s Pittsburgh, as he struggles to find the time and motivation to build a fence in his back yard, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) talks over the events of his life with his friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) and wife Rose (Viola Davis), while holding his family together and trying to get a promotion in his job as a garbage man. When a secret must be told, however, Troy soon finds his carefully constructed life coming down around his ears. THE VERDICT: Based on August Wilson’s play and directed by Denzel Washington – who played Troy Maxson over 100 times on stage – ‘Fences’ is a film that often feels like a play, but is populated with strong performances and laden with dialogue.
Denzel Washington is on fine form as Troy Maxson, and displays the characters strengths and weaknesses easily, and often within seconds of one another. Washington is not afraid to allow his character to be talkative, fanciful and ugly, and does well with the role. Viola Davis is the real stand out as Rose Maxson; often tolerant of her husband’s flights of fancy, it seems as though Rose is content with her life until secrets come to light. It is then that Davis shines; making Rose a strong, heartbroken and confident character, who the audience has no choice but to feel for. Stephen Henderson obviously has fun with the good natured Jim Bono and, as a stage veteran of August Wilson’s plays, brings the character to life with ease. The rest of the cast features Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney.
August Wilson adapted much of the screenplay from his stage play before his death in 2005, and as to be expected from a film based on a play, the stage roots of ‘Fences’ are evident; there is oceans of dialogue throughout the film, the settings take place in and around the Maxson home and there is much talk of characters that never appear on screen. ‘Fences’ would have benefitted from being written with the vision of being a film, however, as there are times when it seems as though too little is happening, and even though the conversations in the first act of the film are wonderful and give insight into the characters, it drags down the pacing and tension of the film as a whole.
As director Denzel Washington keeps the rhythm of the first act flowing as best he can, although there are times when the dialogue threatens to overwhelm the story being told. The performances in the film are strong and utterly engrossing, and Washington has succeeded in making the right characters relatable, and the right ones hateful, although tougher decisions about pacing would have benefitted the film as a whole. Perhaps Washington himself was too close to the material to make these choices.
In all, ‘Fences’ is a film anchored by powerful performances, and tells a fairly routine if horrible family story with grace and dignity. Viola Davis shines as Rose Maxson, and ‘Fences’ is definitely a film to watch, but could have benefitted from stronger pacing and a shorter running time. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
THE FOUNDER (USA/12A/115mins) Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, BJ Novak THE PLOT: In 1954, as he struggled to make a living from selling milkshake machines to diners, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) stumbles across a fast food stand called McDonald’s, run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald. Kroc was so impressed by the McDonald brothers’ revolutionary fast food concept that he joined the company with a view to franchising across the US. It was not long, however, before Kroc had some ideas of his own, ideas that the McDonald brothers were not fans of. THE VERDICT: ‘The Founder’ is a fascinating look behind the scenes of McDonald’s, a company that was started to be a family establishment, and which the McDonald brothers did not want to expand far. How the company went on to be a global brand is a fascinating one, and the story of the man who made this happen, is a careful look at am ambitious and persistent man ruthlessly getting what he wants.
Michael Keaton leads the cast as the charming, tenacious and slightly eccentric Ray Kroc. Keaton’s performance is truly remarkable, as Kroc is a man who draws audience sympathy throughout the first half of the film, but becomes repugnant as times goes on. The genius of Keaton’s performance is that it is not easy to pinpoint when this change happens, which makes Kroc an intriguing and repellent character. Nick Offerman plays Dick McDonald as a gentle but business savvy man who, as it becomes clear, has more of an emotional attachment to the franchise that bears his name than ta first thought. John Carroll Lynch makes Mac McDonald a lot more outgoing, cheery and affable than his brother, but there is a vulnerability to both men that makes them relatable, and has the audience rooting for them almost from the off. The rest of the cast features Laura Dern, B.J. Novak and Patrick Wilson.
Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay is an examination of capitalism, charm and ruthlessness. The setting just so happens to be McDonald’s, as this is a true story, but it so easily could be set in any business at all. The film is carefully written to show Ray Kroc in his best and worst lights, and get the audience on side with the rather naïve and vulnerable McDonald brothers from the start. The dialogue is strong, although there are times when the film’s intrigue flags, and it is not always clear whose story we are watching; Kroc’s or McDonald’s.
Director John Lee Hancock has told overly sentimental stories in the past – I am looking at you, The Blind Side – but he manages to make ‘The Founder’ a tale of tenacity and greed, that shows Ray Kroc rather like a boulder rolling downhill toward the unsuspecting McDonald brothers. The performances in the film are exquisite, with Keaton, Carroll Lynch and Offerman doing career best work, but the pacing and dramatic build of the film is not always as engrossing as it should be.
In all, ‘The Founder’ is a fascinating and horrifying tale of the all-American brand that took over the world, from humble beginnings as a family business. Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman are wonderful, the script strong, and there are some beautifully shot moments throughout the film, although there are also times when the pacing and dramatic flow of ‘The Founder’ is not quite right. That said, ‘The Founder’ is intriguing and horrifying, and Keaton makes this small story one of life and death. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
HIDDEN FIGURES (USA/PG/127mins) Directed by Thoedore Melfi. Starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons THE PLOT: In 1960s Virginia, when segregation was still very much in effect, three African American women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) not only defied expectations and rules, but helped NASA with the mathematics to launch the first successful US space missions. THE VERDICT: Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and nominated for three Oscars, ‘Hidden Figures’ is a worthy and groundbreaking story, told in a light, engaging and almost frothy manner that not only makes the film engaging and utterly entertaining, but feels old fashioned in the very best of ways.
Taraji P. Henson leads the cast as the smart, tenacious and reserved Katherine Johnson. Henson makes the character the least outspoken of the three lead women, but makes her story engaging and enthralling. The audience knows from the start that Katherine is a woman more than capable of the mathematics to get a man into space, but she is stymied by her race and her gender. Henson makes sure that Katherine is just outspoken and tenacious enough to be taken seriously, without making her brash or abrasive. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, supervisor of the “Coloured Computers” in everything but pay, and makes the character respectful but firm, with an eye for detail and opportunities. Janelle Monáe rounds out the central trio as the outspoken, funny and kind Mary Jackson. The rest of the cast features Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell and Jim Parsons.
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s screenplay is based on a true story, which was explored in Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race”. The screenplay keeps the story moving nicely, while bringing in just enough historical context to understand the political state of Virginia and the rest of the US at the time. The three central women struggle to be given respect and equal rights throughout the film, which is infuriating, but thrilling when tenacity and knowledge win the day. There is a feel that the three central characters are slightly stereotypical – the studious one, the older, stern one, and the loud sassy one – but the three actresses manage to make these attributes part of their characters rather than their defining traits, and save the film from parody.
As director Theordore Melfi makes ‘Hidden Figures’ a light film with a deep message, and the instances of segregation and disrespect throughout the film only serve to underline he battles that these women were tirelessly fighting. As mentioned, enough historical context is given to understand that 1961 was a time of unrest in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement across the USA, but this is not the focus of the film, even as it informs and underlines the tenacity and courage of the women whose story it is. The film is well paced and engaging, and Melfi has coaxed engaging and subtle performances from his cast.
In all, ‘Hidden Figures’ – which of course refers to the maths and the fact that African American women were, and often still are, overlooked – is a light look at the life’s, choices and tenacity of three women that not only changed the Space Race, but made strides forward here on the ground. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (USA/16/122mins) Directed by Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common THE PLOT: Immediately after the events of ‘John Wick’, our titular hero is still on a mission to get his car back. Once he does, an old acquaintance visits him to get John to kill his sister, so he may take her seat at the table of power. The assassination goes fairly smoothly, but when John learns a large bounty has been put on his head, all bets are off. THE VERDICT: ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’, the sequel to 2014’s gloriously violent, silly and fun ‘John Wick’ has finally reached Irish cinemas. The good news that the over the top Neo Noir feel of the first film is present and accounted for, as is the violence and sense of fun, but the bad news is that ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’ is never quite sure when it has worn out its welcome.
Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick, and although Reeves still struggles making even the simplest lines of dialogue feel believable, he is physically all there as John Wick, and makes the character imposing, badass and full of skill. The rest of the cast features Peter Stormare, Ruby Rose – who has to be the busiest actor out there at the moment – Common, Ian McShane, Claudia Gerini and John Leguizamo. All of the cast are fine in their roles, but it is worth remembering that ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’ is not a film about acting, it is a film about killing – and dying – in the most spectacular fashion possible.
Derek Kolstad’s screenplay brings back all the best elements of the first film, including John’s car, the Continental hotel and a labyrinthine setting for a final set piece. The dialogue is minimal and not all that inspiring, but the action sequences nail the colours of the film firmly to the mast, and although the story feels rather reminiscent of the first film, this just about works on screen. Where the film falls down, however, is in feeling drawn out and overly long, and John making some out of character decisions.
As director Chad Stahelski keeps the first half of the film tight and wonderfully over the top, but it is in the second half that the director seems to have got caught up in the myth of John Wick, leaving the film feeling overly long and drawn out; even the incredible fight scenes become repetitive and uninspiring as time goes on. That said, there is a lot of fun to be had with ‘John Wick: Chapter Tw’o, and the energy coming off the screen is hard to resist.
In all, ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’ is not quite the masterpiece that the original was. There are times when the film feels as though it has got caught up in its own myth, and although all the elements are there, the extended running time means that ‘John Wick: Chapter Two’ ends up outstaying its welcome. RATING: 3.5/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
THE GREAT WALL (China | USA/12A/103mins) Directed by Yimou Zhang. Starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Tian Jing, Andy Lau THE PLOT: Mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) journeying to find gunpowder find themselves taken prisoner by The Nameless Order at the Great Wall of China, but before punishment can be dealt out, the Wall is attacked by Tao Tie; mythical monsters who attack every 60 years in an attempt to take over the world. William and Tovar find themselves confronted with a choice; fight or die. THE VERDICT: Only released in Irish cinemas this week, ‘The Great Wall’ has already been the subject of controversy when Asian actress Constance Wu accused the movie of white washing, saying “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world”. Ouch. The fact of the matter is that ‘The Great Wall’ is almost entirely populated with Asian actors, is helmed by Chinese director Yimou Zhang, and is the largest and most ambitious film ever to be shot in China.
Matt Damon leads the show as William, a mercenary who fought for food as a child, and for money as an adult. Damon manages to give William a moral compass and, even though there is a distinct whiff of contractual obligation about the whole thing, and Damon’s accent is a mess, manages to make William a character that the audience can root for. Tian Jing plays Commander Lin, soldier for The Nameless Order and a woman of tenacity and grace. Lin has little to do other than bark orders and follows Damon’s but there are times when the pair manage to have at least a little chemistry together on screen. The rest of the cast features Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han and Junkai Wang.
Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay seems to have taken inspiration from the feat of engineering that is The Great Wall of China, and then thrown a dollop of fantasy on the top with the monstrous Tao Tie. The dialogue is not all that exciting, and there are attempts at buddy camaraderie between Damon and Pascal that comes and goes, but the ridiculous and over the top fantasy elements of the story are fun that doesn’t need to be thought about, and at least the romance between Damon and Jing is only hinted at, and not shoehorned in.
‘The Great Wal’l is director Yimou Zhang’s first film in the English language, but it is worth mentioning that at least half of the dialogue is in Mandarin. Zhang does well with the Mandarin portions of the film, as well as the pacing and making the set pieces as over the top and mostly impressive as possible, but the timing for some of the scenes in English, as well as the dodgy CGI in the film manage to bring ‘The Great Wall’ down from a daft actioner that’s a lot of fun, to something a lot less sophisticated. Oh, and hadn’t we moved past 3D on these sorts of actioners?
In all, ‘The Great Wal’l is daft, over the top and fun in places, but struggles with balancing the spark between English and Mandarin, as well as making the CGI scenes – of which there are many – look halfway decent or as though they belong in the same film as the beautifully shot live action sequences. Oh and as for Constance Wu’s thoughts on the film; it is true that most of the cast and crew are Asian, but it is still Matt Damon who ends up saving the day, so Wu’s statements are definitely justified. RATING: 2/5 Review by Brogen Hayes