Arrival, Moonlight, The Edge Of Seventeen: Three Movies Face The Jury

Film commentary used to be a big part of the publication that you presently are gazing upon. Which is why I’m on my bended knees right now, begging the movie goddesses and gods to forgive me for not seriously evaluating any cinematic creations in oh so long a time. A quick look tells me that it has been three months since I last delved deeply into any. Three months? Man, hundreds of movies have been released in that time. And I’ve taken in a fair number of them, 20 or so. It’s not that I didn’t want to spin a review or two or three. I did. But, being a dumb f**k who seems to be getting dumber by the day, I couldn’t figure out anything meaty or nifty to say about most of the fare. Or figure out their plots half the time either, to be embarrassingly honest. Hey, not all of us are destined to inherit the mantles of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.

So far today, though, my dimness factor has not been deplorable. I therefore have decided to share some thoughts and observations about three movies that my wife Sandy and I caught on big screens recently: Arrival, Moonlight, and The Edge Of Seventeen. Here we go.

Two of these three films, Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, are lovingly-crafted and expertly-scripted examinations of the human condition. (Arrival is a different animal altogether, one to which lovingly-crafted possibly applies, but expertly-scripted doesn’t). They are coming of age stories that couldn’t be more different in their feels and approaches. The former, an engrossing downer that places a magnifying glass over the marginalized side of American society, is relentlessly gritty and roiling. The latter, on the other hand, is buoyant and breezy. It’s full of yuks and carries a smart, sarcastic swagger, yet is kept real by swift undercurrents of unease. Each in its own way rocks.

moonlight_2016_filmMoonlight, which unfolds in three separate segments, follows Chiron, a neglected and insufficiently loved gay black male, from his preteen years through his mid 20s. Life never is easy or a comforting experience for Chiron (played expertly, in chronological order, by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), who is raised in poverty by a cocaine-addicted mother who loves her son but maybe loves her drugs as much or more. Compared to Chiron, pretty much any of us who thinks he/she has problems should think again. Just the basics, such as finding food and shelter, are frequent challenges for Chiron, whose less-than-wordy personality is a result of the many stones that life tosses at him. Never has he been bolstered by more than a couple of willing and able supporters. And, on top of all of that, his homosexuality confuses and frightens him. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin.

img_1266The environment presented in The Edge Of Seventeen is a far more materially comfortable one than that displayed in Moonlight, but that doesn’t mean that life is splendidly manageable for the film’s protagonist, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). It isn’t, not by a long shot, though Nadine’s woes, compared to Chiron’s, look like nothing more than toe bruises. Nadine, a high school junior who has struggled all her days to locate self-confidence and to forge friendships, is a funny wise-cracker. She also spends a lot of time being sad, letting the slings and arrows get to her. She’s on the verge of what? Not quite despair, but something close to that. Most fortuitously for Nadine, familial and social support systems, and opportunities, are at hand, as might be expected for a middle-class white girl living in a well-stocked house with a mother and brother of good quality, and attending a good school. It’s a question of how, or if, she’ll take advantage of what’s around her.

img_1265Do Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, as different as they are, have anything in common? I think so. A two-pronged theme that runs through both is human connections, and the lack thereof. Chiron and Nadine do not find it easy to locate the pathways that might bond them with others. They are hungry to connect, but their internal mechanisms (not to overlook outside forces, especially in Chiron’s case) get in the way. But they try. And they become better at the game as time goes on.

I’ll say little more about these two films, as I’m usually reluctant to provide data in quantities that might spoil another’s movie-going experiences. What I will mention is that the acting in both is excellent all around. Besides the leads in each movie, a tip of the hat to Mahershala Ali, whose portrayal of a very decent-hearted drug dealer who partially rescues Chiron from a totally disastrous existence, is heartbreakingly fine. Likewise to Woody Harrelson. He shines as a teacher who feels, really feels, in a most understatedly wry yet wise way for Nadine and her plight.

Connections, to my mind, is also a formidable motif running through Arrival. I’m not fully confident saying this, though, because what in the world Arrival actually is all about is significantly beyond me. And, I might add, beyond four or five other reviewers whose analyses I’ve looked at. Nevertheless, a few of those reviewers pretty much swooned over Arrival. How do you swoon over something that leaves you puzzled? Beats me. I guess that the movie’s atmospherics and high aims were enough to please them.

img_1298Anyway, Arrival is a sci-fier that definitely wants you to put on your thinking cap. Good luck with that, as I just mentioned. It is a present day aliens-visit-Earth affair. The aliens land simultaneously at 12 locations around the globe in sleek vehicles, two creatures per craft. (Spoiler alert, of sorts. I’m about to spill more beans than I did with Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen). They don’t speak any human languages, not unexpectedly, though it sure would have been keen if they did. But they do grunt and bellow in their own tongue. Unfortunately, what those noises mean no human ever figures out. But all is not lost, as they also have a written language, one composed of ink-blotty symbols. And — eureka! — eventually a couple of real smart humans decipher it, taking alien–human connections to a better level.

The visitors, super-giant octapi types that never leave their space ships, in my opinion don’t explain all too well (after the point in which their ink blots become understood) why they landed on our orb in the first place. That’s a big gripe that I have with the movie. Explain to whom, you ask? Why, to Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert and one of the aforementioned real smart humans. Upon the aliens’ arrival, Louise had been hauled out to meet and greet two of the huge beings, at their States-side landing site, by a befuddled and nervous U.S. military. Somehow, if I’m not mistaken (and I could be), the aliens knew in advance that they would hook up with Louise, clairvoyantly understanding that Louise is just what the world needs to help reduce high-running tensions among nations. To bring the world closer together, in other words. She’s a connector, see? Yup, the long-limbed animals are promoters and harbingers of peace, and real heroes, in my iffy interpretation of things.

There’s an unusual misty and mystical charm to Arrival that you won’t encounter every day. That’s a good thing. And a reason to check it out. There also are too many scenes loaded with clichéd actions and reactions, and dialog that frequently clunks heavily. If your movie-going time is limited, my suggestion is to put Arrival on the back burner. It’s a different story for Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, though. Those you won’t want to miss. They are primo.

 

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