The Fits (2016)

the-fits-interview-feature.jpgThe Fits is a movie that has been on a lot of top 10 lists in 2016, and is readily accessible if you have Amazon Prime (it’s been streaming for several months now). Now that the Oscars are on the horizon and the pressure is really on to finish a top 10 for 2016, I’ve been knocking out films from earlier in the year that critics and bloggers that I admire have been high lighting in their yearly wrap ups, and I thought I would check out this film.

There are magical things about The Fits, the coming of age drama by director Anna Rose Holmer. Holmer has previously worked in several different departments in the film industry, and directed a documentary in 2010 called 12 Ways to Sunday. The film is portrait of young tomboy Toni, in a SPECTACULAR performance from child actor Royalty Hightower, as she makes her way through her first year on the dance team at her local community center.While trying to become a better dancer and make a name apart from her successful boxer brother, the other girls on the team start experiencing seizure-like trances called “The Fits.”

This film was not really what I expected, and it took me a while to adjust my expectations. But I don’t know that the film really decides whether or not it is a story about Toni finding herself, or a movie about the strange thing that is happening to this group of dancers. While some girls are hoping for The Fit to happen to them, Toni maintains that she doesn’t want to get it. But while asserting her own identity, she also is trying to do her best to be a part of this dance team collective. And instead of feeling like she is trying to maintain individuality in a collective, it seems like she is contradicting herself.

I’m going to break the professional tone that I usually strive for while writing reviews for this site just to say- I really have no clue what the Fits are. The easiest possibility is that this strange phenomenon is a representation of womanhood, that the Fits are a stand in for menstrual periods, which can pull young girls apart in the years when some friends may be having periods and some friends may not. But the analogy isn’t perfect in this film. It could be commentary on conformity, or on the difficulty of finding yourself, and when you finally feel comfortable in your own skin you have this strange, physical experience. But none of these really line up, and it leaves you thinking after the film. Whether or not this thought is engaging with the thematic content of the film, or simply trying to figure out what that thematic content might be, will depend on the viewer.

The film was funded entirely by grants, features a real drill team, and has dozens and dozens of child actor. This small production size could have resulted in something that feels thrown together or too small, but in this film, it gives us this tremendous authenticity. Since the girls are all on a dance team together in real life, their chemistry on screen is infectious. The young performers bring a lively energy and curiosity that elevates the film.

But there are downsides. When the film doesn’t have this infectious energy, it has a pace so slow as to make a 75-minute film feel like it drags. Toni’s contemplation and frequent silence are sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious. The score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, often leaves these moments of contemplation feeling sinister, as if Toni shouldn’t be thinking so much about the world around her. And the film’s final dream sequence, a perfect visualization of who she wishes to be, left this reviewer feeling like she was looking for something more than there may have been on the screen.

The Fits is an interesting film and I will certainly be looking for the work of the crew and cast in the future. And while it is a flawed picture, it is worth the watch if you’re interested in a different perspective or type of filmmaking. Be prepared to actively engage with this piece, and let yourself ask the questions.

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Moonlight (2016)

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One of the most talked about films of this Oscar season has made a return to theaters after it’s original release, which gave me the opportunity to go see it! I was so excited to be in the theater to get in on the conversation about this film, and there is so much to talk about. Moonlight is a tender, unique film with it’s roots in cinema’s rich international history and is one of a vivid portrait of a single place-Liberty City, the neighborhood in which it was filmed. And amidst all of this, it is a fully fleshed story of a person.

The film is a coming of age tale about Chiron, a young black man growing up in the Miami Neighborhood that is Liberty City. His mother, brought to life with a beautifully harsh performance by Naomi Harris, is addicted to crack cocaine but loves her son and struggles to show him that love. His main role models are a local drug dealer and his wife; the drug dealer, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali and his wife, Teresa, played by Janelle Monae. Ali is attracting a particular amount of buzz for his performance, and rightly so- he plays Juan with tenderness, and occupies the strange middle-of-the-ground morality as the only positive role model in this young man’s life while also being a drug dealer. The cinematography by James Laxton is reminiscent of classic French New Wave films like Breathless, but feels somehow more confident. The music, by Nicholas Britell, is so ingrained in the film that I have a hard time remembering any of the score as I write this piece. It called no attention to itself and served only to illustrate Chiron’s journey. The story, a beautiful and raw tale based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is brought to life with a steady hand by director Barry Jenkins. And all of it comes together to tell a simple story: the story of Chiron.

One of the first things I said after coming out of this movie was: I love Chiron. The main character of the film has many different names and is played by three different people:  Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. These three performers are amazing in their performances, truly bringing this character to life. He felt like an authentic, layered human with complex needs and desires. There is something in the eyes of these three men that brings them together, it feels almost like Boyhood in the way we watch Chiron grow up. Of course, not enough praise can be heaped on Jenkins, who created this character with his actor. I cannot imagine the tender hand that it must have taken to coach the non-actors populating this film to give such a rich performance. You fall in love with this character over the course of the film.

The strength of this performance, and other performances given by the stellar supporting cast, is so crucial because it saves Moonlight from being an “issues” movie. A film about a young man who is black, who is also gay, whose mother is an addict, who lives in a poor part of the country, could have very easily slipped and slid down the slope of preachy and dry. But the film does not focus on any of those particular issues, and isn’t even really about them. In fact, if the film tackles any “issue,” it is an idea of a pervasive and toxic image of masculinity that is forced on each of our young, male characters. The film does is not truly about any of those issues. Instead, it is about a person who could use those words to describe himself. The mother is not another plot device thrown in Chiron’s way- she is his mother, a fully formed person who he loves but is scared of and angry with. His sexuality isn’t just a piece of the salad, it is something that weighs on him, something that he has to consider or consciously ignore. And we have to think about these things with him, and framed through his experiences and choices.

Moonlight is pretty brilliant. It has the right amount of art house, the right amount of mainstream, the right amount of mind, and the right amount of heart. It’s a small story and it means a lot. It has everything to say and doesn’t even shout- much like it’s beautiful, complicated main character.

La La Land (2016)

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Everyone is talking about this movie. Everyone is trying to see this movie. It’s the musical sensation that is sweeping the nation. I tried to see this movie several of times before I actually got in to a sold-out showtime. When we left the theater, there was a line at the door of people waiting to get into the next one. This movie is capturing the hearts and minds of movie audiences unlike any non-Star Wars movie that’s come out in my lifetime. So what is it about this movie that is so… wonderful?

The short answer is- not everything. I did not fall immediately in love with La La Land, the musical romance directed by Damien Chazelle. To be completely honest, during most of the first act I was a little bit concerned that I was going to be one of the outliers to not lose my marbles over this film. But at some point- and I don’t even know at which point this was- I was hypnotized. At some point I just fell, utterly and completely, into the story and the characters, and completely without noticing.  The film, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a delightful adventure through a strange, uncynical version of Los Angeles. The movie speaks to modern sensibilities while calling back to the classical form of movie musicals. It brings something very, very old to the table and makes us ask ourselves, why can’t it be new again?

I’m sure there isn’t much I can say about this film that hasn’t already been said. I can go on and on and on about Emma Stone’s performance. The life that she brings to Mia, the struggling actress that she portrays, is quite unlike any other performance I’ve seen. She blends emotions that I’ve never seen combined, plays her role with vulnerability and passion and excitement. This is a stellar performance from Stone, proving (if there was anyone left with any doubts about her talent) that she belongs on the screen. I can talk about how wonderful it was to see Ryan Gosling put his crooning, casual voice to work telling his lovesick story as an aspiring jazz musician. I can sing the praises of the wonderful songs and score, composed by Justin Hurwitz, that provide the backbone of the story. These three elements, essentially the three main characters of the story, are complete expressions of youth, dreams, and real, true love, the core themes and subjects of La La Land.

Many of the musicals that are being produced today qualify as musicals because the characters break into spontaneous song. But dancing is a magical cinematic expression that was, for some crazy reason, abandoned in the Golden Age. I’ve never seen characters truly use dance to express their emotions and force the audience to suspend their disbelief, like the characters do in “Another Day of Sun” or “A Lovely Night.” And I’ve never, never, ever experienced something quite like the final montage of this film, a love letter to dance through dance, the perfect ending that this film deserves. There are truly not words to describe it, because it is only about movement, dance, and wordless expression of emotion. It is also incredible that the ending doesn’t feel like a gimmick- some final homage to inspirations An American in Paris (1951) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

I loved this film, that’s for sure, but I do want to say: don’t go into this film worrying that it won’t “live up to the hype.” How your experience with the film measures up to those who have seen it before you doesn’t have to be what’s going through your mind while Mia and Sebastian go on their first “date” to a Jazz Club, or have their big (and incredibly authentic) fight over a home cooked meal. The only thing you should have in your head while watching this film is just that-this film. Let yourself fall into it. Give it some of your trust and suspend some of your disbelief. You’ll, more likely than not, get something truly magical out of the experience.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

wilderpeoplehecricky-0If there is a director right now worthy of keeping your eye on, that director is Taika Waititi. The New Zealand born, Oscar nominated friend of Flight of the Conchords has directed three exceptional films to this point: the recent Sundance film festival hit What We Do in the Shadows, the touching, tiny drama Boy, and now this film. Hunt for the People is a pure delight. It is a story that could only be told in New Zealand by a director who loves his country and loves the characters he is writing about.

Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker (one of the best movie names, played by Julian Dennison), a troubled young man who has been shuffled around the foster care system. The state has found him a new home on the outskirts of the New Zealand bush with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Heck (Sam Neil). Bella really takes the reigns with Ricky and it’s not long before his uber cool exterior (his usual dress is a patterned hoodie and animal-print trucker cap) is melted by her warm welcome. Heck is less involved with Ricky- in fact he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But when Ricky disappears into the Bush, it’s up to Heck to go out there and save him!

The film is as fun and silly as the last sentence of that synopsis. Waititi manages to bring this fun, weird energy to the whole movie while still being able to deliver big emotional hits. As Heck and Ricky learn more about each other and learn how to survive the Bush with one another, they start to get along, they start to form a beautiful and unique relationship. They rely on each other utterly and completely as they encounter weirder and weirder fellow travelers in the woods.

One of the things I admire most about Waititi as a filmmaker is that he really understands how to make movies about kids. Both with this picture and the earlier film Boy, Waititi brings an interesting angle to movies about children. He doesn’t baby them, but he also doesn’t hold them to the same logic that he would hold an adult to. He respects his child characters as having a logic, but it’s not exactly the same playing field. His children characters have completely exposed emotional nerves that come from them not having enough time to finish construction on their walls.

The film is also a tribute to the New Zealand Bush. It is shot with an eye of wonder, capturing the beauty of the wilderness. Most scenes begin with a beautiful, sweeping helicopter shot capturing some part of this wilderness. It never feels boring, it never gets old, we are just being shown this part of the world in all it’s glory. While Ricky and Heck are lost in the Bush it never seems like they are trying to fight against the wilderness. The Bush is not an enemy to them, it’s just a force that they have to learn to communicate with and exist in- and they do. Overtime they become bona fide Bush People (sort of). Ricky trades in his red and white letterman jacket for some flannels. This becomes a part of their home.

This film captures New Zealand’s wilderness and New Zealand’s totally unique style of comedy. People are more laid back than they should be. They use casual language in very serious situations. They take themselves way too seriously. They point out when other people are taking things too seriously. They say things that they hear people say in movies (there is an excellent joke in this film about Miranda Rights). New Zealand comedies (particularly Waititi) are, at their core, very silly things with big heartfelt messages.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun movie. It’s got characters who we care about. It’s got a great adventure plot. The ultimate word I can use to describe it is “nice”. Check it out.