Moonlight ****|****

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

Coming-of-age dramas are rarely as quietly perceptive and genuinely compassionate as the masterful new film Moonlight, which has garnered an overwhelming amount of acclaim since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September but it nonetheless justifies itself as one of the year’s defining achievements. Barry Jenkins previously directed the little-seen Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 and he reintroduces himself here as one of the most inspiring voices in American independent cinema working today. His handling of taboo subjects like race and sexuality among the seasons of a young man’s life represents a level of empathy and grace that should take hold of anyone who gives this film a chance.

Based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the story depicts three defining chapters in the life of our main character Chiron as he grows up in modern-day Miami. We are introduced to him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) when he is discovered in an abandoned motel after school one day by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who nicknames him “Little” due to both his diminutive stature and crippling bouts of shyness. Along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan does his best to take Little under his wing to make up for the emotional abuse he suffers under his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).

Time passes and we witness Chiron as a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) during a period of harassment by his school peers that causes him to confide in a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who shows Chiron the kindness that he’s been sorely neglected elsewhere in his life. When an unexpected act of violence sends Chiron to juvenile hall, he emerges years later as a hardened drug dealer played by Trevante Rhodes who now goes by the name “Black” (a nickname given to Chiron by Kevin in their teen years) and resides near Atlanta. Seeking to reconcile both with his mother and Kevin (now played by André Holland) after time lost to prison, he revisits his home town as a man who appears changed on the outside but still carries with him the formative memories of his past life.

The screenplay, also by Jenkins, is remarkable not only for its pitch-perfect dialogue but even more so for the palpable subtext that permeates all of the words left unsaid between the characters. All of the actors, particularly Rhodes and Holland, are so carefully understated in their roles that there’s a kind of quiet electricity behind every interaction that kept me locked into the intimacy and urgency of every single scene. There’s also an incredible amount of physical and emotional consistency among the three performances  for each iteration of Chiron, which would be a challenge for an actor to convey with any character but when it’s one as conflicted and guarded as the protagonist here, it makes the feat that much more admirable.

On the technical side of things, the elegiac score by Nicholas Britell and James Laxton’s luminous cinematography add yet another layer of beauty and artistic accomplishment to a movie that’s already brimming with both. My only criticism lies with bits of sound editing and mixing that render some of the dialogue either inaudible or inarticulate, an issue I also had with the similarly heart-wrenching indie Krisha earlier this year. Other than that minor issue, Moonlight remains a staggering and unmissable meditation on what it means to find yourself amidst a potentially unwelcoming world and to fight valiantly for your own share of love and happiness.

Arrival ***½|****

Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

The new heady sci-fi feature Arrival is the kind of film that’s difficult to completely take in after the first sitting and having a solidified critical reaction to it in such a short amount of time seems like a bit of a fool’s errand. Having seen it a few nights prior to this writing and also having a couple days for post-viewing reflection, I imagine a second go-round almost seems essential to properly evaluate it but it’s difficult to say which elements would be enhanced or be diminished from repeat viewings. What I can say is that this is one massively ambitious and confident piece of filmmaking that will inevitably divide audiences as they wrestle for specific forms of meaning within the story.

Amy Adams is profoundly affecting as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called in by the US government to attempt communication with aliens aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft that has mysteriously touched down in Montana. Joining her on the team is the cocky theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the critical Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with other members of the international scientific community who are simultaneously engaging the other eleven ships discovered in equally inexplicable locations across the globe. The remainder of the storyline revolves around Banks’ contact with the new visitors, as she attempts to learn why their ships are stationed at the seemingly random spots and why they have come to our planet in the first place.

I’m obviously playing coy with some of the larger reveals around the plot, as they’re much better for viewers to discover on their own, but suffice it to say that details from Banks’ personal life soon intermingle with her job of decoding these foreign alien messages. The method of communication that they use, a form of circular drawings that is not only brilliantly conceived but visually stunning in its complexity, seems to suggest that these lifeforms have a perception of time that exceeds the ability of humans. When this concept is applied to the narrative, it creates a sort of non-linear chronology that may seem confusing in the moment but seems to click right into place right before the film’s conclusion.

This is the fourth English language movie from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who is responsible for last year’s excellent drug thriller Sicario, and it’s incredibly fulfilling to once again see his unique brand of challenging storytelling fused with a mid-budget, widely-distributed vehicle like this. He’s making the kind of creative leaps and bold narrative choices that someone like Christopher Nolan would incorporate in their films (yes, Arrival does have notes of Inception at its core) but he’s doing it with a fraction of the funds. Seeing him succeed so valiantly in the science-fiction genre is a comforting sign for those who are hotly anticipating his Blade Runner sequel next October, especially given how many franchise-extending films have disappointed in the past.

I would be remiss to neglect the efforts of cinematographer Bradford Young, who also recently shot Selma and A Most Violent Year and is further proving himself to be one of the most visionary DPs working today. His camera is both pensive and personal in its scope; his ability to capture both moments of grandeur and intimacy with the same level of focus and beauty is nothing short of remarkable. At a time when most movies seem to track two steps behind the audience instead of two steps ahead, Arrival is a most welcome arrival indeed.

Doctor Strange **|****

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Marvel adds a new superhero to its ever expanding Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange, a visually arresting actioneer that’s frequently undermined by muddled mythology and a lethal lack of narrative cohesion. These films obviously cater most to the comic book fans who are already familiar with these characters and this world but for newcomers, whom I suspect will comprise the majority of the audience, the “anything goes” nature of this mystic arts setting should inevitably lead to some serious head scratching. Even the more fantastical superheroes like Thor and Hulk are still bound by tangible principles that tie them to the real world but as soon as Strange crosses over into different dimensions, it’s clear that it doesn’t want to play by any discernible set of rules.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular neurosurgeon, who is introduced as a haughty concoction of MCU favorite Tony Stark and TV’s Dr. House, though he doesn’t have half of the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. or Hugh Laurie. A near fatal car accident leaves him without the use of his hands, effectively ending his medical career and forcing him to scour the world for a solution. His journey leads him to Nepal and specifically the temple of Kamar-Taj, where Strange meets a wise mystic referred to as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and another master of magic named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Being a steadfast man of science over faith, Strange is initially resistant to their spiritual methods of healing but is quickly made a believer when the Ancient One opens his eyes to phenomenons like inter-dimensional travel and astral projection. He dedicates himself to the practice of mystic arts and progresses quickly, which allows him to square off against the fallen sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) as he plots to unleash a powerful evil from the Dark Dimension onto Earth. Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also turns up from time to time as a fellow surgeon who is asked to perform spontaneous operations on key protagonists.

You probably get the sense that this film is all over the map not only in the literal sense but also in terms of narrative and tonal ambition. Perhaps Strange warrants a more lengthy investigation through a miniseries like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage recently received on Netflix because two hours just doesn’t seem like nearly enough to cover this ground. I don’t envy the task of director Scott Derrickson to introduce us to a brand new superhero while also explaining the boundaries of a conceptually complex new setting but he does a poor job at doing either with any sense of personal flavor.

It doesn’t help that the attempts at humor almost unanimously fall flat (unless seemingly stoic characters jamming out to Beyoncé is up your alley) and more laughs instead stem from the unintentional side of things. There’s something overwhelmingly silly about the way Strange and a rival spirit duke it out in the astral plane while hospital objects in the real world move the slightest inch to suggest their otherworldly involvement. Doctor Strange is a bewildering mess of a Marvel movie, not without some admirable visual trickery but also not a worthwhile addition to the already packed stable of heavy hitters in the MCU.