Reliving the Oscars on Video


If you didn't get to see the films that won Best Picture at the Oscars, don't despair—unlike big-screen cotton candy like La La Land, both Moonlight and The Salesman will work well on your television set.

As you probably know, Oscar presenters mistakenly announced that La La Land had won as Best Picture. Glad that error was caught, because Moonlight (A24 Pictures, 111 minutes, R) is by far the superior picture. It's a Hollywood rarity as a prizewinner: an all-black cast with a black director, Barry Jenkins. Is it a "black" film? Yes and no. It certainly deals with the poverty, addiction, and diminished life circumstances within inner-city ghettos populated by people of color, but it's also about role models, father figures, LGBT issues, and—to paraphrase Langston Hughes—what happens to deferred dreams. Jenkins centers his film on Chiron and unveils his life in three parts: "Little," "Chiron," and "Black." Within this structure we move from idealism to harsh reality to hedonism and (perhaps) a search for redemption.

We first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a skinny boy in Miami's Liberty City. He is picked upon by bigger kids for his bookish ways and shyness so severe that he is literally tongue-tied when he flees a gang seeking to beat him up and is found wandering by Juan (Mahershala Ali). Director Jenkins cleverly twists white morality tales in which a character with a rough exterior turns out to have a heart of gold. Juan really is a bad dude—a drug dealer who packs heat and commands deference in the 'hood. But Juan is also the father that "Little" lacks. Chiron lives with single mom Paula (Naomi Harris), who works hard but also does crack and has a string of boyfriends, each less appropriate than the predecessor. By contrast, Juan is partnered with Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a true ghetto angel whose home is one of linen, clean sheets, and home-cooked meals. Through Juan and Teresa, Little dares to dream; he even cultivates a friendship with Kevin (Jaden Pinder).

In Part Two, Chiron's dreams soar and are shattered. As a youth, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is still skinny and his aspirations have taken psychological and physical beatings. His is a world of unexpected intimacies, betrayals, and violence. By the time we meet Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) again in "Black," he is a ripped physical dynamo living a perverse American Dream and filled with self-loathing. Can Teresa, his mother, and/or Kevin (André Holland) help him find redemption?

If you think recent movies are lame, Moonlight will restore your faith. You would have to search long and hard to find a negative review of this gem. Jenkins should have won Best Director—no one else had the chutzpah to build a trilogy in less than two hours, construct distinct narratives, and direct three sets of actors—all for $1.5 million. Ali won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but his was just one of uniformly brilliant performances. It's just a matter of time before we start thinking of Ms. Monáe as an actress first and a singer second. All three Chirons are superb, James Laxton's cinematography is stunning (check out what he does with cool color and mixed film stock), stereotypes tumble, and somehow—in the midst of varying levels of despair—we brush elbows with a deeper humanity.

The Best Foreign Film Oscar went to The Salesman (Memento Films, 124 minutes, PG-13). I still think Iceland's Rams was better picture, but it's hard to begrudge anything done by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past). I constantly marvel over how he gets work past mullah censors. This film is in Persian with English subtitles, but you'll recognize parts of this play-within-a-film as it concerns a husband/wife team rehearsing Death of a Salesman while a real-life domestic tragedy/drama unfolds outside the theater.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a modern, magnetic, and commanding teacher and director set to play the role of Willy Loman. Problems emerge when he and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) must vacate their apartment when a nearby construction project destabilizes the building. Luck is with them when fellow cast member Babak (Babak Karimi) offers an apartment whose previous occupant suddenly left. Strangely, though, Babak is vague about who she was or why she left her things behind. Matters take an ominous twist when Rana is accosted while bathing. The assault on Rana reveals Emad to be less progressive than we first supposed. He becomes obsessed with finding the man who did this— not because Rana was terrified and bloodied, but because of the stain on his honor.

This is a film about humiliation, obsession, patriarchy, revenge, assumptions, and masculinity. Farhadi deftly interweaves themes from Death of a Salesman and we begin to see Emad as akin to Willy in being stuck on the wrong side of social change. Emad's descent into revenge fantasies soon wearies his theater colleagues, especially Babak—whom Emad goes off script to insult— and Kati, a single mother whose sympathies are with Rana. Is Emad a symbol for Iran's theocratic rulers—cruel, self-righteous, and mired in out-of-date values? One wonders if Farhadi has pulled the wool over mullah eyes by cleverly immersing such implications within a mystery and its bathetic resolution. Has Emad become Willy—a man in pursuit of illusions and living in a bygone world? Does his definition of morality parallel Willy's antiquated values?

Farhadi likes to personalize clashing worldviews, often placing them within domestic settings. His is also a masterful microcosmic look at the pull of tradition versus the push of secularization. Is it also a veiled critique of Islamic fundamentalism? You don't have to imagine the film in this light, as it's dramatic in its own right. Part of the puzzle centers on the identity of the mysterious previous apartment tenant. Pay attention to who is drawing on the walls early on, as I think it's a clue. But Farhadi's forte—and maybe the reason he gets to take surprising liberty—is that he only reveals part of what he's thinking and leaves the rest for viewers to contemplate.

Rob Weir    

No comments: