MOONLIGHT (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Moonlight (2016) | Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

SUBJECT MATTER:

One of the most startling breakthroughs a writer ever makes is her discovery of a story’s true subject matter. She sets out to create one kind of telling, only to hear the voice of a very different tale pleading to be told. MOONLIGHT is a perfect example. It seems to weave a Social Drama around an Education Plot, but, in fact, a third storyline drives the film.

The genre of traditional Black Cinema is Social Drama—dramatizations of poverty, broken homes, drugs, racism—those persistent cruelties that never find a cure. MOONLIGHT ingeniously shifts these injustices from foreground to background. The film implies social crises but only uses them to tone the atmosphere and set the story’s world.

At first glance, MOONLIGHT seems to tell the coming-out story of Chiron (played by three different actors). The character evolves along an Education Plot that arcs him from confusion about his sexual identity (negative) to understanding his true self (positive). This indeed happens somewhere off-screen, but it is not, it seems to me, what MOONLIGHT is about.

THE MATURATION PLOT:

The discovery of your story’s core genre often comes down to a question of cause and effect. In MOONLIGHT, which came first: Did Chiron’s coming-of-age give him the strength to come out? Or did his coming-out suddenly make him come of age? Immaturity stifles perception; maturity is the ground that grows self-awareness. So in my analysis, if he hadn’t grown up, he couldn’t have come out.

The most difficult creative task in writing a Maturation Plot is conceiving its act of maturity. Exactly what action, under what circumstances, will announce to the reader/audience that the protagonist is no longer a child? In STAND BY ME (1986), Gordie (Wil Wheaton) finds the guts to make the local bully, Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), back down, knowing Ace will take painful revenge the next day. In BIG (1988), Josh (Tom Hanks) chooses to abandon his adult self and return to his adolescent self. Why? Because he’s grown up and that (with wonderful irony) is what a mature person would do.

MOONLIGHT shapes a graceful arc that takes Chiron from boy to man, climaxing with an act of maturity in Act Three’s coffee shop scene. First, he sheds his drug dealer persona by removing that staple of hip-hop fashion, gold Grillz, aka frontsnot just so he can eat, but to face the man he loves as his true self. He then confesses quietly, but with aching poignancy, of his fidelity throughout years of estrangement. His confession of love is not his coming-out; I think he did that within himself long ago. It’s not an act of social or familial defiance, not an act of self-discovery, but the action of an adult.

THE POWER OF SUBTEXT:

The most important events in MOONLIGHT take place wordlessly in the subtext. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ extreme economy of dialogue opens up a silent pathway to the inner life of an utterly original, multi-dimensional character whose intimidating physique masks gentility, whose stoicism hides life-long suffering, whose loneliness hints at an observant, high intelligence.

I’ve always hoped that truth of this quality would someday reach the screen; it’s gratifying to see it expressed in my lifetime.

BLACK MIRROR

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Review:

Black Mirror (2011 - ) | Created by Charlie Brooker

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HIGH RISK ANTHOLOGY:

Long-form series, like BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES, unfold their stories, season after season, from a foundation of perpetual characters and settings. But an anthology series works from scratch to invent a new cast, a new world, and, most importantly, a new story, episode after episode. Some anthologies, such as LAW & ORDER and THE X-FILES, lighten the load with continuing characters, but not BLACK MIRROR. Like its famous predecessor, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, not all BLACK MIRROR episodes are equally excellent, but then that’s true of any series. Overall, the uniqueness of this tour de force’s episodes rocks the mind.

MODERN HORROR:

Unlike the last century’s uncanny monsters (ALIEN) and gothic supernaturals (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), the genius of BLACK MIRROR seeps unseen horrors out of the kitchen sink realities of our techno-world, which then slowly infiltrate our everyday life, until the world spins like a tornado. From NATIONAL ANTHEM (S.1 - E.1) to PLAYTEST (S. 3 - E. 2), with each episode, BLACK MIRROR unleashes a chilling, too-real fear of what hides inside the gismos we hold in our hand.

MAKE’EM WAIT:

Suspense merges curiosity with emotion. The question “What’s going to happen next?” fills with the dread of “Please don’t let it happen to me.” The tensions in BLACK MIRROR rack our nerves because, although we hope for a happy ending, we know it’s not gonna happen. Early episodes established the series’ storytelling style and warned us that all tales will end in a monsoon of irony: If it’s a downer, the protagonist’s fate will spread a dark smile across his face. If it’s an upper, the protagonist may get what she wants, but she’ll pay a hell of a price for it—probably her soul.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

20th Century Women (2016) | Written and Directed by MiKe Mills

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

MASTERFUL:

Mike Mills wrote and directed this finely crafted minimalist film that unfolds with the depth and complexity of a novel. His portrayal of the inner lives of his characters, their struggles to make meaning, and their unsaid thoughts and feelings draws us into the story like an engrossing work of prose. His camera seems to photograph thoughts.

EXCELLENT MIX OF GENRES:

Maturation Plot, Education Plot and Love Stories with subtle but true character arcs deliver honest portraits of empathetic protagonists.

WONDERFUL USE OF VOICEOVER NARRATION:

Again, as in a novel, Mr. Mills moves fluidly through time. His flashbacks and narration parse the exposition seamlessly into the on-going storytelling. He hooks, he holds, he makes us wait until we absolutely need and want to know the storied facts.

ONE OF THE BEST USES OF MUSIC IN FILM:

Insightful observation and potent comment on the interconnectedness of music and its influence on the characters’ lives.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Manchester by the Sea (2016) | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Inciting Incident via Flashback:

Most stories unfold chronologically and so cause and effect happen in that order. The first scenes set up the protagonist’s life and arouse curiosity about the future: “What will happen to this character?” These set-up scenes build to the story’s first major event, the Inciting Incident, this powerful cause triggers the effects that play out in the scenes that follow.

The genius of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA reverses cause and effect, putting the effect before the cause, the cause after the effect.

When the film opens, we meet the protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), living a deeply troubled, virtually masochistic life. But we don’t know why, and so we naturally wonder, “What happened to this guy?” When our curiosity reaches the boiling point, the film flashes back to the Inciting Incident. This stunning turning point reveals the cause for Chandler’s silent torment and raises the major dramatic question: “Will he survive this tragic trauma or be destroyed by it?”

Superb Execution of the Evolution Plot:

The film dramatizes a rich, complex tale of the soul-destroying power of guilt. The event revealed in the flashback hollows out the protagonist’s humanity and launches a character arc that evolves from the negative (an unlivable inner life) to the positive (a livable inner life).

Memorable Character:

As in other wonderful films like 45 YEARS and the more recent 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Kenneth Lonergan’s work unfolds like a novel by compelling us into the abyss of the protagonist’s unspoken turmoil, but does so by implication, not explanation. In other words, the story’s spine of action runs through the subtext, not the text, and therefore calls for an actor who can bring the unsaid and the unsayable to life without the aid of on-the-nose dialogue. Casey Affleck’s brilliant portrayal of the war within earned his Oscar nomination and my applause.

And finally for you writers:

I’m frequently asked questions about the placement of a story’s first major event: “Can the inciting incident happen in the backstory? If so, could I flashback to it? Or, could I just leave it there and only imply it?” All such questions get the same answer: “Of course.” A writer can tell her story any way she likes, so long as she knows why she’s telling the story her way and how her choices make her story all the better.

The first half of the following Storylogue Q&A addresses this exact question: Flashbacks: The Question is “Why?”

LA LA LAND (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

La La Land (2016) | Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

The Musical:

Comparisons (if they’re apples to apples) are always fair. We do it instinctively. When a new Love Story, Comedy, Thriller, or Sci-Fi film premieres, we immediately compare it to the finest of its kind. The benchmark we apply is not “Did they do their best?”, but “Does it measure up to the best?” That’s what people with standards do.

In the greatest American musicals, performers act, sing, and dance with equally brilliant talents in all three dimensions. If they don’t have the voice or the legs—Marlon Brando in GUYS AND DOLLS, Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY—they have the good taste to stand still and turn a lyric into a soliloquy. In the best of the best, stellar choreographers and choruses pull off feats that make you jump for joy; sublime composers and lyricists write tunes you’ll warble in the shower for the rest of your life. So when I compare this film to the likes of TOP HAT, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, MUSIC MAN, WEST SIDE STORY, or CHICAGO, it doesn’t.

Genre:

What makes characters burst into song? The conceit of the Musical is that emotional peaks are beyond words. Dialogue can’t contain them, words can’t express them, so characters, by convention, pour their energies vocally into song and physically into all four limbs. But for me (and I’m sure many will disagree) LA LA LAND’s turning points wouldn’t get anyone out of a chair, let alone launch a song and dance number. The love story’s desires and motivations are so weak, the screenplay simply avoids a last act crisis/climax. Because there’s nowhere to go with these characters, the film finishes on a resolution scene, glazed with sentimentality.

Charm:

And yet, here’s why I didn’t walk out: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling exude such empathy, charisma, and good old-fashioned charm, that I’ll stay through anything they’re in, even this.

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Hidden Figures (2016) | Direct by Theodore Melfi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Protagonists are Brilliantly Conceived Underdogs:

Black women of mathematical genius up against antipathetic, envious white men and women of lesser talent in the American South in the time of Jim Crow. The least wrong look or word could get them killed. Our empathy is instantaneous.

Wonderful Acting:

Acted with dignity and without sentimentality.

Pleasure of Learning:

Humbling to know this hidden part of our history. High time it came out.