This month: M. Night Shyamalan makes a brazen return, the world of Archie receives a CW spin, and Barry Jenkins’ stunning triumph shines across the world.
Welcome to another year of Pop Culture Picks, where each member of the MTC team selects a monthly highlight from the realm of film, television or comic books. We’ll keep this short and sweet: January’s roster is a little eclectic, but hopefully there’s something for everyone here.
Selected by Puff (@_staypuffed)
You’ve likely heard the name. You’ve hopefully already seen the film, but as Moonlight rolls out across the continents (including Australia), it’s featured here as a January selection. This is a very special film, an authentic, cathartic experience from writer/director Barry Jenkins, also furthering darling producer/distributor A24’s current hot streak. As Moonlight‘s recent string of awards success and eight Oscar nominations might be piquing the interest of those yet to see it, let me just say: See. It.
After finishing his debut Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins struggled through an eight-year hiatus, never quite fulfilling ideas through to finished products. Enter: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unpublished play from Tarell McCraney, chronicling a young African-American’s wrestle with identity and sexuality in Miami. As McCraney fuelled the play with his experiences, Jenkins found striking similarities to echo his own life; both men were raised by drug-addicted mothers within the city at the same time, attending the same school and living within a close proximity to each other. With McCraney’s blessing, Jenkins elected to translate the story into a triptych cinematic portrait, thus ending the long journey to his second feature.
Moonlight opens in familiar positions – a drug dealer on the street, a young child chased and bullied, sticking by the side of his only friend – but quickly aims for different feelings: empathy, understanding, love, pride. The child’s name is Chiron, going by Little; the drug dealer, Juan, becomes his guiding light through dark times; his friend, Kevin, becomes his lover. Over three chapters, we watch Little evolve into Chiron and finally into Black, desperate to come to a sense of self-understanding. It’s rich storytelling that finds singular ways to explore ubiquitous concepts.
Jenkins lined himself up with an excessive amount of talent here, made up of many unknowns and a handful of more established collaborators. This includes Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, delivering spectacular supporting turns as Juan and Paula, Chiron’s mother, respectively. But one has to admire the three actors portraying Chiron across the three ages. As largely silent protagonists – and having never met on set – they’re given tough jobs, but saying they live up to expectations is seriously underplaying their skill. The work of cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell are also breathtaking, enriching the emotional experience in beautiful, quietly devastating ways.
This is essential viewing. If you’re lucky enough to have viewed it already, in the words of Jenkins himself, “tell a friend, tell a friend, tell a friend.” Everybody deserves Moonlight.
Selected by Minty (@mintsanity)
I was going to go with Taboo. It’s certainly the better show – so far – but there’s something inherently fascinating about this small screen Archie Comics adaptation. There are times in which Riverdale feels like two different shows. One’s a naive, awkward noughties throwback to teenage angst and high school drama – the kind of content The CW built its reputation on. The other? A dark, moody, gorgeously-lit murder mystery, with an unmistakably sinister Twin Peaks vibe and enough intrigue to keep its more jaded viewers engrossed. You have to admire this writer’s room’s ambition…
Actually, this isn’t the first time The CW has put a new twist on the high school concept. Veronica Mars infused its adolescent politics and love triangles with a pulpy, neo-noir detective angle – profiting from whip-smart dialogue and dynamite lead performances to transcend the teenybopper genre. Riverdale‘s core murder mystery premise gives the show enough momentum to rope audiences in for the time being – but whether it’ll be able to sustain their interest in the long haul will come down to the strength of the acting and writing involved. And so far, they haven’t particularly impressed in either department.
The dialogue is clunky. The characters are clichéd. We’ve seen these archetypes before in countless other shows and films – we’ve been through their struggles. Archie is almost a parody of himself at this point: a teen heartthrob torn between playing football and pursuing his musical dream. Veronica is the same ice queen with a heart of gold. It’s the kind of narrative I would’ve fallen head over heels for five, six years ago – but now it’s far too overplayed. Here’s hoping this pulpy murder mystery has a twist in the tail. I’m certainly willing to give it a chance, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve bailed on a CW show either.
Selected by Jeremy (@SauronsBANE)
If you’re still under the impression that M. Night Shyamalan is nothing more than “That lame plot twist guy!” or “The hack from The Happening“, you simply haven’t been paying enough attention to one of the most unlikely, captivating, ridiculous, exciting, against-all-odds filmmaking careers Hollywood currently has to offer. I’ve made no secret of my predilection towards Shyamalan in the past, but the embattled writer/director’s latest effort, Split, is one that’s already making converts out of even the most ardent naysayers – including those turned off by well-documented failures such as The Last Airbender and After Earth.
Taking a page out of his early classics and his most recent success (don’t you dare sleep on 2015’s The Visit, a thoroughly satisfying return-to-form for a talent proven to be most at home with low-budget, original, atmospheric B-movie fare), Split ends up mingling Shyamalan’s fascination of psychological horror iconography with his singular mastery of balancing tone, tension, and theme. Thanks to some nifty execution and clever storytelling, what could have been merely entertaining – and mildly offensive – schlock is elevated to an entirely different level altogether. Not to be overlooked by a powerhouse performance from James McAvoy and a quietly restrained (yet impressively determined) Anya Taylor-Joy, there lies a thoughtfully constructed and caring message in regards to pain, trauma, abuse and victimization that contextualizes the potentially misguided and otherwise problematic material into something much richer, more poignant, and – most importantly – meaningful.
There will always be a segment of moviegoers who will never reconcile their perceived slights from The Last Airbender, the ridiculousness of The Happening, or the indulgence of the Will and Jaden Smith Show in After Earth (notice my absence of The Village. Go give that a rewatch, engage with it on its own terms as a love story, and see if it actually deserves the reputation it’s received) with the clear talent and skill on display in each and every one of Shyamalan’s hits. To those, I bluntly suggest this: get over it… or risk getting left behind and missing out on one of the last vestiges of truly compelling, risk-taking and sincerely heartfelt filmmaking dedicated to original stories and ideas.
Believe the hype: M. Night Shyamalan is back, has been back, and hopefully more of us wake up and embrace our new Shyamalanaissance!
Those were our three selections for the opening month of the year, with plenty more sure to come. We’d love to hear your January discoveries below or over on Twitter, @MoviesTVComics.