Moonlight (A24/Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 110 min.). The win by "Moonlight" for this year's Best Picture Academy Award was unprecedented for many reasons, the least of them being it was an independent film made for $1.5 million. The film was made by a black director (Barry Jenkins, who also wrote the adapted screenplay) about black, gay and poor people, and did not have a single white cast member. It was also the first LGBT-themed film to win Best Picture, after the Academy overlooked "Brokeback Mountain" 11 years ago. Nominated for eight Oscars, the film also won for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali, who is Muslim, another first for the Oscars) and Best adapted Screenplay (Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, original story).
The story, most of which is set and filmed in and around more dangerous sections of Miami, is broken into three acts, with passages of six and eight years, respectively, between them. The film presents three pivotal times in the life of Chiron, who is being raised by a single mother (Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris as Paula), who is a drug addict. The film opens with drug dealer Juan (Ali) checking on one of his street sellers. As he does so, a young boy races by who is being chased by others who are calling him gay names. The camera shifts to follow 11-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as he takes refuge in an abandoned apartment building. Juan finds Chiron there and takes him out to eat and then to where Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) live, as Chiron initially refuses to speak. Lifelong friendships are formed, as Juan becomes the missing father figure in Chiron's life. One memorable sequence, shot at water level, has Juan teach Chiron how to swim and the image becomes as if Chiron were being baptized.
The second act takes place when Chiron (Ashton Sanders), now 17, is in high school. While his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has deepened slightly, Chiron is still being bullied at school, leading to a cruel twist with violent results. In the third act, 25-year-old Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a drug dealer in the Atlanta area, where his mother has successfully gone through drug treatment and has stayed on at the facility to help others. A phone call from Kevin -- the first contact in eight years -- leads Chiron to investigate whether their friendship still exists and on what level. The film's emotional impact really builds in this final section, as the two former friends meet at the diner where Kevin (Andre Holland) now works as a cook/waiter. Will Chiron find what he has been looking for his whole life?
The acting is superb throughout the film, but particularly by the three who play Chiron at various stages. Hibbert says so much through his eyes, while Sanders is spot on and Rhodes also portrays a lot through his face. This definitely is a film in which silence conveys a lot. Its other Oscar nominations were for Best Directing, Best Cinematography (James Laxton), Best Editing (Joi MIllon, Nat Sanders) and Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell). Extras include audio commentary by Jenkins; a making-of feature (21:37), in which the actors discuss their roles; an illuminating look at the music with Britell (10:06), who used "chopped and screwed" hip hop and a similar approach with classical music; and a look at filming in Miami (5:39), including an interview with McCraney, whose original partially-autographical story was an unproduced screenplay. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Fair Haven (Breaking Glass DVD, NR, 92 min.). Despite being about a young man forced to go through ex-gay conversion therapy, this actually is an uplifting film. The young man is 19-year-old James (a strong Michael Grant of TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), an aspiring concert pianist who has been accepted to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, first he returns home to the family farm, Fair Haven Orchard, in Vermont to help his father, Richard (Tom Wopat of TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard"), that summer.
The film starts with James riding the train to Fair Haven. As his father drives him home, he learns that Richard used his college funds to pay for his therapy at the Christian camp and for his mother's hospital bills and funeral costs. The emotionally-withdrawn Richard wants James to eventually take over the family farm and encourages him to take a course or two at a local college rather than go to Boston. The one thing the film does not do well is reveal whether the conversion therapy or his mother's death came first, and why James entered the therapy anyway. Throughout the film, though, there are flashbacks to several of the conversion sessions and one-on-ones with Dr. Gallagher (Gregory Harrison of TV's "Logan's Run," "Trapper John, M.D.").
James reluctantly tries to fit in around the farm and even goes as far as to awkwardly start dating Rev. Thomas' (Tom Malloy) daughter, the virginal and sweet Suzy (Lily Anne Harrison; yes, Gregory Harrison's daughter). However, one of James' duties is to deliver apples to a local market, where it turns out his former close friend, Charlie (a fine Josh Green of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip"), works. The pair had been intimate in the past, and they gradually become friends again, especially after Charlie is beaten up -- off screen -- by a couple of thugs. Once again, there is strong acting, especially by the two young male leads, and a Wopat performance that shows surprising depth in its world-weariness. The screenplay is by Jack Bryant, while Kerstin Karlhuber directed in his feature debut. While the ending is nice, it seems a bit rushed, but overall, this is a strong effort.
Grant actually plays the piano in his scenes. Grant won the Tennessee State Piano Competition at the age of six and at age 11 was accepted at the prestigious University of Cincinnati Conservatory at the graduate level. Reportedly, finished copies of the DVD have a behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes and cast interviews. Grade: film 3.25 stars
Jonathan (Germany, Wolfe DVD, NR, 99 min.). This visually sumptuous film also takes place on a farm, albeit a more isolated one, has a young man not doing what he really wants and an emotionally-withdrawn father. The change here is that the father (Andre Hennicke as Burghardt) is dying of skin cancer, with only weeks to live. His 23-year-old son, Jonathan, aka "Jona" (Jannis Niewohner), works hard to help keep the farm afloat, as does his aunt, Martha (Barbara Auer). However, Jonathan designs lamp shades in his spare time; Martha has not talked to her brother in years; and Burghardt refuses to tell Jonathan stories about his mother, who dies when Jonathan was very young.
Pretty Anka (Julia Koschitz) arrives on the farm to help with Burghardt's care and Jonathan falls in love for the first time. One day, an old friend of Burghardt's shows up at the farm, while Burghardt was in an emergency stay at the hospital in Berlin. Martha chases the man off with a rifle, but it turns out the man (Thomas Sarbacher as Ron) is part of one of the two big secrets Burghardt has kept from his son. That secret is Ron and Burghardt used to be deeply in love, but have not seen each other in decades. Thus, this debut feature film by writer-director Peter J. Lewandowski meshes a coming-of-age story with a coming-out story.
Viewers initially might believe that Jonathan is the homosexual in the tale, what with his frequent shirtless scenes or close-ups of his chiseled cheekbones. The fact is that Jonathan is a hunk, and the lighter, more visually stimulating first half makes up for some of the grimness as Burghardt moves toward death. There is a bit of soap opera to the tale as well, particularly in Jonathan's reaction to learning his father's secrets. However, then there are tender moments of great beauty, such as when, as he is being carried by Jonathan and Ron back to the house, Burghardt's hand, which had been limp at his side, moves to touch the vegetation they pass through. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars
King Cobra (IFC Midnight/Shout! Factory, Blu-ray/DVD combo, NR, 92 min.). If one likes their coming-of-age story with some sleaze, there is this adaptation of the book about how gay porn star Sean Paul Lockhart became Brent Corrigan and a household name in certain households. There are many twists to this behind-the-scenes tale of the pornography industry, and some intentional campiness among some of the actors, particularly the always-go-for-broke James Franco.
It is 2006 when wanna-be porn star Sean (a perfectly cast Garrett Clayton of TV's "Hairspray! Live," who looks an awful lot like Zack Efram, another Disney graduate) is flown from San Diego to the suburbs (somewhere in the Midwest or East) by pornographer Stephen (Christian Slater), who runs a portrait photography business as his day job, but secretly runs the gay porn site, Cobra Video, on the Internet from his basement. (Stephen's unsuspecting sister is played by Molly Ringwald.) Stephen rebrands Sean as Brent Corrigan, and we see Sean display his talents in multiple movies and skyrocket to the top of the gay porn industry in a montage. (It is only a montage due to the film's low budget.) However, once Sean realizes just how popular he has become and how much money he has been bringing in, he demands larger paydays, which destroys his relationship with Stephen.
The duo of Joe (Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen), a former and current gay escort who are lovers, have been trying to establish themselves in the porn business as Viper Boyz. With debt of a half-million, Joe tries to hire Sean as Brent to make a surefire bestselling video. However, Stephen owns the rights to the Brent Corrigan name. Meanwhile, Sean has returned home (his mother is played by Alicia Silverstone) and tried to line up his own video deals. Since he cannot, due to Stephen owning rights to his performing name, Sean reveals that he was illegally only 17 when he starting working for Stephen.
The parts of the movie involving Brent and Stephen work well, with Slater particularly good as he becomes more obsessed with his golden ticket. However, the bits with Franco and Allen border on parody in their campiness at times. The movie was written and directed by Justin Kelly, who also made the soon-to-be-released "I Am Michael," with Franco playing gay activist Michael Glatze, who became an anti-gay Christian pastor. "I Am Michael" played at Sundance two years ago and will be released on home video March 7. "King Cobra" comes with audio commentary by Kelly (he discusses aspects of making the film, including the music and soundtrack, as well as differences from the book) and eight outtakes (7:42), some of which show how tedious it can be to make a movie at times. As for Brent, he is still in the porn making business, although often as director and star. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.25 stars
Arrival (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 116 min.). "Arrival" only won one of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for -- Sylvain Bellemare won for Best Sound Editing -- but it nonetheless was one of the best films of the year, a cerebral science fiction story that makes one really think afterwards. The concepts are complicated and mind-blowing if one follows them to their logical and scientific conclusions.
The film opens with university linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) recalling several moments in the disease-shortened life of her daughter and then turning to the moment that changed everything for everyone, when 12 alien ships arrived, spread out across the world. Banks is tasked with learning the aliens' language and developing communication with them. Are they invaders? Or visitors? Meanwhile, tension is growing among world leaders -- especially the Chinese -- to take action against the aliens. Also brought to the landing site in Montana is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, and the military person in charge of the site is Col. G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker).
Director Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario") has a sure hand in bringing to life Eric Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story, "The Story of Your Life," creating a film to rival Stephen Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as one of the best getting-to-know-the-aliens films ever. The aliens are heptapods, creatures with seven feet. One of those feet shoots out ink that forms their circular language, made up of logograms. A sentence is formed all at once. Also, the laws of physics appear to be different inside their spaceship, which is designed like a giant, egg-shaped rock.
The extras on the release are very strong and include a 30-minute making-of feature with interviews with author Chiang, Villeneuve, linguistic consultant Jessica Coon and others. One of the most remarkable aspects about the film is that its aliens, their language and spaceships are all new, unlike anything seen before. There also is a look at the score (11:24) with composer Johann Johannsson (also "Sicario") who used light electronics and tape loops; a look at the Oscar-nominated editing (11:20) with editor Joe Walker; and a heady piece of the principles of time, memory and language (15:24), with its mind-blowing concepts. The film also received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, directing, adapted screenplay, cinematography (Bradford Young), sound mixing and production design. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Contract To Kill (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 90 min.). Other than the use of a drone for spying, this film is so ordinary to make it instantly forgettable. Another by-the-numbers job starring Steven Seagal, the film actually has a good kernel of an idea. That is that Islamic terrorists would want to broker an arrangement with the Mexican cartels, so that terrorists could piggyback on their drug-smuggling routes to enter the United States. However, instead of dealing with actual attempts to infiltrate terrorists, the film becomes a standard shoot-'em-up and car chase before they meeting is even held and the action is moved to Istanbul (although, by looks it could be anywhere; actually it was made in Romania).
Seagal plays John Harmon, a former CIA and DEA enforcer, who, unlikely as it may seem, still can get the girl. The girl is Zara Hayek (Jemma Dallender), an FBI agent. The third member of the crew is drone operator Matthew Sharp (Russell Wong). In what the lone supplement calls an attempt to be like the great Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" -- give me a break, the comparison is laughable; it is masterpiece vs. schlock -- Harmon sets up the terrorists and Mexicans to suspect and kill off each other. What little special effects there are in the film are terrible too: the same phony plane explosion is shown twice and the final shot of a plane flying looks so much like a computer image that it is not funny. The aforementioned bonus feature is a 14:46 making-of featurette. Grade: film and extra 1.25 stars