Moonlight

Anything I have to say about Moonlight is probably moot in light of it having been declared the best film of the year at the Academy Awards, but I must declare that I find this a surprising result, not because Moonlight isn’t a terrifically good motion picture, but because there are some aspects that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Make no mistake, this is a highly accomplished sophomore film from director Barry Jenkins. It is a poetic, character-driven exploration of the numerous identities that shape all of us; sexual, familial, gender. Filled with great performances, it is a moving, emotionally charged story adapted from an unproduced play written by Tarrell McCraney who, like Jenkins, grew up in the Miami projects where the film is set.

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The protagonist is Chiron, who we first meet as a boy taking refuge in an abandoned apartment complex to evade a group of bullies. It is at this very early juncture that Chiron encounters Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him back to the house he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Equal parts shy and suspicious, Chiron has little to say in their early exchanges, but eventually he opens up to Juan, who takes on a father-figure role despite the fact the he is the drug dealer from whom Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) sources the crack on which she is so dependant. It is a vicious circle in which Juan strives to help this quiet boy, even though it is his product that has rendered Paula so utterly ineffective and put Chiron in harm’s way. Taunted by other kids as a ‘faggot’, Chiron is forced to confront his sexuality in addition to the daily struggles of being a poor, black male in America.

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We see Chiron at three separate ages – each played by a different actor – as he grows from a shy boy to an introverted adolescent still at the mercy of neighbourhood bullies before finally emerging as a young man whose imposing physical persona masks the insecurities that haunt him. Whilst it is Ali who has secured all the accolades for his performance, including an Oscar, the performances of the actors who play the three versions of Chiron are equally impressive, with Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders particularly outstanding as the two younger incarnations of a character who spends so much of his life as the object of physical or psychological torment. As good as Ali is, the sudden disappearance of Juan from the narrative comes with little by way of explanation and, whilst his premature death may well be a real consequence of such a lifestyle, Jenkins offers no examination of the impact this might have on Chiron. I mean, Jenkins and McCraney paint Paula as the villain but, given that he willingly took on a mentor/protector role in Chiron’s life, Juan’s disappearance seems the biggest act of betrayal that Chiron encounters, even more perhaps than the beating he cops from Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the boy with whom he had a romantic interlude on the beach. Also problematic is the fact that Trevante Rhodes, who plays the adult version of Chiron, looks nothing like his younger self, so different in fact (and I’m not talking about the physical transformation that the character has undertaken within the narrative) that it is hard to reconcile that it is the same person. Conflicted about his sexuality, and more specifically about his feelings for Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland), it is only in the final moments of the film that Chiron seems to find any sense of clarity.

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The dialogue is sparse but the visuals are stunning, from the gorgeous cinematography to the meticulous framing of the actors faces, often making those moments when nothing is said as some of the most powerful. Monae and Harris are also terrific as the only women in the film, two characters who inhabit the same world but are poles apart in almost every way. Jenkins demonstrates subtlety and restraint and Chiron’s experience feels authentic, at least in the first two ‘chapters’. This is a great film that sheds light on the type of experience that remains the reality of so many people in America and elsewhere. Regardless of whether Moonlight may, or may not, be the best film of this or any year, it is a powerful, deeply personal and important piece of work.

Toni Erdmann

It would doing a considerable disservice to describe Toni Erdmann simply as a film “about a prankster father who tries to soften his uptight daughter” because this is merely the narrative framework through which writer/director Maren Ade  explores a whole range of issues, not the least of which is the absurdity of modern life. Difficult to characterise, there is nothing else quite like Toni Erdmann in cinemas and that alone is something for which we should be thankful, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark. Whilst many have waxed lyrical about how funny this is – and there are some hilarious moments to be sure – the real strength of the film lies in the emotional undercurrents that run beneath the absurdist goings-on. Austrian actor Peter Simonichek plays Winfried Conradi, a divorced music teacher who frustrates his friends with his fondness for wacky humour, pranks and practical jokes. Winfried is particularly embarrassing in the eyes of his 30-something daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate management consultant working in Bucharest whose current task is to assist an oil company in firing a significant number of staff in the interests of greater profitability. She is the exact opposite of her father; serious, emotionally distant and obsessed with achieving the recognition and success she craves at work, even though she doesn’t seem to particularly like her job.

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With his dog having died, his elderly mother seemingly poised to follow suit and his ex-wife happily remarried, Winfried sets out on a trip to Romania in an effort to reconnect with Ines, but not before he produces a musical tribute for a retiring colleague in which his students dress as mummies and ghosts to perform a song that equates retirement with death. This is just the first of many moments of absurdity that come courtesy of Winfried in his efforts to bring joy to others, even if his efforts and not necessarily appreciated by those at whom they are targeted. His moments of humour are tempered by a deep sense of sadness and, as a viewer you find yourself torn; you feel sorry for Winfried but you understand why his daughter might find his behaviour embarrassing and certainly Ade had posited Ines as the villain of the piece, although I’m not convinced that her reaction to her father’s eccentricities is altogether unreasonable. Having initially ignored Winfried when he turns up unannounced at her work, Ines begrudgingly spends a day with him.

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Believing that Winfried has returned home, it is to her great dismay that Ines discovers he is not only still in town, but has donned a dodgy wig and false teeth to repeatedly infiltrate work and social events as an alter ego Toni Erdmann. He introduces himself to her friends and colleagues as either a lifestyle coach or German ambassador and, with little option but to play along, a mortified Ines becomes progressively more stressed as she struggles to negotiate a major business deal amid the ludicrousness of her father’s antics. Among other indignities, poor Ines finds herself belting out an impromptu performance of Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All to a room full of strangers and when she finally attempts to heed her father’s advice and lighten up, a hilarious birthday brunch ensues.

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Ade is certainly in no hurry to tell the story and some may find the many elongated shots – in which nothing really happens other than silent contemplation and awkward unease – frustrating, but other than pushing the running time well beyond two and a half hours, these moments serve to demonstrate just how isolated our two characters are, not just from each other, but from the world around them. Winfried always needs to be performing in an effort to connect with others, hiding his true self behind pranks, makeup and costumes, while Ines buries herself in her work, desperate for recognition in a male dominated industry. It is an interesting dynamic because they each see the other as something they do not want to be, yet they are more alike than they seem willing to acknowledge. The performances from Simonichek and Hüller are terrific and Ingrid Bisu is also great as Ines’ put-upon assistant Anca. With Toni Erdmann, Ade has delivered a comedy that refuses to conform to any narrative or stylistic template; a melancholic musing on what constitutes a successful life.

Mountain Goat Moments

Despite sweltering heat in Brisbane on Saturday, plenty of people flocked to Fortitude Valley to take in a feast of free live music as part of the 2017 Mountain Goat Valley Crawl. With 20 artists across five venues, there was plenty of variety on offer throughout the night for music lovers of all persuasions.

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Those concerned that The Zoo might have lost some of its mojo in the wake of recent renovations will be pleased to know that this Valley institution remains a seething pit of sweat, with the recent changes to the layout only serving to make movement through the facility a bit easier and provide greater capacity both in front of the stage and at the rear of the venue adjacent to the bar.

Hosting the first publicly announced reunion gig by Butterfingers, The Zoo was a heaving mass of steam and sweat as Evil Eddie and his band mates ripped through the Butterfingers back catalogue and teased with some new music that is soon to be released.

A selection of images from the 2017 Mountain Goat Valley Crawl are now available for viewing in the gallery.

Valley Music Crawl on Saturday

If a night of free live music featuring  25 local and interstate artists across multiple venues sounds like the perfect night out, then Fortitude Valley is the place to be this Saturday night (February 11) for the Mountain Goat Valley Crawl. The 2017 event features a great line-up of performers, including what will be only the second performance from local legends Butterfingers in about 7 years. The band reconvened in June last year to play the farewell gig for Joc Curren after 23 years as proprietor of The Zoo and it is at the same (newly renovated) venue that will see Butterfingers continue their reformation this weekend.

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In addition to Butterfingers, the 2017 Mountain Goat Valley Crawl will feature the likes of Polish Club, Waax, Alice Ivey, Moses Gunn Collective, Angharad Drake and I Know Leopard in a diverse line-up that will be showcased in five different Valley venues. In addition to The Zoo, the crawl will also visit Black Bear Lodge, The Foundry, The Brightside and Woolly Mammoth and punters will be faced with some tough choices with the scheduling clashes that are inevitable for an event such as this, so check out the schedule below and plan your night.

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The line-up is great and entry is free, so what more could you possibly need to tempt you out for a night of great live music.  For event information, follow Mountain Goat Valley Crawl on Facebook.

 

 

A United Kingdom

Whilst first and foremost a love story, A United Kingdom is unapologetic in its portrayal of the impact and influence of British colonialism in Africa and, in particular, the collusion between Britain and South Africa in an effort to dictate the social, political, cultural and economic structures in Botswana, or the Bechuanaland Protectorate as it was known at the time. Great Britain is determined to keep Seretse Karma (David Oyelowo) from taking his rightful place as king of Botswana, with his marriage to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white Englishwoman, serving as the pretext for their objections, despite the fact that Seretse has the overwhelming support of the people over whom he would rule. Based on real events that led to the formation of a democratic republic in 1966 that saw Seretse elected as the first president, the film begins in the late 1940’s in England where Seretse is studying at Oxford in preparation for his return to Botswana to take over as the legitimate tribal chief. However, reluctant to relinquish the control they yield over the territory and to assuage the concerns of neighbouring South Africa, the British go out of their way to prevent Seretse from returning to his homeland.

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It is on the dreary streets of post-war London where our lovebirds meet, bonding at a Missionary Society dance over a mutual fondness for jazz. Given the scale of the story to be told, this part moves pretty quickly as the couple fall madly in love and get married, regardless of the fact that their relationship doesn’t sit well with many, from the drunken yobs on the street who slur ‘keep your black hands off what’s ours’, to Ruth’s father in his declaration that he never wants to see her again. From the couple of tepid dates we see, it’s not easy to understand the strength of their mutual attraction until it becomes clear that they are both prepared to put so much in jeopardy by being together; his future kingship and her relationship with her family. Furthermore, their arrival in Botswana isn’t particularly well received initially either, a situation that delights the pompous, detestable British High Commissioner Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport). However, there is no doubt about the strength of the relationship during the months that follow as they resist every effort to undermine their marriage and Seretse’s vision for an independent nation. Desperate to protect their access to gold and uranium deposits in South Africa, the British cannot be seen to endorse a mixed-race marriage and upset a government who have just introduced apartheid, so Seretse is summoned to England and summarily exiled from his homeland.

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Director Amma Assante (Belle) has expertly melded the politics with the romance to make the story appealing for a wide audience. Oyelowo is dignified and charming as a man struggling to find a balance between the two things he loves most; his family and his country. Assante shot much of the film on location in Botswana, including the house where the real-life Seretse and Ruth Khama lived in the early years of their marriage. Needless to say, the rich sun-drenched colours of the Botswana plains are in stark contrast to the bleak, balmy England that Ruth has left behind and, once the initial resistance to her presence is overcome, she transforms from a sheepish suburban girl to a woman of considerable courage and resilience as she is faced with an extended period alone in Botswana while her husband remains confined in England. The two leads have a great rapport and their scenes together reek of genuine affection and good humour. Davenport and Tom Felton are suitably despicable as the bureaucrats who delight in the authority afforded them, while Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael again finds herself cast as the less pretty, less popular sister.

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It is always good to reflect on the sins of the past in an effort to avoid repeating them, although, the way in which western nations continue to impose their will over other nations (with the Middle East, rather than Africa, now the object of their attentions) with little regard for tradition, culture, beliefs or, in many cases, the will of the people, suggests that perhaps we haven’t really learnt much at all. Both entertaining and enlightening, A United Kingdom is a timely reminder that the white, western way of doing things isn’t always the best way.

Manchester by the Sea

If Kenneth Lonergan’s three films as director tell us anything, it is that the filmmaker, playwright and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter has no interest in making us feel good. Lonergan is a master at presenting damaged characters who are often emotionally disconnected from the world around them, utterly unlikeable and, at times, almost unbearable in their social dysfunction. Whether it’s Mark Ruffalo’s ne’er-do-well younger brother to Laura Linney’s single mum in You Can Count on Me or Anna Paquin’s self-absorbed title character in the superb Margaret, Lonergan has an uncanny knack of crafting characters that are so utterly compelling in their unpleasantness that we somehow remain interested in their plight. Mixing the darkest of moments with flashes of humour, Manchester by the Sea is audacious and uncomfortable, but utterly mesmerising in its exploration of grief, guilt and forgiveness.  As was the case with Lonergan’s two previous films, much of the credit for their success lies with the actors who take on the challenge of such roles and, having prised great turns from Linney, Ruffalo and Paquin, Lonergan presents Casey Affleck with an opportunity to showcase his considerable acting chops and boy does he deliver with a gobsmackingly good performance as the masochistic, depressive Lee Chandler.

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Lee is a brooding, irritable loner who lives in a small basement apartment in Boston and works as a handyman/janitor. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly, Lee returns to the sleepy fishing town of his youth to discover that he has been granted guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee clearly has some affection for Patrick, as shown in the flashback that opens the film, but it is a mystery to everybody, and Lee especially, why Joe has handed him parental responsibility. It’s clear that Lee is a damaged soul but Lonergan takes his sweet time in revealing the nature of the tragedy that has left him a broken man. When we do finally discover the cause of his emotional malaise, it is perhaps even worse than we might have imagined, but it does make it easier to understand why Lee is so resistant to taking on the role that Joe has assigned to him. He just doesn’t trust himself to take on the responsibilities, not the least of which is a long-term relocation to Manchester, the town that serves as a daily reminder of what transpired some 10 years earlier.

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Lee is visibly bristling with anger and self-loathing and Affleck is astounding in his portrayal of a man buried under the weight of emotional trauma. It is a brutal, emotionally raw performance that is compelling to watch. Lee is so utterly unlikeable that even becoming aware of the tragedy fails to prevent you from cringing anytime he finds himself struggling to connect with another human being. He can’t do small talk and is averse to conversation generally and, even though witnessing these exchanges is as awkward for the viewer as it is for Lee, you just can’t look away. The support players are also excellent, with Michelle Williams delivering yet another knockout turn as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, a woman desperate to make amends for her treatment of Lee in the aftermath of the events that destroyed their marriage and left them both emotionally scarred, while Hedges brings some much-needed humour to break the tension as a very typical teenage boy; he plays hockey, is in a band and has a couple of girlfriends on the go, one of which is played by Anna Baryshnikov, the daughter of ballet legend Mikhail. The other is played by Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Hayward, with the likes of Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol also featuring in supporting roles.

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Manchester by the Sea is certainly no larger-than-life studio blockbuster and anybody expecting some trite, feel-good conclusion is going to be disappointed. This is a complex story about the importance of forgiveness, not so much from others but from yourself, and the difficulty in achieving that in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. Whilst still in the early stages of his directorial career, thus far Lonergan has a 100% strike rate of success (where the measurement is quality, not box office) and Manchester by the Sea might just be his best yet, which is saying something given that both You Can Count on Me and Margaret are outstanding. Harrowing at times, Manchester by the Sea is an intimate, affecting character-driven film that deserves to be seen.