Mother

It is always amusing when a film somehow manages to generate a wave of rhetoric and faux outrage upon release and few have had such a polarising effect on audiences in recent times than this latest offering from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream). Some of the commentary has bordered on the hysterical and there seems to be a belief among many (including critics who should know better) that the quality of a film (and this film in  particular) must be judged more on how it makes you feel than how technically and artistically accomplished it may be. Hating Mother, or any other film, for whatever reason doesn’t mean that the film is somehow diminished as a work of art. After all, no artist has an obligation to produce work that makes the audience feel good and to assess the worth of a work on such a basis seems devoid of logic. Although Mother is populated by vile characters engaging in all manner of hedonistic debauchery that may leave some people feeling decidedly uncomfortable, and perhaps even somewhat discombobulated, the film is an impressive piece of work. Is it Aranofsky’s best? No. Is it better than most of the cookie-cutter claptrap coming out of Hollywood?  Absolutely!

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Interestingly, all of the grotesquery that pervades the film is seemingly drawn from the stories and characters of the bible, from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel and Ash Wednesday, with the most obvious allegorical element being Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as either Gaia (Mother Earth) or the Virgin Mary, depending on your interpretation. Bardem, whose character is only ever identified as Him, is a revered poet struggling with writer’s block, while Lawrence’s Mother is his much younger wife who possesses an almost Stepford-like devotion to the house they share. When strangers Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) – ostensibly Adam and Eve – arrive at the doorstep and are invited to stay by Him, tensions mount as the houseguests go beyond boorish and brazen in their disdain for Mother. Harris looks suitably gaunt for a man battling an unspecified illness, while Pfeiffer has never been this nasty on screen before and it is good to see her play a character who goes beyond self-absorbed, taking nastiness to a whole new level. Needless to say, they are unable to resist the temptations that lurk in the writer’s study (the Garden of Eden?) and there are no surprises for guessing what happens when their two sons (played by real life siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and a fight ensues. If you think this gives too much away, you are very much mistaken because none of this prepares you what happens through the second half of the film.

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Mother is highly stylised and has been decried by some as pretentious and self-indulgent, but I’m not sure that such accusations are reasonable. Despite the $30 million budget, it seems unlikely that Aronofsky was ever expecting this to attract a mainstream audience in large numbers, although he may well have convinced the studio backers otherwise. It is an audacious film and, to their credit, the various performers seem to have given their all in the name of realising Aronofsky’s unique vision, which seems to also take aim at contemporary issues such as the cult of celebrity and the expectation that the famous must forgo their rights to privacy and dignity in the service of the mob who feel they are owed for their devotion.

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The labyrinthine house is a character in itself, a mysterious bleeding hole in the floor open to all manner of interpretation. The film draws from horror tropes (isolated location, home invaders, hidden basement rooms) but could never be considered a horror film as such. There is plenty of disturbing moments to be sure, but Mother is most frightening in what it has to say about the perils of idolatry in all its forms. This is a perverse, powerful, prescient piece of work from a filmmaker who has a history of delving into the darker recesses of humanity (obsession, addiction, physical and psychological collapse), all of which are on display in abundance here.

The Dancer

The casting of French actress-musician Soko in the lead role is perhaps the biggest strength of this biopic that explores the life and work of Belle Epoque dancer Loie Fuller. In a film that has seemingly taken many liberties with the facts, Soko manages to make the central character a sympathetic figure despite a refusal to compromise that pushes her to the brink of physical and psychological collapse. Helmed by first-time feature director Stéphanie Di Giusto, The Dancer is an ode to creativity and perseverance, celebrating the determination, influence and work ethic of an unconventional artist whose real talents lay in developing unique costume, stage and lighting designs that elevated her performances into a mesmerising display of colour and movement unlike anything that had been seen before. The film does drift into melodrama towards the end, particularly with regard to the relationship between Fuller and the manipulative Isadora (Lily-Rose Depp), but it is a powerful performance from Soko that ensures the film serves as a worthy tribute to an iconic, pioneering artist.

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In an opening sequence that covers a lot of territory in a very short space of time before the opening credits and is, apparently, completely fictional and somewhat removed from the reality of her upbringing, we are introduced to Loie as a 20-something living a hardscrabble existence with her father Ruben (Denis Menochet) somewhere in the American Northwest at the back end of the 19th century. When Ruben is shot and killed (the reason for which is never revealed), Loie makes her way to New York where she takes up residence with her mother Lili (Amanda Plummer), who is a devout devotee of the Temperance Union, an evangelical Christian women’s organisation committed to a life of purity. Seeking a career as an actress, it is during a theatre performance that a wardrobe malfunction proves serendipitous; the catalyst for the creation of the Serpentine Dance that captivates audiences and ultimately secures her a spot with the famed Folies Bergere in Paris.

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The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Loie relies on heavily her expansive dress, elaborate staging and expensive lighting to compensate for her shortcomings as a dancer. Ultimately though, it is the combination of all the various elements that make her performances so spectacular. What is perhaps most impressive about Loie is her refusal to succumb to the torturous physical toll that the performances necessarily demand of her, as though she is punishing herself in some way. When Loie is approached by the Paris Opera to present a performance, she gathers a collective of young protégés that includes Isadora, a beautiful and immensely talented dancer who captivates Loie both professionally and personally. This relationship is not handled particularly well by Di Giusto and ultimately only serves as a distraction, for both Loie and the movie audience.

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As Loie’s benefactor of sorts, Gaspard Ulliel’s Count d’Orsay is an extremely strange character indeed. Physically presenting as a cross between Dick Dastardly and the bad guy from kids TV show Lazy Town, the perpetually ether-sniffing d’Orsay spends much of the film lusting after Loie yet is seemingly impotent. It is his influence that secures Loie her utmost opportunity, yet he makes a spectacular exit from her life at the moment of her greatest triumph. Of the supporting players, Melanie Thierry fares best as Loie’s wrangler Gabrielle, while it is always great to see Plummer (The Fisher King, Pulp Fiction) on screen, although her role here is somewhat inconsequential. The dance sequences are presented in such a way by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Irreversible, Spring Breakers) to capture the mesmerising beauty of Loie’s performances and Soko effectively imbues the insecurity, single-mindedness and quiet despondency of her character. Regardless of the fact that Di Giusto has been somewhat loose in her rendering of the events of Loie’s life, The Dancer is a thoughtful and engaging biopic about an artiste who perhaps deserves one more moment in the spotlight.

 

Patti Cakes

Stories about those for whom music – and rap/hip-hop in particular – have proven an escape from economic and social marginalisation are plentiful and several have already been committed to celluloid via real life re-enactments of the lives of performers such as Eminem (8 Mile), NWA (Straight Outta Compton) and 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Whilst this first ever feature from writer/director Geremy Jasper follows a very similar narrative trajectory as these other films, it is a significant point of difference that the rapper at the centre of the story is Patricia Dombrowski (aka Patti Cakes), a young, overweight white woman struggling to be taken seriously in what is undeniably the most misogynistic of all music genres.  Although this is a fictional story, there seems little doubt that the treatment dished out to Patti is reflective of the struggles women face in trying to break through the wall of machismo that serves to subjugate female voices. In one scene, when Patti upstages a posturing pretender in an impromptu rap battle, she is dismissed with a head butt and a tirade of vitriolic abuse.

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Played with tremendous gusto by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, Patti is a hard working and thoroughly likeable young woman who lives in New Jersey with her deadbeat mother Barb (Bridgett Everett) and ailing grandmother (an aged-up Catherine Moriarty). Once on the cusp of her own success as a singer, Barb has now resigned herself to a routine of drunken nights and a struggle to stay one step ahead of debtors. As she necessarily takes on more responsibility in the wake of Barb’s inability to make ends meet, Patti’s rhymes become her only respite from what is an otherwise dismal existence. Trying to have her voice heard (both literally and figuratively), Patti and her sidekick Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) team up with Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious and unconventional musician, to produce an album under the somewhat naff moniker of PBNJ. However, in the face of myriad setbacks, Patti struggles under the weight of pressure in trying to balance her work and home responsibilities with her dreams of success. Far from the romanticised renderings of New Jersey that the likes of Bruce Springsteen have invoked in song, Jasper paints New York’s nearest neighbour as a wasteland of decay and despair.

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Macdonald certainly doesn’t wilt under the pressure of taking on the lead in her first feature film role, delivering a wonderfully brazen performance as Patti (who performs as Killa P), handling the determination, vulnerability and despair of her character with equal aplomb. However, pretty much every other character is burdened by cliché, a lack of nuance and, with the exception of Moriarty (Raging Bull, Cop Land), unconvincing performances. Everett struggles to make Barb believable and Jheri is an amalgam of various middle-eastern stereotypes, while a late-in-the-piece character transformation comes across as an exercise in playing it safe rather than any narrative necessity.

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Patti is a victim of the failings of others and her biggest challenge lies in convincing herself that she is good enough to secure a future for herself that offers more than tending bar in a low-rent establishment or waiting on guests at fancy parties. Whilst Patti is desperate to secure the attention of her rap hero O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), it is a fellow female rapper who ultimately provides her with an opportunity to showcase her talents and, unlike the true life tales that are the basis of other films of this type, we bring no pre-existing knowledge about the trajectory of the characters fortunes to this story, and Jasper doesn’t offer any definitive answers with regard to whether Patti reaches a level of success that enables her to break free from the shackles of social disadvantage. Despite its shortcomings, there is a lot to like about Patti Cakes, not the least of which is a breakout performance from another Australian seemingly on the cusp of big things in Hollywood.

Big Sound Shots

Big Sound is done for another year with Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley hosting more than 130 new and established Australian and international artists across 18 venues over three nights. Always one of the highlights of Brisbane’s live music calendar, this year saw an expanded schedule of showcase performances staged in conjunction with the Big Sound Music Conference.

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Photos from all three nights of the festival have been uploaded to the gallery.

 

Wonderstruck

It is hard to imagine anybody other than Todd Haynes bringing this work to the screen and we should be very thankful that he did. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own book, Wonderstruck is for the birth of museums what Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorcese) is for the birth of cinema. Haynes has crafted an immaculately exquisite fable about the search for connection; both with other people and the world in which we live. The film features two separate narratives set 50 years apart in New York and each features a 12-year-old deaf character searching for the pieces that they believe will make their lives complete. With previous films such as Carol and Far from Heaven, Haynes has demonstrated a capacity to craft deeply emotional and lusciously luminous films and he has achieved that again here with a movie that rails against convention but should prove as equally appealing to kids as it will to adults.

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It is 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Michigan, where Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with relatives following the death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams). In flashbacks, we learn that, despite his best efforts, he was unable to obtain any information about his father, with Elaine always declaring that she would tell him when the time was right. Of course, that time never came and it is when Ben sneaks back to his mother’s room that he discovers a clue to his father’s identity, only to suffer a freak accident that leaves him unable to hear. As soon as he wakes up in the hospital, Ben hatches a plan to follow his clue and make a break for New York City. Fegley (Pete’s Dragon) seems a little out of sorts in the early scenes, but once he reaches New York, he brings his character to life as he traverses the city with a naivety that proves to be both an asset and a liability, forming a wonderfully naturalistic friendship along with way with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a loner who relishes the opportunity to introduce Ben to the delights of the Museum of Natural History.

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Presented as a silent film in keeping with its 1927 setting, the second narrative arc follows Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who lives with her overbearing father in Hoboken, New Jersey. She spends her time building models of the New York skyline she can see from her window and going to the cinema to see her favourite movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Frustrated by her father’s imperiousness, Rose sets off across the Hudson River to Manhattan in search of Mayhew, and one of the many delights to be had in the film is the contrasting depictions of the city. For Rose, her only real danger is the inherent challenge of traversing the hustle and bustle of the city without hearing, while Ben has to negotiate a city mired in tension and urban decay, a sea of ethnic bohemia awash with panhandlers, hustlers and thieves.

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Cinematographer Edward Lachman captures all of the textures of New York and editor Affonso Goncalves gracefully eases back and forth between the dual stories. The connection between the two threads is revealed in the final act, with an animated sequence that harks back to Haynes’ 1988 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and, whilst the revelations that result are somewhat transparent, the sheer charm of this sequence makes for an entirely satisfactory conclusion, both narratively and emotionally. In her fourth collaboration with Haynes, Moore takes on two different characters over the course of the film and is as reliable as ever. Williams, meanwhile, shines once again despite the limited screen time afforded her while Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, is wonderfully expressive in her first ever role. Soul-stirring and unashamedly optimistic, Wonderstruck is an uplifting, visually intoxicating film from a visionary and unconventional filmmaker.

 

Broken Ghost

Directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Gray (Summer Coda) and shot on location around Livingstone, Montana in the northwest of the United States, Broken Ghost is a mystery drama that combines a lot of interesting elements but ultimately fails to bring them all together in an entirely convincing way.  The screenplay by Abe Pogos, who has extensive experience as a television writer in Australia and also penned Gray’s previous film Sugar Mountain, draws on the familiar premise of a family relocating to the country to escape events of the past, only to find that everything does not quite work out as planned, territory mined by another Australian filmmaker in Sean Byrne with 2014’s The Devil’s Candy.

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Having been forced to flee their previous life for reasons we don’t discover until later in the piece, artist William (Nick Farnell), his pharmacist wife Samantha (Scottie Thompson) and their teenage daughter Imogen (Autry Haydon-Wilson) arrive at their new picturesque rural abode in search of a fresh start. The obligatory strange noises and bumps in the night put the family on edge before William uncovers a mural that alludes to the tragedy that befell the previous occupants of the house. Following a foot-in-mouth moment from Samantha on the very first day at her new school, Imogen immediately finds herself in the sights of Brandon (Devon Bagby), whose subsequent delving serves as the conduit through which we learn of the event that sent the family in search of a fresh start and also sheds light on Imogen’s near-blindness. Whilst Imogen’s condition (which I won’t give away here) is a unique twist, the problem lies with the fact that, whilst the event that triggered their retreat to the country is understandably humiliating for Imogen, it hardly seems serious enough to justify such an upheaval.

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Meanwhile, as the strange goings-on in the house escalate (lights and televisions turning themselves on and off, noises emanating from the attic) to the point where Samantha and Imogen want to leave, William finds himself awash with creativity and determined to stay. Once the actual source of the disturbances is revealed, it is both surprising and somewhat hard to swallow, resulting in a less than satisfactory conclusion to proceedings. The biggest hurdle to overcome in embracing the film is the fact that the characters are so unlikeable, with all of the male characters in particular presented as decidedly unpleasant. William does not treat Samantha or Imogen particularly well and his resentment towards the latter surfaces in a moment of rage, while Brandon is simply a one-dimensional bully and even Eugene (Brandon Lessard), who initially presents as a somewhat decent guy, has morphed into somebody altogether reprehensible by the end. Throw in the lecherous bartender and a mysterious stranger to whom Samantha finds herself drawn and there is not a good bloke to be found.

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Of the performers, it is the newcomers who fare best with both Haydon-Wilson  and Lessard (to a lesser extent given his lack of screen time) making a good fist of their first ever roles. As the couple whose relationship is straining under the weight of events, Farnell and Thompson lack conviction in their portrayals and several scenes suffer from a lack of emotional resonance, whether in moments of tension or affection; shortcomings that are perhaps more attributable to the screenplay than the performances. However, Gray and cinematographer John Garrett have parlayed the miniscule budget into something that is visually impressive, taking full advantage of the landscape and incorporating some unique camera angles and movement to create a sense of disorientation and menace. Despite such efforts though, ultimately Broken Ghost suffers from the fact that neither the characters nor the circumstances in which they find themselves are convincing enough to keep you invested in their plight.