Film Review: Moonlight (2016)

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‘Where is my reflection? … I am rendered invisible.’

So goes a quote from the classic of queer black cinema, Tongues Untied (1989), a film about the enforced cultural invisibility of gay and black Americans. Nearly three decades later, the brilliant Moonlight posits an answer: try looking in the sea.

The sea is the backdrop for three key transformative moments in this drama. In each moment as we hear the waves and see the water lapping on sand, we can feel the tide of protagonist Chiron’s soul tugging at him in a direction of change, sometimes towards acceptance of his sexuality and sometimes away. In and ‘out’.

I find it fascinating that the other truly excellent film nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Manchester by the Sea, is another one where the sea is a major presence. That film saw Casey Affleck seemingly crushed under that body of water’s powerful, intimidating expanse, a terrible and constant reminder of his grief. But in Moonlight it is more complex still: the stunted, coiled, and emotionally damaged main character looks out upon the sea and although he sometimes sees oppression, at other times he sees a chance for rebirth, for transformation.

Because water is amorphous and liable to change, and Moonlight is all about change. It can be slotted into that genre called the ‘bildungsroman’ (coming-of-age narrative) in that it follows a young man’s journey from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood. This genre is exceedingly old-fashioned, and dates back at least to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796). Still, miraculously, Moonlight succeeds in putting an entirely fresh spin on it.

Its central figure has three names, which are also the names of the three chapters of the film: Little, Chiron, and Black. We first meet him as a silent, damaged, tiny child who knows he is a victim of bullying by kids who call him ‘faggot’, but doesn’t understand what ‘faggot’ means. His mother is addicted to drugs and his father is absent, two clichés that permeate the fictitious worlds and too often the realities of African-American children. ‘Little’ will strike up an unusual friendship with Juan, a drug dealer who is in many ways responsible for his mother’s condition, but who is also a constructive father figure and teaches him how to swim (in the sea).

Juan is a complex character imbued with tremendous gravitas by Mahershala Ali. He shows us what this film knows better than most coming-of-age stories, which is that nobody who is a formative influence on a child is ever going to have a simple good-or-bad binary effect. ‘Little’ may learn some important lessons from this charismatic figure, but he may also become dangerously infected by the allure of criminality.

The next section jumps to the teenage years of Chiron (his birth name). Still facing the daily bullying of uncaring thugs, combined with the diminishing mental health of his still-addicted mother, Chiron must choose between hiding from and confronting his queer urges. He must also choose whether to confront said thugs with aversion and silence, which is his natural state, or with a confrontational violence that he may have picked up from Juan. Who is he: Little or Chiron?

Or Black? The jump from the second to the third part of the film is where the most dramatic change occurs in Chiron. I won’t deign to spoil the surprise, as its jolt is a large part of the film’s power. You must see it for yourself, and then observe what growing up can do to a man’s sense of self. Chiron must confront the conception of his identity in the bravura final twenty minutes of film, which is the finest sequence of moving image I have seen in the past year.

This multilayered man is performed by the triple-threat Alex Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), and Trevante Rhodes (Black), and if there was any justice in the world they would be sharing the prize for Best Actor with Casey Affleck at the Oscars this year. The rest of the ensemble cast is equally outstanding and includes not just the Oscar-tipped Ali but Naomie Harris (a great turn as the mother, recorded in just three days), Janelle Monáe (not just a mean set of pipes), and Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland (as close friend and potential lover-across-the-ages Kevin).

There are too many people to sing praise to for this intensely cinematic production, which must be seen on the big screen. But special mention to cinematographer James Laxton and of course director Barry Jenkins. Together they forge a distinctive visual style that, in its spiralling tracking shots and dreamy images of mankind subsumed by the natural world has been compared to the films of Terrence Malick.

Perhaps on a surface level this is valid, but Barry Jenkins is a much, much better director than the Malick of late: whereas Malick’s dreaminess is a result of vague on-screen philosophical discussions with himself, Jenkins’ is always at the service of getting deep inside the head of a character for whom verbal expression is a matter of great difficulty. Jenkins’ careful direction of Laxton’s beautifully mounted photography is always in the service of universalising a complex drama about coming to terms with one’s own identity, a crisis that anyone can comprehend and which shoots this film far beyond Malick’s limited reach into the realms of great filmmaking.

Moonlight is that rare thing, and I try really hard not to bandy this term about: a masterpiece.

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Film Review: 20th Century Women (2016)

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This is a film about friendship, punk music, sex, family, the stock market, and feminism. A heady brew, and an all-encompassing, ambitious title to go along with it, but the film is more restrained than all of these elements might suggest.

It takes place in California in the late 70s (at the end of the punk boom) and follows a 15 year old boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who has grown up surrounded by strong, flawed 20th century women.

His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is an intellectually curious single mother who can’t seem to pin down a lasting relationship, but is as interested in people’s inner lives as this film wants to be. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a lodger with striking red hair inspired by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and she will attempt to initiate Dorothea and Jamie into her beloved punk scene and feminist tomes. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a friend of the family and an emotionally damaged, confused youth who has somehow got it into her head that sex and love are incompatible, which is unfortunate for Jamie because he has fallen both in love and lust with her.

Another hanger-on is William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who will try to sleep with two of the above women for reasons he isn’t quite cognisant of himself. When Dorothea realises that this ‘masculine’ figure isn’t exactly the ideal role model for Jamie, she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to guide the kid through the turbulence of adolescence.

Amusingly, they will instead seek to use him as a wall to bounce their own problems against, leaving the poor boy bruised and more sexually frustrated than ever.

The key to enjoyment of this film is in the performances, and director Mike Mills is wise to mostly stay aloof, even if the auteur in him can’t quite resist some zippy flash-forwards and backwards in time. Mills does much better with Elle Fanning than Nicolas Winding Refn, a truly awful actor’s director, ever managed in The Neon Demon, and she emerges as an exciting talent to watch. Greta Gerwig manages to imply deep emotional wounds without ever wallowing in them, and is equally impressive. The alarmingly young-looking Lucas Jade Zumann really makes you feel for a sweet kid who spends more time worrying about women’s orgasms than his own. And of course the great Annette Bening is dynamite as ever, bringing the comedy whenever the film needs it, most particularly in her midlife-crisis attempts to understand the contemporary punk scene. A highlight sees her and Crudup fumblingly attempting to dance to Black Flag. Priceless.

What disappoints me about the film is that it uses punk largely as a metaphor for societal change – I get no sense of any real passion for the music itself, despite a top-notch soundtrack (Clash! Raincoats! Buzzcocks! Benny Goodman?). Scenes in local clubs with long-haired hooligans thrashing out on their out-of-tune instruments don’t seem to get Mike Mills excited in the way they should, and he has a habit of cutting these short before they have divulged any of the genre’s secret powers. We are lectured on how ‘important’ punk is by a well-meaning Abbie, but we never feel it in the membranes of the film, and feeling is so much more important to both music and cinema.

Nevertheless, it’s pleasurable indeed when dealing specifically with its characters and not with half-baked ideas about music or 20th century politics. It aims for some of the disquiet of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, a film that showed us how 70s politics might have impacted upon familial and sexual relations. But Mills doesn’t have the same deft poetic touch that Lee managed to bring to his portrait of the era.

20th Century Women is not a great film, but it’s a diverting, intriguing two hours, and one that nobly aims to show us how a bunch of likeable female characters might seek to interact with a new generation of, you’re damn right, male feminists.

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Album Review: Tinariwen: Elwan (2017)

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Tinariwen are the band critics love to heap praise upon to mask the fact that they don’t know enough about world music. So as someone who doesn’t know enough about world music, and regrets it greatly, do indulge me here in joining the chorus to heap praise upon this mesmerising band.

Almost without precedent for an African group, their international success can partly be attributed to a truly astonishing back story. Writers can’t resist a good narrative, and again in this regard I am no exception.

(For a greater, more comprehensive introduction to the band’s biog, check out this piece by Andy Morgan, a specialist on West Africa and the Sahara who met with the band in their homeland 10 years ago.)

Tinariwen originate from a north-eastern region of Mali and belong to the Islamic Tuareg tribe, a Berber-descended group whose Saharan homeland spreads across geopolitical borders into Libya, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Essentially displaced, and with a woman-friendly variation of Islam that goes against the grain of too many North African governments, the Tuareg people have been actively engaged in numerous conflicts throughout the post-colonial era.

In the first of many Tuareg rebellions, Tinariwen’s lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of the Malian militia. He was only 4 years old. Subsequently forced to flee, Alhabib met with other future band members whilst in exile in Algeria. The 80s saw them journeying to Libya where one Colonel Gaddafi was offering access to military training for all rebel outcasts. Gaddafi was playing on the Tuareg’s hopes of regaining territory in Mali, whilst secretly intending to use them for his own despotic dreams of Libyan expansion. Tinariwen’s members had realised this by the end of the 80s, and soon left Gaddafi’s military base to pursue their own careers.

Here is the part that most interests Western sensibilities: in 1990 many of the band’s members were involved in violent Tuareg uprisings against the incumbent governments of Niger and Mali. Involved in real fighting and real rebellious action, unlike most musicians where it is strictly metaphorical, much has been made of how the band’s dangerous anti-authoritarianism is given rare authenticity by their past militarism. Though as Andy Morgan observes, this simplistic approach to the band is somewhat limiting:

Like almost every other European or North American I was initially dazzled by these stories of ‘real’ rebellion and I’d admit to putting excessive emphasis on them when we started promoting Tinariwen in Europe.  Prolonged contact with the band has since wised me up. It’s clear that the rebellion is a mute subject for them, one that harbours a great deal of pain and bad memories. There was adventure, and there was heroism too, but in the end, the actual conflict was but a brief episode in a long struggle which is full of unexpected shade and subtlety.

‘Shade and subtlety’ spills over from Tinariwen’s philosophy and life experience into their music. And even beyond that into the album cover of Elwan, a gorgeous photo which depicts the subtle distinctions of shade to be found in the dunes of the Sahara.

Elwan is the sixth studio album of this collective since they gave up fighting and started making professional music. It continues their core principle: Tinariwen are a groove band, with not a pretty melody or a wasted, decorative instrument in evidence. They roll along on a prominent, dry percussive backdrop for 50 minutes with little variation on each album, which you might imagine sometimes prove wearying, and it does. But not all that often, thanks to the band’s admirable consistency of intensity.

Because they are very much rhythm-oriented, Elwan might just be Tinariwen’s defining moment to date, as producer Patrick Votan (who was also in charge of 2014’s Emmaar) creates the perfect mix for their percussive pound. When the handclaps come in on ‘Hayati’, they are given the prominence of a punch to the eardrum. And laying atop the sparse Tinde drums we have grown accustomed to on Tinariwen records, the Gangas de Tagounite have been invited along on this occasion to bring a variety of different drums and polyrhythmic techniques to the tableau. It works because it deepens the groove of an already inescapably groove-driven band.

If it helps at all, I like to think of Tinariwen’s music in terms of a coconut (perhaps not the best metaphor for a desert band, but stay with me) – tough on the exterior yet with a rewarding richness to mine once you have penetrated the core. It’s true that the prominence of the rhythm section is likely to alienate listeners not accustomed to Saharan musical traditions, and Alhabib’s terse, minimal-fuss vocals can also prove alienating in conjunction with his use of unfamiliar Islamic scales. Yet notice, for example, how the lead guitar switches non-ingratiatingly from electric to acoustic on a couple of tracks (‘Nizzagh Ijbal’, ‘Assàwt’). Or a snakey riff curls its way into your consciousness on ‘Nànnuflày’, the longest and best track. Or the shrieking women pierce the relaxed atmosphere on ‘Tiwàyyen’. There is ‘subtlety and shade’ all over Elwan, you just have to become acclimatised before you can start to crack its coconut shell.

Overall though, I can’t quite endorse the album as wholeheartedly as other critics. Even if I derive pleasure from the band’s integrity, their aesthetic is for the most part as dry and forbidding as the desert from which they have been forcibly removed. Tinariwen’s caravan drives forever onwards, bravely and relentlessly, yet sometimes I wish it could just attempt to soar above the plains.

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Album Review: Sampha: Process (2017)

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This chap you’ve probably never heard of has worked with all of the major current pop/hip-hop/R&B powerhouses: Beyoncé, Solange, Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean to name a few you just might know.

Sampha is a singer, songwriter, and producer from London, and appears to be an innately modest man despite this triple-edged sabre of talent. He’s been on the scene for over a decade, beefing up tracks by the above artists and many others, his voice usually bringing unmistakeable shades of melancholy to the mix. See particularly ‘Saint Pablo’ and ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, songs greatly enriched by his quiet presence. Yet it’s taken until now for him to record a full-length album, a sign of his humble approach to music, perhaps.

Or maybe the reason is simpler – in recent years he’s suffered health scares (a lump in his throat that pops up in ‘Plastic 100ºC’) and unexpectedly became the primary caregiver to his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2015. These and the more commonplace relationship struggles to afflict young men are the main topics of concern on Process, a promising debut that whispers of greater talent to come.

Unlike Frank Ocean’s Blonde, to which this has been compared, Sampha is unafraid of using plentiful electronic beats to spice up his productions, and doesn’t have an allergy to melody either. This and his warm vocals, pitted against each other at various points with a multitracking that he knows does nothing to reduce his artistry, are the entry points to this album. It is rarely difficult to listen to, despite its weighty themes.

I like nearly everything about the man who shines through – the openness, the caring nature (even for lovers after they’re gone), the pained and oh so human need to share with everyone the process of his grief. He is sometimes too dour in tackling broken romances, which as Drake should know from the heavily panned Views can invite ridicule. Lines like ‘You struck a chord and I listened/You damn near broke all the strings’ from ‘Reverse Faults’ are clever but a touch overstated. Only a touch though, and for the most part he deftly avoids the maudlin melodrama of too much R&B balladry.

Elvis Costello once said that in order to decide whether an album was special: ‘play track 4 – it is usually the one you want.’ So it proves to be on Process: ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ was the point at which I knew for sure that Sampha was more than just hype. The solo piano ballad is a particularly treacherous testing ground for artists because it can so easily invite ridiculous, self-satirising displays of over-emoting. Yet Sampha passes the self-imposed test with flying colours: he keeps his voice as contained as the melody, drawing attention to the words he sings rather than the virtuosity of the vocal approach, which is quietly apparent anyway. The next four words after the title are ‘in my mother’s home’, and her absence is painfully felt in the spareness of this composition. The effect of the whole is utterly heartbreaking.

Other tracks are wilder and show off his range – ‘Blood on Me’ is about grey hoodied creatures chasing Sampha through a bizarre dream world, and operates on a trap beat and bass distortions in its coda to play off this paranoia. ‘Under’ uses its title as a looped hook, which sometimes turns into ‘thunder’ and becomes less hooky and more menacing quicker than you would expect. ‘Take Me Inside’ starts off as yet another piano ballad but gets lost by its end in a magical, dreamy synth world.

Sampha’s creativity is restless, and if he hasn’t quite got it fully under control yet (the second half of the album is less gripping than the first), what other R&B artist would have the guts to concede at the end of his debut album ‘it’s not all about me’?

His mother would be proud.

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Film Review: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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People seem to have the funny idea that ‘foreign’ films are all stuffy, pretentious, boring – as if reading subtitles is the same thing as reading a Dostoevsky novel. And yet Toni Erdmann, a German production set in Romania, is so much more playful and less self-satisfied than any of the recent Oscars hopefuls I’ve seen.

Hacksaw Ridge, Jackie, Loving – none of these are bad films per se, but they are stifled from making creative leaps by their ‘Based on a True Story’ sense of worthiness. Worthiness wins awards for sure, because we like to see tales of injustice overcome, and hence feel good about ourselves. But think back over the great films of the last 100 years. How many of them were based on real-life events? Cinema is at its best when given free reign to wild flights of fancy, to a kind of divine madness that Toni Erdmann taps into beautifully.

The film follows a middle-aged prankster called Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), as divinely mad as they come, as he goes to visit his daughter Ines (played by an awards-worthy Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest, as divinely mad as they don’t. She is working in the city as a ‘Business Consultant’, a title which really means that she is responsible for making thousands of people redundant in businesses that don’t have the spine to do it for themselves. Much like George Clooney in Up in the Air, she is required to switch off all of her emotional faculties in order to carry out this dirty work. Winfried asks at one pointed moment: ‘are you even human?’

Ever the joker, he spots the opportunity for a super prank to be carried out on this rather severe, career-driven daughter. He turns up at conferences and plush networking events to which she has been invited dressed as Toni Erdmann, a fictitious character who wears a scraggly wig and bulbous fake teeth. These protrude as vigorously from his mouth as he does in a party of bourgeois careerists. And his practical jokes will get more and more extreme.

Ines is not amused. Horrified, in fact. Yet she tries to keep up some semblance of social decorum, in order to impress some slimeball CEO who couldn’t give a damn about her. The professionalism with which she is required to act in the face of her father’s increasingly mad interventions shows us the role of businesswoman for exactly what it is: a performance. A more socially accepted one than her father’s Toni Erdmann, of course, but acting all the same.

The film’s main question is this: Which is more real? Playing a straight-faced businesswoman, or playing a raving, cheese-grating lunatic? It’s a version of the eternal battle between the ego and the id, the part of us that wants to succeed in a structured society vs. the part of us that wants to just let loose and be as wild and free as the animals we really are.

I won’t reveal which one triumphs in the end. But the journey there is long (too long) and the questions that it asks us of us will be difficult: the sadism of some of these pranks can be a little hard to stomach. Is it just because, like the daughter, we are too attached to some notion of ‘civilised’ society, and are offended by the intrusion of Toni Erdmann upon this? His feral, unstructured approach to life may well be a threat to us all. Or it may be an attempt to save us.

This is only director Maren Ade’s third feature film, and it’s a mildly extraordinary achievement. It caused a sensation in Cannes last year, and indeed holds up a lot better than the creaky Palme D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake. Many at the time compared it to Luis Buñuel, and I can certainly see the resemblance in its forthright challenge to bourgeois morality, but the truth is that it lacks a little of that master’s discipline. Buñuel made many of the same points more succinctly and with greater visual panache (see L’Age d’Or).

Still, Toni Erdmann has moments of soaring satire to make the belly laugh and the head ache. It should be seen, ideally on a big screen – the nudity, when it comes, should be right there blown up in your face. Everything about the film is grotesque, including its length, and how well you respond to it may well depend on how seriously you take yourself (sit this one out, Mr. Trump). Hopefully a little less after watching this.

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Album Review: Sleater-Kinney: Live in Paris (2017)

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Anyone who believes that rock music is a man’s man’s man’s world should pipe down and give this power trio a listen. Carrie Brownstein (guitar, vocals), Corin Tucker (guitar, extraordinary vocals), and Janet Weiss (drums impossible to ignore) don’t need a bass player because they create such an incendiary ruckus on their own. So incendiary in fact, and so consistent, that Greil Marcus famously labelled them ‘America’s Best Rock Band’ back in 2001. There’ll be no argument with that premise here.

They showed us better than any riot grrrl act of the 90s that punk and feminism were easy bedfellows, movements that struck out against outdated modes of thinking. Yet as forward-thinking as Sleater-Kinney undoubtedly were, they never denied themselves or, crucially, their audiences good old-fashioned rock n’ roll fun, even if it stemmed from classic male bands. That’s why ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ remains, to this day, their battle cry.

And the trio were never afraid to sing about relationship woes either. Real or fictitious, these added complexity to their albums and pushed up against the limits of their political ideology. How could they maintain a fiery independence within sexual/romantic liaisons that were sometimes with men? Relationships require compromise, and Sleater-Kinney were cunningly never hypocritical enough to ignore this fact – see also Beyoncé’s Lemonade (not that I believe for a second the Queen has ever listened to this band).

I have never had the luck of witnessing a Sleater-Kinney live performance, though I have it under good authority that they are every bit as transcendentally brilliant as their recorded output. So ever since its release I have been greedily absorbing every hook, shriek, and duelling guitar display of Live in Paris, their premiere concert recording. Everything I love about the band is duly present: the cathartic levels of rage, Tucker’s ability to curl her voice around an unexpected vocal even at full-pelt-scream, their ability to stretch out into soloing on ‘Entertain’ without descending into grandiose overstatement. And the way in which they top off 45 minutes of feral energy with a softly sung little folk-pop ditty? Just ace.

But a question still lingers: do we need this album? Ask such a thing of most live ‘opuses’, regardless of your level of obsession with the band, and the answer is usually no: it is practically impossible for tracks to match the precision of their studio counterparts. Why on earth would you choose Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! over Beggars Banquet or Let it Bleed, for instance? There are exceptions as always, particularly with the great jazz or rock improvisers, but for the most part I view live recordings as being safely dismissable from the canon.

Live in Paris is not strictly necessary either – there are no new songs here and none of the tracks present manage to outstrip the original. But I would hesitate to dismiss it from Sleater-Kinney’s canon: when they announce after several bashful ‘Mercis’ that they are about to perform a second encore at the end, and the Paris crowd goes wild, it struck me that this album is best looked at as an encore itself. In 2015 they surprised everyone by returning from a decade of solo projects to release an album as top-notch as any in their 90s-00s peak form, No Cities to Love, and with Live in Paris we hear them basking in the jubilation with which it was received by punk fans from all across the world.

It’s a statement of international unity at a time of great international peril. And I for one believe that Sleater-Kinney, who have found that there is a city to love after all, do very much deserve their encore.

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