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Rift (Rökkur) (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

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The complexity of LGBTQI characters in modern cinema still has a ways to go. Too often, we still see the stereotypical (and offensively two-dimensional) gay-bestie or flamboyant supporting character with all the emotional range and substance of a pop-tart. There are however, glimmers of hope that represent the gay community with intelligence and honesty, cleverly (and with no BS) depicting the realities of LGBTQI relationships.

Rift (Rökkur in the original Icelandic) is absolutely one of these films. Written and directed by Icelandic Erlingur Thoroddsen (Child Eater, 2016 and The Banishing, 2013), Rift is an Icelandic thriller, telling the story of two men in a secluded cabin who are haunted by their dead relationship.

It begins when Gunner (Bjorn Stefansson) receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend, Einar (Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson), months after their unresolved break-up. Einar sounds distraught, like he’s about to do something terrible to himself, so Gunnar drives up to the secluded cabin where Einar is holed-up and soon discovers that there’s more going on than he anticipated. As the two men come to terms with their broken relationship and reminisce about their traumatic childhood experiences, they gradually realise that there may be someone else in this seemingly lonely region. Threatening noises outside the house grow in intensity, and the looming presence of a mysterious figure in red forces the pair to question their reality.

Having both written and directed the film, Erlingur Thoroddsen knows the world he has constructed inside and out, and as a result the complexity of the narrative is sewn into every facet of the writing and direction in a highly obscure and layered way. In fact, it’s one of those films you can watch over and over and find something new every time.

To this end, Thoroddsen is very clever with his tropes here, using a delicate blend of symbolism and distortion to create this fractured, hyper-real environment. The characters – and therefore the audience – are kept in a constant state of questioning what’s real and what isn’t, which keeps the intrigue-factor strong right through to the very end. To give a local comparison, Rift communicates about sexual trauma in much the same way as Aussie smash-hit The Babadook does with mental illness.

If you’re a cinematography nut, Rift is definitely for you. The brutal and vast landscape play a large role in the film’s symbolic value, sure, but if nothing else, it is damn breathtaking to look at.

Likewise, the performances of Bjorn Stefansson and Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson should be commended, as the film is essentially a two-man gig. The pair have very little to rely on; with nothing else but each other and their reactions to what the other is experiencing. It was a tall order, and the pair do a magnificent job in expressing the strange relationship between love and pain.

What’s really – and perhaps most – exciting about this film is that the characters’ sexuality is a complete non-issue. Gunner and Einar are at complete ease with their sexuality, and are represented with the same complexities as a straight couple. The fact that they are gay is never really pointed out, rather they just *are* gay, as much as a straight couple is straight. It’s a significant benchmark for how a mainstream thriller/horror film should be dealing with representations of LGBTQI life.

Rift is terrifying, thrilling, highly-nuanced, a pivotal moment in queer cinema, and one hell of a ride!

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The Innocents

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Warsaw, December 1945: the Second World War is finally over and Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) – a young Red Cross doctor – is treating the last French survivors of the German camps. When a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic one night begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent, what she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy.

A staunch communist and non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza). Fearing the shame of exposure, the hostility of the new anti-Catholic Communist government, and facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their belief and traditions clash with harsh realities.

And that is really what The Innocents is driving home – that reality is often stranger (maybe crueler) than fiction. The most poignant instance being that the film is based on the true story of Madeleine Pauliac – an actual Red Cross doctor who risked her own life helping 25 Polish nuns who were raped repeatedly in their convent by Soviet soldiers, which killed 20 through sustained injuries as well as advanced STDs, and left the survivors to face unwanted pregnancy.

Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Adore) the film moves forward at an excruciatingly glacial pace. Fontaine deliberately hovers for far too long over every painful detail of the characters’ experience, and therefore holds her audience emotionally hostage, unable to escape every unbearable moment suffered by these women. It’s definitely tough watching but a masterful move on Fontaine’s part, who demands that you not only watch their plight, but experience a small part of it, too.

The intensity of the story demands a lot from the actors, some of whom really struggle to get in touch with the intensely broken nature of their characters. Others, however, really rise to the challenge to deliver what may be the performances of their careers. Lou de Laâge, for example, is beautifully stone-like as the tenacious communista Mathilde, and it is thrilling to watch as the cracks in her façade start to appear as the stakes become higher.

Additionally, the bond between de Laâge’s and Agata Buzek’s characters is what really stays with you, having successfully communicated the strength of their connection with almost no dialogue. The main victory though, belongs to Agata Kulesza who plays the supporting role of Mother Abbess; the aggressively devout and unforgiving head nun whose vitriolic faith is both infuriating and glorious. She gives the film that grey area of duality between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that gives the story a real three-dimensional quality.

Though not all parties pull it off, and it’s maybe a tad too long, The Innocents is a film that raises important questions that according to Fontaine “continue to haunt our societies”, demonstrating what radical fundamentalism can lead to. Theology and politics aside, this is a visually breathtaking piece of cinema that despite its strong message of morality, gets completely upstaged by the bleak, crunchy landscape – a must see for both history and cinematography nerds alike.

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Their Finest

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With London emptied of men now fighting in the Second World War, Mrs. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) lands herself a job writing copy for propaganda films that need “a woman’s touch”. Her natural flair quickly gets her noticed by dashing movie producer and screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), whose path would never have crossed hers in peacetime. With the country’s morale at stake, Catrin, Buckley and a colourful crew including withering star, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the nation and restore faith in British national pride. As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin discovers there is as much drama, comedy and passion behind the camera as there is onscreen.

Based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans, Their Finest is almost explicitly tailor-made for mums and grans – painfully so, in fact. It’s got all the trappings you’d expect: vintage glamour and decorum a la ‘40s London, love triangles, conservative British-chortling humour, the war, and of course – what cinematic love ballad would be complete without the seaside?

The film starts out quite patchy. It’s hazy, ambiguous, not to mention there is no discernible narrative among the many moving but unconnected sub-plots. But what starts out as a very tenuous story gets stitched together rather nicely as you move through it, ultimately becoming a cute example of meta screenwriting.

But the whole ‘movie within a movie’ thing is only successful through the magic combo of director Lone Scherfig (Italian For Beginners, An Education), and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov (Miss Sloane).

Here, the pair have designed a reality so layered and sapped-up with lovey-dovey, hubba-hubba sub-text that you’re able to look past the predictability of first-time screenwriter Gabby Chiappe’s adaptation and simply get taken with the tide of romance and nostalgia. It’s impossible not to. Your cynicism will be tested – resistance is futile.

Gemma Arterton is understated yet forceful in her role as Mrs. Catrin Cole, and as such perfectly embodies the swelling rage and frustration of talented women in patriarchal wartime England. Likewise, Sam Claflin is nothing less than charming as the Mr. Darcy-type; rising to the challenge of showing he has range beyond The Hunger Games, and in fact may even have confirmed that he would be better suited to more dramatically skewed roles. Fans of Bill Nighy will not be disappointed with his spectacular, witty-as-ever performance as a fading star struggling to keep his grip on fame. Regrettably however, as a supporting role, his talents – as usual – go typically under-utilised and you find yourself wishing he had a lot more screen time.

All things considered Their Finest relies too much on Harlequin Romance tropes and is for the most part, predictable. But we can forgive because of the filmmakers’ acute and clever awareness of it being so. It’s an endearing quality that successfully disarms your inner judgmental cynic (you know, the one that makes you want to rip your eyeballs out at every stolen glance and wistful stare) – allowing you to actually enjoy something so sickeningly romantic and starry-eyed. Mothers Day is coming up – take mum, gran and maybe even aunty Kath – it’s right up their alley for sure.

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Miss Sloane

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Ahhhh, political lobbies – such an easy target. Too easy, in fact. The problem with the “let’s attack lobbyists” narrative is the tendency for them to become a tale of good versus evil, where morality is black and white, and grey simply doesn’t exist. Lobbyists: bad, political crusaders: good. But what is often left untouched is the exploration of the idea that, actually, everyone sucks. Anyone working in politics knows that you operate primarily in the grey while preaching the black and white – and that’s the gritty, interesting stuff that makes a good film, right? Well, that’s exactly what Miss Sloane is; a Peckinpah-esque intellectual melee in the vein of a two-hour-long House of Cards episode.

Written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, the film takes place in the high-stakes world of political power-brokers, where Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is the most sought after and formidable lobbyist in D.C. Known equally for her cunning and her track record of success, she has always done whatever is required to win – ethical or not. But when she takes on the most powerful opponent of her career, the gun lobby, she finds that winning may come at too high a price.

For a first-timer, Perera’s writing is merciless. It’s hefty with detail and sub-text but moves like a feather in a hurricane – fast, furious and non-linear. What’s really impressive about Perera’s efforts though, is his ability to control and change your opinion of Chastain’s character as the film goes on. Elizabeth Sloane is a moving target for the viewer; you’re with her, you’re against her, you want her to simultaneously succeed and fail. It gives the film a dynamic, three-dimensional quality not often afforded to female-driven content.

And while we’re on the subject, it’s nice to see Hollywood’s treatment of strong female characters challenged, where the tradition to weaken their strength with sympathy is an infuriating device that can make an otherwise solid female presence into a forgettable one. Perera’s Sloane however is a purposely defiant, unsympathetic type, who instead provokes empathy from the audience, rather than pity. You don’t have to feel sorry for her to understand her. That’s good feminist-driven writing.

This pairs well with John Madden’s cold and detached direction, refusing to get caught up too much in the emotional business, instead harnessing the speed and intensity of the writing with a kind of icy composure. The film does however, allow Madden to indulge one of his most criticised directorial tics, where he focuses too much on the superficial, overly-stylised elements of the production (think his earlier work for Shakespeare in Love and Proof). If he ever gets tired of the blockbuster rat race, he’s got a lucrative career shooting commercials for Gucci and Chanel for sure.

Though the writing and directorial combo of Perera and Madden is a well-oiled machine, Miss Sloane is undeniably Chastain’s film – not just because she’s the title character, but because she earns and demands it. Her performance as a brutal, manipulative political chess-master is ugly and masterful. She is a straight-shooting, ethics-be-damned, whiskey-swilling juggernaut in a man’s world, more brilliant and heinous than any opponent she faces. And man, Chastain’s delivery of this stone-cold bitch is unbreakable.

All in all, Miss Sloane is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the genre; political espionage in a game of high stakes one-upmanship. It diverts from the traditionally strict rules of the political thriller enough to be refreshing, but not enough to be revolutionary. It’s got a ballsy female lead, gutsy plot twists and some interesting comments about the current state of political morality.

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Review, Theatrical 5 Comments

If this gives you any indication, Moonlight has so far taken home Best Picture from the 2017 Golden Globes; Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography from the LA Film Critics Association; Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography from the NY Film Critics Circle and the NY Times Best Film of 2016. Whoa.

The contenders are pretty tough this year: Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Jackie, Hell or High Water, Lion… it’s been a remarkably prolific year for Oscar-worthy cinema. But despite its many rivals, Moonlight is a clear stand out, being showered – drenched even – with praise and accolades left, right and center.

So what is it exactly that makes it so spesh? Sure, it’s extraordinarily well written, directed, performed, and executed, but more than that – it is an intensely important film that the world very much needs right now.

Moonlight chronicles the life of Chiron, known affectionately as ‘Little’, throughout three poignant and painful stages of his life. Played by three separate actors, Chiron is a young African-American kid; a Miami inner-city battler, struggling to deal with his dysfunctional home life during the “War on Drugs” era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality in a culture that doesn’t accept it.

Though the film is only his second full-length feature (debuting in 2008 with Medicine For Melancholy), director Barry Jenkins handles this explosive material with the skill and discipline of a dynamite-defusing veteran. From the very first frame, Moonlight has a real nervousness to it, yet it’s never panicked or erratic, rather intensely focused and calm – in fact, uncomfortably so.

Here, Jenkins manages to create a world where everything is dripping with a thick layer of rage, fear and urgency, brought to the boil with such ferocious, unrelenting heat but never actually spilling over the edge. It’s a masterful move in drowning his audience in the emotionally and physically repressed world that Chiron inhabits – to a point of discomfort where you as the viewer lose control and white-hot empathy takes over.

This narrative would have been difficult enough in directing one lead actor, let alone three, where Jenkins and his main Chirons needed to, quite literally, work as one. It was a wildly tall order for the largely novice cast and director, but together they achieve something untainted by bad habits or past experiences.

Each iteration of the character faces different, but also shared challenges: socio-economic disadvantage, addiction, bullying, homophobia, social isolation, puberty, incarceration – and that’s the tip of the iceberg. Alex R. Hibbert (Little Chiron) Ashton Sanders (Middle Chiron) and Trevante Rhodes (Big Chiron) are a holy triumvirate of cinematic wunderkinds, each demonstrating such unbroken, power subtly in their portrayals. Alex R. Hibbert in particular – who, by the way, is only 12 – is a goddamn supernova. There are fully-grown adult actors who could not harness the restraint and force of this young talent. He is pure magic.

Moonlight is all at once painful and jubilant, acting almost as a therapeutic release for what has been a largely untold story around homosexuality within pockets of African-American culture. It is a heroic glimpse into a world that many had known nothing about, and is quite possibly one of the bravest films in cinematic history. Not to be missed.