art in all its forms

art in all its forms


PODCAST // Film review - Moonlight

FOR the inaugural PLEASURE PODCAST // Andre Bagoo and Christopher Lou-Hing take a look at Moonlight, which is up for eight Oscars on Sunday. Does the film deserve the accolades heaped on it? Is it a good film or a great film? And will it be a watershed moment in queer cinema? After listening to the podcast, you can also read a full review of the film below.

Moonlight, a film doubly rare
By Andre Bagoo

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

THE PACKED audience at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, for studiofilmclub’s screening of Moonlight was a sign of the tremendous buzz surrounding the film. Dozens of accolades have been heaped on Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age drama, and since its screening last month it’s been nominated for eight Oscars. Whether it wins any is beside the point. Here is a movie that achieves what good art should: it moves its audience to empathy and love.

This is one of those films in which nothing happens yet everything happens. It is structured in three acts, all following the progress of Chiron. We see him as a shell-shocked child (Alex Hibbert) navigating a world torn apart by drugs; as a frail closeted teen (Ashton Sanders) being bullied by schoolmates; and as a buff adult (Trevante Rhodes) who has re-invented himself outwardly, even if he hasn’t yet found expression for his inner desires.

Like Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), which deals with gay life within the Korean-American community, Moonlight gives us something doubly rare: a film about a race not represented enough, and then a minority within that race. Yes, there are black people and some of us are gay. I’ve been waiting too long for this.

At one stage, when two stunning acts of violence occur, we are given a stark choice: be left devastated at the tragic consequences for the main character, or cheer loudly at poetic justice. The crowd at studiofilmclub cheered. Trinidadians are yearning to see themselves onscreen and to live in a world where people aren’t taken advantage of just because they are gay or different in some way.

Trevante Rhodes

Still, Chiron pays a price for his actions. In the process, Jenkins subtly raises difficult questions about the criminal justice system—how its narrow gaze ignores wider social conditions and history. It’s the old determinism versus free will debate.

None of this should suggest Moonlight is a philosophical treatise. Its strength lies in its singular focus on the human stories that populate it, including that of Juan, a charismatic drug-dealer played by Mahershala Ali. Juan is haunted by a guilt that seems to manifest itself in the form of little Chiron. We learn Chiron’s mother Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris) is one of the people to whom Juan sells drugs, effectively enabling the addiction that has torn Chiron’s life apart.

But while it does a good job of depicting black male experience, Moonlight struggles to shake the Madonna-whore complex when it comes to its female figures. They are either overwhelmingly supportive of the men in their lives, or largely sources of trauma. Paula is almost the Hollywood stereotype of a black woman: a crack-head veering out of control. What redeems the film’s treatment of her are early and late scenes that give her a layered complexity. (Harris has spoken about her initial reluctance to take the part, a reluctance she overcame when Jenkins told her the character was akin to his real-life mother.)

Naomie Harris as Paula

While the film seems to fly in its first two acts, things slow down in its third. Developments essential to our understanding of Chiron happen, but much of the conflict is largely off-stage, reducing the tension. We learn that he has molted and become someone at odds with the sexuality explored in his youth. An act of fate triggers a literal voyage of re-discovery. As in Jenkin’s previous film, the wonderfully peripatetic Medicine for Melancholy, we see how the biggest moments of a life are the quietest ones.

And those quiet moments are truly stunning. Jenkin and his cinematographer James Laxon exercise restraint in their use of imagery. They give us the moon only once, but make it count in a stunning dissolve over the ocean. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score veers between stirring violins to Caetano Veloso.

In a marked departure from films such as Get Real, Philadelphia, and even the recent Caribbean films Children of God and Play the Devil, Jenkins dispenses with the standard tragic ending. This is not the place for the passion-infused horror of Brokeback Mountain. It is, instead, a lagniappe to James Ivory’s delicious Maurice. There is one particularly beautiful moment when Chiron takes a glimpse at a path leading to the sea. He could go down that path to the raging waters. Of perhaps he can stay on dry land and, with his beloved, learn to swim. Bravely, he stays in the light.


Paterson: I'm slightly biased about this one. A film about a bus-driver who writes poems. But Jim Jarmusch makes this work. Plus there is an Oscar-worthy performance by Nellie the bulldog as Marvin.

Hidden Figures: A popcorn movie that does justice to unheralded figures, it also is a sobering reminder that segregation and state-sanctioned racism was a fact of life only a few decades ago in the US. How far has the world really come since then in an age of Trump and Brexit?

Loving: A completely overlooked, powerful film featuring the best performances of the year by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. The true story of inter-racial couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were arrested for simply getting married.

Lion: In its first half, this is the kind of film Satyajit Ray would have made were he alive today. The second half loses some momentum but is still moving, with great performances by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.

Play the Devil: A milestone in Trinidad and Tobago cinema which, notwithstanding its tragic ending, impresses with its ravishing poetry.

Arrival: A smart, stylish tear-jerker of a film about the importance of language, disguised as a sci-fi thriller.

NB: Omissions are inevitable, also liked: Closet Monster, Other People, King Cobra, and the Absolutely Fabulous movie!


'Call Me By Your Name' bears sweet, fleeting fruit


Timothée Chalamet

Youth has no shame, shame comes with age.
- Andre Aciman

APRICOT season is brief. It lasts only one month from mid-June to mid-July. Similarly, the relationship at the heart of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's ravishing new film which sets the innocence of first love against the color of the countryside and the 80s.

It's Italy, 1983. Visiting 24-year old American student Oliver (Armie Hammer) causes ripples, impressing with his very sexy etymology skills, lounging poolside in shorts, skipping dinner and cavorting in town after dark. Seventeen-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) tries mightily to be repelled. He complains to his mother about Oliver's refrain of "later" at the end of every conversation, is vexed that Mafalda is never informed when the guest is going to miss dinner, and bristles when girls in town are drawn to the stranger. Yet he doth protest too much. His repulsion thinly conceals a deep fascination. Something stirs, ripens.

Armie Hammer

Guadagnino's last two films I Am Love and A Bigger Splash were stylistically audacious stories in which older characters come of age. Both involve people who are out of place, who struggle to overcome barriers to their happiness. So too here. Just as the older matriarch in I Am Love fights her fascination with her son's young friend, Oliver keeps his distance. Elio submerges his impulses as well, but in a less conscious  and more confused way. But everything rises to the surface in an understated, yet sensual night-time scene.

Not under-stated is the already infamous apricot sequence, a kind of remix of the American Pie/Jason Biggs moment. It's a scene that comes straight out of Aciman's novel where even there it was so warped and overdone as to be utterly plausible and certainly unforgettable. Guadagnino turns something unfilmable into something human. He understands the power of the impulses guiding his characters and cleverly maintains the novel's use of apricots as a leitmotif throughout. If the fruit is sweet and irresistible, it is also difficult to grow, fragile and fleeting.

Some of the initial scenes with Hammer are too opaque, with little indication of Oliver's inner turmoil. Fans of the book might enjoy this as dramatic irony, knowing full well what is about to take place. Others with little knowledge of the story might be put off by the deus ex machina effect when the couple finally pair.

But there are more than enough good things carrying the film forward, notably its depiction of provincial Italy of the 80s. Sufjan Steven's soundtrack is also eerie, intense and beautiful. At the same time, Guadagnino opts out of some of the stylistic gimmicks in his previous films. The result is a simple, yet deeply affecting movie, with a stand-out performance by Chalamet. In the end there is a twist in this James Ivory script which makes us realise the buried subject of the movie might not be the two lovers after all but someone else.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.


A House for Mr Baldwin


In 1979, James Baldwin set out to write a book that would tell the story of America through the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But by the time Baldwin died in Paris in 1987, 'Remember This House' was still unfinished. Raoul Peck's bristling and poetic documentary I Am Not You Negro - which screened to packed audiences here at the Berlinale this week - seeks to give us the final chapter.

The film has the urgency of Baldwin's vision. That vision argues for the end of race: a worldview that is humanist above all. The documentary fuses archive footage of the novelist and poet giving interviews and lectures with records of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more recent events such as the Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and the litany of racist police killings that continue to rock America. In the process, Peck produces something of a curse poem: its invective is stirring and meant to provoke.

Missing is an examination of how Baldwin's sexuality was just as integral to his philosophy as his race. When the author of Giovanni's Room calls on us to love our brothers and sisters, he is not only asking us to remove the barrier of skin colour. He wants us to build a house that truly encompasses all. The film was up for one of the Berlinale's LGBTI awards, but it makes only passing reference to Baldwin's sexuality and the enormous impact it had on his relationship with his publishers, agents, the black community as well as his own output as a writer. Of Malcom X - who had a profound impact on him - Baldwin wrote:
I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable, from love.

Malcolm X

The nature of Baldwin's literary achievement as well as his relationship with key literary figures such as American poet Langston Hughes are also not mapped. Complexity is curtailed.

Where I Am Not Your Negro shines is in its sophisticated examination of cinema as a reflection of a society in which things have gone array. Peck's provocative juxtaposition of jejune Hollywood musicals and comedies with images of lynched black bodies could be dismissed as a cheap gimmick were it not so true: both were often contemporaneous. Forget the American dream. This is American Psycho.

The narrow focus on America should not be mistaken as an indictment of race relations in one country alone. Baldwin lived all over the world and the whole point of his argument for brotherhood is one that also implicates any society where race has been allowed to dominate the narrative. This, by necessity, includes the global entetprise of colonization, premised on racial superiority, the implications of which reverberate today. The film also feels more than timely in the age of Trump and at a time when Europe is struggling to grapple with a refugee crisis inflected by race.

'We had many other Trumps before this one,' Peck said at Thursday's screening in Berlin. 'We share the same history. It's a problem of the whole society. You cannot say you are innocent after seeing the film.'

Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary is like one of Baldwin's strongest sentences: Nothing can be changed until it is faced.


FILM REVIEW: Black Orpheus (1959) - Carnival goes wrong

Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice 

THIS IS a film that navigates worlds. And in the process encounters choppy waters.

Marcel Camus' 1959 classic—which screens tonight at the Big Black Box as part of the TT Film Festival's Carnival Film Series—has been praised and dismissed in equal measure. The film won a Palme d'Or, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. But it has also drawn criticism. Though it gives us a riot of colour, one colour seems to dominate its gaze. At first, we appear to view the lives of black people as outsiders, with everything rendered quaint, charming, exotic. On the strength of just the first half of the film, Barack Obama once criticised its depiction of "childlike blacks", rendered as, "the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages".

There is something disheartening about the first act of the film which manages to gut Carnival of much of its subversion. The scenes of revelry are often unconvincing; performers look trapped in a pantomime in which they have been told they must simulate the ruction of the masquerade. Mas is meant to be art that is worn on the body; it is the one art form that demands incorporation into the world of its audience. But when the camera captures black masqueraders performing satire in European-inspired costumes, the project is reduced to a spectacle now presented in Technicolor for an applauding Global North.

But that's just one side of the equation in this problematic yet sublime film which follows a doomed love triangle.

At a time when black people in Hollywood films were largely relegated to "mammy" roles, Frenchman Camus gave us black people who were relatively complex. Death and love, characters were allowed to fear both. True tenderness unfurls amid the film's cardboard cut-outs. And here is why the film is still relevant, flaws and all: we are still in need of stories that show how much all races are vulnerable, black, white or otherwise. If the depictions here are artificial, it is only because all art must oversimplify.

And though we may have misgivings about the authenticity of what is being depicted, we cannot deny the film's visual power. Camus makes every shot count. Fabric, nature and even fruits in a market stall form part of his kaleidoscope. Symbols are deployed: a bird in a cage; three trams passing each other. The use of mise en scene is memorable. We often move from intimate domestic settings that tell us about characters to wide shots of Sao Paulo, showing us disparities of wealth already well-entrenched at that time in Brazil. Sound is carefully controlled, emphasis is placed on voice and music, the outside world is muted to add menace to footfalls during climatic scenes. Though at times the actors are boxed in by the arc of the story, they still effectively move us, bridging a crucial gap.

The film's climax is predictable to those concerned with the Orpheus legend. Even so, you cannot help but be roused by the film's central segment. Here, Carnival is imbued with both beauty and menace, its contradictory qualities perfectly captured in an extended sequence which begins with a festive parade and ends with a shocking development. The haunting last act brilliantly merges pathos with social commentary on crime, class and marginalisation.

Here is a film that tells us something about Carnival that is often glossed-over: it is the moment when society reveals its true colours.

BLACK ORPHEUS; screen play by Jacques Viot; based on the play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes; directed by Marcel Camus; produced by Sacha Gordine. At the Big Black Box, Murray Street, Woodbrook on February 4 at 7pm. Running time: 100 minutes.
Orpheus . . . . . Breno Mello
Eurydice . . . . . Marpessa Dawn
Mira . . . . . Lourdes de Oliveira
Serafina . . . . . Lea Garcia
Death . . . . . Adhemar da Silva
Hermes . . . . . Alexandro Constantino
Chico . . . . . Waldetar de Souza
Benedito . . . . . Jorge dos Santos
Zeca . . . . . Aurino Cassanio