Thursday, August 30, 2018

MWF- Ta-Nehisi Coates: Writing Yourself Into History

Tonight as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival I went to see Ta-Nehisi Coates: Writing Yourself Into History at the Athenaeum Theatre. Hosted by journalist and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe, this hour and half long discussion with American writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates mainly focused on race and politics in the US. Ta-Nehisi began the evening by reading a passage from one of his books about growing up in Baltimore. He spoke about his upbringing with his parents, how he read a lot of books, and how his father, a former Black Panther, forbid the celebration of Thanksgiving due to colonialism and the genocide of Native American people.

As a journalist he has mainly focused his writing on race and culture, and his essays written during the Obama presidency became his most recent book We Were Eight Years In Power. He talked about the two times he was invited to the White House with other journalist after certain articles he had written were published. On his second visit he got into a bit of a heated discussion with President Obama. In discussing Trump's presidential victory, Ta-Nehisi felt it was the result of white supremacy and a backlash by racists against the Obama presidency, not due to anything in particular that Obama had done while in office.

I liked that he spoke about his writing process, and how his publisher made him write one of his books three times before considering it to be at the level for publishing. He also spoke about writing the Black Panther and Captain America comic books and how different it is to writing books as it is a visual medium. The words have to serve the illustrations, and he compared it to writing poetry. Overall it was really interesting to hear Ta-Nehisi speak and also good to see a diverse crowd come out to see him.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Twin Peaks: Conversation With The Stars

I have been a massive fan of Twin Peaks since it first aired in the early 1990s while I was in high school. I even had a series finale party for the final episode with coffee, doughnuts and cherry pie on offer. When the show was resurrected last year for Twin Peaks: The Return I eagerly watched each week's episode and was happy to be returned to the intricate world created by David Lynch and Mark Frost.

Therefore it was very exciting when it was announced some of the stars of the show would be coming to New Zealand and Australia for the first time for Twin Peaks: Conversation with the Stars. The panel discussion featured Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs), Kimmy Robertson (Lucy Moran), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Al Strobel (Phillip Gerard) and executive producer Sabrina S. Sutherland.

Tonight Sally and I headed down to the Palais Theatre as the doors opened in order to catch the music of Twin Peaks being performed by Brisbane's Electric Moon while photos from the show were shown on a screen at the back of the stage. The cast then came out onto the stage to big cheers from the crowd before we were treated to David Lynch himself on the screen as he skyped into the event to answer questions posed by fans who bought VIP tickets. His answers to each question were short and cryptic, with interesting tidbits about letting things go into the air, and that he wants to take up sewing.

After saying goodbye to David the panel discussion began in full. It was hosted by Melbourne writer and Twin Peaks super fan Andy Hazel. He started back at the very beginning and asked everyone how they were originally cast in the show and what it was like to shoot the pilot episode. They then talked about what it was like for them during the first season as the show became super popular. I found it interesting that Dana thought it was the marketing of the show by ABC around "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" that drove that to be the main focus of the first season, because he felt it wasn't the key story line when they were shooting the show. Al spoke about the woods almost being like another main character in the show (despite the fact they shot most of the series on a sound stage in LA).

The panel spoke fondly about those cast members that have died over the years. Michael and Al talked about Jack Nance (Pete Martell and a longtime Lynch collaborator) and how they would go to him to interpret what the script meant when they didn't understand it. Sabrina also discussed Catherine Coulson (the Log Lady) and how they had to send up a film crew to her house to film her scenes for Twin Peaks: The Return because she was terminally ill with cancer (she ended up dying four days later).

Sabrina shared that on the original series she was responsible for numbering all the scripts for each actor so they could prevent any leaks. The cast members often didn't have a full picture of the storylines until they watched the show because they only knew what happened in their own scenes. It was lovely to hear the different stories from the cast, with Kimmy Robertson being particularly funny. You can tell they all have a great fondness for each other and felt honored to get to work with David Lynch on all the various incarnations of Twin Peaks.

When the panel discussion was finished we were treated to a half hour of short films by David Lynch. This one for David Lynch Signature Coffee featuring Barbie was my favorite:

MWF- The Fifth Estate: Masha Gessen

The Melbourne Writers Festival is currently on from 24 August - 2 September 2018, with the theme this year being "A matter of life and death." This afternoon Sally and I went to Deakin Edge at Federation Square to see author, staff writer for The New Yorker, and occasional guest on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee Masha Gessen. Hosted by Sally Warhaft as part of The Wheeler Centre's journalism series the Fifth Estate, this hour-long discussion explored Masha's 2017 book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.

The book charts the lives of four different Russians born in the 1980s and the impact of historical events in Russia as they come of age. I haven't read the book but it sounded really interesting, particularly the psychological effects of living under totalitarianism (similar to torture) and how that impacts the way people behave. Masha spoke about the resurgence of what sociologist Yuri Levada termed homo sovieticus, where under communism people were fearful, isolated and authority-loving. Through all these changes in the country over the past few decades, people have craved order and stability, which has been provided by the state. Masha felt that Putin's Russia has become a less extreme version of a totalitarian state, although that could change over time.

Comedy Queens 2018

Last night I was fortunate enough to get to see the sold out Comedy Queens 2018 Australian tour at 170 Russell. The show was hosted by Australia's Maxi Shield and featured American drag queen legends and newer queens from different seasons of Ru Paul's Drag Race doing a mix of comedy, songs and lip syncs. The three legendary drag performers on the bill Lady Bunny, Sherry Vine and Jackie Beat each took turns performing stand-up and their own parody songs. My favorite was Sherry and Jackie's duet of "I Got You Bitch" (sung to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe").

The two Season 10 girls Monet X Change and Monique Heart each gave really high energy lip sync performances. Monet also had a funny stand-up set, and gave a shout out to a girl in the crowd who created her own sponge dress. Ginger Minj from Season 7 and All Stars 2 did a stand-up set, which unfortunately fell a bit flat with the crowd, as well as a great telephone-themed lip sync mash-up based around Adele's "Hello." Even with the technical difficulty of her track dropping out in the last 30 seconds, the crowd clapped along so she could sing and finish the performance.

The other Season 7 queen and All Stars 3 winner on the bill was my favorite skinny legend Trixie Mattel. Trixie, who was celebrating her 29th birthday, had a tight set of comedy and music. She sang a mix of her own material and mash-up covers of Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi" and Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," alongside Oasis' "Wonderwall" and a hint of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" for all the white people in the crowd. Trixie was so funny and you can tell all her time on the road has made her such a fantastic and engaging performer.

Comedy Queens 2018

This was also my first time getting to see another favorite of mine, Season 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon. She sang a fantastic cabaret version of Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" and then did a whole set about being a high functioning alcoholic and slut, and the influence of different Disney films on sexual preferences. Overall it was an entertaining but long three hour show, which I'm sure will tighten up as they do the other two shows of the tour in Sydney and Brisbane this weekend.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

MIFF- Won't You Be My Neighbor? and McQueen

My last two films for this year's MIFF were appropriately both documentaries. I started my afternoon at Hoyts Melbourne Central with Morgan Neville's film Won't You Be My Neighbor? about the children's television host Fred Rogers. I grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS, so this film was like reliving my childhood. It mixed archival footage with interviews of family, friends and crew members. It was amazing to see how trailblazing the show was, from teaching children about kindness and empathy to addressing serious topics such as death, divorce and war. During the Civil Rights movement Mister Rogers made a point to share a wading pool with Officer Clemmons, played by Francois Clemmons who was African American. In addition, through national tragedies such as Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Mister Rogers was there to help children make sense of it all. It was an emotional film to watch, but a great tribute to Fred Rogers and the important role he played in educating children for over 30 years.

My other film for the afternoon was Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui's documentary McQueen about the British fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. Using his personal archives, fashion show footage, and interviews with family, friends and those who worked with him, the film told the story of how McQueen went from an apprenticeship on Savile Row to being one of the great fashion designers and couturiers of the 1990s and early 2000s. The film was broken up into different sections based around key collections for his McQueen label and Givenchy. It gave you a glimpse of his life as became more popular, and how he kept pushing the envelope with his often controversial runway shows. After the screening Dr Hannah McCann, a lecturer in gender studies from the University of Melbourne, read a short essay about the film and McQueen himself.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

MIFF- I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

This afternoon I headed to the Comedy Theatre for the MIFF film I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story. This documentary by Jessica Leski takes an empathetic look at four generations of female fans of US and British boybands. US teenager Elif was the main focus of the movie as she was followed across her later teenage years during her fandom of One Direction. The other three participants, Australians Susan (The Beatles) and Dara (Take That), and American Sadia (Backstreet Boys), looked back and spoke fondly about those core years of fandom and what the bands meant and still mean to them. Their honesty about their lives and fandom was a reflection of the filmmakers taking this topic seriously and really exploring things with no judgement. I absolutely loved this film and could relate my own fandom for Crowded House/Neil Finn to what they all experienced, from collecting memorabilia (everyone has a box of treasures) to making lifelong friendships with other fans and travelling around the world to see my favorite artists play.

We were fortunate to have a Q&A after the film hosted by Brodie Lancaster with the filmmakers Jessica Leski and Rita Walsh and two Australian participants Susan and Dara. They spoke about the making of the film, how they picked the participants and did a bit of an update about everyone (which I won't say because it will spoil things that happen in the film). If you have ever been part of a fandom, I highly recommend checking out this film.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

MIFF- Kusama: Infinity, Rafiki and Hearts Beat Loud

Today I took the day off work so I could attend three MIFF films throughout the day. I began my morning at the Forum Theatre for the documentary Kusama: Infinity on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It covered her entire career, from a troubled childhood that has influenced her art, to her decision to move to the US in the 1950s where she became an innovative artist in the 1960s New York Pop-Art scene. Kusama was the first artist to exhibit work with soft sculptures, mirrored infinity rooms and room-scale wall installations, but her male peers copied those ideas for their own shows and gained more popularity. She also led a lot of happenings and anti-war protests around New York before her mental illness made her decide to move back to Japan in the early 1970s. It wasn't until later through a couple of retrospective exhibitions of her work and being chosen to represent Japan at the 1992 Venice Biennale that Kusama's talents were finally recognised on a broader scale. This resurrected her career and resulted in her becoming the top-selling female artist in the world. It's an honest and engaging portrait of this trailblazing artist. I was fortunate enough to see her interactive piece Flower obsession at the recent NGV Triennial, which was one of the most popular parts of the exhibition.

My next film in the afternoon was the controversial Kenyan film Rafiki at ACMI. In this drama, written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, tomboyish teen Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is drawn to and strikes up a friendship with the outgoing Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). Their main problem is that they are both the daughters of rival candidates running for local office. As the town gossips catch wind of their romance, it results in horrible consequences for both girls and their futures. This simple coming of age love story screened at Cannes, but has been banned in Kenya due to its theme of homosexuality.

I then met up with Ebony at Hoyts Melbourne Central for my final film of the day, the US dramedy (and my second Gen-X mid-life crisis film) Hearts Beat Loud. Starring Nick Offerman as Frank, a former musician and record store owner, it's about his last summer with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) before she heads off to UCLA in the fall. While Frank is dealing with closing his record store and finding something else to do with his life, his jam sessions with his daughter bring him the most joy. They result in a song, which he uploads to Spotify under the moniker We're Not A Band that then gets picked up on a new indie playlist. Finally getting a glimpse of possible musical success, he pushes his daughter to write more songs with him. It's a sweet and funny little film that captures key transitional stages in both of the main characters' lives, with some pretty good songs as an added bonus.

Monday, August 13, 2018

MIFF- Woman At War and Three Identical Strangers

This evening I began my MIFF films at ACMI with the quirky Icelandic movie Woman At War by director Benedikt Erlingsson. Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a one woman eco-activist trying to stop multinationals taking over Iceland's energy utilities. She heads out on her own to rural areas to repeatedly sabotage power lines using simple tools such as a bow and arrow or hand power saw. She ultimately releases her manifesto as the Mountain Woman as the pressure mounts from authorities try to figure out who Mountain Woman is. While all this is happening Halla gets word from an adoption agency that an application she put in four years ago was successful and she will soon be the mother to a four year old girl from Ukraine. There is a lot of humor and funny plot twists throughout the film, which are enhanced by the soundtrack of Icelandic folk musicians and female Ukrainian singers who appear in scenes at various time as Halla wanders through.

Next I headed over to the Comedy Theatre to meet up with Sally for the incredible documentary Three Identical Strangers. It tells the amazing story of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman who learned at the age of 19 that they were identical triplets separated shortly after they were born. While they became media sensations and the toast of New York, it's the darker truth of why they were separated in the first place that turns this initial good news story into an investigative thriller about the ethics of the adoption agency and a long-term psychological study on nature vs nurture. If you get a chance to see this film check it out as it's amazing.

Friday, August 10, 2018

MIFF- Karrabing Film Collective New Works and Now Sound: Melbourne's Listening

One of the great things about attending MIFF each year is getting to see Australian stories on the big screen. My first session for the evening was the Karrabing Film Collective New Works at the Kino Cinema, which consisted of three short films lasting around 30 minutes each. Night Time Go used manipulated archival footage to tell an alternative story of WWII where the Karrabing drive away the colonists trying to remove them from their lands in the Top End. The Jealous One was about fighting government bureaucracy to get on your own land, as well as a spirit jealous of his wife spending time with others. The final film, The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, was set at the end of the world where only Indigenous people can survive in the toxic landscape. After the screening elder female members of the Karrabing Collective did a Q&A with the audience, and talked about doing these films as a way to keep young people engaged and out of trouble, and be able to tell their own stories.

My other film for the evening was the world premiere of Now Sound: Melbourne's Listening at the Forum Theatre. This film was a documentary about Melbourne's music scene from 2016 to 2018. It covered a lot of different styles of music from indie to electronic and the various artists and subcultures around each scene. The film also explored specific issues such as the fight against gentrification and closure of venues, sexism and harassment in the industry, and the role of independent radio, labels and record shops in championing local music. As director Tobias Willis said before the film started, it's hard to capture Melbourne's entire music scene in around 90 minutes. A lot of the artists that I follow didn't make it into the film. I think the most interesting parts of the film though were when it explored the newer emerging scenes that to this point have been underrepresented in Melbourne.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

MIFF- Yellow Is Forbidden and Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Tonight I attended two MIFF films that were both fashion documentaries. First I went to the Kino Cinema to see Yellow Is Forbidden about Chinese designer Guo Pei. New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly was at the screening and spoke about flying to China to get her to agree to do the documentary. Best known in the West for her yellow dress worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala, the film focused on the lead up to Guo's first Paris fashion show Legend, which was inspired by cathedrals and featured recently at the NGV Triennial. While in Paris she also applied and was accepted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Referring to herself as the world's slowest fashion designer, her runway shows are filled with the most intricate and amazing creations that are often so heavy they are difficult for the models to walk in. I really enjoyed the film and learning more about how Guo Pei runs her fashion business in order to fund her true passion, haute couture designs.

Next I met up with Megan at Hoyts Melbourne Central for Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist about the life and career of British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Director Lorna Tucker wove together archival footage alongside present day interviews with family and the main players in Westwood's fashion business over the years. She had to fight for her independence from ex-partner Malcolm McLaren, as well as have her talents taken seriously by the British fashion establishment. Currently she co-designs her fashion line with husband Andreas Kronthaler, and has turned her focus in recent years to combating climate change. At the start of the film Westwood was reluctant to speak about past events she considered "boring" and by the end, the film raised more questions than answers on aspects of Westwood's life.

Friday, August 03, 2018

MIFF- Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. and Juliet, Naked

One of the big events in Melbourne during the winter is the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is running from 2-19 August 2018. Tonight were my first two MIFF films, which had a bit of a music theme. I began the evening at Hoyts Melbourne Central for the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. about the life and career of the Sri Lankan/British rapper Matangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, best known as M.I.A. Drawing on her own personal footage and that shot by longtime friend Stephen Loveridge, it showed her teen years as a Sri Lankan refugee in London (her father, a leader of the Tamil resistant movement, remained in Sri Lanka), time in art school, filming on the road with Justine Frischmann of Elastica, trips back to Sri Lanka, and rise as a musician. While her debut album Arular was critically acclaimed, it was the global success of the Grammy nominated song "Paper Planes" off her second album Kala that made her well known worldwide. M.I.A.'s political activism, particularly around Tamil people in Sri Lanka, has often caused media controversy for her career, with a key flash point also being her performance with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show where she flipped off the camera. This film was an insightful portrait on M.I.A. and gave me a better understanding of her art, activism and music.

Next I headed over to the Comedy Theatre to meet up with Ebony for the romantic comedy Juliet, Naked, which was adapted from Nick Hornby's novel. Set in the British coastal town of Sandcliff, the film stars Chris O'Dowd as Duncan, an obsessive fan of 90's alternative US rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) who has long since disappeared from music. One day Duncan's long suffering girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) opens a package addressed to Duncan that contains the demo recording of Crowe's album Juliet (titled Juliet, Naked). While she listens to it and thinks it's insipid, Duncan loves it and posts a long review about it to the fan site/forum he runs. When Annie then posts a negative review, Tucker Crowe himself gets in touch with her to say he agrees with her assessment, and they begin to secretly correspond with each other about their lives. Duncan and Annie break up shortly thereafter, and Tucker ends up coming to London to visit his daughter who is having a baby and arranges to meet Annie. It's not all smooth sailing, but this Gen-X midlife crisis film was quite funny and sweet, with great performances by the whole cast.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Breaker Upperers and RBG

Over the last two nights I went to see a couple new films that opened in Australia this past week. The first was the New Zealand comedy The Breaker Upperers. The film was written, directed and stars Madeleine Sami (Mel) and Jackie van Beak (Jen) as two friends who run an agency that breaks up couples through the use of different scenarios. Their main rule is to not get attached to clients, but that fails when Mel becomes friends with Anna (Celia Pacquola) and starts a relationship with young rugby player Jordan (James Rolleston). This leads to a breakdown in Jen and Mel's friendship, and the rest of the film focuses on the fall out. The movie did have some funny moments, including bit parts by Jemaine Clement as Jen's Tinder date and Elroy Finn (Neil Finn's son) as a client of the agency, but overall it was a bit hit and miss with the storyline.

Tonight I saw the documentary RBG, about the life of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With open access to Ginsburg, her family, friends and associates, the film details her remarkable life. Ginsburg was one of the few females in her law class in the 1950s, and argued a series of cases to the Supreme Court around gender equality in the 1970s. Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she has now served for 25 years, and is one of the few liberal justices left. As the Court becomes more conservative she has increasingly had to write powerful dissenting opinions on a number of cases. Ginsburg has also become popular with younger generations through the "Notorious R.B.G." internet memes, merchandise and portrayal by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. Now at 85 years of age everyone is hoping she can hold on until the 2020 Presidential election when hopefully she can be replaced by a Democratic president. This is a fantastic documentary that I highly recommend checking out.
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