Shooting the Mafia (2019)

A new documentary called Be Natural about Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering woman filmmaker of the silent era, is released to (presumably limited) UK cinemas this Friday. Therefore for my themed week on the blog this week I’ll be covering films (documentaries mostly, I imagine) about women filmmakers and photographers.


This new film by veteran documentarian Kim Longinotto is, ostensibly, about Letizia Battaglia, a now elderly woman who made a career in photography, capturing the spirit of her home (the island of Sicily), and particularly in documenting the atrocities committed by the Mafia there. However, Letizia is in fact just a guide into this world of organised crime, and the film spends more of its time — including archival video footage, TV news and interviews, quite aside from Letizia’s photography — tracking the way in which the Mafia controlled society, and were progressively brought down by prosecutors, many of whom met their own unfortunate ends thanks to this violence. It’s a film about the legacy of violence on a people, and it also happens to be about one woman who played her own small part in documenting that and helping to shed light on the injustice.

Shooting the Mafia film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Kim Longinotto; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 21 December 2019.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.


Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

My Favourite Films of 2019

Well there’s a lot we could talk about if we’re talking about 2019 — there’s a lot — but this is a film blog so let’s just stick to the cinema screens for now. Obviously there’s always gonna be some crossover, but those effects usually come a few years down the line, so I look forward to the bounty of social commentary (and ongoing environmental catastrophe) we’ll be getting in 2022, if the world survives. In the meantime, the big news chez Filmcentric is that for the first time since 2015, I saw more films at the cinema than I did at home (53% to 47%). The total number of films I saw did also decline from last year — it was my stated resolution to watch fewer, after all — but only by a little… I still saw 497 films of longer than half an hour (my threshold for what constitutes a ‘medium-length’ film). It’s also a year in which I made an effort to revive this blog, so for the last six months, I’ve been doing themed weeks and catching up on posting reviews. I shall try to continue doing so in 2020.

In the other metrics that I keep track of, I saw fewer films directed by people of colour (down to 41%, which is still far better than I managed before 2017) but more directed by women (44%, up from 39% last year). In real terms, I saw more films directed by women last year (218) than I’ve ever watched before in a single year, so at this stage I’m not particularly worried about my unconscious biases in what I watch. As such, films directed by white men were down to 31% of the total for 2019 (from a high of 77% in 2013, when I first started recording my statistics with any thoroughness).

In previous years I’ve had a resolution for the new year — and, given the paragraph above, this time it’s not going to be about watching more films directed by women (though I certainly don’t intend to avoid them of course). Instead, I want to get through my Criterion Collection viewing quicker. I’ve been doing them one-a-week for the last five years or so, the only constant feature on my blog in all the many months of neglect, but their release schedule seems to be outstripping my ability to watch them, and so I’m doubling it to two-a-week (still on Sundays, the anointed day). That way I can get through more classic cinema, and hopefully catch up with their release schedule within the next five years. It will of course inevitably mean I watch more old films directed by dead white male auteurs, but on the other hand there will probably be plenty of classic Japanese films too, which I’m really looking forward to (in the meantime, my Japanese language learning is continuing, though I’m hardly excelling).

There are of course many ‘best of’ lists that I could compile. I have one on Letterboxd which ranks my top 30 films that were actually released in the UK in 2019, a static list which will include films I had on my Favourite Films of 2018 list over here (films I saw at festivals for example, which weren’t given a UK release until 2019). I’ve also got a list of all the 2019 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2019 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing.

Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2019, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. I said last year that 2018 was a really strong year for cinema, and I think that’s still the case. As with every year, perhaps I won’t see the best films of 2019 until next year, or maybe not for many years, given distribution patterns — and who only knows how Brexit will affect cinematic distribution in this country, but I hope it will be some time before the full effects are felt.

30 Knock Down the House


This Netflix documentary isn’t all about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but rather about four women all running for congressional election for the first time in 2018, and not all of them successful. That said, AOC is by far the stand-out screen presence, and her story remains the strongest and most uplifting, though in general this is a film that aims to redress some of the depressing political stories and suggest that maybe there’s some hope for the future. [Released direct to VoD]

29 La hija de un ladrón (A Thief’s Daughter)


A classic arty festival film, which slowly reveals details of its characters’ lives as it goes on, using point-of-view shots following a single character as she deals with her life and her family. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

28 The Last Black Man in San Francisco


A very mannered film, but a distinctive one nonetheless, if for its lead performers as for any other reason (I could take or leave the aesthetics in retrospect, but given my filmic loves it’s no surprise that they nevertheless had an effect on me).

27 What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)


Another portrait of a community (a Southern US Black community in this case) by a white outsider, but one that gains greatly from its carefully-chosen subjects and the passion they all share for where they live. It looks gorgeous too.

26 Drift (2017)


This is a festival film from previous years that got a release on Mubi, which never feels like a ‘big’ kind of release, but sometimes it’s all some films can gain. As the title suggests it has a woozy, minimalist feel, being a sea-bound film with a tangible sense of spiritual movement. It’s closer at times to the kind of avant-garde minimalist cinema of James Benning than to traditional narratives, but it sums up a year of films pitched subtly between documentary and fiction. [Released direct to VoD]

25 Marriage Story


I mean, plenty has been said about this two-hander between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, but I enjoyed it.

24 سه رخ Se rokh (3 Faces, 2018)


A Jafar Panahi film, whose works always seem to just sort of slip out without great fanfare these days. Like the Baumbach film above (or those of Abbas Kiarostami, on whose work this clearly draws inspiration), his films still have that dialogic energy of conversation between two people as they take a journey.

23 Holiday (2018)


This is by turns a nasty, upsetting work and also something that feels really pointed in its dissection of bourgeois tropes.

22 John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch


The most fun I’ve had watching a Netflix special all year, released only a week ago so perhaps I’m overrating it. However, despite the format — the comedian does an old-school variety special with a bunch of kids that feels closer to Saturday Night Live skits crossed with Sesame Street social consciousness — it’s really rather charming. Plus David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal (amongst others) pop up for musical numbers which are both just delightful. [Released direct to VoD]

21 Transit (2018)


Another weighty arthouse film from established auteur Christian Petzold, the first of his films I’d seen, and really rather affecting in telling its WW2 story in a modern setting.

20 Eighth Grade (2018)


There were a number of American films about young women released this year, and most of them were really good (Booksmart missed out of my top films, but Little Women appears below). This one is closer to angst-ridden drama than brightly-lit comedy, but the way it handles its tone is probably the best thing about it, aside from Elsie Fisher’s excellent lead performance.

19 Her Smell (2018)


A divisive, at times uncomfortable film which, like a lot of Alex Ross Perry’s little psychodramas, is about a woman falling apart under various pressures. The setting is 90s alt-rock and it just zeroes in on Elisabeth Moss’s unhinged performance and sort of stays there for two hours. [Released direct to VoD]

18 Overseas


A studied documentary about Filipino service workers being trained for their careers overseas. It sticks with the women and their stories, becoming in the process not just a portrait of a particularly undervalued underclass in the world economy, but of an entire nation and its hopes and failings. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

17 Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé


Unlike Lemonade (2016), this isn’t an experimental narrative tone poem, but rather a fairly straightforward music documentary about the singer putting on a show for Coachella 2018. Mostly it’s just edited footage from her two performances, but she’s a better performer than most and her sets and stagework are superlative, such that it becomes as much about celebrating Southern Black culture as it is about the music itself. [Released direct to VoD]

16 Hustlers


There was a lot of critical talk about how much fun this heist film was when it came out, but in retrospect it’s not really all that fun, because it’s about people living quite harsh lives having to make difficult decisions, about American capitalism in short, and the choices that have to be made to survive.

15 소공녀 So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat, 2017)


Another older film ‘released’ (such as these things ever are) on Mubi, but it’s a delightful South Korean character study about a youngish woman, perhaps a little older than she’d like to be given her lifestyle, just trying to get by in the world. [Released direct to VoD]

14 Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)


This is the kind of polished, well-written character-based drama that Hollywood needs to be putting out there, and not the stupid bloated Disney theme park rides they currently mostly do — I mean, each to their own and all that, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them myself, but… why am I going off on this tangent? Anyway, this is a drama albeit with comic elements (how can you avoid them with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant?) with a strong undertone of melancholy and regret.

13 Minding the Gap (2018)


There have been a few films in recent years about skateboarders (I still think Skate Kitchen was my favourite), but this documentary is about a bunch of (mostly) guys and how they use the hobby as a distraction from their difficult lives.

12 地久天长 Di Jiu Tian Chang (So Long, My Son)


Chinese cinema has a great depth of talent in crafting multi-generation epics of families growing through turbulent social and political times, and this was 2019’s best one, in my opinion.

11 Amazing Grace (2018)


Really this is a film from 1972, but for various reasons only finally released this past year, and a glorious document of Aretha Franklin in her gospel prime.

10 The Irishman


Another Netflix-originated film that everyone has had an opinion about, and yes it deals once again with the familiar mafia guys of Scorsese’s career, but it puts a new spin on them. I won’t say it’s fresh, because in a sense it’s a film that’s about the staleness of a lifestyle and a career. It is as cinematic as it can be in trying to strip its characters of grace or glamour, leaving them these hulking shells of shattered human beings.

9 Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory)


Speaking of shells, albeit ones with somewhat more grace and glamour, Antonio Banderas plays a weary older film director trying to reconnect with his past a little bit. I didn’t expect to be loving a Pedro Almodóvar film so much, but it’s been years since I last saw one of his films and maybe both of us are growing up a bit.

8 Little Women


Every bit as delightful as everyone has said, and yes sure we should certainly be seeing more films about young women’s lives who aren’t white and (however they may be described in the novel) very much the privileged middle-class, which has sort of been another theme of these recent American coming of age films. However, for what it is, this is superlative, and Florence Pugh’s solid run of acting success only continues.

7 سيد المجهول Sayed el-Majhoul (The Unknown Saint)


Every London Film Festival, there’s a film from the MENA countries which I really love, and this year it was this Tunisian film, a sly comedy that has a consistently delightful tone and some lovely performances. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

6 და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ Da cven vicekvet (And Then We Danced)


I think this may end up being the word-of-mouth breakthrough film of the year, given how well it’s been doing at various film festivals. Whether that translates to commercial success is another matter, but if you only see one Georgian film about gay men falling in love over traditional dance, then make it this one. But it’s delightful and passionate whatever you look for in cinema. It just happens to have lots of great (and at times painful looking) dancing. [Festival screening; UK release set for March 2020]

5 If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)


Barry Jenkins’s follow-up film to Moonlight didn’t seem to catch people the same way, but it’s every bit as beautiful and evocative and may in the fullness of time be the greater film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a period, though, and a film about pure emotion.

4 The Souvenir


As a portrait of the artist as a young woman learning her filmmaking craft and falling for a ne’er-do-well with a heroin habit in chichi West London, I certainly didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did, but there you go. Apparently there’s going to be a sequel.

3 Atlantique (Atlantics)


As ravishing as it is mysterious, Mati Diop has all the talent of her more famous uncle (Djibril Diop Mambéty), though it’s a slow-burn of a film that just sort of flares inside your mind for a bit, not as immediate as some other films, but one that will probably reward rewatching.

2 Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)


I liked Alice Rohrwacher’s earlier films, but I loved this one. I don’t know what’s different about it, but it tells a story of a misfit over a number of years as a sort of fairy tale about modern life.

1 Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)


Gorgeous and swooning but also taut and unflinching, this feels as choreographed and as carefully designed as any others on my list, but it also has Adèle Haënel, truly one of the greatest stars of the last decade. [Festival screening; UK release set for February 2020]

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Hustlers (2019)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the best films of the year, possible awards contenders for performances, and the like. I don’t quite think Hustlers ranks as the best film of the year, but it’ll probably be somewhere in the mix. However, it did make for a bracing change from a lot of the multiplex fodder, and it’s good to see more women directors getting work. Her earlier films The Meddler (2015) and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) showed plenty of promise, which I think Hustlers has started to deliver.


I don’t think that at a filmmaking level this is quite as great as it could be, at least visually, though it makes great use of period costuming (it’s largely set in the late-2000s), and it’s all very nicely lit. If with its strip club setting and on-stage sequences it seems at times like a music video, then it’s also willing to poke some fun at itself in this regard, as when it has Usher playing himself raining money on all the women while his own hit plays on the soundtrack. Indeed, generally, the film has some really effective (and distinctive) uses of musical cues — I always like to see Scott Walker getting some love (via “Next”, one of his 1960s Jacques Brel covers in this film’s case). But this is a film primarily built in the script and performances, as Jennifer Lopez (who is, in case it has been missed anywhere, 50), playing veteran Ramona, takes Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy under her wing, and together they unlock their potential in making money off the sleazy guys who come to see them. That said, it’s not interested in demonising the profession from either end: it’s made clear that there’s no shame in stripping, it’s a dependable job in an economy like that of the States, and the guys they’re fleecing are the filthy rich (Ramona breaks down the various categories of clientele), who ultimately don’t deserve our pity. If anything, the filmmakers are only too happy to make that clear by having Julia Stiles’ reporter (and audience surrogate) basically exculpate them. No, this is a film that is about — what else — the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the paths it drives people down when they’re desperate, and it makes those points pretty clear and pretty effectively. Also, it has an effortlessly diverse and interesting cast, who each get their moments.

Hustlers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lorene Scafaria (based on the article “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole from (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves” by Jessica Pressler); Cinematographer Todd Banhazl; Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Atlantique (Atlantics, 2019)

One of the strongest and strangest debut films this year was by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the niece of filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Over the past decade she’s made a number of beguiling short films (a personal favourite is Snow Canon) and her latest has had distribution from Netflix, which means a smattering of cinema screenings and a permanent home online. I would love to rewatch this and think it would reward such an effort greatly, not least due to the wonderful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who also shot another of the year’s most beautiful films (and another of my favourites), Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


This is a beautiful, strange, but poetic film about migration — whether the kind we’re familiar with from the news, or the transmigration of the soul (what the ancient Greeks called μετεμψύχωσις metempsychosis), because both of these feature in the film. Indeed, they are in some sense intertwined in enigmatic ways that the film never explains or simplifies, it’s just present in the text which seems to effortlessly find a mythical quality to its storytelling, helped by the beautiful visuals and the specific performance styles which are elicited from the actors. It’s set in Senegal, as Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young middle-class woman, secretly meets with a young construction worker, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), though her family want her to marry Omar, a wealthy socialite who flatters her with gifts of rose gold iPhones as if they’re nothing. The problem is that Souleiman and his compatriots, being exploited by wealthy bosses over their pay, leaves to seek a better life in Europe, leaving Ada behind to deal with the fallout. The plot is largely incidental to the atmosphere created in this seaside city where the crashing waves along the shore become a constant refrain to the movement of her life, as a young cop starts sniffing around, certain that things aren’t what they seem. It reads as a genre piece, but it plays out as something far more mysterious, sensual, beautiful and intoxicating. Ten years ago director Mati Diop made a short film of the same name which had men sit around a beachside campfire speaking about their hopes from migration, and now finally she has this feature film which is so much more. I can see myself rewatching this, because it tells a specific story of people living their lives in Dakar, but it tells another story too, a stronger and more pressing one, in which those who exploit others to their deaths are still called upon to pay the ferryman.

Atlantics film posterCREDITS
Director Mati Diop; Writers Diop and Olivier Demangel; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Ibrahima Traoré; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Marriage Story (2019)

This new Noah Baumbach film has just been released on Netflix, so currently everyone seems to have an opinion about it. Why not let me add mine to the mix, for what very little it is worth at this point.


Despite being primed to dislike this film that appears to be about wealthy white people falling out of love — not to mention some kind of pointed self-fiction dealing with the director and his first marriage — I did really like this film, which in some of its textures and characters reminds me of last year’s Private Life (another Netflix film, albeit one that didn’t even get any cinema screenings over here sadly). This is about Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who have been married ten years but find themselves drawn apart, as much because they want different things than anything they particularly dislike about the other person — though of course those all come out. It’s a film that’s dealing with divorce as an idea, working through all those feelings but working them out in public on film. I was expecting more of a character assassination of the wife, but she comes across to me as pretty reasonable, whereas it’s Driver’s character who can be the real ass most of the time. There are laughs and there’s tension, but most of all there’s really excellent acting that supports this central couple (my confession is I’ve never been a huge fan of either Driver or Johansson), most notably Alan Alda and Laura Dern as the competing divorce lawyers, though it’s nice to see Julie Hagerty on screen again.

Marriage Story film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 23 November 2019.

The Kingmaker (2019)

The latest documentary by American filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield deals with the larger than life figure and real-life influence of Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines during her husband Ferdinand’s dictatorship. It’s the film around which I’ve been working my Philippines cinema-themed week, and I saw it yesterday, a day which saw a large UK election victory for a populist demagogue from the right-wing of the country, elected on the back of a decade of his party’s damaging desire to leave one of the biggest trading blocs in the world, thoroughgoing austerity policies, huge cuts to welfare and other sustained attacks on the most impoverished within society. So that’s fun.


Lauren Greenfield has made films about people with immense wealth before, and both those and her books tend to cover that uncomfortable collision of aspirational wealth and real lived experiences, about little corners of the human psyche (or rather bigger ones in some cases) that desire the glossy fashion spread lifestyle. Imelda Marcos largely fits neatly into that, but with a far bigger and more dangerous political footprint that continues to make itself felt. Ostensibly the title is about her relationship with her husband, the massively corrupt dictator of the Philippines for two decades from the mid-60s to the mid-80s (at which point he was ousted by a ‘People Power’ revolution via the wife of an assassinated opposition leader, Corazon Aquino), whose power she was said to manipulate for her own ends, most famously for the acquisition of art, designer items and of course shoes. But the film moves quickly on from these trappings to her real and lingering effect on Filipino politics, via her family’s dynasty and their support for current dictator-wannabe and populist strongman demagogue Rodrigo Duterte.

Stylistically it frames Marcos with the opulence of her living spaces, repeatedly showing her handing out money to her loyal supporters crowding around her car or in public appearances (the money often held and distributed by her staff at her direction). She shows off her artworks and photos of herself with world leaders (at one point, hilariously, but utterly unconcernedly, breaking some of these framed photos while reaching to show off one, I think with her and Nixon). She is also apparently blithely unaware of how her namedropping comes across, especially when she’s talking about the aforementioned world leaders or her art collection. She could be a figure of fun, but gradually the film becomes more and more serious about her impact, as it layers on the Marcos’s crimes and the real effects of the policies and division they have sowed within their nation, paving the way for her and her family’s chilling return to power.

The Kingmaker film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographers Lars Skree and Shana Hagan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

One Child Nation (2019)

This Friday sees a UK cinematic release for Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, which I saw at the London Film Festival a few months ago. I’ve already done one themed week around films about China (generally Taiwanese or Hong Kong films, or otherwise films not themselves produced by China). However, China is an enormous country with a great deal of varied filmmaking, and has a long and rich history and culture, so it’s worth returning there for a second themed week. This one will have more films actually made in and by the Chinese, although as ever there are films which aren’t exactly sanctioned by the state, and that’s the case with this film, about China’s controversial ‘One Child Policy’.


A powerful film combining the personal testimony of the filmmaker(s) with documentary footage uncovering the extent of the “One Child Policy” in China, which ran from 1979-2015. Nanfu Wang seems to be the dominant voice on the film, but it’s co-directed with Jialing Zhang (or Lynn Zhang, who was also involved in the 2017 documentary Complicit about the lack of environmental protections afforded to Chinese workers), and the film is prompted by the birth of Wang’s child. We see, in pretty graphic terms at times, how the policy affected generations of Chinese families, leading to forced abortions and even infanticide; we see too the propaganda aimed at encouraging families to follow the policy; and then there are the many layers of government, both national, regional and local, aimed at enforcing it. Clearly some areas were more ruthless than others (one interviewee recounts how there are two children in her family because of rather more lax rules in rural areas), but there’s also a persuasive picture of how the policy dovetailed with patriarchal attitudes, meaning a huge number of young girls were essentially sold or taken into “orphanages”, which then placed these children with overseas families, and one strand of the documentary deals with a couple helping to track down such children. It’s a sad film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

One Child Nation film posterCREDITS
Directors Nanfu Wang 王男栿 and Jialing Zhang [or Lynn Zhang] 张嘉玲; Cinematographer Wang and Yuanchen Liu; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 16 October 2019.

Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.