Fighting with My Family (2019)

This Friday sees the release of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a biopic about Harriet Tubman, starring British actor Cynthia Erivo in the title role, so I thought I’d look back on the biopic genre for this themed week. Fictionalised version of real people’s lives are usually made after their deaths, looking back on their legacies and sometimes making the mythical aspects of their story just a little bit bigger, but there have been a number in recent years that deal with more recent stories, and such is the case with Fighting with My Family. The person it’s about is still very much alive, and really not very old, but it’s also a story that’s likely not known to mainstream audiences, hence its telling here. As it involves professional wrestling, there’s a cameo for Dwayne Johnson, one of cinema’s most charismatic stars (and he was also attached as a producer), though the sport has always been about showmanship so quite how accurate it is to life is down to individual viewers I suspect.


I remember seeing Florence Pugh being introduced to the audience before the first time I saw The Falling (2014), which she was in all too briefly, and then her wowing us in Lady Macbeth (2016, which really was one of the best films of its year, and I concede I was behind on that), so with all her excellent skills at projecting deeply internalised emotional states, I didn’t quite believe the news that she was going to be playing a wrestler. And aside from some small fudges in the wrestling scenes to accommodate a stunt double (which amount to rather more feverish cutting than you’d ideally want, given the sport’s emphasis on physicality), she really nails the performance aspects. In fact, this was a far more emotional film than I’d expected or prepared for, as it becomes a story about her character (a real life professional wrestler, Saraya/”Paige”) dealing with her family, and them dealing with her success, especially her brother (Jack Lowden) whose arc is very much one of resentment and then grudging acceptance. That’s probably the main drawback for me about this film — the very clear and obvious character arcs that everyone is going through, and the sentimental beats that the film tries to hit at the appropriate moments — but it’s such a warm-hearted enterprise, and approach with such affection, that I didn’t really mind. It got to me, I was involved in her story, and I barely even cared that the big WWE arena climax seemed to come out of nowhere (professionally). Also, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains as solid a presence as you could hope for, even if he never gets his jeans dirty in Norwich as the poster suggests.

Fighting with My Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Stephen Merchant; Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin; Starring Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 5 March 2019.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

大象席地而坐 Da Xiang Xidi Erzuo (An Elephant Sitting Still, 2018)

One of the most striking feature debuts of recent years is this almost four-hour Chinese film by Hu Bo. Perhaps part of the reason it gained distribution is that it was also, sadly, the final film for its director, but I think it stands on its own as a rendition of life in a northern Chinese city. Most Chinese films of this length can’t seem to help but allegorise some aspect of Chinese political life, but Hu Bo puts the focus more resolutely on his characters and, one assumes by extension, on himself and his own feelings. Its length and the sadness contained within it make me feel like I didn’t really do this film justice with my brief notes below, and I want to revisit it again in future with a bit more hindsight.


This is a film filled with darkness. At first that that’s just literal darkness; the early scenes feel like they’re only barely registering in the half-lit gloom of darkened rooms in a miserable industrial town that nobody really wants to live in. But it’s also the darkness that lies within the characters (and, it would seem, from autobiographical details, the director), most of whom seem to be grappling with feelings of mortality or worthlessness or self-hatred or disgust toward their parents or spouses or authority figures… There’s this sadness branching off in so many directions, but mostly it’s directed inwardly.

The film appears to be set over the course of a single day — or at least that’s my reading of it — and is made up of these long takes, often following behind a character. There’s a lot of violence, but you never see this on-screen, it always just happens outside the frame, so instead the camera stays on the faces of those witnessing it or inflicting it; there’s no cathartic release, only the pain of violence refracted back onto the participant. Therefore it’s important that the actors are all excellent, really finding space within this bleak town, within their characters, in an almost documentary-like way.

If that all makes it sound less than entertaining — and be mindful too that this film is almost four hours long — then you would indeed be reading my review correctly. That said, I think there’s a lot of fantastic talent in there, and for all the darkness, there’s still something which connects, but it connects in difficult ways.

An Elephant Sitting Still film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hu Bo 胡波 (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Fan Chao 范超; Starring Peng Yuchang 彭昱暢, Wang Yuwen 王玉雯, Zhang Yu 章宇, Liu Congxi 李從喜; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 15 December 2018.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

I’ve decided to nominate Saturdays on my blog as ‘revisit a theme you’ve already done a week about with a film you’ve watched recently’ so hopping back to my African-American cinema week with this recent release, which is the one whose release I was working my themed week around. It’s directed by a white guy, but (at least partly) written by its star Jimmie Fails, aspects of whose life it tells. It’s a very striking debut feature certainly, and very much worth checking out.


This was a film that surprised me. Obviously it’s impossible to make a film set now in San Francisco without it being at least obliquely (though here less so) about gentrification and the nature of modern capitalism, and I thought that Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy had captured all that perfectly well ten years ago, but this is a completely different film in every aspect. I’m rather surprised, indeed, that it’s a debut film, though at times the denseness of the music and image does feel a little bit cluttered. Still, it has a real poetry to the way it evokes — and at the same denaturalises through its aesthetic choices — modern San Franciscan life. It’s about what it means to live in a place, and love it (“you don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it”), but also be pushed away and alienated by it. Jimmie, the lead character who also contributed to the screenplay, has the quality of a young Don Cheadle, and seems to encapsulate something at times quite profound about the city (and most modern cities), while his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) seems to stand equally outside the place, if for different reasons. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m not just being a bit distracted by the deeply mannered sense of aesthetics, though I can’t deny it caught up with me on several occasions.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Talbot; Writers Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails; Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra; Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

洗骨 Senkotsu (Born Bone Born, 2018)

Heading out further into non-American films that explore the space between comedy and drama, I move to East Asia, where there have been a number of Japanese films in this register. This feature was directed by a noted Japanese comedian, so it has a strong handle on the overtly comic elements of the story, but it also delves into some pretty serious and sombre territory too, given its unwieldy English-language title refers to a funerary practice.


It’s fair to say that reading the synopsis of this film makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff, and at times it really is — there’s nothing like a funerary ritual involving washing and packing away one’s dead relative’s bones after they’ve lain in a cave for four years to spark joy in a viewer. But the way that the director (known best in Japan as a comedian) approaches the material is to find the laughs as well: it feels like every moment of genuine melancholy is leavened with a moment of laugh-out-loud humour, but not in a way that’s jarring but one earned by the situation. Plotwise, it centres around Yuko (Ayame Misaki), the heavily-pregnant daughter of the deceased Emiko, who returns to Okinawa for the bone-washing rite of the title, and whose pregnancy becomes the centre of attention for her family and the community (who is the father, why isn’t she with him, etc.). However, the film itself is about more than her situation, ill-advised as it seems, and it never gets bogged down in sentimentality (how could it, given the subject matter the title suggests), but is instead about the bonds that bring families together. This is all expressed via this ritual which links the characters with the reality of death in a way that’s fairly rare in modern globalised society, and thus seems particularly fascinating. The performances are all excellent, not least my favourite: the leaden-faced and rather hilarious aunt figure who is introduced shouting at a character whom I really identified with (the guy who goes to the funeral and ends up claiming all the uneaten food to take home). For all that you might think this film could be, it turns out to be really rather touching.

Born Bone Born film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Toshiyuki Teruya 照屋年之 [as “Gori” ゴリ]; Cinematographer Takahiro Imai 今井孝博; Starring Eiji Okuda 奥田瑛二, Michitaka Tsutsui 筒井道隆, Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Personal Problems (1980)

When comparing it to a lot of mainstream production of the 1970s, not to mention documentaries about African-American urban lives, this film feels like a completely different world. As the writer Ishmael Reed and producers suggest in a bonus featurette on the Kino Lorber release, Personal Problems derives from an opposition to the ‘Blaxploitation’ films being churned out by Hollywood during the 70s, and also presumably somewhat from a lot of the counter-cultural artists who contributed to the film, none of whom were likely to recognise much about their own lives on the big screen at that time. Reed invokes the alternative circuit of ‘race films’ that developed during the silent era, but aside from 1982’s Losing Ground (itself restored a few years ago) there’s not much that I can think of to compare it to.


This film is a sort-of-television show in the way it’s made (on video, which while never exactly visually stunning, has its own internal beauty, with the ghosting of figures during movement or the oddly unnatural colours), though its first iteration was a radio play. When you watch it, it feels more like an improvised theatre piece, and I suspect that’s the kind of milieu the actors were more familiar with — and indeed, I gather that a lot of it is improvised. In so doing, we see people that seem like real people (and, as mentioned by I think a fair few commentators, that means it has an almost documentary quality at times). I think of the three women near the opening of the film, just chatting at a bar, perched on some tables on a sidewalk. I think of the scenes in the kitchen between Vertamae Grosvenor and Walter Cotton (playing her husband; he’s a lot gruffer and angrier in the preliminary 1979 version included as an extra, but here his beard is thinner and he seems somehow less commanding next to her). She’s telling him to expect her brother, to which he’s not best pleased, then by the end of part one, she’s laying down some furious anger at all of them for disrespecting her home. The second part of the film/TV show/performance piece is a little shorter and follows the death of the elderly father character (Jim Wright). If the first part seems dominated by the voices of the women in the ensemble, this one is altogether manlier, though these men, gathered at a wake then later at a bar, feel adrift and despondent (as I suppose you’d expect given the narrative).

Still, overall, it feels like a film about people living their lives, true in a sense to the ‘meta-soap opera’ the writer promises, and to the melodramatic qualities of the form, but with characters who are more lived-in and weary than that might suggest. There’s little discussion of politics and contemporary society, aside from a memorable scene at a party where Reed’s character says he voted for Reagan to audible consternation (and that scene features an appearance from a grumpy young white intellectual, whom I must try to ensure I do not ever become), but there’s also a vivid sense of urban life in the era. Part of that may come from the grainy old video stock, but I think it pervades a lot of the film, not just the fashion but also some of the choices the characters make. Anyway, it’s a lovely, strange document.

Personal Problems film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Gunn; Writer Ishmael Reed; Cinematographer Robert Polidori; Starring Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton; Length 165 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 January 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)

My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”

LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)”

Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam

Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam”

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”