Saving Face (2004)

A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alice Wu | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, Joan Chen | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017

Kakera (Kakera: A Piece of Our Life, 2009)

Sometimes you can look at a film’s write-ups and realise it’s something you’ll love, but at other times a film will just surprise you — and this one for me is very much the latter. I can’t quite put my finger on what I respond to in director Momoko Ando’s style but she definitely has an eye for framing, and for almost deadpan actions — just simple stuff sometimes, like the way her protagonist Haru rolls out of bed in the morning. Of course the acting is key too, and Hikari Matsushima manages to convey Haru’s withdrawn persona really well without making her unlikeable. As the relationship story progresses, it goes in some odd directions, but ultimately this is a quiet, reflective film about quite turbulent emotions.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Momoko Ando (based on the manga by Erika Sakurazawa) | Cinematographer Koichi Ishii | Starring Hikari Mitsushima, Eriko Nakamura | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 18 March 2017

Pariah (2011)

An excellent debut feature by Dee Rees (who went on to do a fine Bessie Smith biopic), about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world and become comfortable with a gay identity, while dealing with the demands of her religious mother. I can’t speak to the specific feelings or setting obviously, but it’s​ a strong piece of filmmaking. The turbulent emotions seem mirrored by the restless camera (wielded by the excellent Bradford Young), the colours by turns saturated and warm, cold and unflinching. The acting is superb, as is the use of music. It’s a film, too, which resists any simple stereotyping: the fact that our lead character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is top of her class academically is barely mentioned, and while it doesn’t help her through some knockbacks, it does add up to a rounded character.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Dee Rees | Cinematographer Bradford Young | Starring Adepero Oduye | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Airbnb flat, Portland, Friday 7 April 2017

Circumstance (2011)

I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz | Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard | Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.


RETROSPECTIVE SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Blackstar
Director Jennie Livingston | Cinematographer Paul Gibson | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016

Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.


Moonlight (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016

Pojkarna (Girls Lost, 2016)

At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer) | Cinematographer Ragna Jorming | Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Black Star
Director Dee Rees | Writers Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois | Cinematographer Jeff Jur | Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique | Length 107 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]

LFF 2016 Day Seven

Another slight day, Tuesday 11 October, but my two films had their pleasures, and both were introduced by their directors, who did Q&As afterwards. I’m also realising I’m not getting sick of the BFI’s customary, endlessly replayed, trailer for its upcoming season, as I have in previous years. It’s for “Black Star” this time (a two month retrospective of Black American and Black British filmmaking), and I’m really looking forward to seeing some films during it.


Lovesong (2016)Lovesong (2016, USA, dir. So Yong Kim, wr. Kim/Bradley Rust Gray, DOP Kat Westergaard/Guy Godfree)
I am a sucker for films about women in love, even if, for whatever reason (the crushing power of heteronormativity perhaps?), they don’t always work out. I don’t want to spoiler anyone for this particular film, but there’s lots to enjoy in the details. The first half is filmed with a watchful, restless camera as leads Jena Malone and Riley Keough dance (not literally) around one another, Keough’s character Sarah looking after her daughter while apparently on a break from her husband, while Malone’s Mindy just rocks up like a free spirit. There’s then a slightly quieter view of them three years later, reconvening for Mindy’s wedding, uncertain about how they (still) feel. It’s a warm hug of a movie in many ways, even if it can also be a cold shoulder. I wanted more, but what I got was pretty great all the same. I knew Malone was great as an actor, but I’m won round by Keough most of all. [***½]


Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi, 2016)

Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) (2016, Tunisia, dir./wr. Mohamed Ben Attia, DOP Frédéric Noirhomme)
There’s something going on here that’s not immediately evident while watching it. It seems to be the story of a tediously dull working man, doing a boring job unwillingly, walked all over by his mother, shuffling about with nary a smile as his family arrange his wedding. And Hedi is indeed irritatingly passive for much of the film, only belatedly brought out of his shell by Rim, a dancer at a hotel where he’s staying, part of the hotel’s rather pathetic entertainment for the few families who still come to visit at this time of political turmoil. So one could read it as yet another story of a dull man made somehow human by adulterously accepting the love of a free-spirited, warm-hearted woman. But there are allegorical levels to it in terms of its depiction of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary situation, a time in which perhaps Hedi, like many, wants to keep his head down, go along with his family’s time-honoured traditions, but is uncertain how to take control of his/his country’s future — and this is the drama the film is enacting. That all said and understood, Hedi can still seem like a very irritating protagonist. [***½]