Beach Rats (2017)

The reason for this week’s themed focus on American films directed by women is because the director of today’s film has a new one out on streaming in the UK at the end of the week, the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This wasn’t her debut film, but it feels like some kind of breakthrough and got a fair bit of attention on the festival circuit. It’s a bleak gay story, as so many are, but with an artfulness helped by the cinematography of the great Hélène Louvart (who has shot Alice Rohrwacher’s films amongst others).

If I can be said to have a ‘type’ when it comes to movies, it’s probably the artfully distressed hazy focus-pulling indie intensity of this over the sun-dappled baroqueness of, say, Call Me by Your Name (the film I went to see just before this one) — but it’s not really fair to compare them, just because they both happen to have gay themes. In fact, this film seems to be more a film about everyone’s favourite post-millennial theme: toxic masculinity. It’s about a group of bros with short cropped hair and very well-defined abdominal musculature who aimlessly sit around and smoke weed. Our protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is dealing with some family drama, but seems to be sort of coasting, interested in men but also very much hiding it from those around him, performatively dressing himself up in hyper-masculine aggression and Instagrammable heteronormativity. I’m sort of over these kinds of stories (gay coming-of-age narratives) leading to bleak places, but in this kind of place, with these kinds of men, it all feels depressingly pre-ordained. Still, it grabs me as a real piece of filmmaking.

Beach Rats film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 November 2017.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.

This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

Booksmart (2019)

Look, I tried to put it off, but after weeks dedicated to Netflix, Mubi and the BFI Player, I turn now to Amazon direct video and Amazon Prime. Whatever you think of Amazon — and I do earnestly encourage you to think bad things about them — they have been involved for a number years in producing their own original content, and have plenty of films (both new and old) available to watch. We’ve been paid-up members on and off (but mostly off) over the years for various reasons, usually because of deals or offers, and I cannot in all good faith tell you to give any more money to Amazon (their owner is offensively wealthy and its warehouse workers are grossly exploited). However, if you also happen to have Amazon Prime, you may be looking for things to watch, hence this week’s theme.

Some of the best American comedies are set in high school, and Booksmart is surely up amongst them. It has a kind of Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You vibe (every bit as broad and brightly-coloured in a constructed way, but with less self-consciously based-on-a-literary-classic inspiration), and doubles-down on the female friendship angle, as two best friends (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) increasingly desperately try to find a graduation party. Yes these characters are all insanely privileged but I see that as part of that particular lineage of teen genre films. Indeed, Beanie Feldstein’s opening ensemble is assuredly a reference to Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (the film is filled with little vignettes that hark back to that film, both in the costuming and several of the scenes, like them being stuck in a remote location with no phone signal). In a very lowkey way it makes the valuable points that it’s possible to have fun at school and still do academically well, and although it does the obligatory high school cliques opening, it refuses to pit them against one another (unlike the rather darker Mean Girls). It has some nice bittersweet moments, but unlike the recent Eighth Grade, this film is not really trying to find the heartbreak (and truth, such as it is, is more in the feelings than in creating a realistic high school environment); rather it is just raucously fun. There are plenty of memorable small roles popping up (such as party girl Gigi, played by Billie Lourd) and strong, likeable, relatable turns from Feldstein and Dever in the lead roles.

Booksmart film posterCREDITS
Director Olivia Wilde; Writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman; Cinematographer Jason McCormick; Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 25 May 2019 (and most recently on Amazon streaming at home, London, Friday 3 April 2020).

再见南屏晚钟 Zaijian nan ping wan zhong (A Dog Barking at the Moon, 2019)

For my final film of the BFI Player week, I’m focusing on this one which was initially due to be presented at the BFI Flare Film Festival. Because that fell through, a limited number of the films were able to screened online and this is one of those (it expires on 5 April, along with a handful of other titles). I signed up for a two-week free trial in order to see it, which I can certainly recommend. I might even continue paying after this trial period, but let’s see how things go; I’m already signed up to a few other services.

I can see from what’s written online that there are people who weren’t thrilled by this film, but it’s a gorgeous debut, which channels the feeling of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film — long shot long takes dealing with the dynamics within a family — with its own little surreal touches, such as car trips filmed on a soundstage. It’s about a woman whose husband is revealed to be having a gay affair, and who has another relation (a cousin I think) who is herself hiding being lesbian, but (perhaps understandably, given Chinese filming restrictions) these storylines are pushed to the side, in favour of focusing on the relationship between the mother (Naren Hua) and her oldest daughter (Nan Ji), whose transgression was marrying an American. I didn’t notice until I researched the film that the two lead roles are played by actors of Mongolian ethnicity, but I can’t imagine a Chinese viewer would miss that, and perhaps in that sense it should ultimately be seen as a film about being an outsider — in whatever way that might manifest. It all unfolds at a deliberate pace, beautifully filmed by a Spanish cinematographer (it’s a Chinese-Spanish co-production, it seems), and I look forward to further films from this debut director.

A Dog Barking at the Moon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Xiang Zi [aka Lisa Zi Xiang] 相梓; Cinematographer Jose Val Bal; Starring Naren Hua 娜仁花, Nan Ji [aka Siqin Gaowa] 斯琴高娃·南吉; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 30 March 2020.

愛と法 Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, 2017)

In my week of films available on subscription to the BFI Player, I mentioned yesterday the special LGBTQI+ BFI Flare subscription collection and one of those films is the one I’m covering today, which I saw at the London Film Festival in 2018, and was produced by one of the programmers (Elhum Shakerifar) who has also been involved with several other documentaries I’ve really liked.

A lovely, gentle documentary about what seems to be (but shouldn’t be) a tough subject in Japan — being out and proud of it — and focuses on two gay lawyers in a relationship, who are thus approachable for those not just within the LGBT community, but for anyone who feels ostracised or excluded from mainstream society, who need representation under law. This is a film in many ways about fighting against oppression for those who are different, but it’s also grounded in the relationship between these two men — after all, I didn’t expect quite so much off-key singing over a cheesy keyboard for a film about the law. Partially, that’s because the film focuses on the relationship, but also because there’s not so much they’re (legally) allowed to show of the cases the pair are involved with. We get a few details, and a few brief sequences in actual courtrooms, but for the most part this is a film about principles, and it has strong ones.

Of Love and Law film posterCREDITS
Director Hikaru Toda 戸田ひかる; Cinematographer Jason Brooks; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 20 October 2018.

एक लड़की को देखा तो ऐसा लगा Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

It’s only fair in my week of romance and wedding-themed films to have one that actually seems fairly positive about the whole thing. Plus, given today marks the release on Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the UK, I can tie this film in somewhat to that in the sense that it’s a lesbian romance.

A big, boldly-coloured and glamorous mainstream film about two women in love, still rather a taboo subject in this traditional country it would seem, which approaches its topic via the roundabout route of suggesting first an interfaith relationship. It’s set in India’s northern state of Punjab, and presents its Hindu heroine Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) as apparently being smitten with Muslim film director/writer Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), much to the disappointment of her fiery brother Babloo and father Balbir (Sonam’s real life father Anil Kapoor). By the time the latter two men come round to Sahil, the film has made it clear that actually she’s really into a woman she met at a wedding (Regina Cassandra), so everyone’s in an awkward situation, which the film resolves with a musical-within-the-film. It manages to guide this emotional movement rather sensitively, only gradually laying out the real situation, and ensuring that when everything goes down with her family, she at least has the newly-welcome Sahil on her side. There’s some sweet detail around the edges which reminds us of the story’s source (a PG Wodehouse novel) and the British class structure of that original text: the family’s servants have scenes in which they’re seen taking bets on what’s going to happen; while businessman Balbir’s real love is cooking, though he’s been banned from the kitchen by his mother, who is clear that this is an undignified pursuit (indeed, when Sahil comes by to secretly pass a message to Sweety, he makes the classic comedy mistake of confusing Balbir for a servant). Of course, given it’s a Bollywood film, there’s some dancing at the wedding, but this isn’t quite as musical as some other films, preferring to retain its focus on the emotional core of the film, and comes in at a slim two hours running time.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga film posterCREDITS
Director Shelly Chopra Dhar शैली चोपड़ा धार; Writers Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Dhar (based on the novel A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse); Cinematographer Himman Dhamija; Starring Sonam Kapoor सोनम कपूर, Anil Kapoor अनिल कपूर, Rajkummar Rao राजकुमार राव, Regina Cassandra ரெஜினா கசாண்ட்ரா; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 22 August 2019.

Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)

Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.

Continue reading “Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)”

Criterion Sunday 277: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

It’s time for me to try something with my regular weekly Criterion Collection posts. I’m not changing the way they look or anything fundamental, but I have decided I am going to try to post two a week (both on Sunday, morning and evening). After all I’m fairly sure Criterion are adding around four new films every month, so it’s not looking like I’m going to catch up with them anytime soon. Therefore, I’ve taken the difficult decision to double my output on this, which means I’m going to need to watch twice as many each week if I’m to keep up. Therefore we’ll see how long this period of double-posting lasts.

It’s an odd one this, a film from the burgeoning independent gay cinema that was starting to move towards the mainstream, but looping in references (and sometimes entire speeches) from Shakespeare’s histories, without very much blurring between these two disparate registers. Its chief protagonists are Mike (River Phoenix), a directionless street hustler in Portland Oregon, who meets Scott (Keanu Reeves), who has chosen a life of hedonistic pleasure in defiance of his wealthy father, and both end up on a sort of road trip, though much of the trip seems to be more inside these characters’ heads. A Falstaffian figure is provided in the shape of Bob (William Richert), who acts like the boss of this loose coalition of street denizens, though beyond that it’s difficult to clearly set out what happens in the film given its fragmentary narrative structure, somewhat akin to the narcolepsy that afflicts Mike periodically. However, there’s enough looseness to allow small roles to odd and amusing characters, not least of all Udo Kier’s Hans, who does a dance with a lamp that’s probably the film’s comedy highlight. Elsewhere there are soliloquies and deadpan line readings that impart a rather glorious bathos to the proceedings, discursive as they are.

(Written on 8 February 2016.)

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (loosely based on the plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards; Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 6 February 2016.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.

I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Colette (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.

In a season when we’ve had The Favourite, all other costume dramas now seem particularly plodding, unoriginal and well-meaning, and Colette seems at first blush to fit into the idea of a handsomely-mounted heritage film about another era, anchored by some strong lead acting performances, but presenting a very cleaned-up recreation of a past filmed in various grand houses and city panoramas retouched to remove all the signs of modernity. Still, there’s at least a queer subtext (no that’s not fair, by the latter half of the film it’s simply the text) to subvert things a bit, as Knightley’s title character has affairs with both men and women, while her marriage to Dominic West’s foolish husband starts to pall. Indeed, his priggish idiocy and the way that he is constantly put in his place by everyone, particularly his younger wife, becomes an enjoyable theme for the film. Setting aside the dreadful Louisiana accent of one of Colette’s companions, there’s a lot to enjoy in all the performances, and even the more affected cliches of the script feel a little bit revived by the particular focus brought by this story of a writer who remains largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. (I actually own one of her novels, but haven’t read it in the 20 years it’s been on my shelves, so perhaps now is the time.)

Colette film posterCREDITS
Director Wash Westmoreland; Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland; Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens; Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 January 2019.