Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.


I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).

There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.

The Power of the Dog (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 407: Mala Noche (aka Bad Night, 1986)

Gus Van Sant’s feature debut, and I suppose it fits loosely into the era’s “New Queer Cinema”, though it stands apart but not having quite the same counter-cultural self-consciousness perhaps, by which I mean this is loose and poetic and less political in nature. It’s about this one guy, Walt (Tim Streeter), a real person upon whose autobiography it’s based, who happens to be chasing a young man (Johnny, played by Doug Cooeyate). For a low-budget film it uses its lack of resources well, creating a monochrome aesthetic heavy on the pools of light and shadow, with an evocative sense of style in these little moments snatched from something of a Nouvelle Vague feeling. That said, its protagonist is this struggling young guy running a shop who seems to have a big opinion about himself and his pursuit of younger Mexican guys, whom he isn’t even sure are 18, is callously objectifying. A lot of the film is in Spanish, but Walt doesn’t much seem to care about his enamorado Johnny, so much as about the chase. It makes for a film that’s about race and class and power in ways that aren’t always comfortable, and don’t always feel fully examined, because they’re the politics of young men looking for sex.

NOTE: The Criterion edition lists this as 1985, though it appears from IMDb that its earliest public appearance at festivals was in 1986 but those dates may not be exhaustive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (based on the novel by Walt Curtis); Cinematographer John J. Campbell; Starring Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 13 March 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Happiest Season (2020)

What with moving country and not have any internet access at home (yet), I’ve been a little bit lax in posting film reviews on here, though I’ve still been venturing to the cinema occasionally and trying to keep up with films at home as much as I can, though the aforementioned lack of internet means I’ve not seen many recent films. However, there’s a special holiday on at the moment so I thought I best post a review of a related film that I did get a chance to see, along with apparently everybody else on the internet.


You may have read about this film on the internet already, and goodness knows enough people have already seen it. Before I’d seen it, then, I was all ready to chalk this up as a bit of kitschy normcore — a Christmas-themed romcom! seasonal jumpers! — for its starry cast to be involved in, because doing Hallmark-style movies seems to have become a Thing for A-listers recently. And it’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of elements of that, but it’s also fairly self-knowing about the way it’s deploying the tropes of the genre alongside a critique of unfair expectations of gay people in repressed small-town contexts, and the very real spectre of being in the closet that this seems to entail. So there are a lot more tears by the end than I had expected going in, and while the denouement seems a little bit forced, it’s also earned I think and deserved too.

Among the cast, Kristen Stewart is of course excellent, but the highlight is Dan Levy as the gay best friend. Alison Brie also does a fine job at finding some pathos in a very difficult and unapproachable character; the young actors playing her kids also have a great range in deadpan stares. Oh and the co-writer Mary Holland has given herself a great role as Jane, the other sister largely forgotten and sidelined by this imperious New England family. It’s just a pity that a brief appearance by Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus didn’t go anywhere, as I feel they could have been better served. Still, this is a film that’s focused on the traumas of its central character Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and though it’s somewhat a thankless role, the film does follow through her story in a satisfying way, and it’s all I could want from a lesbian Christmas-themed romcom, I suppose.

CREDITS
Director Clea DuVall; Writers DuVall and Mary Holland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 December 2020.

LFF 2020: 日子 Rizi (Days, 2020)

This was my second film at the London Film Festival this year, and while I do not generally post reviews of films I have not fully seen, sadly I was thwarted a little by this new world of online film festivals. I cannot speak of the ending because my session “expired” 20 minutes from the end, for reasons that elude me (I think there was only a limited time to watch once you click play, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site). Still, I think enough was clear from the first 105 minutes, and I will certainly be seeking out future opportunities to see it (hopefully on a big screen some day given its typically Tsai qualities of beautiful stillness).


Director Tsai, especially in recent years (such as in the remarkable 2013 film Stray Dogs), has been slowly stripping back his cinema more and more, and this film, although a narrative feature, is almost abstract in its rhythms, like his ‘Walker’ series of short films or documentaries like Your Face (2018). It’s “intentionally unsubtitled”, though the only words we hear are mixed very much in the background (and aren’t heard until half an hour into the film). The film shows two men going about their days (one of whom is of course Tsai’s partner and regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), a slow accretion of details of two different lives. These two come together (literally) about two-thirds of the way in, and then drift apart again. The images are beautiful, dark, sometimes completely empty and still, and often water-laden (of course, because it’s Tsai), but it’s captivating and shows his continued mastery of the ‘slow cinema’ form.

Days film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮; Cinematographer Chang Jhong-yuan 張鍾元; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy 亞儂弘尚希; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Global Cinema 12: The Bahamas – Children of God (2009)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bahamian flagCommonwealth of The Bahamas
population 385,600 | capital Nassau (274k) | largest cities Nassau, Freeport (47k), West End (13k), Coopers Town (9k), Marsh Harbour (6k) | area 13,878 km2 | religion Protestant Christianity (80%), Roman Catholicism (15%) | official language English | major ethnicity Afro-Bahamian (91%) | currency Bahamian Dollar ($) [BSD] | internet .bs

A country taking up much of the almost 700 islands of the Lucayan Archipelago, between Cuba and Florida, with the capital located on the island of New Providence (where more than 70% of the country’s population is based). The name comes from the Taíno phrase ba ha ma for “big upper middle land” or else from the Spanish baja mar for “shallow water”, but either way the definite article is formally part of the country’s name. The Taíno were the earliest inhabitants, coming from South America around the 9th century CE, and came to be known as the Lucayan people. Christopher Columbus may have made landfall in The Bahamas (it is disputed which island precisely); thereafter the Spanish were in control but their main involvement was to enslave many of the native people. The British arrived in the mid-17th century and settled first on the island of Eleuthera, and later New Providence, before granting proprietory control to the English Province of Carolina under whose rule the islands became a pirate’s haven, before the British wrested back direct control. Liberated slaves were resettled on the Bahamas after the British ended their own direct involvement in the slave trade. After World War II, a strong movement for independence formed, and this was achieved on 10 July 1973. The British monarch is retained as head of state, with rule by a Prime Minister, head of the party with the most seats in the House of Assembly.

There is hardly a strong film industry in The Bahamas, though it has been used as a backdrop and filming location to plenty of foreign productions. Local filmmaking starts to take off in the 1990s and there has been a slow trickle of films since that time.


Children of God (2009)

Needless to say I’ve not seen many Bahamian films (if any; though certainly I imagine I’ve seen plenty that are partially shot there), but I can buy the divisions that are at the heart of this film. It focuses on Jonny (Johnny Ferro), a scrawny white art student who is sent away by his art instructor to go put some emotion into his technically competent paintings (we don’t actually see his work, which is probably for the best), and while off on a remote island he meets Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams). The complications that ensue are amongst family and the local community: people are agitating against gay people and gay rights, while the local pastor is flirting with young men, and his wife is trying to put her life together around this. There are a lot of intersecting struggles, and sometimes the ways they are linked can be a little clunky, while some of the confrontation feels forced. However, this is a film with its heart in the right place, making its points about tolerance in this small island community.

Children of God film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kareem Mortimer; Cinematographer Ian Bloom; Starring Johnny Ferro, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Margaret Laurena Kemp; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 1 August 2020.