NZIFF 2021: Pleasure (2021)

Somehow even amongst the more solidly film festival fare at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, Sweden’s Pleasure manages to stick out, not least because it is very much set in the USA and is about a subject that feels somehow inextricably linked to LA, which is the adult film industry. And yet it’s still a festival film, an arthouse drama, a film that is about people working within that industry without (at least I don’t think) being exploitative or shaming, which most films dealing with the topic tend to do. It’s hardly uplifting, of course, but I admire what it does, though I daresay it will be controversial.


Isn’t it odd the way that films titled for an abstract noun with largely positive connotations often entirely lack that quality (my mind goes to films with titles like HappinessJoy and so forth). Well, it’s much the same here, although to my mind this film at least avoids the pitfalls of being preachy and moralistic. This is a film about Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who travels to LA to get involved in the p0rn industry under the soubriquet Bella Cherry, but the film is not really interested in why she made that choice or about wagging its finger at her for having made it. As far as we see in the film, Bella just wants to do something she enjoys, and while her experiences aren’t uniformly positive, there’s a camaraderie that grows between her and others in the same industry that develops over the film. And though it could be said to sour towards the end, it’s not played for high melodrama or camp (as in, say, Showgirls) but instead is allowed to have a complex emotional range, chiefly expressed in the relationship between Bella, her imperious arch-rival (at least in Bella’s head) Ava, and her housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who falls lower down the pecking order it seems.

All of the cast seem to be taken from the adult film industry, and in most cases give pretty believable naturalistic performances, even the sleazier agents and directors. And while it is clearly going to be a divisive film, to my mind it doesn’t play as exploitative, but instead has a certain kinship to, say, Sean Baker’s films. There’s a beauty to all this mess, but primarily this a drama charting the messy but often healthy relationships that develop, as well as the pitfalls too. These latter are not exclusively amongst male-dominated sets, but are certainly exacerbated by certain male egos, and there’s a striking contrast made between the carefully delineated consent and constant attention she’s given in a bondage video directed and staffed by women, and a rather more naturalistic depiction of rough sex in a video made by men. Plenty of this is at times quite disturbing, but the film is judicious and balanced in its depiction of a sordid world.

Pleasure (2021)CREDITS
Director Ninja Thyberg; Writers Thyberg and Peter Modestij (based on Thyberg’s short film); Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins; Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 455: White Dog (1982)

It’s interesting to see the way that the pulpy, B-movie aesthetics of Samuel Fuller, developed from his earliest films as director in the late-40s and 50s and present in his 60s classics like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, translated to the filmmaking scene of the 1980s. This could stand alongside any kind of straight-to-video exploitation horror/thriller movie, of the kind being reclaimed by any number of home video labels nowadays, with its murky colour palette and zooms. It just so happens that having Sam Fuller’s name attached gives it a slightly higher profile (although not enough to give it much chance at success when it was released). But Fuller retains a roughness to it that feels right for the material, dealing with a young woman who takes in a stray dog, that turns out to have been trained to attack Black people. Obviously there’s a racial thematic that Fuller is pursuing and it certainly seems appropriate that for all the havoc and death the dog wreaks, it remains protected by those around it, who are earnestly trying to save the dog from itself and unlearn it of its attack programming. The film comes across as earnest in the way it treats this material, though it’s understandable from the formal qualities (scuzzy exploitation cinema) why it remains challenging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Samuel Fuller; Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by Romain Gary); Cinematographer Bruce Surtees; Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 8 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 338: Equinox (1970)

Undoubtedly a very silly film, something akin to a student film in the shlocky Corman monster movie vein extended to feature length. Two guys and two girls go for a picnic and to visit a scientist, during which they stumble across some caves where a crazed old man presents them with a book that opens a Pandora’s box of monster which attack them, and there are demons and park rangers and maybe they’re the same and basically, yes, it’s very silly. It seems to filmed in the same place as the climax of Short Cuts: certainly the whole thing had me expecting Robert Downey Jr and Chris Penn to pop up, being very dubious while out for a picnic, such that I took the occasional withering sexism as a commentary on toxic masculinity (though I suspect it was more intended as cheap laughs). However, the stop-motion effects are all rather delightfully done and it maintains a level of consistent silliness that keeps it from ever being boring or offensive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Jack Woods [and Dennis Muren, uncredited]; Writer Woods; Cinematographer Mike Hoover; Starring Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Christopher, Jack Woods; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 23 July 2020.

Set It Off (1996)

In many ways this is a genre heist flick, a product of the Hollywood system, but unlike most such products it’s very clearly rooted in a systemic understanding of class and racism as it applies to the home of the movies, Los Angeles, where haves and have nots are strictly separated. It’s about four women just trying to get by, but being repeatedly failed by a corrupt, racist system — the one that every so often the rest of America is forced to admit is broken before everyone moves on, and then it’s all repeated once again. This is precisely the world of state and police violence against Black communities that so many films in the 90s were about, and which has continued to recur ever since in popular culture and, sadly, in reality.


In the 90s, it seems, it was difficult to get funding for films about Black lives or experiences unless they were gritty, set in the projects, and had an almost moralistic sense of come-uppance for those whose lives dared to transgress the boundaries strictly set by authority, so I regret that we didn’t get an Oceans 11 style heist caper in which everyone managed to get away, but that’s not what this film is about. In fact, one of its particular strengths is in making it clear just what exactly is oppressing our heroines, and it’s not other Black women. This is Los Angeles, after all, and there aren’t many opportunities available to these women. Through a series of events that are as brutally predictable as they are unsuprisingly still very current, each is beaten down to the point where committing a bank robbery seems like a viable option, and so it goes. The action when it comes is pretty thrilling and grandly done, and even the token figure of white empathy feels somewhat rounded (John C. McGinley, who seemingly always used to play these sorts of authority figure roles), even if in the current climate it feels difficult to believe he’d actually Care. This is a strong film that bucks certain trends while playing into others, but it’s never unclear who the empathetic heroes of this film really are, and that’s as it should be.

Set It Off film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier; Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky; Starring Jada Pinkett Smith [as “Jada Pinkett”], Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Mid City, Wellington, May 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 21 April 2020).

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

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.

The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)

I’m still going back posting reviews of my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, as I try to catch up to the inevitable end-of-year and end-of-decade lists, and one notable trilogy is this one covering the LA punk scene by Penelope Spheeris from the late-70s through to the late-90s. It’s one of the rare trilogies in which its final part is probably the strongest, indeed in my opinion it only gets better as it goes along, mainly because Spheeris builds a broader picture of sub-cultural changes with each successive film. It’s very much her greatest achievement, I think, and well worth watching.

Also, today is Christmas Day as it turns out, so happy Christmas for those who are celebrating, and have a nice holiday in any case. I can thoroughly recommend these films as fine holiday watching if you are thus inclined.

Continue reading “The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)”

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 Holiday (2006)

Though it would not be possible to do a themed week around romcoms without something by Nancy Meyers, it turns out she’s also dipped her filmmaking talents into the Christmas-themed picture with The Holiday, which of course is still a romcom primarily. Her films always feature couples trying to work out their issues, such as in 2009’s It’s Complicated, or even 2015’s The Intern (though the romcom plot is not at the core of that film), and she doubles it up for The Holiday, a comforting blanket of a movie, like so much of her work.


A Meyers family movie is a comforting thing (whether by mother Nancy or her daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who made Home Again). Indeed, like the daughter’s film a decade after this one, there’s even something refreshing about a film where guys may act badly but no one is being an out-and-out creep. This means that there’s no danger that, however menacingly weird Jack Black’s smile may look, he’s going to try and force anything more than a kiss on Kate Winslet’s cheek and even then he’ll apologise winsomely for it. Oh sorry, I haven’t even mentioned the plot, have I? Well, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) swap homes, for reasons… that’s all that you really need to know, though you might like to be aware that Jude Law will show up. The film does have a certain clunkiness to the setups, with some very self-aware “meet cutes” and an internet relationship that doesn’t seem likely, as well as a toe-curling opening voiceover from Winslet about her relationship with the dastardly Jasper (Rufus Sewell). Still, it is supremely Nancy Meyers-ish, and there are some very nice bourgeois homes on display in both the States and rural England.

The Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, Rufus Sewell, Edward Burns; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Monday 1 January 2018.

Amazing Grace (2018)

Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.


We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)

Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.

Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.

Amazing Grace film posterCREDITS
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.