Miss Americana (2020)

Well we seem to be getting closer, here in London, to the inevitable lockdown (perhaps by the time this goes up, it will have been announced), so my week themed around Netflix films wraps up with the most recent release, and if it’s not perhaps the best it’s still well worth watching if you’re a pop music fan or interested in fandom. I am sure we will all pull through this current period of intensive homeboundness but who knows how long it will last for. At the very least we can catch up with films we can watch at home, and that will no doubt be a great boon to all the streaming services, at the very least. I suspect we’ll see more of them on the blog in the coming weeks.


I think it’s fair to say that this ostensibly behind-the-scenes documentary — like everything that Taylor Swift does — is very carefully calculated, and you wouldn’t expect anything else really. For all that it feels shaped by the relentless pressures that are placed on Swift to be some kind of generational spokesperson or lightning road for fickle tabloid concerns — and the meeting she has with her people to discuss coming out with her political opinions during the 2018 midterm elections feels particularly orchestrated in that regard — it does shed plenty of light on the ways in which she is constrained by her peculiar position. In this, she channels a lot of her own self-discovery and you can see the more mature person she has become since being thrust into a media frenzy at such a young age. The most fascinating and interesting sections of the film are when she’s composing music, and just to see her work on a song, hammering away at a piano or plucking a guitar while working up melodies, or working with her producers in the studio, has its own lovely rhythms and provides a small insight into what gets her excited about her work. The rest, sadly, is largely about the way her life needs to fits with public and media expectations, though I continue to want to like Taylor Swift, so I felt warmly disposed towards this film.

Miss Americana film posterCREDITS
Director Lana Wilson; Cinematographer Emily Topper; Starring Taylor Swift; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 3 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 292: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

One of those classic Hollywood comedies where you’re not quite sure where the tone of the film is intended to be. It starts out filled with detail and incident, such that I had a hard time following what exactly was going on, before settling down to be a story of a jealous husband who must deal with his cheating wife. It swerves into a detective story and then there’s a stretch of screwball nonsense, but for me it’s held together by Rex Harrison as the husband, who somehow sells these wild mood swings. There’s a lovely repeated camera move zooming into his eye to introduce a number of fantasy sequences — which once again after the recent Criterion film Divorce Italian Style is about a husband imagining the death of his wife — all of which comes to fruition in the final bit of knockabout comedy. Preston Sturges was capable of great things, and this is a fine introduction to his style, though The Lady Eve remains my favourite of his works for being more distilled and compact somehow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallée; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 10 January 2020.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (2019)

Casting my eye over the new releases in Britain this week I can’t see much that thrills me particularly. However, I will not be in the UK this Friday, but instead will be winging my way to New Zealand. Therefore, in honour of that, I am doing a week themed around New Zealand films (or films made there, depending on how I go for titles). I’m going to start with this engaging documentary about a seminal NZ indie band of the 1980s and on, The Chills, and its charismatic frontman.


As far as music from NZ’s jangly indie 1980s underground goes, The Chills were probably the biggest name, though they were never my favourites. Still, they gained the greatest success through a handful of major label records by the end of that decade, and their leader, Martin Phillipps, had an undeniable sense of pop hooks and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Brian Wilson, all imbued with a thematic darkness — which probably explains why Neil Finn pops up early on as a talking head commenting on Phillipp’s artistry. However, for the most part this documentary eschews celebrity commentators in favour of Martin himself and his former bandmates and managers speaking about the chronological development of the music, for The Chills were probably second only to The Fall in having a huge rotating cast of musicians all unified under Phillipps as lead singer and songwriter. What gives it that lift beyond the familiar topics of the rise-and-fall of egos and ambitions, of a man almost destroyed by drug and alcohol-related excess of the pop star lifestyle, is Phillipps himself and his self-deprecating humour as he reflects back on some bad decisions in his past, or sorts through his toy collections, or gets excited about some mummified animal-based art he’s working on (those are some of the biggest laughs but laughter with an unmistakable tinge of sadness and maybe even horror). That’s the tone of the film ultimately, and it’s rather beautiful too, though you feel there’s so much more they could have covered (so I’m hoping for DVD extras).

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps film posterCREDITS
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

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)”

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

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.

गल्ली बॉय (Gully Boy, 2019)

It wouldn’t be right to do a themed week around the musical and not cover at least one Bollywood film, an industry whose entire production in every genre seems to be somehow informed by the genetic material of the musical. It just so happens that some of them are rather closer to the form than others, and this film is at heart a film about music and the performance of it, as well as being something of a musical.


I suppose I was primed beforehand to be resistant to what appears (and, to a certain extent, is) the Bollywood reimagining of 8 Mile, with its aspirant rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh), who has to be coaxed into performing and then finds himself on stage trying out for the big time, with moneyed half-American hangers-on tempting him with their aspirational lifestyles. But really, this is a film that’s far more in its element when it’s dealing with the slums that Murad has come out of, about his secret relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt, whom I adore) — whose family are wealthier and whose parents would never consent to their being together — and about the difficulties he has just trying to live his life. After all, he has friends who are mixed up in carjacking and drug dealing, and so their easy access to money at times becomes too tempting. In some ways, class seems even more ingrained into the Indian films I’ve seen than in any other cinema, and it’s explicitly addressed here by the director Zoya Akhtar, as are the double-standards of Murad’s father, who has married a much younger second wife and then treats his first one badly — his actions are hardly excused, but we do get a glimpse into the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities he’s been given in life, and the extent to which he has given up hope of it ever changing. Given the film’s big-budget production background, none of this context was ever likely to be as gritty and depressing as it could be, but all the themes are very much there. Still, for all that, and for all the enjoyment in its big musical competition scenes, any lead character who could even think about cheating on Alia Bhatt will never fully have my sympathy.

Gully Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি; Cinematographer Jay Oza जय ओझा; Starring Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 20 February 2019.

Two Films by Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016) and Homecoming (2019)

There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.


Lemonade (2016)

I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.

Lemonade film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.


Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.

Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.

There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.

Homecoming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (2018)

I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.

And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.

But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.