Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.


There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.

White Riot (2019)

A film that’s just come out online at the end of last week is this documentary looking at the start of the Rock Against Racism movement and organisation. It expanded on an earlier short film by the same director and was premiered at the London Film Festival last year, where my mum saw it (she was in town), but it’s been good to catch up with it since, supported by a Q&A with the director and a couple of participants, hosted by Mark Kermode and which is on YouTube.


A documentary looking back at the work of the organisation Rock Against Racism, founded in the mid-70s amidst anger at the increasing pro-fascist rhetoric bandied around by big names like David Bowie, Rod Stewart and most of all Eric Clapton, whose fondness for Enoch Powell and his blood-soaked send-them-all-back-to-*waves hands vaguely* rhetoric, inspired not just anger but also the creation of this movement. Our main guide and entry into this story is “Red” Saunders, the founder of RAR, a man with a big desk and nary a modern device to be seen on it. There’s a certain nostalgia at work here, but I can’t deny it gets to me: the tactility of old zines pulled out, collective remembering of the turbulent times from Red and the people he pulled around him, whether his compatriots at RAR putting together the musical events and their punk publication, or else the musicians with whom he collaborated to get the message out. The archival clips are great, not just of the gigs but more interestingly of the ferment of the time, the rise of the National Front (NF) and their Nazi-embracing thuggery, the complicity of the police. It’s a film that tells a story and doesn’t spare those to blame, but as is only too evident to all of us watching it, has hardly dated in 40-45 years. They may not be called the NF anymore, but the same forces are still with us in British politics, and still need to be called out.

White Riot film posterCREDITS
Director Rubika Shah; Writers Ed Gibbs and Shah; Cinematographer Susanne Salavati; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

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.