Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

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As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Jonas Mekas isn’t making slow cinema, but seems to be going for a truer form of autobiographical reflection, one that requires time — a lot of time — to convey. After all, he’s spent his life’s work documenting the world around him from his point of view, so he has a lot of material to work with, and he was almost 80 when he put together this magnum opus.


Jonas Mekas is a playful filmmaker (or “filmer” as he prefers it on the voiceover — though he’s involved in every level of his craft, so he seems to me more a “maker” than many). In this film, divided into 12 chapters, he pops up on the voiceover, an elderly man explaining how this film is his life, how these are his memories, how he (and his children) are in every frame, and then, also, to tell us it’s a film about nothing. Nothing happens, he says, and occasionally also flashes up a written placard saying the same (when it doesn’t say “this film is political”). It’s true that the prospect of five hours of what amounts to home movies isn’t enticing, but Mekas with his little Bolex camera has developed a fully-fledged aesthetic, and it’s one that seems perfectly suited to the idea of memories, fragmentary glimpses of another life (his own life), largely from the 70s and 80s as far as I can tell from what’s in here, and largely in NYC. So in fact, it’s all beautifully composed, fragmented, layered, with voiceover and snippets of music, it’s like the playfulness of Godard’s pomp without the overweening self-seriousness and intellectualising. This is a beautiful assemblage.

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jonas Mekas; Length 288 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 1 May 2018.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Upon the UK cinematic release today of comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, I’ve been looking back at this popular hybrid generic form, and wanted to finish with one of the best American examples of the past year, which deftly blends a pathos-filled dramatic story of a writer hitting the bottom with clear comedy notes (impossible to avoid with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as your leads), with a side of criminal capers.


What I’ve enjoyed most about both of Marielle Heller’s films as director (she also made 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is the empathy and humanity she affords to people who are, pretty clearly, quite bitter and caustic people — the sense that maybe the way they are has been shaped by their environment and their struggles with depression, and that maybe they’re not fundamentally bad people. Melissa McCarthy’s washed-up novelist Lee Israel (and as with Destroyer, I’m reminded this is a generic archetype more usually played by grizzled older men) may be getting involved in criminality but it all seems so very low stakes after a fashion, and she shows apparent creativity in the process of pastiching various authors’ personal style. McCarthy is excellent at getting into this shuffling, self-loathing character, but for me the film is made by Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells in the supporting performances, not to mention the other wonderfully weary bookshop owners who just have such a genuine thrill at these almost-forgotten names from a more literate past. Grant seems to be largely reprising his Withnail performance, with the hindsight of age and mortality, and (notwithstanding the very late and unconvincing swerve into AIDS themes) it’s an act that works beautifully. Dolly Wells’ Anna may be even more heartbreaking in the way she wants to but is unable to connect with Israel. Overall, and despite its embittered central character, the film just oozes with warmth, and a strange glow cast by antiquarian bookshops and squalid NYC apartments.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? film posterCREDITS
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the memoir by Lee Israel); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 4 February 2019.

Private Life (2018)

Another excellent recent American comedy-drama film is this one by Tamara Jenkins, returning after over a decade since her previous film (not, apparently, a break that was self-imposed) to make a film for Netflix, which turned out to be one of the year’s finest. As ever, it’s a relationship — and the stress of trying to conceive a child — which provides the dramatic notes, but there’s a finely attuned sense of comedy throughout.


Every time I think about watching a film with Paul Giamatti, I get very unenthusiastic — inexplicably so, because every time I actually watch Paul Giamatti give a performance, I think he’s a really sensitive and finely-honed actor who pulls you into his characters in a way that not many others do, although frankly Kathryn Hahn is also pretty amazing at that as well, especially here. Watching another feature about well-off New Yorkers with fractious private lives seems like being condemned to a particular circle in American indie filmmaking hell — because haven’t we seen enough of that — and yet the subject matter and the way it’s done is really so very skilful. It doesn’t do the big attention-seeking formal stuff that you see in say Roma (or if I’m feeling less generous, the films of Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson, or any of those other NYC auteurs), but it’s just so carefully focused on the plot that it almost passes beneath notice. There is exquisite comedy, and also a real pain here that the comic touches masks to a certain extent but also brings out really well, about the way these two characters want a child but due to various biological causes, are prevented from achieving — and yet they have some really strong relationships with younger people which it takes them some time to realise, but that also becomes a source of pain in the end. I guess what I’m saying is I recognise these characters, and maybe even aspects of myself (not in the ‘having a child’ part, admittedly), and it feels sad to think about these things, but it’s also a film which is trying to map a way through one’s middle age.

Private Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tamara Jenkins; Cinematographer Christos Voudouris Χρήστος Βουδούρης; Starring Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Girlfriends (1978)

On Friday this week, a film is being released to UK cinemas called Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is billed as a comedy-drama. And while I haven’t yet seen it, I want to attempt something a little more difficult this week, which is to theme a week around the hybrid form of comedy and drama, particularly as it’s cropped up in recent American cinema. I’m not sure how much has been written about this particular category of film, and frankly I’m not exactly sure how to define it, except I think that a number of films have managed to successfully (in my opinion, but not in everybody’s) blend the two forms, such that they’re not simply comedies with serious dramatic themes or vice versa, but they amount to their own specific thing. The 1970s was a great time for new voices in American cinema, none more so than the women who have largely been (unfairly) forgotten since then. Once such voice was Claudia Weill, who went on to a career in TV, but made a captivating portrait of the era with Girlfriends, in which the comic elements of Melanie Mayron’s central character are tempered by the frustration of the situations she finds herself in.


This is the kind of small canvas of emotionally-honest socially-conscious filmmaking that must have been about a fair bit in the 1970s but is very hard to get to see, isn’t part of a curriculum or a constantly rotating canon of the era, and it should be. Plenty of people have mentioned modern parallels (much of it in television), but there were a number of women making American films in the 70s and 80s who just haven’t been given their due (for example Joan Micklin Silver, whose Hester Street I reviewed recently, or even Elaine May, only recently getting any kind of critical rehabilitation). That said, there are clearly aspects that have dated: the idea of someone working as a part-time photographer, selling small commissions and working bar mitzvahs and weddings to make ends meet, able to have their own place in NYC. But largely this film remains utterly delightful: Melanie Mayron (who would go on to work more in directing) is sparky and engaging as Susan, who’s been living with Anne (Anita Skinner), but when the latter moves out to get married, finds herself unable to forge the same friendships with others who pass through her life. The boyfriends in this film (Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest) are desultory and disappointing, and there’s an underlying (if never quite fully expressed) feeling that maybe the two women at the film’s core would be better off without either of them. It’s a charming film and one that should be better known.

Girlfriends film posterCREDITS
Director Claudia Weill; Writer Vicki Polon; Cinematographer Fred Murphy; Starring Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Personal Problems (1980)

When comparing it to a lot of mainstream production of the 1970s, not to mention documentaries about African-American urban lives, this film feels like a completely different world. As the writer Ishmael Reed and producers suggest in a bonus featurette on the Kino Lorber release, Personal Problems derives from an opposition to the ‘Blaxploitation’ films being churned out by Hollywood during the 70s, and also presumably somewhat from a lot of the counter-cultural artists who contributed to the film, none of whom were likely to recognise much about their own lives on the big screen at that time. Reed invokes the alternative circuit of ‘race films’ that developed during the silent era, but aside from 1982’s Losing Ground (itself restored a few years ago) there’s not much that I can think of to compare it to.


This film is a sort-of-television show in the way it’s made (on video, which while never exactly visually stunning, has its own internal beauty, with the ghosting of figures during movement or the oddly unnatural colours), though its first iteration was a radio play. When you watch it, it feels more like an improvised theatre piece, and I suspect that’s the kind of milieu the actors were more familiar with — and indeed, I gather that a lot of it is improvised. In so doing, we see people that seem like real people (and, as mentioned by I think a fair few commentators, that means it has an almost documentary quality at times). I think of the three women near the opening of the film, just chatting at a bar, perched on some tables on a sidewalk. I think of the scenes in the kitchen between Vertamae Grosvenor and Walter Cotton (playing her husband; he’s a lot gruffer and angrier in the preliminary 1979 version included as an extra, but here his beard is thinner and he seems somehow less commanding next to her). She’s telling him to expect her brother, to which he’s not best pleased, then by the end of part one, she’s laying down some furious anger at all of them for disrespecting her home. The second part of the film/TV show/performance piece is a little shorter and follows the death of the elderly father character (Jim Wright). If the first part seems dominated by the voices of the women in the ensemble, this one is altogether manlier, though these men, gathered at a wake then later at a bar, feel adrift and despondent (as I suppose you’d expect given the narrative).

Still, overall, it feels like a film about people living their lives, true in a sense to the ‘meta-soap opera’ the writer promises, and to the melodramatic qualities of the form, but with characters who are more lived-in and weary than that might suggest. There’s little discussion of politics and contemporary society, aside from a memorable scene at a party where Reed’s character says he voted for Reagan to audible consternation (and that scene features an appearance from a grumpy young white intellectual, whom I must try to ensure I do not ever become), but there’s also a vivid sense of urban life in the era. Part of that may come from the grainy old video stock, but I think it pervades a lot of the film, not just the fashion but also some of the choices the characters make. Anyway, it’s a lovely, strange document.

Personal Problems film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Gunn; Writer Ishmael Reed; Cinematographer Robert Polidori; Starring Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton; Length 165 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 January 2019.

Paid in Full (2002)

The 1990s and 2000s were a fertile time for films about a very specific strand of Black American urban experience, specifically around gangs, drugs and violent crime. It is beyond the scope of my own lived experience to suggest how this media portrayal might have made an impact on society itself and the perception of African-American lives in the United States, but it is unquestionably the case that these are the topics which were getting funding by the studios, and so filmmakers used it to make some hard-hitting dramas about people living at edges of society. There were of course also a number of rather patchy, exploitative films that just gloried in the drugs and the guns, the hookers and the blow, but occasionally even in this crowded field, a film would have a more nuanced point of view, with expressive acting and a stronger screenplay than often required by those with the money.


There have never been any shortage of filmic depictions of the Black experience of inner city crime, both as victims of it and perpetrators, and there’s already a deep and troubling lexicon of terms to describe these experiences. It feels like the 90s were a particularly prolific era of films about hustlers and thugs in the ghetto, but Paid in Full rises above a lot of the sub-par efforts by telling a story that has sweep and a certain operatic trajectory, without succumbing to some of the mythologisation and worn tropes: in short, it feels rooted in real experiences. The acting is all excellent too, an early pre-The Wire role for Wood Davis as Ace, who sort of brings the whole story together, with more showy turns from Mekhi Phifer and Cam’ron as people more inured to this world. I’ll obviously never really be able to judge its accuracy, but I certainly enjoyed the compelling way it played out on screen.

Paid in Full film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis; Cinematographer Paul Sarossy; Starring Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam’ron; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 4 January 2019.

The Central Park Five (2012)

The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.


The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.

The Central Park Five film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Just one final review for my musicals-themed week, as I just watched this yesterday, and it feels like an important part of the musical landscape of 1950s America.


I don’t have a problem with this being a great stage musical (and I’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot on stage), but I’m not sure this is the best possible film version that could have been made from it. What I do like, that I didn’t think I would, was the sheer staginess of the whole thing: the opening sequence, the craps game near the end, and others where characters directly look at the camera and break the fourth wall fell so stage-bound there could almost be a proscenium arch around them. It all says ‘Hollywood musical’ pretty effectively and I think it kinda works for the already stylised form of the Runyon stories, in de-naturalising a pretty dark and naturalistic setting (gamblers, late-night dives, gangsters, and all that jazz). What I don’t buy is that these songs about the way men treat women (sorry, ‘guys’ treat ‘dolls’) never really seem particularly sarcastic and pointed, because Brando and Sinatra are pretty alpha guys who look good (Brando has rarely been as pretty as he is in this film), dress sharp, do all the right moves and make all the right noises — these are men in control, and so when they talk about being manipulated by women, there’s no sense of desperation or neediness, it just comes across as being a bit nasty or certainly a bit calculated. It’s also rather long. Still, there’s a huge amount that’s great too, there are at least a couple of really top songs (indeed, the “Luck Be a Lady” rendition was the only time I really felt Brando being vulnerable and needy, desperate for the luck of the dice, which I think needed to come out more elsewhere), and it looks great in the way that golden era Hollywood made so effortless.

Guys and Dolls film posterCREDITS
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Writers Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (based on the musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, itself based on the short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” by Damon Runyon); Cinematographer Harry Stradling; Starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 19 October 2019.