Saving Face (2004)

A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alice Wu | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, Joan Chen | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017

All This Panic (2016)

There are, I suppose, no shortage of films — no shortage even of woozy impressionistic documentaries — about the teenage experience of girlhood, but this one seems pretty engaged. Its New York-based subjects are, for example, hardly idiots (frustrating, piqued, flighty at times, but not stupid). Indeed, there’s some discussion amongst its (mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class) subjects of how young female voices are routinely mocked and ignored — an argument I’ve seen recycled quite a bit over this past winter of Teen Vogue‘s growing political ascendancy. Well, there’s no such danger here, as we watch this loose group of friends grow up and go to university (or not). It’s sweet, sad, and hopeful, often all at once. It’s also shot in tight close-ups, hazy in the camera’s focus, and always gorgeous to look at.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jenny Gage | Cinematographer Tom Betterton | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 25 March 2017

Pariah (2011)

An excellent debut feature by Dee Rees (who went on to do a fine Bessie Smith biopic), about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world and become comfortable with a gay identity, while dealing with the demands of her religious mother. I can’t speak to the specific feelings or setting obviously, but it’s​ a strong piece of filmmaking. The turbulent emotions seem mirrored by the restless camera (wielded by the excellent Bradford Young), the colours by turns saturated and warm, cold and unflinching. The acting is superb, as is the use of music. It’s a film, too, which resists any simple stereotyping: the fact that our lead character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is top of her class academically is barely mentioned, and while it doesn’t help her through some knockbacks, it does add up to a rounded character.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Dee Rees | Cinematographer Bradford Young | Starring Adepero Oduye | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Airbnb flat, Portland, Friday 7 April 2017

Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.


RETROSPECTIVE SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Blackstar
Director Jennie Livingston | Cinematographer Paul Gibson | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]

LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee | Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson | Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson | Length 120 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, May 1998)

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller | Cinematographer Sam Levy | Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

Weiner (2016)

We hear a lot in the news, even here in the UK, about US politics, but most of it makes little enough impact, and certainly you don’t expect to find much of interest in a documentary about a minor and latterly disgraced political figure. I vaguely remember Anthony Weiner for being mocked on the Daily Show years ago, but this film following his 2013 campaign to become New York mayor turns out to be surprisingly great and rather funny too. Sure, he comes across as immensely — almost pathologically — desirous of publicity and success, but his story isn’t without pathos: from all that we see, he’s a passionate advocate on behalf of various high-minded social causes, is a powerful public speaker, and clearly cares about his city and its people. It’s just that he’s also done some stupid things that overshadow everything’s he’s trying to achieve, not to mention putting strain on his marriage to Huma, a woman who turns out to the secret star (not to mention heart) of the piece. And so, in unspooling these events and recording Weiner’s wide-ranging and sometimes unguarded commentary, Weiner becomes a film about the hubris of modern political ambition.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg | Cinematographer Josh Kriegman | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 89: Sisters (1973)

Another Hitchcockian genre exercise from his greatest directorial fan Brian De Palma (he even uses Bernard Herrmann for the score), this is an enjoyable story of a French-Canadian woman, Danielle (Margot Kidder), with a Siamese twin sister Dominique who appears to be guilty of murdering a man Danielle has brought home. Danielle’s ex-husband/doctor (William Finley) is involved in the intrigue also — he loiters around, keeping an eye on her at all times — and the unravelling of this twisted scenario provides the bulk of the film’s running time. The split identity of Margot Kidder’s character (possibility a split personality, too) is formally invoked by the periodic use of split screen to advance the action, but the truth is never quite clear. The film’s mental health themes are a little heavy-handed for modern audiences but if you see this as a filmic hommage rather than an exploration of personality disorders, it makes more sense, and even allows for an absurdist supporting role for Charles Durning as a PI who seems to be eternally doomed to keep watch on an abandoned couch (I can’t really explain). Still, if it’s hommage, it’s all capably done and executed with flair.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Brian De Palma | Writers Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose | Cinematographer Gregory Sandor | Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley | Length 92 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016