The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.


Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.

Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

Two Comedy-Drama Films by Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Support the Girls (2018)

Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.


Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.

Funny Ha Ha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.


Support the Girls (2018)

I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).

Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.

Support the Girls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).

Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.

Continue reading “Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)”

Films by Kevin Jerome Everson

Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.

Continue reading “Films by Kevin Jerome Everson”

In the Family (2011)

The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.


I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.

Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).

There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.

In the Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.

Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017).

Girls Trip (2017)

At some level this is a black women’s twist on a gross-out comedy, which is not traditionally a genre I’ve liked, and yet… It may be too long (at 122 minutes, a good half-hour could easily have been excised), it may be quite mean about celebrity gossip journalists and women posing for selfies on Instagram (I felt like something personal was going on there), it may wrap things up with an excess of saccharine (though admirably focused on women’s friendship with one another rather than on men), but it really is very funny. At times it’s exceptionally funny, especially Tiffany Haddish as Dina, a performer I wasn’t aware of before, but whom I now expect to be in everything, and deservedly so (the scene where she imagines her revenge on a cheating man is satisfying in so many ways). It also features quite the most unexpected male nudity.

It feels like Bridesmaids was in the writers’ minds as a touchstone (not least because they have an actor, Kate Walsh, apparently doing her best to imitate Kristen Wiig), but it also has the brio of Magic Mike XXL in both its setting in the American south (here New Orleans), and its single-minded focus on the buddies-on-a-trip narrative (the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith helps in that regard; she and Queen Latifah also inspire a sweet shout-out to Set It Off, a real 90s classic of the black women buddy genre). Plus, the focus on the women means it dispenses with some of the unpleasantness that marked the women characters in the same director’s The Best Man (1999).

In all, a top comedy, which really deserves its success.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Malcolm D. Lee; Writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver; Cinematographer Greg Gardiner; Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017.

Uncertain (2015)

At a certain level, this could be a documentary about the crippling environmental effect of a fast-spreading algae across an inland lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, by the town of the film’s title… Except it’s not really about that, it’s instead about a few of the town’s residents, men lost to the world and to themselves, just trying to get by, find meaning, abide. The film creates a deep atmosphere of damaged people trying to repair their lives, while in the background others try to save the lake by essentially introducing the kind of biological conflict the humans have been trying to move away from (weevils that attack the algae; violence permeates the film). Anyway it’s all beautifully shot, with some of the finest scenery you’ll see.

Uncertain film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands; Cinematographer McNicol; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 16 March 2017.