Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.


This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Down in the Delta (1998)

Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.


There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.

Down in the Delta film posterCREDITS
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.

Continue reading “Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)”

Dumplin’ (2018)

A quick bonus post for the week of Netflix films for another recent Netflix original, and a very sweet and charming one at that. This kind of thing — the comedic coming-of-age — goes with the pastel-hued romcom (often with a seasonal theme) and the stand-up comedy special as one of Netflix’s staples, and they do it well. I have no doubt that future weeks will see me turn to other streaming services or sources of stay-at-home film-watching content for obvious reasons, and perhaps I’ll be back with Netflix again soon enough.


There are obviously limits to auteurism, and most mainstream cinema traditions are fairly effective at proving those limits; sure, Anne Fletcher is the director credited with helming one of my least favourite films that I’ve seen (2015’s Hot Pursuit, though I don’t daresay there are a million worse ones and I only watched that particular film because it’s by a woman director), but in most such cases, it’s the screenplay where one should be focused. In this case, the source material and its adaptation by Kristin Hahn is almost entirely on point — in no small way abetted by another fine and subtle writer on the soundtrack, Dolly Parton — and Dumplin’ thus exudes a genuine warmth. There are a few clichés of the genre, but all of them are in service to a message — about body positivity and personal growth — that avoids preachiness and shaming, and doesn’t allow its characters the cop-outs of success by the usual metrics of the genre (winning a prize, fitting in with the cool girls, getting the boy… well, to a certain extent, anyway). Millie, for example (my favourite character, played by Maddie Baillio), is never depicted as hating herself, or having a secret dark side behind her omnipresent smile, or as being in any way less than perfectly confident in who she was (albeit in need of a bit of coaching for a beauty pageant), and that was great. The ‘drag queens teaching the outsider girls to be more femme’ was a bit more stock, but overall I think the film creates enough of a positive feeling, and the actors put enough into it, that even that I think wasn’t too jarring.

Dumplin' film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Kristin Hahn (based on the novel by Julie Murphy); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 11 December 2018.

Queen & Slim (2019)

Obviously this film is addressing a lot of issues, to varying degrees of success depending on your viewpoint, but at least one thing it’s asking is whether it’s possible to make a romance involving two people who don’t actually really seem to like each other at all (at least, initially). It’s also a lovers on the run story where it’s the forces pursuing them that are from the wrong side of the tracks, because our central characters are largely upstanding people who’ve been forced into a corner. It’s not an obvious continuation of my week’s romance theme, but it’s an interesting film.


I first became aware of this film via the responses of the film critics I follow on Twitter, a lot of whom are Black American women and it’s fair to say the reception was largely critical. This hasn’t been the response across the board of course (it has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that ultimately means), and it hasn’t even been the unanimous response from Black (or Black women) critics — and that’s as it should be, though it does make me wary of claiming to understand or critique the film, no matter that its two lead actor are British. Clearly it’s deploying a long and complex cultural history of Black American lives that I, as a white British man, couldn’t hope to fully grasp, but I somewhat expected better from Lena Waithe’s script. It’s based on a story by James Frey, whose name should presumably cause at least a few alarm bells to ring (given his own literary history), but I don’t know the background to the script. I can say it uses two largely unlikeable characters (albeit for different reasons, though Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is clearly the more approachable at the start of the film) and has them go on a Journey — by which I mean, it’s a road movie, but it’s also a capitalised-J Journey.

As befits the director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, it is a gorgeous evocation of a largely unseen America, as the two journey towards the American South, with dreams of getting to Cuba and (they hope) freedom. It’s visually ravishing, and it very much captures a feeling of youth on the run, so when the script imposes certain more fixed ideas it becomes doubly disappointing. There’s a sex scene by Queen’s mother’s grave intercut with a #BlackLivesMatter-type protest in which a kid they’ve just encountered kills a (Black) cop, which is particularly odd (upsetting yes, but also misjudged) given the jarring editing, the meaning (or lack thereof) of the action, and also the fact that this protest seems to be happening hundreds of miles away from where the original incident occurred. Other events happen for equally obscure reasons — more it seems to develop a mood than strictly narratively motivated at times. It’s a rather nasty character, Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who feels like the most fully rounded depiction, though his story is deeply layered with misogyny, which I can accept is supposed to be part of the film’s intention of excavating systemic racism and generational trauma, but doesn’t quite land.

Still, I am removed from this location and culture, so I found a lot to like in the way the film looks and moves, and hope for something even stronger from both director and writer in future. In the meantime, here are some links by writers with more understanding than I have:
* B!tch Media (by Jourdain Searles);
* Just Add Color (by Monique Jones);
* National Review (by Armond White); and
* a positive review in The Undefeated (by Soraya McDonald).

Queen & Slim film posterCREDITS
Director Melina Matsoukas; Writer Lena Waithe and James Frey; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 10 February 2020.

Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson

The now veteran television documentary producer Madeline Anderson got her start in filmmaking in the 1950s, after studying at NYU and falling in with vérité filmmakers like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. She made a number of compelling early short documentary subjects focusing on Civil Rights at this time, which were shown in the UK by the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival a couple of years back.

Continue reading “Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson”

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

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).