1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

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).

Criterion Sunday 247: Slacker (1990)

It’s 30 years since this film was shot, and whatever you might think of it, it certainly has created a legacy, both of independent filmmaking, but also by way of capturing a zeitgeist, a spirit of a certain strand of alternative American existence (whether here in Austin TX or in Portland OR, et al.): places that have defined themselves by a certain lo-fi aesthetic and bohemian drop-out culture. The strongest aspect remains Linklater’s narrative structure, which builds on the familiarity of multi-strand intersecting narratives, but instead has characters just bump into one another, pulling the camera (and thus the viewer) into these constantly changing stories, all set within the same city, in a tight (but not real-time) framework. It’s all queued up by Linklater’s appearance as the first of these figures, indulging in some pseudo-philosophical ramblings in the back of a taxicab (shades of Scorsese in Taxi Driver, and a tendency which Linklater would indulge in his later films), which both gently pokes fun at his pretensions but also lays out the film’s alternative realities groundwork. Ultimately the rambling concept can’t help but exceeding the framework of the film, but this leads to a final act of filmic self-destruction a little bit reminiscent of Two-Lane Blacktop in a way, and brings a fitting close to this era-defining film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the many extras is Woodshock (1985), a very early short film by Linklater which focuses on a local indie music festival. No footage of the music is shown, but there’s a charming DIY aesthetic to this lo-fi footage of the audience just milling about and acting like quintessential music festival audiences, not to mention an eager young Daniel Johnston toting his cassette album.
  • There’s also footage from a 10th anniversary cast reunion at a cinema in Austin, which features a lot of the local cast reflecting on the film and their experiences in front of an audience.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 April 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2000).

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016).

Hot Pursuit (2015)

I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a woman-directed film with two women in the lead roles, it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paychecks and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.

Hot Pursuit film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has been turning in some excellent acting performances of late, but once again with this film (as with the similarly critically-feted Mud last year), I find myself unable to quite understand what all the fuss is about. The performance, yes, is very good, but the film it’s in service to seems to be made up of well-worn familiars of the genre, and held together by an unflashy style that occasionally shows sparks of editing flair, but is mostly fairly workaday. It’s hardly a disease-of-the-week teleplay, but the style is not a million miles from a TV movie. Or perhaps I am just reacting to grumpily to that very first appearance of the title cards in Times New Roman. It doesn’t take much sometimes.

Certainly the character of rodeo-loving electrician Ron Woodroof, played by a gaunt and desiccated McConaughey, is an interesting one, even if his contradictions are rather forcefully set up. It’s 1985 and it’s immediately clear that he’s a devil-may-care womaniser (having sex in a bull pen while the rodeo goes on) not to mention a homophobic jock hanging out drinking with a bunch of like-minded buddies. It’s at this point that he’s diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, and the film kicks off. Or rather, one keeps expecting it to. He goes through a desperate phase of taking all the drugs (a corporate-backed AIDS drug as well as plenty of others rather more illicit) before really starting to research the options, in the course of which he travels down to Mexico to find drugs which are ostensibly fairly safe, but yet unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And so he decides to import them into the States and sell them to desperate victims of the disease, through a subscription-based club which gives the film its title.

The FDA, represented by their local agent (and a doctor at Ron’s hospital whom they have in their grasp) come through very clearly as the real villains of the piece, and the way that the system is massively biased towards huge powerful corporations is probably the film’s most effectively-made point. But the movement of Ron towards greater understanding of the disease and its treatments as well as his outspokenness against the corruption of the system is never really particularly clear. His initial doctor at the hospital, the fictionalised character of Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), has an even more telegraphed change of heart, charmed by Ron and eventually siding with him against the hospital’s authorities. And then there’s the character of Rayon, played by an equally ravaged-looking Jared Leto, who seems to exist in order to show up Ron’s increased sensitivity after the virulent homophobia of his first half-hour.

It’s all very self-contained and worthy in the way that you imagine would be well-rewarded by the Academy Awards and seems tailored to their faintly conservative backwards-looking overcoming-disease-and-disability awards-giving mentality. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s in taking a straight white male character as the viewer surrogate and charting his movement towards empathy and understanding via the help of some carefully chosen and none-too-offensive (and largely fictional) supporting characters. Every victim of AIDS may deserve a film biopic, but in the end, I never really got a sense of what makes this story particularly special.

Dallas Buyers Club film posterCREDITS
Director Jean-Marc Vallée; Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Thursday 20 February 2014.