There’s certainly a message to this film, but it’s buried in layers of aesthetics that you’ll either hate or, as I did, sort of get to tolerate after a while. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy the Wachowskis and their increasingly baroque output, as witness Jupiter Ascending, one of the great films of the last decade and one equally likely to divide its audience. Anyway, I’m taking a bit of a break this week from the themed reviews, so this is just a post for my regular women filmmakers slot on Wednesday, and I should cover a newish release on Friday.
I’ve seen films based on cartoons and manga before, but they don’t usually go quite so far in capturing a certain uncanny hyper-saturated cartoon-panel-like sensibility as this film. It all but completely does away with standard filmic editing or any kind of naturalistic construction of reality, as each element within the frame looks as if it’s filmed separately and layered on, moving often independently of the other images. Conversations are between superimposed heads swiping right or left across the screen, and rarely between two people standing or sitting facing one another. Even in domestic settings, every shot looks like it’s against a green screen, so it must have been fearsomely difficult to have acted on the film — though, that said, the performances are hardly naturalistic either. It’s all pushed to a ridiculous degree, with the racing sequences themselves more like a very hi-def version of Mario Kart, and certainly defying all laws of physics. And I suppose that’s where the achievement lies, in creating a film so at odds with reality, but still with a very clear message about the corrupting power of capital and the need to resist it.
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski [under different names at the time] (based on the manga マッハGoGoGo Mahha GoGoGo [“Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo”] by Tatsuo Yoshida 吉田竜夫); Cinematographer David Tattersall; Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 1 June 2019.
In looking at Indian cinema and society, a number of topics come up quite frequently, particularly that of arranged marriage, which can certainly seem problematic but is also an ingrained part of society and not always quite how Western audiences want to judge it. This documentary is fairly balanced in the way it approaches the subject, taking in three different subjects, at different stages in their path to marriage.
As a documentary about marriage, and thus about women’s lives, in India, this comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a long sigh. It’s not an angry film, it’s not even necessarily against the practice of arranged marriage, it just looks at the stories of three women and the way they feel about marriage and how they expect to continue their lives. All three are intelligent, motivated, and pretty, but each have different difficulties. One is marrying, which happens near the start of the film, meaning we then see how that plays out for her (cooking, domesticity, raising a child but not ‘allowed’ to work); the others are trying to make a path for themselves, and thus get married towards the end of the film. There’s a sense in which the music for those climactic marriage scenes is a little too overdetermined (it comes over like a feel-good commercial) when the rest of the film makes it clear that they have all made sacrifices and compromises. One of them isn’t willing to sacrifice her work and so she marries a man who is pretty blasé about the whole concept, basically admitting he’s just going through with it for his family, and though they seem happy together, it’s all very odd at times. Which means, as a film about the practice of Indian marriages, it’s interesting and fairly balanced.
Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra; Writers Khurana, Mundhra and Jennifer Tiexiera; Cinematographers Naiti Gámez, Shivani Khattar and André de Alencar Lyon; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 2 March 2018.
The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.
- Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
- Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.
This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.
- There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.
I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.
This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.
I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.
See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.
In the subsection of crusading documentaries bringing attention to a particular issue, this one dealing with animal rights — and specifically the legal attempt to claim them as legal persons (which is, in the States, a legal right that is also claimed by companies, I believe) — is an interesting one, which intersects with certain trends right now. It also exemplifies the place that any documentary festival has for the latest work by longstanding creators in the genre. That said, it’s a fairly minor final film from one of the great 20th century documentarians (Donn Pennebaker), who died in 2019, and there are also troubling aspects to some of the legal arguments in light of this particular historical juncture (the review below was written in 2016 when I saw the film).
This is a solidly made documentary (as you’d expect from the talent) about the issue of animal rights. It’s lovely that people are out there trying to make a difference on this and given my own (vegan) dietary choices, I’m certainly on-side with their struggle. However, it never really convinces me that the particular legal path they’re going down is the best avenue. Still, any attempt to help animals, even arguing for their “personhood”, is a good cause, and who knows, maybe we’ll all look back in 50 years and wonder that such rights ever needed fighting for. But for now, I do strongly wonder if slavery analogies are the most tactful in this respect.
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographer Hegedus; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 16 June 2016.
A documentary which won the Illuminate Award at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest is this one, dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a still misunderstood and under-researched ailment suffered by a large number of people. It’s one of a range of documentaries which are dedicated to publicising situations which don’t get much media attention, in the hope of effecting some meaningful change.
A moving and quite effective documentary about ME (also known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”). If nothing else, the filmmaker — Jennifer Brea, also the primary subject of the documentary and someone who lives with this — makes it clear how little understood the disease is (partly a lack of understanding and funding by those who have the money and power to effect proper research), and how much scepticism about it remains within society. She also is very clear about how debilitating it can be, and while she herself is sometimes mobile, she interviews a range of people at various places in the spectrum, including a bedridden young woman in England and a man in the States who is almost completely immobile and silent, and (it turns out) the son of a leading researcher in the field, whose desperation to find sources for funding turns out to have quite a personal impetus. For this kind of personal documentary, it’s quite well-made and presents a clear case for further understanding and empathy with those who deal with it — which is, it turns out, a surprisingly large number of people.
Director Jennifer Brea; Writers Brea and Kim Roberts; Cinematographers Sam Heesen and Christian Laursen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 6 November 2017.
Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.
There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.
As of writing this (and hopefully not for too much longer), I’ve never actually read any of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel ashamed at that. More than ever, it’s important to celebrate authors who work in the fantasy and science-fiction genres who deal frankly and positively with difference, specifically characters with fluid gender and sexual identities, characters which cut across class divides and are sympathetic and believable. Le Guin has been doing so since the 1960s, and too many authors with a lot of media cachet have been getting recent media traction with appalling untruths about, for example, transgender people. Difference is still scary and threatening to far too many people, and reading the work of authors like Le Guin is a small way to rectify that.
A straightforward hour-long talking heads documentary about an American fantasy author who died at the age of 88 in January 2018. It dwells most on her upbringing and the work in the 1960s that made her name, and about her own personal growth in encountering feminism and moving from primarily male protagonists to integrate different class and gender perspectives into her stories from the 1970s onwards. As it’s quite short, you get the sense that there’s a lot more that could be covered, and it leans rather heavily on the opinions of David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but on the whole this is a fascinating piece. In particular, her speech near the end of her life to the National Book Awards is a reminder that her acuity and social consciousness remained undiminished throughout her life.
Director/Writer Arwen Curry; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 10 November 2018.