A 2021 Film Journey: Day 58

The weekends just make everything better. After days of feeling like I needed to sacrifice sleep to keep the project going uninterrupted, today was my first day to just sit and watch films with no other obligations. With a full day to dedicate to watching, it only made sense to start it out by watching the second half of a mini-series I had started before.

When They See Us (2019, Dir. Ava DuVernay)

When They See Us' Watched By More Than 23 Million Netflix Accounts  Worldwide – Deadline

Ava DuVernay’s 5-hour epic about the Central Park Five was among the best films (it’s a mini-series but I’m counting it as a movie) I watched this month. The story of the young men who were wrongfully convicted was well know by the time of the film’s release and was somewhat recently back on people’s mind as the president at the time was extremely outspoken about wanting the death penalty for the boys; this is actually a fact that the filmmakers were well aware of and couldn’t help including reference to (which also happens to be the only thing I could have really done without in the film). Regardless of how well known the case may have been, the film amplifies its message and shows brings the terror to life.

In the first of four episodes, I had a slight hesitation to the series. I was worried that DuVernay was turning the prosecutors into impossibly evil people. The almost cartoonish style could have been a hinderance to the film’s message, but in context it works. Even if the prosecutors weren’t attempting to act as supervillains, what they did was undeniably evil, and so the acting decision works as part of a whole. DuVernay captures the terror and torture that the five young boys were subjected to and how their lives were changed irrevocably because of it.

After finishing the mini-series, I turned my attention to my seemingly unending collection of films that I own but have not yet watched and started a new trilogy. Anticipate the other two features coming in quick succession.

Alice in the Cities (1974, Dir. Wim Wenders)

Alice in the Cities: A Girl's Story | The Current | The Criterion Collection

Alice in the Cities is the first film in Wim Wenders The Road Trilogy and is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. That may be slightly hyperbolic, but not by much. I just have a thing for movies about miserable people making their way through the world and maybe becoming a little less miserable. Philip (Rüdiger Vogler) is the miserable protagonist for this film, and it’s when he is saddled with Alice (Yella Rottländer) that he’s given an opportunity to improve.

Alice in the Cities succeeds as a meaningful depiction of this type by its ability to sulk in silence. Philip’s melancholy leaves him sullen in contrast to Alice’s bubblier persona. This means that frequently the film will linger with Philip with no dialogue spoken. Just a static shot of his face with the passing background speaks volumes about his mindset and the human condition. Alice’s young joy act not just as a catalyst for Philip’s change, but as a glimpse into the eye of a child attempting to live in a world that adults only make difficult for them. These contrasting viewpoints work as perfect foil for each other and lend the film depth and complexity. It’s just a perfect film.

Finally for the night, I once again ventured into the Oscar short lists and grabbed another short form documentary from the list to watch in prep of the eventual Oscar nominations

A Love Song for Latasha (2020, Dir. Sophia Nahil Allison)

A Love Song for Latasha | Netflix Official Site

The documentary shorts continue to be some of the most difficult films to talk about. There tends to not be much artistically unique about any of them, but A Love Song for Latasha does stand out in one way. Throughout the runtime, director and editor Sophia Nahil Allison plays with various camera distortions. This distortion comes to a climax with the documentary’s narrative. When the subject matter becomes to dark to imagine, the camera breaks and no longer attempts to recreate what is being discussed. It’s too painful to even comprehend.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 57

Do you ever decide you need to take a quick nap, so you set an alarm for 40 minutes and then next thing you know four hours have gone by? Well anyway, it’s almost midnight and I’ve only watched one film, so despite my best effort tonight is going to be another short entry. Thankfully tomorrow is the weekend and I have no work obligations, so expect a longer post tomorrow.

Daughters of the Dust (1991, Dir. Julie Dash)

I Am the First and the Last”: Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST | by Bryn  Mawr Film Institute | Medium

I worry a little that my brain only being half awake for this film may have hampered some of my enjoyment of the film. Make no mistake, I both liked this film and think it was quite good, but there were some parts that left me a little confused. Much of that is likely due to the scope of the film. It follows many different characters, some of whose plot points are only tangentially related. That combined with the thick creole accent throughout was a lot to ask of my exhausted brain tonight.

While my exhaustion may have gotten prevented me from appreciating Daughters of the Dust as much as I could, I still enjoyed it plenty despite my tired stupor. What stands out the most is the striking beauty of the film. The film has a warm hue that makes each character pop when on screen. The women’s primarily white clothing pops throughout even when the characters are covered in dirt from the work they do on the island. From a thematic standpoint, I really appreciated what director Julie Dash managed to do with the concept of family. Yellow Mary (Barbarao) has been outcast by her family, but she still feels a connection to them. Conversely, the matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) is well loved, but prepares to say goodbye to her family as they all leave her behind on the island where they all lived. Every interaction in the film comes back to the family dynamic and how nothing is straightforward or easy.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 56

Only one movie again today, but that’s partially because I’m working my way through a mini-series that I hope to finish in the next day or two at the same time. While yesterday’s viewings were as old of pictures as possible given this month’s theme, I decided to jump back to the present day today by watching the first feature of one of today’s greatest auteurs.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008, Dir. Barry Jenkins)

I Was at a Point in My Life When I Needed to Take a Risk”: Barry Jenkins on  his Debut Feature, Medicine for Melancholy | Filmmaker Magazine

I’m not sure what the origin of the two strangers walking and talking film is, I tend to associate it with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), but no mater who makes the film, I’m always interested in watching them. Good or bad, there’s just something in that style of filmmaking that engrosses me. I’ve always cared for characters and moods more than plot, so the well-trod formula connects with me every time, so a Barry Jenkins, mumblecore-esque two-strangers-walking-and-talking-film was more or less guaranteed to be a hit with me.

All that is to say that It’s no surprise that I enjoyed Medicine for Melancholy, but I acknowledge that much of that is because of my predisposition to the genre. Jenkins attempts to build upon the tried-and-true formula by giving his characters something deeper to ponder while walking, the consequences of gentrification in San Francisco. While that topic is worth discussing, the overt ways that Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins) interact on the subject takes away from what makes these movies great, personal moments between characters.

 While that slight variation on the genre didn’t especially work for me, Jenkins still delivered on what this type of film succeeds at. The two leads have wonderful chemistry even if they come from different world, and their conversations are fun and insightful. The highs and the lows of the two’s 24 hours together are felt strongly through the performances and the direction, and the ending avoids the twee cliché that can frequently plague these films. Altogether Medicine for Melancholy is a wonderful first feature.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 55

Today was the first day in quite a bit that I’ve felt that work was a little more under control. This has meant that while it has been a struggle to even fit one movie in some workdays, today I snuck in two without feeling overly pinched on time, albeit two shorter ones. While so far this month, my Black directed films have all been in within the last 50 years, the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set from Kino Lorber that I order came in, so today’s films come from another 50 years back.

Within Our Gates (1920, Dir. Oscar Micheaux)

A Rich Tapestry of Black Experience: Close-Up on Oscar Micheaux's "Within  Our Gates" on Notebook | MUBI

If I’m going back in time to watch some early Black cinema, it only makes sense to start with the earliest, existing (Micheaux’s film The Homesteader was made a year prior but is now a lost film) feature film directed by a Black filmmaker. Important to note, that the film wasn’t just created by a Black man and staring a primarily Black cast, but also a decidedly Black story. That’s a bold decision for 1920 but one that treats the film well.

The film is headlined by Evelyn Preer, and it’s no wonder that she was considered one of the premier Black performers of the day. Her persona radiates throughout the picture so much that even through the silent medium her voice is always felt. This singular performance is amplified by a scripting decision that’s slightly less entertaining. The last 20 minutes of the film are an awkwardly placed flashback to Sylvia’s (Preer’s character) tragic backstory. The flashback could have worked earlier in the film, but where it is, it robs the movie of its climax. Still for the time, Within Our Gates is a remarkable piece of film history.

Body and Soul (1925, Dir. Oscar Micheaux)

Body and Soul (1925) A Silent Film Review – Movies Silently

After Within Our Gates, I kept the same Blu-ray in and jumped to another Oscar Micheaux film from five years later: Body and Soul. The first thing that stands out when comparing these two films is that the later doesn’t have Evelyn Preer and is for the worse for it. Julia Theresa Russell does a good job as Isabelle but lacks the instant charisma of Preer. In most other ways though, Micheaux makes good use of the five extra years of experience.

Body and Soul is a much more complex narrative than Within Our Gates, but the extra experience has allowed Micheaux to tell his story more clearly. There’s no third act backstory to obfuscate the climax here. Watching both films, I was extremely impressed by Micheaux’s mature filmmaking skills. The films both made extensive use of parallel editing in ways that I wouldn’t expect from anyone in the early 1920s. Both films may be important pieces of film History, but Body and Soul is the film that stands out.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 54

Today was another rough one at work, but on the bright side the major project I’ve been breaking my back to get done has been kicked off and I should be done with long days for a bit at least. So while today is going to be another short entry about a single film, I have hope that soon I’ll be back into a more consistent multiple film watching routine.

Ganja & Hess (1973, Dir. Bill Gunn)

What's on TV Sunday: 'Ganja & Hess' and 'Outcry' - The New York Times

The 70s have proven to be a surprisingly fruitful decade for films by Black directors. Granted, most of them were created outside of the studio system, but it’s still been a fun batch to visit even if the money hasn’t always been there. Watching tonight’s film, Ganja & Hess, I can feel the budget constraints, but the film makes up for that by leaning into a more experimental tone to a vampire horror film.

What stood out the most about the film is much of the imagery. The film makes liberal usage of Christian iconography to play on the traditional motif of vampires being averse to a cross. While the vampires in Ganja & Hess don’t burn at the site of these religious objects, the film also uses the imagery of a noose in multiple locations as a more relevant symbol of pain for the Black characters. Gunn relies heavily on vampirism as a metaphor for Blackness. It represents something about Ganja (Marlene Clark) and Hess (Duane Jones) that they can’t control or escape, and others judge them for.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 53

I swear that weekend was actually only one day not two. How is it possible that it’s Monday again? Complaining aside, Monday means I’m back to working all day so movie watching is going to be limited. That’s especially true today and tomorrow as we attempt to go live with a large project. I once again found myself not logging off until around 9pm, so today’s going to be another quick entry.

MLK/FBI (2020, Dir. Sam Pollard)

MLK/FBI (2020) - Rotten Tomatoes

Tonight’s viewing was one that I wanted to watch last month for MLK day, but Black History Month seems just as appropriate. MLK/FBI is a documentary comprise entirely of archival footage of Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover with expert voice over. The film goes into the devious plot of Hoover’s FBI to expose King as a liar, a communist sympathizer, and an adulterer throughout the last decade of the civil rights leader’s life.

Evaluating the film, it’s always difficult to separate the subject from the film when watching documentaries. For 100 minutes, my attention was fully captured as director Sam Pollard filled in significant details of an aspect of MLK’s life that I only knew broad strokes about. The tension between conservative G-men and the Black leaders creates for an entertaining story, but does it make for a good documentary? If I’m being honest, while my ears were always engaged, there were definitely times where my eyes lingered away from the screen. The archival footage has its charm, but especially as some of the clips repeated, I felt like I could’ve just as easily been listening to a podcast. It leads me to an interesting conclusion where I feel like I full-heartedly recommend watching the film even if I don’t think it makes the best of its medium.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 52

I can’t seem to get healthy these days. Only one movie today, and I’m honestly surprised I even managed to get through that. I can’t seem to get over my exhaustion and once again find myself with a fever barely able to get out of bed. Sorry this one is going to be quick, but at least yesterday’s post was a longer one to make up for it.

Buck and the Preacher (1972, Dir. Sidney Poitier)

Image result for buck and the preacher

I honestly had no idea before today that Sidney Poitier ever directed, but it turns out that not only has he, Buck and the Preacher is the first of his nine features, the first five of which he also starred. While as an actor, Poitier was exceptional, in his first outing in the director’s chair, he ended up producing a rather by the numbers western film, albeit one with a much Blacker cast than most.

Poitier plays Buck a wagon master who makes a living guiding free slaves through the frontier to a better life in the west. After the group he’s in charge with is robbed by a white town who need the former slaves to work for cheap labor, Buck joins a con-man preacher (Harry Belafonte) to exact revenge on the attackers and take back the group’s seed money. While the story is fine, it’s also unremarkable. Every beat is predictable and would fit well into a weekly western lineup. Likely the only reason the film has stayed relevant through the years is the novelty of a western telling a Black story and the acting pedigree of the director.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 51

I can tell that this weekend was much needed because even after a day of doing nothing but relaxing, I feel incredibly weary. The fact that I have to log back on tomorrow is a little upsetting given how exhausted I am, but I still managed to get some good movie going in today and hope to fit some in tomorrow as well.

25th Hour (2002, Dir. Spike Lee)

Image result for 25th hour

While most of the films I’ve watched for Black History Month so far this year have told Black stories, my only criteria for myself is that they be directed by a Black filmmaker. Today’s film joins The Old Guard as the films that don’t have Black leads. I call this out in hopes of checking my own subconscious bias because 25th Hour was one of my favorite viewings so far this month. I believe it’s a current favorite because of a restrained Spike Lee in the director’s chair and some sublime acting performances, but I feel the need to call it out none the less.

Edward Norton provides one of the exceptional performances as the lead Monty, a man coming to terms with his incarceration the next morning. As a man preparing to lose the next seven years of his life, he exhibits the five stages of grief highlighted by a memorable bathroom monologue encapsulating the anger state. Accompanying Norton’s stellar performance is a classic outing from arguably the greatest actor of his time Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays Jacob, a professor who is Monty’s childhood friend. The timid, reserved character acts as a perfect foil for Morty’s overconfident persona, and Hoffman was perfectly cast.

As good as the acting in the film is, what makes this film stand out to me above many of Spike Lee’s other films is how the film eschews some of his more bombastic tendencies that become pitfalls to some of his other films (including the two of the ones I reviewed earlier this year). Maybe it’s because Lee outsourced the writing of this screenplay, or maybe it’s because Norton was able to channel Lee’s grandiose vision better than others, but 25th Hour seemed to be Spike Lee working near his peak.

Afterwards, I turned to my personal movie collection to grab a film that I’ve purchased but not yet watched.

Walkabout (1971, Dir. Nicolas Roeg)

Image result for walkabout

Nicolas Roeg’s Australian New Wave feature Walkabout created an odd double feature when paired with 25th Hour. While the Spike Lee joint was loud and full of wonderfully over the top performances, Walkabout was a much more grounded and methodical viewing (though somehow the much darker film of the two at the same time). The film is about a girl and boy (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) who are abandoned in the outback. After days on their own with little hope of surviving, they are found by an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who guides them to civilization despite the language and custom barrier.

Beyond the setup, the film is remarkably simple. Much of the film is comprised of nothing but the two or three children walking through the desert. The dialogue hides the films themes as the girl attempts to protect her little brother from the reality of their predicament, and the Aboriginal boy does not speak their language (and is not subtitled). It’s through this simplicity that director Roeg extracts depth. The film plays with themes of loss of innocence and is packed with biblical imagery for those willing to be unlike the young boy and seek meaning beyond the literal.

After the two features, I finished off my evening with three more documentary shorts from this year’s Oscar short list.

Colette (2020, Dir. Anthony Giacchino)

Image result for colette 2020

Colette is a documentation of the woman Colette Marin-Catherine a French woman who was part of the resistance against the Nazi’s visiting the work camp that her brother was killed in 75 years prior for the first time. This film fell a little short to me. The initial minutes set it up to tell the story of this woman who joined the French Resistance when she was 14, but instead focus entirely on her brother who died in the war. It feels like the more interesting story that was set up was forgotten minutes in.

Call Center Blues (2020, Dir. Geeta Gandbhir)

Image result for call center blues

Call Center Blues took a new viewpoint on the immigration crisis that plagues the USA. The short looks at a community of members who have been deported from the USA and work in a call center just across the border in Tijuana. Many have their families still living on the other side of the border, so the community of other deportees becomes all the more important. I enjoyed this one a decent amount, but it definitely lost the through line of the titular call center rather quickly.

Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa (2019, Dir. Barbara Attie, Mike Attie, and Janet Goldwater)

Image result for Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa

The best of the three documentary shorts tonight, Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa watches workers of an abortion funding helpline as they are continuously short on funds to give. These depressing calls are intercut with archival footage of congress passing the Hyde Amendment, the reason Medicaid can’t be used to pay for abortions and the funding helpline is necessary. This context helps to elevate this short above the other two.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 50

Happy Friday. I’m super glad to be free of the week is over. I’m know I’ll end up having to work some this weekend, but the relief is still palpable. I’m exhausted and once again getting this post up rather late, so will have to wait until the weekend begins in earnest for some more multi-film viewing. For tonight’s single viewing, I once again delved into the expansive library of films by Black directors available on criterion.

Losing Ground (1982, Dir. Kathleen Collins)

Image result for losing ground kathleen collins

I don’t honestly have a lot to say about today’s viewing. As underrepresented as Black people and women are in film making today, that fact that Kathleen Collins was able to make a feature film in 1982 was remarkable, but the gatekeeping in the system has hindered the film with its small budget devoid of a studio’s backing. The filming doesn’t look great, and the acting is rather stilted, but it’s doing its best with what it has.

While much of the film doesn’t work, I can see a lot of skill from Collins in both direction and writing. Using a student film as a metaphor for Sara (Secret Scott) and Victor (Bill Gunn)’s crumbling marriage works well and allows Sara’s frigid character to evolve. It also get’s her out of the house to allow Victor an excuse to revel in the sleaze that had been pretty clearly telegraphed. The fact that both leads are dealing with a midlife crisis in the midst of success in their chosen fields is another really interesting idea as opposed to more traditional midlife crisis stories.

Collins only made two films before she died of breast cancer at age 46. Given that her voice was the thing about Losing Ground that worked the best, it seems a shame that she wasn’t able to make another with more means. I know that she was also an acclaimed poet and playwright, but I would’ve loved to see her get behind the camera for a film with at least a modest budget.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 49

Today wasn’t as long an endeavor of the past few, so hopefully this gets posted a little earlier tonight. Today was the first day that I started getting worried about my ability to find enough films by Black directors to get me through the rest of the month. Between historical gatekeeping by Hollywood, and streaming services failure to have a well-stocked selection. Even in their Black History Month sections, most streaming services focus on films with Black leads not Black directors. But then Criterion tweeted out a long thread of their Black driven films, and I’m no longer worried about filling the rest of the month.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012, Dir. Terence Nance)

Image result for an oversimplification of her beauty

Love is an emotion that is complex and often completely unknowable. Given that, it only makes sense that a film exploring that emotion would be an intertwined experimental film that blends narrative and autobiographical moments. This film meshed well with me much in the way that the works of Guy Maddin’s films work well for me. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a movie that I will bookmark for myself to revisit, but I’d have to know someone really well before I’d ever recommend it to them.

In his film, Terence Nance plays with standard film conventions. The film is composed of live action intertwined with animation of numerous different styles lends to the complexity of the subject matter. Text appears on screen throughout not as a narrative clarifier but often as a narrative replacement and frequently blurred out in the guise of maintaining identities. Even Nance’s portrayal as a version of himself creates an intentionally confused subject. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty plays with all of the strings that are supposed to make a movie to portray an unknowable subject.

Rather than stop at this one film, and get to bed a little bit earlier tonight, I jumped back into the Oscar short lists and started watching some of the documentary features that made the short list.

A Concerto Is a Conversation (2021, Dir. Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot)

Image result for A Concerto Is a Conversation

An unfortunate amount of documentary short viewing ends up being like A Concerto Is a Conversation. While there’s nothing wrong with the film, there’s nothing great about the film either. It’s a rather by the numbers 15-minute piece of a man, composer Kris Bowers, talking with his father about the hardships he went through to provide for his son.

Hysterical Girl (2020, Dir. Kate Novack)

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On the other hand, Hysterical Girl was everything that A Concerto Is a Conversation was not. Rather than in introspective piece, director Kate Novack asks us to reassess our thoughts on Sigmund Freud through the eyes of one of one of his patients who he assigned the term “hysterical” to (acted out by Tommy Vines). The film explores how the label of hysterical continues to plague women to this day through news clips to besmirched women. I don’t know that I’ve ever been ride or die for a documentary short film at Oscar time before, but there’s a first time for everything.