Today was the first official day that I was at my program half time, and the time off in the afternoon left me with ample time. While despite the free time, today only has one film, I have a couple of multifilm days in planning for the rest of the week. Today’s viewing was continuing with my 2021 movie catchup, and it took me to the near top of the Metacritic list for the year.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021, Dir. Questlove)
When tasked with naming a music festival from 1969, most people will answer Woodstock without a second thought; Summer of Soul attempts to expand the zeitgeist to include the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival at the same time. The film does that by blending traditional concert documentary footage with the cultural context necessary to understand the festival’s importance.
While billed as a blend between the musical and the political, Summer of Soul sets the music center stage and builds the cultural significance around each performance. This focus works well to capture the essence of the festival and save it for prosperity even if it leaves the civil rights portion of the documentary a little thin. A balance like this would need to be made to tell a coherent story, and the numerous powerful musical performances – highlighted by the amazing Nina Simone – are the strongest and most unique parts of the film.
The context applied to the extended music scenes is done through the use of talking heads, a style that I am known for not being the biggest fan. Thankfully, Summer of Soul leans heavily on the musical performances to provide extended reprieves from the stylistic monotony of the talking heads. While the film is still rooted in traditional documentary filmmaking, the balance between technical choices provides a lot more enjoyment than a stylistically safer film would have been resulting in an overall enjoyable watch.
Second day back working on this project, and I am endeavoring to make this stick once again. Having missed most of the last two months, I feel very behind in watching new releases, so that is what I am going to be focusing on these next few weeks. And while I doubt that I will catch up with Black Widow or The Suicide Squad, there are plenty of other recent releases that I have on my list.
Shiva Baby (2021, Dir. Emma Seligman)
If severe social anxiety were a movie, it would be the wonderful debut by Emma Seligman Shiva Baby. Outside of a short prologue, the entire film takes place in a house during a Shiva for someone the protagonist Danielle (Rachel Sennott) doesn’t even know. Seligman uses the heightened setting to create a film which is at times utterly terrifying.
Danielle is a college senior who gets by with a financial help from her parents and her sugar daddy, a fact which she keeps secret from everyone and accredits this money to babysitting. This insecurity with where she is in life creates the perfect breeding ground for anxieties to rise as countless extended family members pester her with the same questions ad infinitum. The film hinges on the performance of the relatively new actress Sennott, and she delivers on the ask in spades. Each additional stressor compounds Danielle’s anxiety, and Sennott captures the nuanced changes miraculously.
As good as the acting and direction are in Shiva Baby, the unsung hero of the film is composer Ariel Marx. The squeaking strings that highlight the musical moments help create the tension that is the highlight of the film. The pair of Seligman and Marx create a uniquely memorable depiction of the anxiety and insecurities that can only be brought out through interactions with one’s family.
Sorry for the prolonged disappearance once again. Maintaining this project while simultaneously taking care of myself via partial hospitalization was more than I could maintain. As of today though, I’ve officially graduated down to the less intense (though awkwardly titled) intensive outpatient program and should be able to restart this again. More than just having the time and energy with this less intensive program, taking the time to do this is something that should help me heal.
Zola (2021, Dir. Janicza Bravo)
The darling of Sundance 2020 (it continues to be baffling how much COVID pushed movie releases) Zola attempts to channel Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) but to tell a story adapted from a series of tweets. While Zola is an enjoyable watch and one I would ultimately recommend these two observations/ comparisons result in a film that ultimately feels a little slight.
When the real life Aziah “Zola” Wells tweeted “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…”, the beginning to her masterpiece, she had no idea that her story would one day become a feature film. The popularity of the thread may have made it inevitable, but while the truth may in fact be stranger than fiction, screenplays are normally more flushed out than a series of tweets. Things just happen in the plot without a lot of rhyme or reason.
I mention the comparison to Spring Breakers above because it is what ends up saving Zola. Neither film are blessed with particularly strong screenplays but they use the grimy glitz of Florida to implement a memorable style enhancing the lackluster story. Spring Breakers does so with an avant-garde sweeping style, Zola keeps its style more grounded in the truth with forth wall breaking references to the tweet storm that would follow. This choice adds some much needed levity and intrigue to the film and is what ultimately makes it a positive watch.
I am allowing myself to slowly ease myself back in to watching and writing movies. This means that I will be putting up posts every few days as I feel up to it for at least as long as I am in recovery. What it apparently does not mean is that I will be choosing any easier material for my viewings.
No.7 Cherry Lane (2019, Dir. Yonfan)
When Ziming (Alex Tak-Shun Lam) starts proclaiming the values of reading Proust to Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang) the preceding 30 minutes come into full context. Director Yonfan turns the animated medium on its head by showing all movements in painfully slow detail as opposed to the more frantic pace for which his contemporaries use the medium. This plodding pace creates a bit of an uncanny valley, but as the meditative nature of the film becomes more apparent, the lethargic character movements become a selling point rather than a hinderance.
While the overall meditative feel of the film may be No7. Cherry Lane’s biggest success, the film’s story is less successful. Much of the film centers around a love triangle between Ziming, Mrs. Yu, and her daughter Meiling (Wei Zhao). This triangle deprives Ziming of any sympathy from the audience as he flirts with narcissistic behavior. What is on the screen becomes too distracting and takes away from mood piece the film otherwise excelled at.
When I started this project, I pitched it as part personal blog part film review. As I have dropped off the face of the Earth for a Month, I am going to spend some time discussing what is going on with me. If you are not interested in that part of these posts, feel free to jump down to the movie blurbs below.
Around a month ago, my history of trauma caught up with me. I have been too dissociated lately to watch and retain anything from a movie which is largely why this project has suffered. Recently, I have taken FMLA from work and started a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) to learn some skills and make my way through things when they turn sour. Things will get better for me; they are in the process of getting better for me.
I cannot promise that I will get back on a movie a day pace, or that I will write daily, but I will do my best, slowly but surely. In the meantime. Here are some quick movie thoughts on things I have managed to watch.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, Dir. Stephen Frears)
Highlighted by an early performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, My Beautiful Laundrette touches on a myriad of issues yet still manages to condense them into a cohesive whole. Omar (Gordon Warnecke) as a gay Pakistani in 1980s Britain is subject to a double dosage of discrimination. While largely hiding one and taking advantage of another he is able to create a laundrette of his own to keep him and his boyfriend Johnny (Day-Lewis) off the street, but eventually the house of cards their laundrette is built on is destined to fall.
Shortbus (2006, Dir. John Cameron Mitchell)
John Cameron Mitchell’s follow up to the cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Shortbus sees Mitchell again exploring sexualities as a basis for exploring humanity. Shortbus takes this to the extreme by filling every second with graphic sex, but it does so not to titillate. In fact, much of the sex is extremely unsexy as it embodies the traumas for each character. Maybe not as excellent as his more famous debut, Shortbus is still well worth a watch.
Monsoon (2019, Dir. Hong Khaou)
Understated to a fault, Director Hong Khaou creates a film where no matter how certain the lead Kit (Henry Golding) may be about his life, everything is worth questioning. Kit’s relationship with his Vietnamese heritage as well as his sexuality are explored at a tumultuous time in his life.
Morocco (1930, Dir. Josef von Sternberg)
I originally watched this during the middle of Pride month, and while there are no explicitly queer characters in the film, I dare you to find me a lesbian who would not swoon over Marlene Dietrich in her tux during the opening burlesque scene. That moment alone elevates the rather standard fare classic Hollywood romance into an eternally memorable watch.
Totally Fucked Up (1993, Dir. Gregg Araki)
I started Pride Month with an entry into the New Queer Cinema, it only makes sense that I ended my pride month with another entry into the movement (even if at the time I was not aware it would be my last viewing). The first entry in Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse trilogy (The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997)) embraces the hallmarks of the movement. While filled with a rather conventional plot (although the unabashed queer teens front and center would be sure to cause some stirs in 1993) the film leans heavily on some intense visual techniques to produce a film that feels much more avant-garde than its plot betrays.
And this is the movie that brought me back, I guess. I did not even watch it of my own accord, but instead it was shown as part of group therapy. It seems like being forced to watch a movie was enough to convince me to write this post and hopefully get back in the habit, so misgivings about the film aside I must appreciate what the film did for me. So finally…
Luca (2021, Dir. Enrico Casarosa)
I am just going to say it, this movie is an utter mess. Pixar has lost what made them special and that was beautiful, simple stories. The script for Luca would likely fail a screen writing 101 class. The first act of the film is incredibly stilted (Luca’s need to explore the surface is incredibly unclear), and the second act plot point of the bike race feels like it was from a completely different film. The disconnect between the first two acts makes the payoff in the third seem hollow as well (what did winning a bike race have to do with Luca and his parent’s conflict?). Like all Pixar films, the animation was top tier, but that’s not enough to save the movie from a shoddy screenplay.
It is catchup weekend for me. I have been keeping up with my movie watching, but writing has been a bit too much for my brain to handle lately but I am hopeful that this weekend I will be able to work through my backlog and get back on schedule. In service of that my viewings for these days were preplanned such that I could write a single post instead of three individual posts.
The Documentaries of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
The Criterion Channel has a large subsection of their LGBT films dedicated to the documentaries of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The titles included intrigued me enough that I decided to dedicate a few days to watching them. While they are predominantly composed of talking head narratives, each has its own niche.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Dir. Rob Epstein)
While Jeffrey Friedman was not a part of this film, the Oscar winning documentary by Epstein felt like an important place to start when looking at these films. Made six years after the assassination of first openly gay man elected to public office, The Times of Harvey Milk is a documentary created by people who were still grieving the man they admired and loved. This passion is what elevates the documentary beyond the standard story telling techniques into something special.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989, Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)
The second consecutive film to win the Oscar for documentary feature is a film very much of its time. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt had an extremely important purpose in 1989. Eight years into AIDS epidemic, due to malpractice from the Reagan administration tens of thousands of people are dying of the disease annually. Puritanical values of the country at the time earned the victims of the disease little respect. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt attempted to address the later issue by humanizing the victims by having the loved ones eulogize them. This goal leaves the film to feel dated despite having some moving moments.
The Celluloid Closet (1995, Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)
The final film from this collection that I watched is easily the most niche of the lot. Fortunately, I – as a queer lover of classic cinema – am the exact target for the film’s topic. The Celluloid Closet is an exploration of Hollywood’s depiction of queer people through the eras of the studio. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the documentary becomes a who’s who of openly queer actors discussing the snippets of film that gave them hope when searching for representation. The film wont be for everyone, but for people like me who are the target market, it is a wonderful watch.
I am not sure what happened such that after 4 months of not missing a movie or post once I have been largely unable to keep up in the following 40 days. I am at least caught up on viewings if not posts, and I will be doing my best to play catchup starting with this post today.
This movie was chosen immediately after seeing a tweet wishing a posthumous birthday to Chantal Akerman. While I have seen a few other of her films, I am as guilty as most for thinking of her as the Jeanne Dielman… director and little more, so I’m happy for such a good excuse to view more films by the groundbreaking woman auteur.
Je Tu Il Elle (1974, Dir. Chantal Akerman)
More than a concise narrative, Je Tu Il Elle is Chantal Akerman’s internal exploration of dealing with grief from a heartbreak. The exploration is so personal that the director cast herself as the lead – the je in in title. Reeling from the experience, the film begins with Akerman’s character locking herself in a room to process. She eats nothing but powdered sugar from a paper bag for weeks while she eventually begins working on a written story of her emotions. These moments represent the denial and depression stages of grief she undergoes as part of this heartbreak.
Eventually, she finds the power to leave her room and she immediately starts hitchhiking to her ex-lover’s place. She is picked up by a male trucker who presses her for a hand job in exchange for the lift. While she never seems especially angry during the incident, the revenge sexual act serves as that step in her grief. Eventually she arrives to the home of her ex-lover (Claire Wauthion) and Akerman’s character reaches the bargaining state. She begs her ex to stay the night, for food, and eventually for sex – shown surprisingly honestly and graphically for 1974. The following morning, she crawls out of her ex’s naked embrace and leaves without waking her. In these last seconds, her character has finally found acceptance and is ready to live her life as a single woman again.
Before I dive into today’s post, I wanted to share that I got my second COVID shot. While I am super excited to see friends again (and see movies in the theater again) like with the first shot, I was feeling all the side effects. So, while I watched a film yesterday, I was not feeling up to writing through my fever so today’s post will be a double to make up for it.
The Half of It (2020, Dir. Alice Wu)
Part of me wanted to prove that I do not exclusively watch hyper pretentious queer films, but as a queer woman myself I had exhausted a sizeable portion of the queer media that Hollywood has put out in their relatively conservative history. This is why when I try to stick to films that are new-to-me, a large portion of my blind spots are the more artsy. Thankfully, the world has become more openly receptive to queer identities in the past decade, and it now allows me the opportunity to watch queer young adult stories I would have killed for 15 years prior.
The Half of It is one such film. Alice Wu’s 2020 young adult romance exists in a world where Ellie Chu’s (Leah Lewis) attraction to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) is not seen as taboo even if heterosexuality is still considered the norm. This allows Wu to depict a story devoid of the self-hatred that may have accompanied a similar story told 10 years prior. Ellie still feels a significant othering and keeps her romantic feelings to herself, but it is as a natural part of coming of age. The way that Ellie grows into herself throughout the film is a wonderful normalization of the self-discovery young queer people undergo.
Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998, Dir. Lukas Moodysson)
If The Half of It is representative of the young adult queer experience today, Show Me Love aka Fucking Åmål is much more akin to what someone from my generation experienced. Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) is a newly 16-year-old woman who has no question in her queerness but living in a small Swedish town that uses the word “lesbian” as a slur, she feels the need to partially closet herself out of caution. This does not stop her from pining over her classmate Elin (Alexandra Dahlström).
Maybe it is my age speaking, but the increased stakes in Show Me Love elevates the film from a somewhat twee tale of young love to a mature story where people forego an easy life for a fulfilling one. I am happy that the world has evolve to the point where happy queer stories like The Half of It can be told, but the emotional turmoil from films like Show Me Love resonate at a more visceral level. I may have talked around it some, but I loved Show Me Love even if it may be dated now. It reminds me of my formative years more than any present-day release could.
Third day of Pride and I feel like a bit of a broken record, but I once again am using the Criterion Channel’s LGBT section. What can I say, I have a type of film that interests me and Criterion just delivers on that time after time. For a slight variation on the Criterion theme today, I chose to visit a selection type that Criterion offers that I have not watched much from before: Shot+Feature
Flores (2017, Dir. Jorge Jácome)
Flores is superficially a story about the impact on the island of Azores during a climate apocalypse. As hydrangeas grow uncontrollably and stifle the other fauna on the island, it could be a setting for a heavy-handed environmental film. However, director Jorge Jácome instead uses this beautiful floral landscape as a backdrop for a love poem between two men who enlisted in the army to stay on the island together. The short leans heavy in the poetic style to deliver a quiet, meditative piece that lingers in its beauty.
Beau Travail (1999, Dir. Claire Denis)
I understand why these two films were paired together. In fact, it almost seems too obvious that they would be together, and the similarities are rather obvious. That said I would never have heard of the former short so no complaints here.
This film is another one that I am struggling to write about. At its heart, Beau Travail is a tone poem, and one of the more effective ones that I have ever seen. Claire Denis uses voiceover with the repetitive movements of the French Foreign Legion troop training in the Djibouti sun. This hypnotic mood amplifies the obsession of Galoup (Denis Lavant) until it smolders over from the intensity. Every second of the film is imperative to the essence of the film even if the narrative could be distilled to a short film. Watching the film is more of an experience than watching a story, and I loved it exactly for that.
For the second day of Pride I once again am using the Criterion Channel’s LGBT section, and I assume that will be a common sentiment as making it through most of those films seems like a good goal for the month. I will make sure to sneak some more mainstream queer films in throughout the month as well though, especially after tonight’s viewing.
Pink Narcissus (1971, Dir. James Bidgood)
When picking films to watch, I frequently go out of my way to watch films as blindly as possible. I mention that because while I did not know what Pink Narcissus was, I would never have guessed what my following hour would be. The only film James Bidgood ever made is part cinematic ballet and part erotic gay fantasy. The film contains no dialogue or traditional story and is instead filled with suggestive and graphic imagery for the entirety of the film’s runtime.
While the film has some variation in setting, the circular thrusting and gentle caressing are constant images which create a hypnotizing affect. The viewer becomes entranced by the camp of the costumes and sets. Especially given the era (it was released two years after the Stonewall riots but began production six years prior) this fullhearted embrace of queer imagery is a cultural touchstone.
I have a bonus film for tonight as well. Every Wednesday a Discord server I belong to has a movie night, and for the first time in a while it was a film that was new to me.
Rebecca (2020, Dir. Ben Wheatley)
I am not going to lie; I went into this film assuming I would hate it. At least until I noticed that it was directed by Ben Wheatley which gave me some hope even if he was attempting a remake of one of Hitchcock’s great films. The film ends up being fine. It is better than a remake of Rebecca has any right to be, but it is also the weakest offering I have watched from Wheatley. The most damning appraisal of this remake is where it succeeds and where it fails. The middle hour of the film is almost an exact remake of the 1940 classic and is excellent. During this part of the film, I on more than one occasion told myself that if this were the story’s first adaptation, I would find it excellent. Unfortunately, the book ending half hours of original material feel at odds with the parts that work. A backstory is introduced for little reason, and the new ending forgoes much of the mystery for melodrama. This mix in quality of parts dooms this remake to be lost to time. The best parts are done better by Hitchcock and the original pieces are lacking in quality.
The one thing that this remake arguably does better than the original is the character of Miss (Mrs. in the remake) Danvers. Judith Anderson is excellent in the original as the conniving head maid, but Kirstin Scott Thomas elevates the role to something special. Thomas makes an exquisite villain – especially a villain under a veneer of pleasantness – and is in conjunction with the middle hour the reason to watch the film.