Saturday, 28 March 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - DISCLOSURE review

Using interviews with a number of key trans voices working in today's entertainment industry, Sam Feder's Disclosure looks at the history of transgender representation on the big and small screens and asks how society's negative conceptions of trans men & women have been informed by what they've seen.


Going all the way back to the birth of cinema up to the present day, the contributors speak from their own personal experiences about what it felt like to them to see transgender characters on screen, although more often than not in a negative light. It could be quite easy to look back on these shows through a 2020 lens and pass judgement on their failings, but the contributors here are remarkably fair and balanced in their appraisals of representations. It's quite damning on the lack of representation that they can look back on the countless depictions of trans characters in hospital dramas like E/R and Grey's Anatomy being slowly killed by elements of their transition, or police procedurals like NYPD Blue where trans people are often portrayed as sex workers and think, at least it's something. The same goes for talk shows like Jerry Springer and Maury, out for shock value with dramatic revelations of birth genders, but that also allowed trans people to see something approximating their own feelings and frustrations reflected back on them from the TV screen.

What comes across in these interviews (with actresses like Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne and Trace Lysette, and actors like Michael D. Cohen and Marquis Vilson) is how eager the trans community are to having an open and honest conversation, but also how exasperating it is to see themselves continuously portrayed in a negative light, just for existing. There's a large section of the film that might has well have been subtitled "the problem with The Crying Game". A film that can be applauded for igniting a debate in the early 90s, it ultimately is defined by the negative convulsive reaction the straight white cis man lead character has to discovering the 'twist' (leading to Stephen Rea vomiting in the bathroom), and the way the shock factor of that film's plot device was then re-used for comic purposes in films like Naked Gun 33 1/3rd and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

There's a key moment halfway through the doc where, having discussed and seen clips from countless problematic films and TV programmes like Dressed to Kill and Silence of the Lambs (actress Jen Richards recoils when telling the story of coming out trans to a friend, and their only point of reference was Jame Gumb), when talking about a scene of rape involving Famke Janssen's trans character Ava Moore on Ryan Murphy's supposedly progressive show Nip/Tuck, Laverne Cox has to break from being another worn down talking head in complete despair to ask "did they stop to consider a trans person watching?". Of course the answer is almost undoubtedly no, as for even in films and TV aimed towards a queer audience, the trans community has been othered and depicted as something to gawk at, often in Hollywood films where cisgender actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto can portray trans characters with award winning results due to their on screen transformation; something that has always reverted back by the awards ceremony.

It's impressive that in a conversation that's continually evolving, this film feels incredibly up to date. The inclusion of shows and characters that are from only a few years ago (Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black a prime example) does allow us as the audience to reassess our opinion of what's acceptable, and also of what we want to see on our screens. There's footage of interviews from not so long ago with hugely influential people such as Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric saying outrageously inconsiderate things that you would hope would not be accepted today, and it's clear that the visibility and voices of outspoken people like Candis Cayne, Trace Lysette and Chaz Bono are having a positive effect.

If I'm picking faults, it is weighted more towards the stories of trans women than trans men with only a cursory mention of non-binary people, although this is also something that's acknowledged in the film to be a problem within entertainment as a whole, and perhaps is simply too big a discussion to fit into one film. As a document of where we are now, Disclosure is a fascinating, well-rounded statement that a change in perspective is a positive thing. We are at a tipping point in the trans "debate" socially and culturally, and this film's purpose is not to shit upon poor depictions and name and shame those who do so, but to ask its audience to consider why trans lives are being portrayed this way and what could be done better.

It's encouraging to see how far we've come in a short space of time in increasing trans visibility on screen and that, as evidenced in this documentary, there's strong voices out there to encourage the continued progress. Disclosure is a fantastic piece of documentary filmmaking that will hopefully reach a wide enough audience to add more voices to that fight.

Disclosure is now screening on BFI Player as part of its BFI Flare at Home season, and more information can be found at disclosurethemovie.com.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - DON'T LOOK DOWN review

In a stylish apartment overlooking the streets of Paris, a group of five strangers meet to discuss the one thing they have in common; the man who is locked the room next to them. A parasitic and controlling presence in their lives, in some way or another they have all been mistreated and manipulated by him. As they collectively try to work out why he was able to effect their lives so much, they go into the room one by one to confront their problems, and him.

With topics of discussion ranging from politics to secret desires, the five young, attractive, but narcissistic and damaged people (Manika Auxire, Geoffrey Couet, Simon Frenay, Francois Nambot & Lawrence Valin) cook, eat and flirt with each other, building a steady stream of tension, and not just sexual. Directed and written by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (of Theo and Hugo fame), due to the confined nature of the single setting it wouldn't surprise if this project originally started out as a play, although that doesn't seem to be the case here. It certainly draws from similar single location narratives, like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, although in this case they know the accused is guilty of the social and emotional crimes against them. The why is the real mystery here. Rope is an interesting film to compare this to, as similarly, the person the party is based around is never seen on screen, but is never not a topic of discussion. And boy, there's a lot of discussion.

All five of them have different reasons to feel aggrieved by their common enemy, and this film is in no real rush to tell us why. It's a purposely talky piece, finding its human drama in the commonality they find between the hitherto complete strangers they are in a room with; but it's also an incredibly self indulgent film that's not averse to a sing-a-long interlude and a stress relieving dancing scene (complete with flossing). There's a lot that adds genuinely interesting flavour to the plot, such as the debate as to how to cut an apple tart into five equal pieces when it would be much easier to cut it into six; something Lawrence considers bad luck considering the scenario they're collectively faced with. But sadly, the exploration of the decisions and conclusions they are making over the course of the night does hit fallow ground occasionally, making the (not extensive) runtime of 89 minutes seem overly long and, once again, self indulgent. It's a visually striking film, with the apartment bathed in neon hues, but at the end of the day there's only so much you can do to make a kitchen/diner look exciting.

It's certainly not without merit, offering frank and revealing discussions of sexuality (something that could only be presented as subtext in Hitchcock's Rope), and the cast are all uniformly solid in their varying roles, given a chance to bounce off each other in a variety of pairings in the oddest group therapy session you'll ever see. Unfortunately the stagey set up turns out to be a drawback the story can't overcome.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO review

Dodging the coronavirus by finding a new venue online as #BFIFlareAtHome, this year's festival continues on the BFI Player with For They Know Not What They Do, Daniel Karslake's documentary about the intersection and difficulties families have faced in finding the balance between their religion and their children's sexual and gender identities.

In frank interviews with Karslake, evangelical christians like the Robertson's tell of their reaction to finding out their 12 year old son Ryan was gay. Telling him that he was putting his soul in jeopardy, to appease his parents Ryan went into years of conversion therapy in an effort to fight his feelings, before spiralling into a drug habit and homelessness. Ryan's parents, Rob and Linda, are upfront about their initial reaction and their failure to support their son by believing in the vitriolic hatred of homosexuality that was preached at their church and spread through their community.

A follow up to Karslake's previous film For The Bible Tells Me So (that also covered similar themes and also featured Bishop Gene Robinson of the Center for American Progress), the title here, For They Know Not What They Do, evokes a need for forgiveness and understanding of why these religious are so against these marginal groups, and it's clear from the documentary that what most of the objecting parents and grandparents suffer from is a lack of education on the matter, or perhaps it could better be described as mis-education. The film continuously cuts to disturbing video footage of pastors and preachers encouraging violence against homosexuals and transgender individuals, leading into Vico's story. Raised as Catholic and fearful of his father and grandmother's reaction to his homosexuality but met with acceptance and love, his world changed when he encouraged his friends to go with him to the Pulse nightclub in Florida on the night of the mass shooting in 2016.

The other two key subjects offer a glimmer of hope for the acceptance of transgender people, with the inspiring story of Sarah McBride who, after coming out as transgender in her last year of college, has continued to pursue the career in politics she wanted, including an internship in Obama's White House and speaking at the Democratic National Convention as the first openly transgender person to do so. Her story is not without its hardships, but there's something so moving about how her father smiles as he talks about her achievements. It also goes to highlight how much has changed since 2016. The last main focus of the film is on Elliot, a mixed-race teenager about to go to college. Despite knowing early on that he was transgender, Elliot fought back against his identity and tried to present as female, leading to a personal crisis and self harm, something that is all to common among transgender people. His parents are also quite open about their initial confusion about what to do; but its fair to say that the aim of the film is not to chastise those who were scared about their children's identities, but to tell their stories in order to help others react in a better way.

Karslake's documentary tells four wildly different stories of people and families from all different backgrounds. It doesn't hold back from showing how the current White House administration has done immeasurable harm to LGBTIQ communities, with a sharp rise in the murders of transgender people of colour in 2017, the barring of transgendered people from joining the armed forces and the continued acceptance of conversion therapy in 41 states where they are still legal. For They Know Not What They Do succeeds in giving each story the platform it deserves, featuring some traumatic stories but is ultimately an inspiring and uplifting experience. It should be seen be the friends and family of anyone in the LGBTIQ community, and hopefully by more too. Easily one of the best films of the festival.

For They Know Not What They Do is currently available on the BFI Player until March 29th as part of their #BFIFlareAtHome content, along with other features and a whole host of short films too. Catch them while you can.

BFI FLARE 2020 - KEYBOARD FANTASIES: THE BEVERLY GLENN-COPELAND STORY review

Best known for the 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies, Posy Dixon's documentary charts Glenn-Copeland's re-emergence as an artist after his definitive album was re-discovered by collectors in the last decade, leading to a new tour to a new generation of fans.


After going to Montreal to study music in the early 1960s, Glenn-Copeland soon found that being the only openly non hetero-normative person on campus was too big a barrier, and so after a run in with his parents and a close call with electro shock therapy, he fled the school to pursue a career as a musician, ending up in rural Canada. Releasing folk and jazz infused albums that were difficult to market, after a period of failures in releasing new material this lead to him self releasing an initial run of 200 cassette tapes of Keyboard Fantasies (recorded with the help of an Atari home computer) in the mid 1980s to little cultural appreciation. Flash forward 30 years and thanks to the collective power of music aficionados, Keyboard Fantasies is in demand across the globe and finally getting the respect it deserves.

I'll be honest that I wasn't familiar with Glenn-Copeland before this documentary, but it's a great introduction to his work in a similar vein to Searching For Sugarman, albeit with the artist upfront and centre in talking heads and live performances. The film is a compact 59 minutes long, but there's some fantastic performances peppered throughout from a recent tour, accompanied by the band Indigo Rising. The highlight of the documentary is seeing how these two generations of musicians, one in his mid 70s and the others in their early 20s, learn from each other and how they so easily blend together during the live shows. It's also incredibly moving to see how much fun Glenn-Copeland is having, playing for a much larger and also younger audience, engaged in the story he has to tell.

What's refreshing is that Glenn-Copeland's gender identity is treated as largely inconsequential for the majority of the film, only becoming a topic of discussion in the last 20 minutes, perhaps as his gender realisation happened after the release of Keyboard Fantasies and before its cultural re-appreciation occurred. It's interesting that director Posy Dixon didn't try to give this aspect of Glenn-Copeland's life a closer inspection for dramatic reasons, but from his own admission, despite growing up black and queer and then having the realisation that he was male later in life, due to his family life and quite possibly due to living in Canada (which from the tour footage seems like a joyous place to live), he didn't receive the same level of abuse that others did.

Capturing Glenn-Copeland's feelings that he has found his purpose, this is a touching documentary that offers a captivating story with a beautiful musical backdrop. Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story is now playing on the BFI Player as part of the #BFIFlareAtHome season.


Tuesday, 24 March 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - Five Films For Freedom

Despite the best efforts of the Coronavirus to cancel every major film festival over the next couple of months, the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival team have adapted as best they could in these difficult times, moving some of the features and tons of the shorts over to the BFI Player so that people can enjoy them in the comfort of their own homes as #BFIFlareAtHome.

Among the short films is a collection they've dubbed Five Films For Freedom; a collection of dramas and documentaries from LGBTIQ+ filmmakers, telling stories that could only be told by them. Here's a brief overview of what they have to offer.

When Pride Came to Town follows Bjorn-Tore who left his rural hometown of Volda after coming out to move to Oslo to find acceptance. Decades later he's now returning to Volda to attend their Pride parade, the first of its kind for a rural Norwegian town. The film sees Bjorn-Tore find a town much different to the one he left, with his neighbours proudly hanging a rainbow flag outside, although the documentarians do explore the opinions of those locals whose attitudes haven't caught up yet, including one woman who states that "my best friend is gay and I'm okay with that. He's living in sin, of course", and the words of Hans Reite, a pastor who is against Pride parades happening anywhere. The reconciling of sexuality and religion is a common one in films at Flare, and When Pride Came to Town is just the tip of the iceberg for this year. Well structured and presented, this is an uplifting and moving doc that can see the visual power of the rainbow flag and uses it to its advantage.

134 is a short Irish drama that shows a young transgender girl as she competes in an Irish dancing tournament. Largely told from the point of view of the parents as her mother plays scenes from the past in her head from when she was unsupportive of her child's gender identity (something her father is still struggling to do), it only hints at the intolerance her daughter is facing in pursuing their dream, but there's an interesting idea in the exploration of Irish dancing (and competitive dancing as a whole) as an acutely gendered activity that needs to move away from its traditional definitions.

Flare is an international festival that screens films from across the globe, including the Brazilian short After That Party. Leo seeks the help of his friend Carol in working out how best to speak to his supposedly straight father after witnessing him kissing another man at a party. It's a premise that could have been mined for gritty drama, but instead After That Party is pleasantly light, fluffy and comedic in its presentation. It's a sweet natured film that's not interested in digging for drama in Leo's discovery, and is more interested in showing a story of acceptance, albeit with some comedy from the social awkwardness of it all.

The final documentary in this collection is a very short snapshot of Pxssy Palace, a monthly club night in Hackney that champions queer people of colour. In the doc there's a lot of voiceover explaining how they started with house parties before finding a fixed venue (a studio space in Hackney), with footage of them in fashion shoots and as photographers creating "an archive of queer nightlife". What's most surprising is the lack of footage from an actual club night to convey the real atmosphere. Instead the documentarians have given their subjects better lighting and a glittery back drop for them to dance in front of in slow motion, all the better to control their image. How very Hackney. It's a stylish and slick looking film, but plenty of room has been left to expand on the subject.

The final short in the collection is probably my favourite, and a rare genre short for this festival. Something in the Closet isn't shy about its subtext, when after a game of spin the bottle two teenage girls kiss in a closet for the first time. Struggling to know how to respond to the realisation of her sexuality, Madi avoids talking to her mother and faces the bullying of her friends, all while a malevolent force with glowing red eyes appears in her bedroom closet. A mini horror filled with teenage angst, forbidden love and a compelling story; it's a visual metaphor writ large, but done very well.

The Five Films For Freedom are available now on the BFI Player without a subscription, with plenty more shorts and features available to those who sign up. It's well worth taking advantage of a free trial membership just to catch some of the BFI Flare 2020 features that are being added during the festival.

Monday, 2 March 2020

COME TO DADDY review

After a successful festival run including last year's Frightfest in London, Ant Timpson's Come to Daddy now arrives on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on the "Frightfest presents..." label. Elijah Wood stars as Norval Greenwood, a self-described music exec and wannabe influencer who, after receiving a letter from his estranger father, travels to his remote shorefront house in the hope of reconnecting with him. However, instead of being welcomed with open arms, he finds his father (Pontypool's Stephen McHattie) to be a cantankerous old drunk who can barely hide his distain for him.


Norval arrives at his father's house dressed like a Shoreditch hipster with a haircut and moustache combo that's hard to understand, wearing an oversized hat and carrying a limited edition gold iPhone designed by Lorde (that he promptly loses into the sea). Despite his efforts to sell himself as a success and impress his father with claims of knowing Elton John, shot down in flames by a deliciously spiteful turn from McHattie, Norval is a loser, but a likeable one. There's a combative nature to these early scenes of two men trying to finds common ground between each other; like the Lighthouse but with added Nathan Barley. McHattie often plays men who are skirting between good and evil, but here he's playing an absolute bastard who's relishing the opportunity to knock the posturing Norval down a peg or two. So, I hear you ask, why would Norval's father invite him all this way just to abuse him? Well...

As Norval starts to lift the lid on family secrets and character's real intentions, the film completely flips itself from a tense two-person family drama into something a lot darker, seedier and blackly funny. More characters are introduced to the story, notably Michael Smiley's Jethro with his unique take on inflicting violence, causing Wood's Norval to react in kind to incoming threats, including a brutal attack on someone's groin that will have you wincing as you cross your legs. The violence is both graphic and hilarious, meaning you'll feel their pain, but laugh about it too and be thankful it wasn't you.

As surprising a fact it may be, over the last few years Elijah Wood has become one of the strongest voices in modern horror and genre cinema as part of the SpectreVision production company that he is a co-founder of. Although this isn't a SpectreVision release, it might as well be, occupying the same colourful, anarchic space as The Greasy Strangler, Mandy and this year's Daniel Isn't Real. In fact, Come to Daddy sees Wood re-teaming with one of his producing partners for The Greasy Strangler, Ant Timpson, here making his feature film directorial debut with a story that, bizarrely, has some basis on his real life experience with his father. It's a great debut that fans of Timpson's filmography as producer will adore, delivering his grisly comic sensibilities in a story that's impossible to second guess what direction it's going in.

Come to Daddy is an odd beast that is hard to categorise without revealing too much. Yes, it's a black comedy, but one with a real heart to it. It's hard not to feel for Norval, who, despite his hipster braggadocio, just wants to find a real connection with his father. A lot of this is due to the incredibly uninhibited performance from Wood, with his permanently bewildered eyes reminding us how great a screen presence he is. The weight of the film is on Wood's shoulders as he's in virtually every frame of the film, but that's not to discount some deliciously deranged turns from the supporting cast.

Worth tracking down and making a new connection with, Come to Daddy is not one to watch with all the family... unless you've got one seriously messed up family.

Verdict
4/5