Thursday, 9 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - BRING DOWN THE WALLS review

 
Directed by Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the Genesis drummer/singer) the title Bring Down The Walls refers to a civic space set up in 2018 in New York City that in daylight hours brought people together to question the current state of the American prison industrial complex, before turning into a club playing house music at night times. At Bring Down The Walls, their argument was that reform is not effective enough and therefore abolition is the only answer to the problems of harsh sentencing and a rapidly expanding prison population (currently over 2 million) that is disproportionately made up of young men of colour.

There's a lot of weighty, increasingly topical statements made across the course of the film by a number of speakers talking from their own experiences. In first hand accounts from ex-prisoners guilty of petty misdemeanours, serious crimes, and in one case innocent and exonerated after spending more than half his life behind bars, they talk about the sentences handed down to them and how the system is rigged against them due to their economic or social background. Added to this, parole boards are choosing to add years to someone's sentence without the need for a judge, jury or even a lawyer present to act on their behalf. The film also covers the fact that although slavery may be illegal, by definition it isn't if you are incarcerated. Prisoners may get paid 10 cents an hour for their work (there's pushback from one speaker as he argues against this being called a job), but the fact that arrest rates for young black men are so disproportionately high, particularly in some areas of the country, makes a compelling argument that the system has managed to work against its black citizens to revert back to darker times in America's history.

The film skips between these speeches, delivered almost always to a crowd of young, socially aware people who can relate via similar experiences that have befallen members of their families, to scenes of the nightlife aspect of the space and performances from some of the previous speakers who have found a way to process their prison experiences into music. At one point in the film Collins goes as far as to include what amounts to a music video that doesn't seem to bear any relevance to any of the speakers, but one would assume does to the BDTW space and the people that frequented it. 

As an argument for the need for inclusive civic spaces, open to all to share their experiences, it's a convincing one. As a document of a club night with house music playing to a rapturous crowd and vogue balls (judged by FKA Twigs) attended by mostly black, queer youth, it sure looks like a fun place to be. But much like the dual uses the space has, the film is a bit scattershot, like stream of consciousness documentary filmmaking. Director Phil Collins was a key player in the creation of the space and this filmed document does deliver its message, with compellingly put forward arguments. A choice has been made to not include any explanatory inter-titles, and with minimal voice-over we are forced to listen to ascertain the important details, like one of the assembled audiences. Never notably at odds with the joyous frivolity of the house club scenes, this is a bold, humanistic film asking for change in one of America's most contentious institutions. There are voices that deserve to be heard, and Collins' film gives them a platform with style.

Verdict
3.5/5

Monday, 6 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - FLINT review

 Filmed over the course of 5 years, Flint looks at the environmental and health issues that have befallen the residents of Flint, Michigan, after the State Governor forced them to change their water supply in a cost cutting measure. Director Anthony Baxter (You've Been Trumped) follows a number of the locals as they campaign for a solution to their ongoing concerns about the state's lack of effort to fix the problems they created.

Described as 'the Silicon Valley of its day', Flint was once a thriving industrial city thanks to the motor industry that employed most of the residents. Now that the car manufacturers have largely deserted Michigan, Flint now has one of the highest poverty levels in the country; something that incoming Governor Rick Snyder hoped to change by drastic cost cutting across the region, including the decision to have Flint source its water supply from the local Flint River instead of the Great Lakes. A catastrophic move if ever there was one, the Flint residents were forced to drink and bathe in brown water that the powers that be claimed was completely safe, even after testing revealed it to have dangerous levels of iron, and the rates of stillbirth and infant mortality skyrocketing. Baxter and his team appear to have been on the ground in Flint since early on in the scandal, as locals are forced to buy gallons upon gallons of bottled water to consume and bathe in. Mothers show evidence that their children developed skin conditions from showering in the water they were told was okay to use, and even when Governor Snyder relented and the water was reverted back to the original Great Lakes supply, the damage done to the pipework infrastructure continued to poison Flint residents for years.

There's plenty of elements to this film that show Flint to be a microcosm of many of the issues that are plaguing America at the moment. During one of many protests of government buildings, Reverend Ira Edwards couldn't put it more clearly when he states, "You see what happens when you elect a businessman to run the state? He doesn't care about the people he hurts... he doesn't care about the lives he effects. Enough is enough". Chants of "No justice. No peace" and placards of 'Flint Lives Matter' from the BAME residents offering further evidence that not all people in America are considered equal. The issues shown here are many, and are documented with an eye for detail by Baxter and his team; however this does lead to the film having a lack of consistent focus. A balanced and level-headed account of what is understood to be the facts, Governor Snyder and his decision making abilities is pushed to one side whilst we follow the genuinely inspirational grass roots campaigning of Flint residents, and the efforts of two highest profile experts from Virginia Tech and Water Defense. There to test the supplies for Flint to ensure it can be safe to drink again, it turns into a complete soap opera as defections, uncomfortable revelations and threatened lawsuits (including against the filmmakers), for lack of a better term, muddy the waters.

The film has a strange relationship with celebrity, as Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense charity appears in Flint, in what appears to be a genuine attempt to use his star power to make sure the issue is not forgotten, albeit (unbeknownst to Ruffalo) based on questionable science and research methods. Concurrently, the film is so enamoured by the involvement of Alec Baldwin as a (underused and arguably unnecessary) narrator, that it's prepared to change the course of its finale when, after seeing a rough cut of the film, Baldwin decides to increase his involvement and actually sets foot in Flint. It's a gallant attempt on the part of both men to try and highlight what is a serious issue, and perhaps this was an attempt by Baxter to add some sort of closure to proceedings that are far from over, but from a filmmaking point of view Baldwin's involvement in the production only adds another non-sequitur to what is already an over-long and over-stuffed narrative, and doesn't help to solidify any of the points raised in the film.

Every issue raised in this film is an important one that needs attention, and the continued mistreatment of the Flint residents is clear, but by trying to cover all of the issues in the 2 hour running time, Anthony Baxter's film struggles to wade through the narrative threads to deliver a stronger, cohesive argument. The most resonant element of the film, particularly now during the Covid-19 crisis, is seeing how the community sprang into action, as volunteers deliver bottled water supplies to other locals, and educate them on the unseen dangers of things they once took for granted. Were the film to have centred itself on these campaigners and protestors and not got bogged down in the minutiae of (real and bogus) test results, this could have been a more powerful statement about the community of Flint as a whole.

Verdict
3/5

Saturday, 4 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KEITH HARING: STREET ART BOY review


Telling the life story of Keith Haring, the enfant terrible street artist who found an extraordinary level of fame in the New York art scene of the 1980s, holding regular parties with celebrity friends like Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Yoko Ono in attendance; this new documentary speaks to his family members and art world friends to uncover the genesis of his particular style of artwork.

If you don't know the name Keith Haring, you will probably still recognise the bold, graphic line drawings of his art from campaign posters, album covers and even as a backdrop to a Madonna tour. This film is largely composed of contemporary interviews with his friends and family; but also Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31, has a constantly present voice here, with excerpts taken from countless interviews (both audio and video) he did at the peak of his fame. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Haring would cut photos of The Monkees' Davy Jones out of the girl's magazines he was allowed to buy, and write anti Richard Nixon graffiti on local buildings using soap. Clear to all the Pennsylvania was not a big enough canvas for him, he moved to NYC in the late 70s to attend the School of Visual Arts, and to explore his sexuality in the gay nightlife of the East Village. Haring was an artist who, similarly to one of his idols who he would work with, Andy Warhol, knew the importance of exploring his own image; and so this doc makes use of a ton of archive photos and self-shot videos made by Keith in the early 80s.

Having taken inspiration from the graffiti artists that would spray paint on the sides of subway trains, he adapted this approach into something more befitting his style, using the subway system to travel from station to station, drawing his 'baby' and 'dog' cookie cutter outlines on the blank, black, unused advertising hoardings and gaining infamy among the many commuters who would see his work spring up every day. Whereas the graffiti artists (among them Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, who are interviewed here) used the trains as a moving canvas, Keith Haring used the trains as a vessel to transport you through the art gallery he created across numerous subway station platforms. His style was simple in execution, but unique, bold and inventive.

What this doc tries to express is why Haring, who was a formally trained artist able to present his work in major exhibitions around the world, chose to include his artwork to walls and lampposts, gratis. He was among the artists who knew how his work could entertain and delight, but in the capitalist Reagan years of the 1980s, was not coy about making money from their artwork. He even went as far as creating 'The Pop Shop' to allow people to buy both mass produced and unique pieces of his art for a reasonable price  (he was prolific, popular and profitable); but he would also design murals on blank walls in his beloved New York to highlight his increasing activism as the 80s went on and his health began to worsen.

It's incredibly touching to see his now elderly parents display so much of the trinkets, drawings and art pieces they have kept and collected from their son. Even if they do seem to be completely baffled by some of the art, their pride in his achievements is clear. A moving, intimate study of an artist, with a poppy post-punk, Devo and B-52's infused soundtrack; a prior knowledge of Haring's work is not needed to appreciate his story or his cultural relevance, with his ability to create meaningful, impactful activist art especially resonant in these times.

Verdict
4/5

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy was available via the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform, and is now available via the BBC iPlayer.

Friday, 3 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - THE GO-GO'S review

Part of the Rhyme and Rhythm strand from this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest and available to rent from the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform the festival has launched to combat the lack of cinema screenings due to the Covi-19 crisis, The Go-Go's re-unites all of the key band members of the '80s all-female pop-punk group.



Be honest, unless you were around in the early to mid 1980s, The Go-Go's is a band name that you might be familiar with through cultural osmosis, but could you easily name one of their songs? You're more likely to recall the name of one of lead singer Belinda Carlisle's solo career ballads; or at least that's true for anyone whose mother had Heaven is a Place on Earth on tape and would play it on every car journey (like myself). I say this not to cast doubt on the need for a documentary about The Go-Go's, but to ask why such a pioneering all-female pop group, who played all of their own instruments and had a huge impact on their audience at the time, hasn't enjoyed the same level of cultural appreciation as, say for example, The Runaways?

Thankfully, Alison Ellwood's documentary is not just the Belinda Carlisle story, and sheds an impressive amount of light on the history of the band, right back to their early days in the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s where rhythm guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle decided to form a band, toured the U.K. with Madness and The Specials and then huge arenas around the world when they became one of the biggest success stories of the early MTV days with music videos played in heavy rotation. Ellwood gets full access to every member of the band (even those who either walked early on or were pushed out due to the change in their musical direction), all interviewed in their lovely looking houses and looking nothing like the rebellious, punky teens they started life in the band as.

Reminiscing on their touring days, each member comes across as likeable enough, but as the interviews reveal, they were a band clearly hungry for success and willing to step over people on the way. Hey, that's showbusiness. The film does reckon with the often cutthroat nature of the music biz, particularly the discrepancy in pay the non-songwriting band members were getting, including frontwoman Carlisle. It's clear that even with some mended bridges, there's still some bad memories and residual bitterness towards the chief songwriting members of the group, although conversely they had a heroin problem (when 1980s era Ozzy Osbourne asks you to leave his dressing room, it's time to get help), and a desire to sing at least one song in the album leading to a dramatic departure and the eventual dissolution of the group. As one member states, they were "like sisters. Sisters who stab each other in the back".

What's most enjoyable about this doc is that you don't need to have been a fan of the band beforehand to enjoy this in depth history of the group, delivering all of the ups and downs, in-fighting, power struggles and reconciliations you could hope for from a true rock and roll band's story. Perhaps the defining story of The Go-Go's is that no matter how hard they toured, due to their gender, they were never taken seriously as musicians. The archive concert footage shows that they were a legitimate punk group in their infancy, dealing with rowdy skinheads on their early UK tour telling them to "show (their) tits", and even when their sound evolved into something more poppy and radio friendly, magazines such as Rolling Stone sexualised them on the front cover in a reductive way.

To answer the question I posed at the start, it's frankly ridiculous that The Go-Go's aren't a more highly revered band. Sure, they certainly had an influence on the generation after them (including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna, who appears here to express her love for them), but with a selection of fantastically fun, pop classics (and don't even get me started on guitarist Jane Wiedlin's solo single Rush Hour, possibly the catchiest song ever recorded), they really should be getting reappraised by the 80s obsessed youth of today any time now. This film should go some way towards that, as The Go-Go's is a well orchestrated doc that will please long time fans and those just discovering them too.

Verdict
4/5

Monday, 29 June 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - WELCOME TO CHECHNYA review

Like most of the major film festivals this year, with Covid-19 making the possibility of an in-cinema festival impossible (for the moment), this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest has pivoted online instead. What they've come up with is really rather impressive, with a number of in-demand titles now on-demand on the new Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform that has been launched. Available now until July 10th with various pricing options depending on how many films you're hoping to see, it's worth taking a closer look.

One of the titles I've managed to catch so far is David France's follow up to How to Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Welcome to Chechnya. At a time when civil liberties for the LGBTQ+ community are in danger across the world, Chechnya is a place to look at to see how bad it could become if people aren't willing to take a stand. The film features some collected CCTV and other footage of truly horrific acts of violence against gay, lesbian and transgender Chechens, who since a regime change in 2017 are kidnapped, tortured and forced to reveal others by those who don't want them as part of their society. One of the primary instigators of these practices is allegedly the current head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who in an interview with an American reporter, scoffs at the idea that homosexuality even exists in Chechnya, and laughs at the accusations of barbaric treatment towards some of his citizens.

Thankfully he is not the focus of the film, instead France's camera follows a group of activists lead by David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who are sought out by at risk citizens in the hope they can find a way to get them out of the country, and to safety. One such person is teenager 'Anya', whose uncle is trying to blackmail her into having sex with him or else he will reveal her homosexuality to her father, a high ranking official who Anya fears will have her killed. The preparation and execution of the highly secretive plan to move Anya to somewhere safe (a title card helpfully states "somewhere in Eurasia") is the centre point for the film, and is a tense, terrifying piece of documentary filmmaking. If they were to be caught by the authorities, Anya, the activists and the people behind the camera (often collected as spy footage) would be in grave danger, and this is something the filmmakers have taken into account for anyone still at risk by using an incredible piece of digital technology to protect their anonymity.

Whereas in years past you might expect subjects reticent about revealing their identities on camera to only appear on screen via a silhouetted interview, or perhaps a dramatic re-enactment, or possibly with their faces either pixellated or black-barred to hide their most distinguishing features that would make them identifiable. Here, using a technique I personally have never seen used this way before, the filmmakers have captured the raw footage of their subjects and closest relatives going about their day to day lives, like collecting people from the airport, smoking, talking to each other, etc, and have used a "digital disguise" in the post-production process to super-impose a different face over the top of those at risk. A disclaimer at the start of the film warns you of this necessary process, but it's a startling, uncanny thing to see in use, as the other main focus of the film, 'Grisha', seeks the help of David and his team to move his entire family out of Chechnya, all now at risk because of his open sexuality.

A drawback of such a startlingly effective technique is that you can't help but closely scan the face of every new person we encounter, looking for tell tale signs that the face we are seeing is not their own, such as the slight blurring of the edges that appear when people stand in profile and the face "phases" slightly, like the Scramble Suit in Richard Linklater's sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly. I was completely happy to accept the face we see as their own, but as new people appear and we see a new face, this detective work did prove to be a distraction. However, I do say this after one single exposure to the process in this film, and fully anticipate seeing this method used in the future where it becomes a commonplace and less of an issue, provided it can side-step association with Deep Fake videos. It's clear that there's no fakery in the story here, and I commend the filmmakers for taking such a bold leap in presenting these people's stories as truthfully as possible. Is the face we see theirs? No. But their words and actions are genuine, as is confirmed in a glorious reveal towards the end of the film, and therefore is worth the sacrifice.

Technical marvels aside, this is a story about the victims of these atrocities, and the people willing to put their own lives on the line to help them get to a safe house whilst they try to find asylum to live freely in a country willing to take them (since 2017, often Canada, but so far never Trump's America). The film shows the urgency for action to be taken, but with so many lives at risk, there are so few who are willing to go public and tell of their treatment, and it's easy to see why. Welcome to Chechnya is a tough watch at times, with violence, rape and an interrupted suicide attempt by one of the safe house residents, all caught on camera. This is undoubtedly an important film, both as an introduction to the digital disguising that will hopefully allow other oppressed people to tell their stories, and in telling the story of the brave activists who hope to bring an end to this truly dark chapter in Chechnya's history. Utterly engaging but truly horrifying.

Verdict
5/5

Monday, 15 June 2020

YOU DON'T NOMI review

"I think we're still talking about Showgirls because we're not done with it". So says the opening voiceover of this new documentary that seeks to re-contextualise the unfinished business audiences have had since its release in 1995 with Paul Verhoeven's cult classic film about Nomi Malone, a Las Vegas stripper turned hottest act on the Las Vegas strip, and decide whether it's worth the critical appraisal some have offered it over the years.


Over clips of the film, Director Jeffrey McHale's documentary uses a chorus of voices to illustrate why Showgirls deserved a better reception in the 90s, with some arguing that it was Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Ezterhas's intent for it to be the gaudy, camp, broadly acted work of cinema it ended up being. Among those voices is Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn't Suck, the definitive critical text on Showgirls where he lays down his reasoning for why this may in fact be a misunderstood "Masterpiece of Shit".

There's an interesting device used to place Showgirls in the context of Verhoeven's other films, by splicing in scenes into the frame of his other films. For example, we have Jeroen Krabbe from 1983's The Fourth Man watching reels of footage from Showgirls, Peter Weller's Robocop wincing in pain as the monitors show him dreaming about a topless Las Vegas show, and Arnie in Total Recall casually looking at the star ratings for Showgirls' dismal critical reception on his futuristic big screen TV. It's a clever little trick that's returned to throughout this film, and suits the campy propagandist tone that's present in most, if not all, of Verhoeven's filmography.

McHale takes time to chart Verhoeven's progress, from his early Dutch sex comedies to his eventual move/exile to Hollywood, and bigger budget, higher concept films like Robocop, Total Recall, and the film he made prior to Showgirls, Basic Instinct. For those unfamiliar with Verhoeven's oeuvre, the cross cutting between these films ties a lot of things together, proving that he's not a director who does things by accident. It's up to your interpretation as to whether the high camp value of Showgirls was an intentional thing, and this doc does acknowledge that Verhoeven, along with key cast members like Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon, have said conflicting things that could push the argument either way; but when placed in the context of his filmography, sandwiched between Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, personally I find it difficult to believe that Verhoeven was not aware of how polarising and provocative his film would be.

It's entirely plausible that the cast and crew's ability to claim, Tommy Wiseau style, that it was always meant to be a low art comedy is a piece of retro-active damage control, and that it really was just a disaster of excess that even a craftsman like Verhoeven couldn't keep under control. What's for certain is that its cultural legacy has jazz-handed its way into audience's hearts, even if they're not sure if they're laughing at it and not with it. Along with the film clips from the film, the doc also has footage from the new life the film has taken on on stage, with drag performer Peaches Christ's interactive screenings in San Francisco, and the lively musical version performed by April Kidwell, that provides one of this film's most touching moments, as Kidwell expresses how taking on the role of Nomi (and her previous stint as Elizabeth Berkley's other famous role of Jessie Spano in the Saved By The Bell musical) helped her get over some deep personal trauma.

Despite what your feelings to Verhoeven's film might be, it's without a doubt that this documentary enriches it, providing you with moments to celebrate and laugh at, like the bizarre use of chips, nails & brown rice and vegetables as recurring motifs, or conversations about Doggy Chow. You may also gain a deeper understanding of Verhoeven as a director who is no slouch in providing a depth of visual language you would not expect, nor need, from a film that were only aiming to provide its audience with base level titillation. What is for certain, though, is that by the finale of You Don't Nomi you will have a much stronger appreciation of Elizabeth Berkley.

If Showgirls really is just an updated version of All About Eve and showbusiness's propensity to chew up potential stars, then Berkley is the 1990s billboard star of that trend. A young actress with a wholesome image thanks to her time on Saved By The Bell, You Don't Nomi does document the course of countless young women who felt the need to prove their worth as a bonafide, grown-up film star by using their sexuality so overtly. Was it a great performance? Well, that's to judge for yourself. But it's undeniable that the critiques of Berkley's turn as Nomi Malone were vicious and often personal, and Verhoeven himself has gone on the record to confirm that she followed every direction she was given, and that the over the top actions of her character were by his design. Dismissed as a bad actress by audiences and by Hollywood, this doc does go some way to try to give Berkley her dues, and by the moving finale of this well presented, insightful documentary, even something of a cultural redemption.

Verdict
4/5

Thursday, 4 June 2020

TO THE STARS review

Set in a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s, To The Stars follows the life of innocent Iris (Kara Hayward) and the outspoken Maggie (Liana Liberato), as a shy young woman and her new classmate who teaches her how to stand up for herself against the bullies at school and the attitudes of the local townsfolk.



Hayward is best known for her starring role as runaway Suzy in Wes Anderson's sweet early teen romance Moonrise Kingdom, thereby gaining instant indie cred for life. Here she stars as Iris, a quiet wallflower who has a medical problem that makes her the butt of jokes by the other girls in her class, calling her "stinky draws" and excluding her from their group. Things start to change for her on the arrival of the new girl in town, Maggie. A rebellious spirit who has been moved away from the bad influences of the city by her parents (Malin Akerman and Tony Hale), she sees something special in Iris that she wants to bring out, so sets about becoming her friend.

The high school is populated by obnoxious boys and gossipy girls, like local prima-donna Clarissa (Madisen Beaty) and her hangers-on fitting into a stereotypical mean girl mould, warning Maggie that "being seen with Iris Dearborne is social suicide". With the situation at home not much better, Iris seeks solitude at a local pond where she can be alone and look at the stars as she swims, although this place is tinged with tragedy as the place where the mother of local farmhand Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) recently killed herself. It's also here where Iris gets to know Maggie proper, as they both seek an escape from their unhealthy home lives. Iris is able to see through the tall tales Maggie has told the other girls in their class (that her father is a photographer for Life Magazine and she has a career as an air hostess lined up after graduation) and form a genuine bond with her, although she does not know why Maggie is reluctant to reveal too much about her past. Maggie, ever the instigator of bad behaviour, decides to give Iris the confidence she needs to stand up for herself by making her skip school so they can go to the movies and the local hair salon ran by war widow Hazel (Adelaide Clemens).

To The Stars has plenty of points worth recommending, not least the admirable attention to detail in getting the look and feel of the era spot on and bringing this world to life. The hairstyles, the costuming and even the cars are all gorgeous to look at, with the sleepy, dusty Oklahoma backdrop make this a lovely world to inhabit for 100 minutes or so. The costuming and restrained attitudes remind of a similar 1960s set film, Mermaids, although there's a world of difference between Winona Ryder's inner monologue spouting, boy obsessed Charlotte and the main character here. As the shy, sweet Iris, Kara Hayward puts in a decent performance with the role she has, but aside from displaying enough personal growth to brave the school dance and talk to Jeff, there's not a lot of depth shown in Iris, leaving her still much of a mystery that you might question if it's worth solving.

However, this is made up for in Liana Liberato's Maggie, who without a doubt steals the audiences attention at every turn. A troubled but spirited girl with a secretive past and a strict disciplinarian father (if you only know Tony Hale from his often goofy role as Arrested Development's Buster, prepare for your view of him to change), the reasons for the upheaval of her family aren't revealed to us or the townsfolk until later into the film, but once they are they set in motion events that give the film its weightiest drama and an opportunity for Maggie to stand her ground. Sadly, it's here that To The Stars reveals its biggest flaw in its inability to balance the stories of its two leads. Whereas Iris is the focus of the film with her delicate, often sweet coming of age story and her burgeoning romance with Jeff, it's Maggie who has the most intriguing storyline by a long shot. The majority of this does happen quite late into the film, but after one particularly tense scene involving Hazel's hair salon and a number of the local men, the focus shifts back onto Iris, leaving plot threads frustratingly open ended. This is also true of a number of the supporting cast members, including Malin Akerman as Maggie's mother and the always dependable Shea Whigham as Iris's father. Both have active involvement in their children's lives, but inexplicably disappear in the last act to who knows where.

Despite some misgivings about the finale and the under-explored potential of some of the plot threads, there is enough charm in To The Stars to please audiences looking for a sweet natured tale of teenage friendship. The relationship between Iris and Maggie rings true, and the efforts made to recreate the era elevate the nostalgic appeal of this slice of small town Americana. Hayward shows promise but after this and Moonrise Kingdom is in need of a role that allows her to be more than the indie-girl ingenue. Liberato, however, impresses throughout, and announces herself as one to watch. She's sure to be a star of the future.

Verdict
2.5/5

Thursday, 28 May 2020

ROMANTIC COMEDY review

Directed, edited, written and narrated by Elizabeth Sankey, lead singer of indie pop duo Summer Camp, Romantic Comedy looks at the history, stylings and motifs of the film genre, and how it's able to have such an emotional connection with its audience.


Comprised of re-purposed and contextually relevant clips from countless rom-coms, if you've seen any other films from the increasingly prevalent essay film documentary sub-genre, most notably Charlie Shackleton's excellent Fairuza Balk narrated teen movie exploration, Beyond Clueless, or the shorter form Inside Cinema doc strand currently available in the BBC iPlayer, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the structure of the film. Romantic Comedy is presented slightly differently via the personal journey Sankey sends us on through her narration, starting off in a typical teenage girls bedroom before showing us how focused this genre is on making sure its audience's end goal is marriage. Along with Sankey's narration, there's also a chorus of largely female voices (among them The End of the F**king World star, Jessica Barden) to provide insight into various points this film raises, such as why Bridget Jones is both the "HBC" (Head Bitch in Charge) and also a problematic purveyor of ridiculous and dangerous beauty standards, proclaiming herself overweight at a perfectly normal 9 stone.

When dissecting the history of the genre, we go back as far as the 1930s and the screwball comedy era when the starlets were able to be the ones in charge before their agency was stripped away by the predominantly male writers and studio execs, and their only happiness to be found in the arms of the tall, dark and handsome leading men. It digs into the lunacy of the genre's more outlandish meet cute set-ups, like Sandy Bullock's near psychopathic behaviour in the dubiously titled While You Were Sleeping, as she lies to a man in a coma's family and pretends to be his fiancee. Although the title and set-up could easily be affixed to a stalker horror film, her actions are presented as cute and kooky, as the rom-com genre's leading ladies so often are with the rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The most egregious examples of the MPDG figure are called out, as well as the 'lens of indieness' used to excuse those films' behaviour, like 500 Days of Summer's objectification of Zooey Deschanel's title character, and the rather unnecessary addition in the film's title sequence of calling another woman "bitch".

Sankey's narration openly admits that despite her admiration for the genre, it's not one that is as easily accessible to anyone that is non-white or non-straight, and so defers to her contributors to share their experiences of watching these films whilst also not seeing any approximation of their own lives reflected back at them. It's possibly the genre's greatest flaw, and while this film does cover it to an extent, it's probably fair to say that a thorough dissection of this issue is perhaps not Sankey's aim, and would have derailed what is essentially a celebration of the genre. As well as exploring the impact these flaws have on its captive audience, Romantic Comedy is also just a great opportunity to relive some classic moments the genre has given us, like Cameron Diaz and friends breaking into a rendition of the comically graphic 'The Penis Song' in The Sweetest Thing. Seriously, I wouldn't necessarily recommend watching The Sweetest Thing and its frank sexuality isn't something typical of the genre, but if you need a taster before watching this film, that scene is on Youtube for your eyes and ears to enjoy.

The soundtrack, written by Sankey's husband and Summer Camp bandmate Jeremy Warmsley, serves to pick up those sweeping romantic moments, like the song Women in Love and its backdrop of passionate cinematic embraces. It's here that the films bear the closest of its resemblances to Beyond Clueless, the soundtrack of which was also provided by Summer Camp. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Beyond Clueless was one of my favourite films of the year it was released and the accompanying Summer Camp soundtrack is one I have listened to countless times, independent of the film; but despite the different targets and voices behind the films, Romantic Comedy doesn't hit quite as hard, if only by virtue of it being less unique an experience.

At a brisk 78 minutes, it still finds plenty of chances to bask in the reflective glow of the unattainable ideals the rom-com genre offers its audience. Montage heavy, moving from scene to scene, film to film at breakneck speed in order to illustrate the repeating motifs and archetypes at work across the genre; a rare exception to this is in the discussion of the rightly revered Nora Ephron and her script for When Harry Met Sally. As Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and genre queen Meg Ryan) exchange barbed relationship advice to each other on the steps of a New York brownstone, the scene is allowed to play out to its redemptive conclusion. When done right, it's hard not to be swept up in the power these films have.

Romantic Comedy does throw a net that (arguably) lands outside of the genre boundaries of the title, bringing in God's Own Country and Silver Linings Playbook to sit alongside Mystic Pizza and Sleepless and Seattle, but it's at its best when celebrating the purest examples of the genre. To borrow a couple of film titles, Romantic Comedy is a fun collection of some simply irresistible moments in cinema that might make you fall in love, actually, with the genre all over again. Definitely one to consider renting for your next sleepover.

Verdict
3.5/5

Romantic Comedy is now available in the UK on Mubi.


Monday, 11 May 2020

THE SHED review

When a vampire takes refuge in the shed behind troubled high schooler Stanley's house, he must call upon his socially awkward best friend Dommer, and Roxy, the girl he likes, to help him get rid of the monster before the sun sets and it can leave to wreak havoc on the town. But with the ravenous beast sinking its teeth into anyone that gets near the shed, how is Stanley meant to do that, exactly?

Largely taking place around the ramshackle hut of the title, The Shed is a great example of a simple idea, done well. There's almost nothing offered in the way of backstory as to where the vampire in Stanley (Jay Jay Warren)'s shed has come from, just a short scene at the beginning where his neighbour Bane (a cameoing Frank Whaley) finds himself fleeing through the woods from the vampire that is about to bite him and in turn make him into a vampire. There's no explanation as to why any bloodsucker would end up in the woods of this small town, but really nor is one needed. Once Bane's been bitten and taken shelter from the sunlight in Stanley's Grandpa's shed, he stays there like a rabid pitbull in a kennel, protecting itself from anyone who dare stick their head in, dragging them into the darkness with him whilst occasionally throwing out the odd body part he doesn't want to eat.

There's a couple of films that The Shed liberally nods towards, and not just from the horror genre. Aside from a fairly blatant hat tip to Ferris Bueller's Day Off as Stanley sprints through his neighbours's back yards to try and beat the Sheriff to his house, the 80s teen movie this most recalls is director Tom Holland's Fright Night. Sure, the house next door is a lot smaller and the vampire here is nowhere near as snazzy a dresser as Chris Sarandon's Jerry Dandrige, but there's something about the relationship between Stanley and best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) that reminds of Charley Brewster and Evil Ed; and if we can go as far as that film's 2011 remake, The Shed's leading man Jay Jay Warren does share a resemblance (and apparently a wardrobe) with its Charley Brewster, the greatly missed Anton Yelchin. The film largely rests on Warren's shoulders as the likeable but also generically bland rebellious teenager, as the rest of the cast either end up as vampire fodder (some deserved, some not), or like Roxy, don't really have a lot to do until the finale.

It's not without the odd occasion where the film feels like an elongated short story idea creaking at its limit, also bringing to mind another great 'My Pet Monster' scenario in the superb 'The Crate' sequence from George A. Romero & Stephen King's portmanteau horror Creepshow. That's a story that, had it been expanded into a feature film would have undoubtedly had a similarly lessened impact, but The Shed should be commended for its willingness to throw the odd curveball into the mix, namely some bizarre and unexpected dream sequences starting with an early fake out scene that abruptly dispenses with the picture of a happy family life it has painted in favour of Stanley's daily routine of bullying at the hands of his overbearing Grandpa Ellis (Timothy Bottoms).

The Shed is atmospheric enough to please genre fans looking for something new to sink their teeth into, and the sun drenched fields surrounding the primary location make for a nice visual departure from the vampire sub-genre tropes. The physical transformations of the vampire/s don't have a reliance on over the top CGI effects that, frankly, this film wouldn't have been able to afford anyway, instead favouring some decent make-up work and that old vampire mainstay, shadows and dim lighting. A low budget horror that sells its central premise very well, The Shed might not be the barnstormer it hopes to be but nor should it be confined to the dog house. Well worth checking out.

Verdict
3/5

Signature Entertainment presents The Shed on Digital HD from May 11th

Monday, 4 May 2020

WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS review

Indiana, 1988. After meeting three guys at a heavy metal gig, a trio of young women invite them to one of their houses to party. However, things are not immediately at they seem, and the two groups find themselves fighting each other to survive.


Alexandra Daddario leads the film as Alexis, a strong willed young woman who along with her close friend Val (Maddie Hasson) wants to see Beverly (Amy Forsyth) step out of her comfort zone and be more assertive with men. Having picked up three dudes in a van who share their appreciation of heavy metal music, Beverly sets about getting to know Mark (Keean Johnson) better, whilst Val and Alexis play a dangerous game of 'Never Have I Ever' with Kovacs and Ivan (Logan Miller and Austin Swift).

We Summon The Darkness sets its satanic panic stall out early, as Johnny Knoxville's preacher John Henry Butler appears on the radio following a report of numerous ritualistic killings taking place across the country. Tying the killings to the pervasive nature of heavy metal music, his words don't dissuade the three young women from attending the concert their headed to, or from picking up three random guys they know nothing about.

The first half hour is a fairly generic party film, just with more conversations about the ever changing roster of Metallica band members. It does shift dramatically during a drunken, campside game of 'Never Have I Ever', that not only reveals intimate truths but also the real motivations behind attending the gig. From there the film becomes something more reminiscent of cinematic Rooms both Green and Panic, as plenty of violence is doled out between them. Added to that, there's unexpected visitors that throw the whole night's plan up in the air.

We Summon The Darkness has a few good things going for it, chiefly the opportunity for Daddario to play a character that goes against the 'All-American Girl' perception audiences might have of her rom films like Baywatch and the Percy Jackson series. As Alexis, she's a domineering figure, pushing her friends around to suit her needs. There's also a fun, all too short appearance from Johnny Knoxville as a character who has more to do with the story than first appears. There's also a healthy dose of violence inflicted on both groups, and whilst never as gruesome or shocking as that on display in the clearly influential Green Room, there's still enough to satisfy an audience with an unhealthy bloodlust. The rest of the characters, however, do seem to be rather bland one note caricatures (heavy metal t-shirts and scraggly hair) that, although you're not necessarily rooting for them to be offed, you don't really care when they are.

Still, it move at a pace and has some fun, ludicrous twists and turns along the way. The 80s setting does offer a nice bit of texture, but the religious cult aspects could have been delved further into if it wanted to offer a true satanic panic movie. We Summon The Darkness may not be summoning any points for originality, but the cast are game, and it has enough going for it to make it a fun watch for those about to rock.

Verdict
3/5

We Summon The Darkness is available to rent and buy on digital now.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

EMA review

From Pablo Larrain, the acclaimed director of Tony Manero, No and Jackie, Ema follows a young dancer forced to give up her adopted son after a tragic fire. Deciding she wants to be with him over anything else she has in her life, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is willing to give up her husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), and do whatever is needed to track Polo down and be his mother again, no matter how many lives she has to burn to ashes along the way.

Ema opens with a searingly indelible image, as Ema, decked in protective gear and wielding a flamethrower, looks on at the traffic signal she has just set fire to. It's this flair for pyromania that has caused her world to fall apart, following a fire caused by her son Polo that has burnt and scarred her sister's face and seen him re-enter the care system to be adopted by someone else. The film starts in the wake of this event, and tries to fill in as many of the blanks as it can with an early montage sequence, intercut with a pulsating, modern expressive dance sequence choreographed by Ema's husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), the video screen behind them bathing the dancers in the light of an ever changing sun. It's beautiful and its vibrant, but in what is a common occurrence in the film, the visual display outweighs the reveal of the main story points, leaving us starting on the back foot.

As is quickly revealed, the separation of Ema, Gaston and Polo is one Ema aims to be as temporary as possible, as she hassles Child Protective Services for information on his whereabouts and then unleashes a calculated, often dastardly and cruel plan in order to get back into his life. Using the help of her dance troupe, your feelings towards this masterplan may differ wildly from a display of a mother's unconditional love to unquestionably sociopathic behaviour. What is indisputable is that Ema's methods are morally complex, to say the least.

Personally, I found a whole lot to enjoy in Mariana Di Girolano's performance as Ema as she plays with the lives of others, namely Raquel (Paola Giannini), the divorce lawyer she hires but can only afford to pay in dance, and a firefighter named Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), both of whom Ema has sexually charged relationships with. Her actions are cold, calculated and self-serving for sure, but there's a propulsive drive to the film that doesn't allow you to question her morality plays too much, until her well choreographed plan reaches its crescendo and the true depth of her plan is revealed.

Di Girolamo has a youthful, innocent face that allows her character to get away with the many manipulations she has at work, but along with her selfish behaviour, this counteracts against her standing as an obvious mother figure and can make her seem like a spiteful brat. It doesn't help that Polo isn't much of a presence for a large majority of the film, and seems to be in far safer hands with his new family. It's also surprising that Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal's Gaston is such a secondary character in the film and in Ema's life, as the power dynamic between them says a lot in the short time we see them together. There's an argument to be made that Ema is drawn as a modern, unstoppable feminist superhero figure (wielding a flamethrower will do that), using her sexuality to get herself the family she thinks she's entitled to, but the film stops short of tipping too far into pulp territory.

Character flaws aside, what you definitely come away from this film with is how beautiful it is. The dance sequences in warehouses, basketball courts and on rooftops lit by the Chilean hillsides behind them are often breathtaking, and you don't have to come to this film with an appreciation for modern dance to see how visually arresting the movement is. In that respect, Ema, with her shock of slicked back blonde hair, is the perfect centre-point for the film and its exquisitely lit, bold, vibrant colour palette. The dancers, her lovers, the lights, the camera... the whole world literally revolves around her as she moves through it with shark like intensity.

Larrain's films are always well crafted and executed, but to my mind his films have never moved along with such rhythm before, thanks to the infectious reggaeton music that accompanies most of the dances. By the end of this film you may not be a fan of Ema's character, or in fact most of the key characters who will leave you will many moral quandaries. There's a pervasive nature to the film's erotic thriller leanings that are shocking, but after the dust has settled it's the rhythm and the visual flair that will be the enduring elements of the film.

Verdict
4/5

This review was previously published as part of my coverage of the 2019 London Film Festival. Ema is currently streaming on Mubi and can be viewed here.

Monday, 27 April 2020

SEA FEVER review

 
Studying the behaviours of aquatic life, marine biologist Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) boards a small Irish fishing trawler going out to sea in order to examine their catch, but when Skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott) takes the vessel into an exclusion zone, something attaches itself to the boat and begins to force its way through the hull and into their water supply. With the whole crew in danger, Siobhan must work out what is attacking them and how to get rid of it, quickly.

Sea Fever hits you with a sense of impending doom immediately, as the crew take a dislike to Siobhan as she sets foot on the trawler due to her red hair (notoriously bad luck at sea). Only the more rationally minded fisherman Johnny (Jack Hickey) and engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) will give the already timid researcher the time of day, until the skipper ignores an order from the coastguard and the crew end up stranded at sea with no radio to call for help.

Director Neasa Hardiman has primarily worked in television before this, including some high profile dramas like Scott & Bailey and her work on Happy Valley that earned her a BAFTA, before a move to more science fiction, effects heavy fare with Marvel shows The Inhumans and Jessica Jones. Sea Fever is her first produced feature script, and shows a step towards bringing her dramatic and genre work together. Rather than deep diving into special effects bonanza territory in the vein of The Abyss, Sea Fever uses what visual effects it has (including cool looking bio-electric tendrils coming from what's beneath) sparingly, instead relying on its script to create as much tension as possible. Most of these moments come from simple ideas executed well, like a standout scene where Siobhan checks for infection by passing a flashlight over someone's eyeball. It's also here where the film clearly tips its sailor hat to a number of genre classics that have preceded it.

If you put a group of rough and ready characters together (some likeable, most not) in a single location to be attacked by an unknown entity, it would be hard to avoid comparisons to Ridley Scott's Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing. Well, at least Sea Fever is smart enough to know those comparisons are inevitable, and despite hitting a number of similar beats (a visit to another stranded vessel to see the fate of its crew seems like a very clear nod to The Thing, for example) it subverts them enough to never seem like it's a mere imitation. This is an intelligent, scientific sci-fi, and it's been too long since we had one of those.

A strong selling point for Sea Fever is how oddly timely it is, considering the current Covid-19 pandemic it couldn't have possibly predicted. As discussions on board turn to quarantine and the possibility of accidentally infecting others on the mainland, the in-fighting and self-preservation instincts seems very reminiscent of a whole host of broadsheet newspaper think-pieces doing the rounds at the moment. The similarity might have been accidental, but it would be no bad thing if Sea Fever got a little Contagion-style bump whilst people are looking for things to watch in lockdown.

No big budget effects, just inventive twists on classic genre stylings. Sea Fever is a mightily impressive piece of small budget filmmaking, and the perfect example of what can be done with a good script and a knowledgeable writer/director at the helm.

Verdict
4/5

Signature Entertainment presents Sea Fever on Blu-ray & Digital HD from April 24th

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - THE LAWYER (ADVOKATAS) review

The BFI Flare festival wrapped up last weekend, having moved itself online in the outbreak of Covid-19 and the temporary closure of the host venue of BFI Southbank. This did mean that a lot of the features that were due to have their premieres at the festival (among them Romas Zabarauskas's The Lawyer) are still awaiting their red carpet debuts, but luckily I was able to get a sneak peek at it.

Corporate Lawyer Marius (Eimutis Kvosciauskas) is caught in an existential spin after the death of his father. With a thriving, successful career but a romantic life that consists of paying for an interaction with men online, he's hoping he can find more than a surface level connection with someone. When he meets Ali (Dogac Yildiz) on a pay for pleasure website, the emotionally distant Marius decides to take a leap, travelling to Belgrade in order to meet him, but his plans go awry when Ali opens up about his real life problems. A Syrian national living in a refugee camp, Marius has to decide whether he should put everything he has on the line to help Ali find a way to leave the country.

At the heart of Romas Zabarauskas's latest is a weighty subject matter far beyond what you might expect from our introduction to Marius and his yuppie dinner parties. Things first begin to change for Marius when he discovers that a guest at one of these parties is trans, a fact that has him questioning his complacency towards engaging in the lives of his friends and co-workers. He's been living his life in a manner that brings to mind Michael Fassbender in Shame; full of temporary lovers to appease his sexual appetite that seems to fulfil him at the time, but with no real interpersonal connections. As Marius searches for something deeper he begins to interact with Ali, who will dance and strip for him in exchange for money. As the two hit it off online, Marius travels to meet with Ali in what he expects will be an encounter based on sex, but that Ali hopes will lead to legal advice.

A story told across different countries and different languages (mainly English and Lithuanian), The Lawyer is a real world commentary on the refugee crisis that is affecting many areas of the world, with an emphasis on the dangers homosexual refugees may face when housed in the camps. This is a crucial plot point but is surprisingly not leaned into too heavily, keeping its dramatic moments quite low key. I wouldn't recommend going into this film expecting it to be a tense legal thriller, as it isn't. Despite the film's title of The Lawyer, this is more about the man who bears that job description, and the complex moral dilemma he finds himself in when his meeting with Ali causes him to question his boundaries. Whilst in Belgrade Marius is called upon by Darya, a client and friend to assist with her divorce, something that is not his speciality as a corporate lawyer, but still, a request he is quick to shoot down as a conflict of interest. Could he help her? Sure, but he's not willing to potentially sacrifice a part of himself for her. With Ali, this poses a different quandary for him, and the potential for love, sex and maybe more has him pursuing all options when the human rights specialists give him the cold hard facts.

In what is never a showy role, Eimutis Kvosciauskas is able to flesh Marius out from the icy cold man he begins the film as to something far more rounded, although it does take some time to get there. The focus remains on him, but his best scenes are when he is with Dogac Yildiz's Ali. Together they do share an unconventional, modern love story; kept apart by rules and restrictions that don't always make sense, and that leave them with no option but to stretch their own principles and Marius's view of the law. It's also open to interpretation as to how much Ali is manipulating Marius for his own benefit. There becomes a point when this isn't the case at all, but it's up to the audience to decide where.

The romance is certainly not one you can get swept up in and there is a feeling of restraint and distance between the pair throughout the film. It's not really a legal drama either, leaving most of the potential conflict that would arise from the scenario unexplored, although it's refreshing that director and writer Romas Zabarauskas didn't feel the need to force violence into the script. The Lawyer does leave a lot to ponder on the issues it raises about a refugee crisis, in particular to LGBTQIA refugees stuck in camps, and it's in its favour as a drama that will stick with you that the moral and ethical implications of a legal professional following certain paths are not all resolved when the credits begin to roll.

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.