Monday 29 June 2020


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.


Monday 15 June 2020


"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.


Thursday 4 June 2020


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.