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Entries in Review (6)

Tuesday
Jun202017

Pride Month Doc Corner: 'Whitney: Can I Be Me'

This month for Pride Month we're looking at four documentaries that tackle LGBTIQ themes. This week it is Whitney: Can I Be Me, the latest in a long line of musical documentaries.

There is no need to introduce Whitney Houston; we all know her and her songs. I also have no doubt that people reading this know her story of soaring talent and troubled downfall due to drugs. Hers was an arc that is rooted in the blueprint of great cinematic tragedies, a story that we have seen play out plenty of times before (in life as well as in in the movies), that it would be easy to roll our eyes at how cliched it was if it weren’t so painfully true.

If it feels somewhat curious then that director Nick Broomfield has turned his documentary eye to her story then that’s because it is. Unlike his earlier music doco Kurt & Courtney (or even his pair of Aileen Wuornos docs in which he takes an antagonistic role with his subject), there isn't an antagonist to go after. Whitney: Can I Be Me’s central conflict is predominantly between Whitney and herself. The title, “Can I Be Me”, was a phrase used often by Whitney – at times in the backstage footage, her team are even seen joking about it – as a means of apologising for being herself rather than the perfect pop creation crafted by Clive Davis and her mother.

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Tuesday
Jun062017

Pride Month Doc Corner: 'The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin'

For pride month, we're looking at a new queer-themed documentary each week beginning with The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, which continues to play festivals around America.

“I’d like to tell you about the first time I had sex.”

This is a like spoken by the one and only Armistead Maupin in Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. It’s spoken by him as he sits in a relaxed chair on a plainly adorned stage in front of a crowd of predominantly gay men. It garners a laugh from those in the audience there (as well as presumably the audience at home; I did), but it’s a moment that is quite indicative of the film around it.

Kroot’s film is not one that is shy about sex. It couldn’t possibly be. To do so would be to deny the essence of what made Maupin such an important figure in both literary and queer history. Sex was an important part of him and his work. To hear it spoken of with such ease in this documentary is a relief – and that’s before even getting to the part where he details where and how he met his future husband, a moment that adds a wonderful dash of gay modern reality to a story so rooted in the allure of 1970s gay life.

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Tuesday
May232017

Doc Corner: Awards Hopefuls 'Abacus' and 'Last Men in Aleppo'

by Glenn Dunks

First off, apologies for the sporadic columns over the last two months. My day job for this time period has been behind the scenes of a film festival and there’s something about working 14 hours a day that just makes coming home and doing more writing somewhat less alluring? As a soft apology, here is a look at two films. They have next to nothing in common other than that we may see their names pop up here or there come award season.

The first is Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a film about an institution – the Abacus Federal Savings Bank of Chinatown, not even one of the top 2000 banks in the country if I saw the stats correctly – that became the only American bank to be criminally indicted in the wake of the financial sector crisis of 2008. The modesty of its subjects, both corporate and human, clearly rubbed off on James who has crafted a standardly assembled yet no less enthralling documentary about what is now a particularly peculiar footnote in the history of American law...

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Friday
Apr222016

Review: Tale of Tales

Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is based on the writings of 16th century author Giambattista Basile, who by most accounts compiled the first collection of fairy tales as we came to know them. If you think that the Brothers Grimm’s non-Disney-fied stories are dark, wait till you get a hold of Basile’s perverse accounts of doomed princesses, kings that set their wives on fire, and men who stab the women who they think betrayed them. More than stories about “fairies” and “happily ever after”, they’re cautionary tales about how unfair the world has always been for women who defy men. One wonders though, why would Garrone make a lavish, epic film about such injustices, without any sense of intention behind why he’s telling them.

The film essentially follows the misadventures of the members of three royal families. The first takes place in the kingdom of Darkwood where a capricious Queen (Salma Hayek) sends her King (John C. Reilly) to his death in order to fulfill the command of a necromancer who has advised him to procure the heart of a sea monster which the Queen must devour in order to have a child. The second family is ruled by the King of the Highhills (Toby Jones) who promises his daughter’s (Bebe Cave) hand in marriage to whoever guesses a riddle. An ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) does, and he’s not the kind of lovable ogre who grows a heart, but a ruthless monster who keeps the princess inside a cave in the mountains. The third tale has a lustful King (Vincent Cassel) “fall in love” with the voice of a woman he has never seen, but whom he must possess. To say that this leads to no good would be an understatement.

After his expertly made Gomorrah, which also saw him intertwine various Neapolitan tales, it’s clear that Garrone has the skills required to engage the viewer in the world he conveys, but one often wants to escape the world he’s crafted in Tale of Tales much more than the one of vicious mobsters in Gomorrah. Where the latter was brutal, its effectiveness in portraying the senselessness of criminal life is unrivaled at least in contemporary cinema. But the way we see the women in Tale of Tales be punished for their desires - whether sexual, filial or maternal - is absolutely merciless. If Garrone was trying to show how little the world has changed in its treatment of women since the 16th century, to do so in the guise of “old fashioned” entertainment seems counterproductive. The film is so keen in its desire to entertain and delight, that it loses sight of the content of the stories to the point that it makes Disney seem progressive. At least in those films a fairy godmother shows up to save the day.

Tale of Tales is now in theaters.

 

Tuesday
Feb162016

Berlin: 'Genius' starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth

 Amir Soltani is covering the Berlin International Film Festival, TFE's first time at Berlinale! Here is his take on Michael Grandage's Genius.

Berlinale is known for inviting one or two Hollywood pictures to the festival every year to add glamour to the sprawling selection of mostly arthouse curios. One of those films in this year’s edition was Michael Grandage’s first feature as a director, Genius. A period piece based on a true story, the film came to the festival with high expectations, given the distribution deal with Lionsgate already in place, and the pedigree of everyone involved, including thrice Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, and Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the cast. But this was all before the film was screened and faced walkouts and unintentional laughs.

Maxwell Perkins (Firth) was the editor and invisible hand behind some of the biggest American masterpieces of literature in the 1920s, including novels by Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pierece). Perkins is a family man, living in an expansive estate with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and five daughters. As one would expect of the editor responsible for taming wild characters such as Hemingway and, eventually, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Perkins is a gentleman of the highest order, calm and gentle, but serious all the same. [More...]

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Saturday
Nov072015

AFI Fest: Lady in the Van

Anne Marie here reporting from Hollywood & Highland.

Let's be honest: there's probably only one reason you (or anyone) is interested in The Lady in the Van. If you own a copy of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, if you kept watching Downton Abbey even after Julian Fellowes killed two main characters and the series lost focus, then I have good news for you: you will love The Lady in the Van. Dame Maggie Smith is in top form, and the movie is devoted to giving her a variety of small acting moments that pop up in awards show montages and internet gifsets. Even if the rest of Nicholas Hytner's movie is unrelentingly average, Dame Maggie Smith is a delight.

First, let's talk about Maggie. In the last 20 years, the Dame has made a career of playing colorful, curmudgeonly women, effectively destroying - along with her Dames in Arms Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, and Angela Lansbury - the idea that older actresses aren't interesting. (There's a question to be asked about why all of these successful, terribly interesting older actresses are British, but that's a tangent for another day.) As the titular homeless woman who parks in the driveway of a put-upon playwright (Alex Jennings) for 15 years, Maggie Smith continues this fine tradition. Alternately infuriating and empathetic, crazy and charismatic, disgusting and distinguished, Smith creates a character so bizarrely contradictory that you understand why the writer allowed himself to be inconvenienced for almost two decades beginning in the 1970s. Sitting next to Nathaniel and eurocheese, I don't know that I've seen a festival audience react as gleefully to a moment so small as when Dame Maggie Smith, clad in a nightdress and a smelly rain coat, cracked a small private smile while riding a duck on a merry go round.

The rest of the movie is about what you'd expect from a BBC drama - familiar character actors, comedy stemming from British polite timidity - with one exception. The playwright Alan Bennett (who adapted his own play for the screen) splits himself into two characters: the man living the events, and the writer observing them. At first, the conceit is fun, since it gives the observing ego a chance to make the snide remarks that polite British gentlemen just won't say. However, as with many movies that rely on narration, eventually the writer gets didactic, and begins informing the audience how to think and feel about his story. But what he refuses to comment on is more interesting. While he was busy belaboring the connection between his guilt over his ailing mother and the homeless woman he allows to sleep in his yard, I was more curious about his closeted sexuality in Margaret Thatcher's England. 

Ultimately, as a showpiece for Dame Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van delivers. As a BBC drama, it's a little more interesting than usual. Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, and James Corden all make appearances, but are criminally underused. There's one reason to see The Lady in the Van. But it's a good reason in itself.

Grade: Maggie Smith A / Rest of the movie C+ Total = B

Oscar Chances: In a less competitive year, Dame Maggie Smith would be a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination. As it is, she probably won't make the cut.