Archives for February 2015

Girlhood (2014): Growing Up is Hard to Do

As Girlhood opens, we see Marieme (Karidja Touré) – she seems like your typical teenager. Almost immediately, this image is shattered – as we see her walking home to her housing development. Once we enter her house, it is clear that all not all is right.

So with a turbulent home life and less than stellar marks academically, she is left with limited options in terms of moving forward. At what can see if the possible unfortunate moment for her, she happens upon a group of girls who immediately interest her. It is then we are soon to discover she eventually takes up with the. They are a group of young women, led by one who calls herself ‘Lady’ (Assa Sylla). They are loud, boisterous and full of life. They eventually pull Mariem out of her shell; unfortunately, this newly discovered sense of self-worth is misdirected and starts Mariem on a downward spiral that sees her take up with some undesirable figures that are clearly operating outside of the law and who prey upon and exploit girls like Mariem, who by now has changed her name to “Vic.”

GIRLHOOD

Girlhood seems to dip its toe in multiple waters – on the one hand, looking at, quite frankly, the criminality of some the girls’ actions, but then on the other hand, contextualizing it. It is clear to the viewer that Mariem/Vic is conflicted, but it is made almost understandable why she makes her choices and goes on the path that the film follows her on. As you know, I am not a huge fan of divulging too many plot points in my posts, so I will leave it to you to determine which scenes I might be referring you to.

One scene that I WILL discuss – because it resonated with me so much is one where, after stealing clothes and strong arming folks for money, the girls book a hotel room and commence to singing along to Rihanna’s “Diamonds in the Sky.” Not only is it a spirited, lighter moment, the combination of the singing and dancing takes on such a profound meaning – these girls, in spite of what they are doing or have done, want to feel beautiful, valued. I don’t know how else to explain really; I just feel like in that one moment, I got them.

GIRLHOOD

All of this said, the film definitely has a voyeuristic look into Mariem’s coming into (or out of) her own. Not to say that this is a criticism of the film. In fact, this is something the writer/director Céline Sciamma, freely admits to. According to the press notes (yes they are read), she took to the task of developing this story as (I imagine) a social anthropologist would. She watched and observed the young women, in and around major meeting points in Paris. While that might sound a little cold and off-putting, much to Sciamma’s credit, she was able to take these observations and create a compelling, realistic story of one girl’s coming of age.
This of course, could not be accomplished without actors, who from what I have read, were selected from open casting calls. You will be impressed with the result.

For anyone not from France or unfamiliar with the socio-economic dynamics of how Mariem and others like her, live, largely due to the institutional and social constructs around them, this film may be an eye opener.

Don’t just take my word for it; as Sciamma eloquently states in her Director’s Statement:

Beyond their irresistible energy, their [the girls’] profiles reflect all the themes that are at the heart of my ongoing work as a filmmaker: the construction of a feminine identity within the framework of social pressure, restrictions and taboos, of which the question of plays on image and identity are central. It was my desire to continue working around the question of youth and initiatory narratives, but in a contemporary corollary, anchored in the political reality of France today.

These unique protagonists carry within them the promise of depicting a realistic portrait as well as the fictional dynamic necessary for narrative tension. Although the story is generational and very much rooted in French society, it also belongs to the realm of cinematic mythology: youth subjected to societal restrictions and taboos. It is a story that is better told in France today by the young women who were brought up in these poor minority areas.

Girlhood (French, with English subtitles) screened at Cannes, Toronto and AFI last year and Sundance 2015 (sadly missed it there). For screening information, visit the official website: http://strandreleasing.com/films/girlhood/

Photo Credit: Strand Releasing

Sundance 2015 Review: I am Michael

To say that I am Michael is entering somewhat controversial and polarizing waters given its subject – the story of Michael Glatze, once an ardent gay rights activist, who shocked all of those around him when he declares himself no longer homosexual and becomes an anti-gay Christian pastor.

The film, based on a New York Times article “My Ex-Gay Friend” by Benoit Denizet Lewis, is the first-time feature of screenwriter/director Justin Kelly.

Spanning over a decade, we first see Michael (James Franco), as an outspoken gay rights activist who uses his voice to reach out to the gay youth.

Actually, this statement above is not wholly true, because when the film starts, we see the Michael of the present. How does that work, you may ask? Well you see, the film is very fluid with the linearity of the narrative. We start in the present, then shift to the past, eventually catching up with the present and moving forward to a very interesting denouement, with, if you can imagine, a bit of a “cliffhanger” – I really cannot think of a better word for it.

But I digress – back to the story …

After a health scare, Michael begins to question the role of faith in his life. He then goes on a spiritual quest, which for him, ends (or begins?) with his renunciation of his homosexuality. The rest of the film deals with the fallout of his declaration has on himself and those around him.

I Am Michael does try in earnest to play the story straight down the middle, leaving its protagonists to present both sides of the argument – fair enough. And I would say that if there is a shortcoming of the film it is just that – the presentation does not feel the most organic. In some ways, while the story is very compelling, the way it is presented here makes it sometimes feel like it would be better served in the documentary format. In fact, in preparation for the film, director Kelly spent time with Glatze. How much that contributed to the final product I am not too sure, but I would be a bit interested to know.

The film holds interest for me because of its handling of the role and influence faith and religion in each of our lives.

For me, the film’s accessibility hangs on James Franco’s performance, which I feel is certainly worthy of your attention here. The supporting cast, notably Zachary Quinto as Michael’s ex-boyfriend Bennett deliver solid performances, when they are given something to do.

I Am Michael is executive produced by Gus Van Sant. In addition to Sundance, the film screened most recently at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Image Credit: JAZO PR

Sundance 2015 Review: Coming of Age Stories

For my last double-bill recap for Sundance 2015 (one more singular review tomorrow), I would like to focus on a couple of dramas about young women, coming of age in two separate time periods: 1950s post-war Brooklyn, New York and 1970’s swinging San Francisco. These also have the honor of being a couple of my favorite films of the festival.

 

Brooklyn

Adapted by author Nick Hornby (based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín), Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Ireland sent across the sea to find a new life in the land of opportunity. Under the patronage of a fellow transplant, a priest played by the always delightful Jim Broadbent she finds work and a place to stay. But is it enough to make a life? We witness Eilis’ struggles to make this new place her home; the residents and matron (the ebullient Julie Waters) of the all-female boarding house where she resides help her along the way. It also doesn’t hurt that she meets a young man (AWWW).

As all of this is going on, we catch glimpses of her family’s (mother and sister) life back in Ireland. And at the point where these two threads converge, like Eilis, we are caught in having to make a very harrowing decision.

If it sounds like I am being a bit vague – well yeah, I am. I don’t want to spoil anything for you because for me it was so lovely to watch the layers fall away on this film.

It has been said before, but I will say it again – Ronan is a talent to be reckoned with. Her face is so expressive, especially in the quieter moments – you feel what she is feeling because she makes it seem so real.

She is supported of course by an awesome cast including the aforementioned Broadbent and Waters, as well as Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen.

Brooklyn is directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Since its debut at Sundance, Fox Searchlight has acquired distribution rights to the film; wide theatrical release dates TBD.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sourced from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl regales us the always-relatable growing pains and misadventures of a teenager – here in the form of aspiring comic book artist Minnie Goetze (played by newcomer Bel Powley). While these aspirations do play a role in our story, the “main event” centers on the relationship she has with her mother (Kristen Wiig – the coolest librarian EVER) and Monroe, her mom’s latest boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Christopher Meloni makes an appearance as her professorial ex-stepdad who still serves as a father figure in her life.

When I found out that this was the feature film debut for director/screenwriter Marielle Heller, I was equally surprised and pleased. This was an imaginative, inventive and overall fun journey through Minnie’s world, even as it dealt with some of the darker elements that lie therein. And be warned, her world, especially for that of a young woman, does have decidedly twisted and unfortunate turns. It is again (in my opinion) a marvel that Heller was able to extract from this the lightness that many of the moments deserved.

This of course is bolstered by the strength of the performances of her cast. They all were able to successfully balance the material and modulate between the hilarious moments to the more serious matters when they present themselves.

The film also has a great sense of time and location, and not necessarily in a postcard sense either. The Diary of a Teenage Girl does well in capturing the spirit and vibe of that San Francisco counterculture era.

Not sure about the distribution/release date on this one, but rest assured, it is one to look out for.

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* The Diary of a Teenage Girl was the winner of the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography.

Images credit: The Sundance Institute

Sundance 2015 Review: Portraits of Artists

Happy Friday all! Thank the cinematic gods, but my Sundance reviews are finally winding down. Today, I am featuring a couple of artist-related biographies I had the pleasure of watching last month. Unlike some of the narrative features I have covered, these docs are soon to be available to a wide audience.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

 

Introduction

I may have mentioned this before, but big screen or small, I really like biographical documentaries. This year at Sundance provided me with a double bill of portraits of talented, yet enigmatic in many ways, personalities from the world of music and film.

 

Listen to Me Marlon (directed by Stevan Riley)

As much as I like the work of Marlon Brando, the man himself has equally fascinated me. I mean there is so much there to wonder about and discover. And love him or hate him, he left a legacy for fans such as me to chew on.

For me, it all started while I was in the summer of 1996. In school and with limited entertainment options, I was forced to find other means of passing my down time. It is then that I picked up his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (collaborated with Robert Lindsey). I loved this voluminous, VERY descriptive account of the span of his life. That said, one does end up wondering how much of what he is telling us is actual, concrete fact and how much is an invention or embellishment of what was. Either way, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Ever since then, I have been hooked, as evidenced nearly a decade later, when I attended a panel discussion where the likes of Arthur Penn and Eli Wallach discussed Brando’s work and impact on the world. It was certainly a night to remember.

Fast forward to the present day and here we are with a documentary that literally speaks for itself. Hundreds of hours of audio tapes and personal home videos and photographs have been condensed into a 95-minute personal and professional scrapbook of sorts.

Overall, the film works, save for what can only be best described as “Max Headroom” moments – a digitized rendering of Brando’s head narrating. At times, this really took me out of the story.

Listen to Me Marlon will air on the Showtime network (coming soon).

Marlon Brando

 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus)

A very intimate and informative profile of the iconic singer/pianist, What Happened, Miss Simone? traces Simone’s life from the backwoods of North Carolina to dimming lights of Paris.

What happens in between is a revealing and sometimes shocking play of triumphs, tragedies and controversies. I never considered myself super knowledgeable about the woman, but I am familiar with a fair portion of her musical catalog. So believe me when I tell you that this film was a real revelation for me. The depths of what I did not know about her was astonishing – from her prodigious beginnings through to her successes and her ardent political activism. I think my favorite fun fact is that for several of her halcyon years, she lived in my hometown of Mount Vernon (NY).

While there is a sampling of her music and performances littered throughout the 102-minute film, it is the roller coaster of her life that captures you as a viewer. Through archived audio and video footage, interviews with family and friends and passages taken straight out of her private diary, this is a rare glimpse at the eccentricities and personal demons that would ultimately for a time, consume this one of a kind talent.

Also to the film’s credit, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly as an Executive Producer. I’ll leave it at that.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is scheduled for release on Netflix this spring.

Nina Simone

 

Image credit: The Sundance Institute

So Yeah, I Saw 50 Shades of Grey

Plenty of thoughts swirled through my fatigued brain in the lead up to the release of 50 Shades of Grey.

First, full disclosure – I read ALL THREE books, of which the first is the basis for the film released last weekend. The experience can be best described as incrementally less excruciating.

“WHY iluvcinema?,” you may be asking. I guess I am a glutton for punishment …

So after investing so much time in wading through the prose, I initially said NO NO and thrice NO to even entering the cinema and watch it all play out onto the screen.

Film Title: Fifty Shades of Grey

But as time wore on, my natural human curiosity got the best of me, and I bit.

What follows is an attempt to sort out my rambling and disparate thoughts. Enjoy!

Best foot forward, people. Apparently, the filmmakers must have had certain reservations concerning the source material because what we get from this big screen adaptation of E.L. James’ novel appears to be an attempt to right some of the crimes against literature and sexual politics the source have been accused of. This effort in the end, produces a film that is much better than anyone can expect it (or will it) to be.

“Cleanup in Aisle Three.” It is clear that the director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel tried to clean up the possessiveness/stalker tendencies of our male protagonist, Christian (Jamie Dornan). Unfortunately, this was not totally achieved as a few set pieces involving Christian’s “persistence” (term used advisedly). Whereas in the novel these set pieces definitely added to the creep factor – so much so they felt more at home on the Investigation Discovery channel than in a “romance” novel – in my screening at least, these moments produced a fair share of chuckles. To the film’s credit, the female protagonist, Ana (Dakota Johnson) seems aware of the oddity of these actions. Which leads me to …

Oh, Ana …  the character of Ana, in the film, is given more agency and control over her circumstances. I do wonder if it was in the notes or not, but Johnson seemed to catch the essence of her cinematic alter ego well enough, given its head banging-inducing origins.

Not worth the price of admission? This film MAY disappoint some readers who enjoyed those “edgier” (snicker) elements of the book, of which, I take or leave personally. But for those seeking it out, maybe that is the worst crime of the film – it just is not a provocative as some might anticipate. Just something to ponder.

Yet another lesson in “Hollywood Commerce 101.” As the opening weekend box office proved (tracking at nearly 300 million worldwide at the time of this writing), regardless of any well-founded protestations, the book made boatloads of money and was going to get made by an industry that was simply looking at the bottom line. Also note that the film is rated R, intended to garner as much mainstream appeal (and promise of sequels) can.

Oh – and on a final, more cynical note, the product placement was AMAZING.

In the end, I would say more like 50 Shades of Much Ado about Nothing or 50 Shades of Meh. I highly suspect if not for the troublesome origins of this story, the final film product of 50 Shades would very easily be dismissed into the ether of “sexy” drama, albeit with a bigger budget and some recognized talent behind it (I see you Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle). So by no means a masterpiece, this is the closing bit of advice I am offering:

  • If you are curious? Go for it – it is not the worst way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema. In fact I have seen far worse adaptations of books that I actually liked, so …
  • If you are in no way interested? Then two things: 1) my congratulations and thanks for making it this far into my post – I appreciate the dedication and 2) I don’t really need to tell you what to do, now do I?

Film Title: Fifty Shades of Grey

Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Sundance 2015 Review: A Gerwig 2-fer

Yeah – I am cheating by mashing these two films together. Because quite frankly, they are very different in tone, location and theme. The only thing in common among these pieces is they both feature the talents of one Greta Gerwig.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts and impressions of the film she has an extended cameo in (Eden) and her latest writer-director collaboration with filmmaker Noah Baumbach, Mistress America.

Eden (2014)
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Eden is filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve’s sprawling look with at the 90’s-00’s underground music scene in Paris, featuring a central performance by Félix de Givry as Paul, based on Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven (he shares screenwriting credit). The film chronicles his life as a garage-music DJ and is the story of a passion that seems to find a purpose and measured level of success until it no longer does.

If you are a fan of the music of the era, you are in for a treat as many of the artists from that era (including some very self-aware scenes involving the award-winning duo Daft Punk, Sven’s musical contemporaries). Another appearance of note is the ever delightful (to me anyways) Greta Gerwig as Paul’s American girlfriend who pops in and out of his life on a couple of occasions.

de Givry really stands out in his performance because, at the ripe old age of 20, he is tasked with portraying Paul at various ages, many that are unfamiliar to him, with him being so young and all.

The film accomplishes something else – while I am not a fan of this particular brand of music, Eden was able to keep my attention over its 131 minute running time – a running time that covers twenty years – seeing Paul go from an eager and ebullient teenager to a burnt out, seemingly lost man trying to find meaning in it all.

After its screening in Sundance (also played in Toronto, AFI and NYFF in 2014), Eden will be released this spring in cinemas.

French/English with subtitles

 

Mistress America (2014)
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In the (very recent) past I have been a little less-than-effusive in my response to Noah Baumbach’s work – but for some reason the combination of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig is really working for me. Their 2012 effort, Frances Ha was a delight to watch. So I was really looking forward to seeing their latest collaboration Mistress America – and I was not disappointed.

Brooke’s (Gerwig) soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by newcomer Lola Kirke), is a Barnard College freshman and aspiring writer looking for a place to connect and belong vastness of the city. Brooke is a constant and determined dreamer who has her hand in a myriad of business schemes and creative pursuits. Almost instantly, she takes Tracy under her wing and welcomes her into her kaleidoscopic world.

What ensues is a somewhat Seinfeld-ian, dare I say surreal journey through New York City, showing them on parallel (and intersecting) journeys as they each seek to capture their own brass ring.

If you will feel a bit “meh” about what I just described – trust me, especially if you are a fan of Gerwig’s previous work, Mistress America is well worth checking out. There is something in Gerwig’s writing that makes the most absurd accessible, relatable and entertaining.

Mistress America will be distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures (actual release date TBD).

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Image Credits: Sundance Institute, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sundance 2015 Review: Fresh Dressed (2014)

Fresh Dressed (written and directed by Sacha Jenkins) is a documentary about the history and business of hip-hop fashion.

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Checking out the Gazelles frames. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The film starts by tracing African American cultural fashion from the turn of the 19th century (principally post-emancipation) through the 1970s and to the streets of the “Boogie Down Bronx,” during a time where urban blight and gang warfare were at their height.

Out of this bleak landscape was birthed a revolutionary musical format, rap (hip-hop). Along with this new musical format came a fashioning of clothes that for nearly 20 years was ignored by mainstream culture. But at the 20th century was drawing to a close and hip-hop music entered the realms of popular culture, the fashion quickly followed. Before you knew it you had the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, etc. staking their claim and garnering a loyal (and ultimately fleeting) followers.

Also to come out of this movement in fashion was the opportunity for many, mostly African-American designers to burst into the realm of fashion. Some of these pioneers were straight from the music scene itself (see Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash, to name a couple). This film chronicles the rise (and the many falls) of the labels that emerged during this time. Also examined, is the impact this insurgence has had on the overall modern fashion industry (in fact, look no further than this week’s festivities at New York Fashion Week for confirmation of the continuation of this trend).

One aspect that gets much respect from my vantage point is the highlighting of the primarily African-American influence of hip-hop fashion but also the Latino notes that informed the development of the styles and trends that predominated the culture.

Fresh Dressed focuses on the business aspect. In that respect, I feel like there were a few missed opportunities to really take a deeper dive into some of the cultural movements within the hip-hop community (namely Afro-centrism in the early-mid 1990s) and what that meant for the changing styles. I suspect that there were many roads that the filmmakers could have taken but for the sake of time and narrative cohesion they had to go the particular route they chose.

So in the end while I LOVED the trip down memory lane and listening to the first hand accounts of people – thought leaders/hip hop artists, including the famous, infamous, and markedly un-famous – and the accompanying soundtrack, Fresh Dressed is probably best served as great entrée for a glimpse of the community and the culture and styles it birthed, along with the influence they have on what we wear today.

After a limited theatrical run, Fresh Dressed will appear on CNN sometime later in the year.