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Author: Jon Paul Roberts

Queer Writer. Northern.
Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Change

July 5, 2020
Barbara McLean

On January 20th 2016, Kylie Jenner dubbed the year ahead as the ‘Year of Realising Things.’ Indeed, 2016 did seem to be a year in which things were realised. For example, a lot of white liberal Americans ‘realised’ racism still existed when You Know Who was elected, while we here in the UK realised that Brexit had divided us almost precisely down the middle, and the whole world realised that our favourite celebrities could die – something we realised over, and over, and over again.

If I were to put myself in Kylie Jenner’s philosophical seat this year, I’d likely call 2020 the ‘Year of Change’. Albeit, back in January I thought that change was going to be more to do with real estate than global upheaval. But still, I have, during this pandemic, bought a flat (my first) and two of my friends are preparing to move into a house they’ve bought together. Other friends have gotten engaged, while some have moved in with their partners to get around lockdown restrictions, acquired new jobs that require them to move across the country, or made plans to pack up and head for sunnier shores.

This change is likely due to my age (I turn 27 in September) and that famously I’m approaching what some call ‘Saturn’s Return‘. This is the idea that Saturn takes around 27 to 30 years to orbit the sun and so when you reach my age, it’s getting closer to the place in the sky it was when you were born. This, in astrological terms, means that your life is disrupted, thrown off course, and you’ll face hardship for a few years as Saturn, well, returns. Of course, your late 20s are often when you’re expected to be more independent, and bills, house sales, taxes, hair loss, and bad knees come into play so Saturn’s Return might just be astrology’s way of trying to make sense of adulthood.

The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada / CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Whether the planets cause it or whether we just blame them, change can be hard to handle. So much so that I often find myself wishing it could fly by in one niftily edited montage. The seasons will change, and I’ll walk down the street in different weather appropriate outfits that allude to the passage of time. They’ll be a shot of me signing the contracts for my new place, and it’ll cut away before showing the stress and anxiety of buying property. Then, without showing the hassle and stress of finding affordable movers, it will show me directing two strong removal men to put the beautiful fancy sofa I’ve spent too much money on down against the far wall. In the next shot, the walls will have been painted, the shelves will be up, and my books will be all unpacked. Ultimately, it will end with everything done and I’ll sit down on my expensive sofa, look around at my finished flat, and smile. I’d be fully moved in, and ready to go back into the main storyline.

Change is a lot easier to process on film, and it has all these ways to deal with the passage of time that we don’t. For example, on Tuesday, I went for my first run in two years, and it ended with me spending £15 on Epsom salts and muscle relaxant bubble bath. It was the muscles in my groin, specifically, that felt like they were over it, as if they were some much-ignored cog in this machine I call my body. Each time I stood up, they ached, and trying to climb the stairs felt Herculean. It’s at this point that the idea of recasting is appealing. Out with the old and in with the younger model like James Bond or Aunt May. Yes, bring in someone more spritely to play the part of me for the next few years – ideally someone who has Hollywood-level personal trainer and doesn’t share my love for potatoes. Let the young hot bushy-tailed ingenue take over and then maybe I could be tempted to step back into the role in a few years (but only if the money is good.)

Bond, James Bond
Bond, James Bond

The last option, of course, is the full-blown reboot. Go back to the origin story, do it a little differently, and re-write the mistakes in the hopes that this time it will all go better and that people will be more receptive to it. Make this new version glossier, smoother, and put money into it. Recast everyone and start again. Of course, by this point, everyone will already be sick of it. Why bother bringing back a story that no one really cared about the first time? Why not make something new instead of regurgitating this old shite. I imagine that’s what the YouTube comments would say under the trailer for my new rebooted life. Nothing is ever original these days. 

Instead, I’ll just have to weather the change like everyone else. Ride with its ebbs and flows and try to make the emotional space to deal with it. I can hope and wish that I had smart ways to process change like film does. I can dream about 4 hours’ worth of shopping becoming a 3-minute montage set to a pop-rock song at the end of which I have a new haircut and a whole new outfit. I can fantasise that, as the inebriated man rambles on about politics, I could just cut away and skip the rest of his drunken lecture. But, instead, my makeovers are more gradual and my night outs often ruined by pontification.

In his book In The Blink of an Eye, film editor Walter Murch writes that Francis Ford Coppola had 1,250,000 feet of film printed after shooting Apocalypse Now. This works out to be about 230 hours of footage, all of which was edited down into 2 hours and 25 minutes. With this in mind, I guess we could try and look at life in a different way. We shoot it all, every second of life, and our memory acts as the editor. Our memory can cut out the excess, reduce the time between scenes, and even dub the dialogue. Right now we’re just the exhausted actors that have shot nearly 27 years’ worth of footage, but at the end of our lives, we’ll be able to play our own personal movies over and over again. We just have to wait until then.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Reese Witherspoon

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On the Great Outdoors

June 20, 2020
The River Wild

Slowly, we emerge. Blinking, stumbling, weary. Lockdown is lifting. Shops are opening again, we can see friends and family if we stay two metres apart, and we’re allowed outside for as long as we want. We can travel further, hop in the car and head for the hills, for the woodlands and lakes (as long as they’re in England). Yes, gone are the days of ‘one form of exercise’ and when resting on a bench seemed to be a criminal offence. Instead, we can head out on road trips with those we live with, picnic, lie down in the long grass, and get back to nature.

In preparation for our release, my housemates bought inflatable kayaks. They weren’t the only ones either as prices, on Amazon and elsewhere, shot up like the hand of an overzealous teacher’s pet. These aren’t your bog-standard holiday swimming pool inflatables though, but slightly more industrial ones with full-on ores and an attachable fin. Costly? Maybe. But when you’ve quit smoking and been unable to go to the pub for three months, there’s a little more money floating around.

When they arrived, the night before we’d planned to go out in them, we talked about paddling upriver, finding a place to rest on a secluded private bank, and laying out in the sun like we were in an adaptation of a classic novel. Instead, we found a small plot by the river and laid down our blankets, careful to avoid the dog shit and litter left by the previous days’ loungers. We put down our cooler bag of drinks and sandwiches, pulled out the weekend papers we’d bought on the way, and arranged to go out on the river in twos.

The River Wild, Universal Pictures
THE RIVER WILD (1994) / CREDIT: Universal Pictures

The first time I went out I felt like Meryl Streep. This is not uncommon for me. In fact, whenever I’m prepping to have people over for dinner I feel like Meryl Streep in The Hours, when I sleep with older men, I feel like Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated, when we talk about who gets custody of the cat when we all move out of our shared house in a few months I feel like Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer. Still, out on the water, with the sun beating down and a light breeze slapping against my burnt forehead, I felt like Meryl Streep in The River Wild.

The River Wild is a 1994 action-thriller starring Streep as Gail Hartman, a former river guide, who takes her family on a rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho for her son’s birthday. The idyllic and healing adventure is scuppered when two violent criminals, on the run and hoping to take the river to freedom, force Gail to take them down the Gauntlet – a treacherous, rocky, and danger-filled stretch of rapids that has long been closed to rafters. It’s a perfect Sunday film that has everything: a cute dog, a sexy yet ominous Kevin Bacon, and further testament to Streep’s ability to literally do anything.

Sure, my experience out on the river was nowhere near as exciting, but it did get me thinking about the outdoors on film. Is it really possible to capture that experience on screen or does it have to be lived? My Dad would have told you the latter was true. As I wrote in my first column a few months ago, he was an advocate for getting outdoors whenever possible. I’m a reluctant adventurer myself. I’ve never really been one for ‘activities’, shall we say? Something inside me is super resistant to them. Whether that’s some kind of subconscious rebellion against my Dad’s mindset is between my future therapist and me, however, as I’ve gotten older and my mid-twenties are starting to look more like my late twenties, I’m struck by a desire to be outdoors.

Free Solo on National Geographic
FREE SOLO (2018) / CREDIT: National Geographic

Of course, film and TV can offer awe-inspiring at a lesser price. For example, nature documentaries provide a glimpse of those wild worlds on BBC iPlayer. At the same time, National Geographic can show you a man free climbing up a mountain from the comfort of your cinema seat. We don’t have to leave the comfort of our own homes to view the wonders of the world, and for the past few months, we haven’t been able to. The beauty and mystery of this mad planet captured on film make us all mutter Liz Lemon’s famous catchphrase; ‘I want to go to there!’

But the question is, can we? Flights are grounded, fear of flying and travel is certainly higher, and who knows what the financial cost will be now the airline’s budget business models appear to have crumbled. Sure, we have head out into the English countryside but a week of thunderstorms has made that a lot harder. So, for now, we’ll have to settle for on-screen globetrotting. 

Of course, my jaunt out onto the river was two weeks ago and not during the current spate of torrential rain. On those days when you can get outside, the days where you get sunburnt and all anyone says is how they can’t believe how hot it is, then, by all means, get out. My god, we need it! However, on days when that isn’t possible, here are a few recommendations to bring the outdoors in…

Get a free trial for Disney+

Elephant on Disney+
ELEPHANT (2020) / Credit: Disney

The new streaming service from the House of Mouse features an extensive range of nature films through their partnership with National Geographic as well as they’re own documentary production arm, Disney Nature. Plus, you get seven days free!

Watch Planet Earth on iPlayer

PLANET EARTH II (2016) / CREDIT: BBC

Yes, you’ve probably already seen it. The docu-series from David Attenborough has been a global phenomenon, but what better time to revisit it? Especially now it’s all available on iPlayer.

Watch Jumanji

This 1995 family adventure sees the perils of the jungle spill out into a quiet American town. Between the large alligators and stampedes, it’s enough to make you feel quite happy you’re trapped inside.

Watch The River Wild

THE RIVER WILD (1994) / Credit: Universal Pictures

Honestly, it’s just a great film that we don’t talk about enough. If I do one thing in this life, let it be bringing more people to this movie. It’s available to rent or buy on most VOD services, and you won’t regret it. Just strap in for a wild ride! 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Reese Witherspoon

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Reese Witherspoon

June 7, 2020

There is an ancient adage. One as old as the trees around us, as the ground we walk on. It glides, delicately, on the wind allowing us to hear it, whispered on the summer breeze. It speaks softly of the truth, our desire to succeed, and our want of something good from this draining existence; What would Reese Witherspoon do?

In the past few weeks, I’ve asked myself that question more than once. I’ve been, as a lot of people have, struck with a lack of motivation as lockdown marches slowly onward. I’ve found it difficult to generate enthusiasm, to watch films, to write, to go for my daily walk, to wash my hair, to get dressed. I’ve realised, day-by-day, how acclimatised I’ve become to this whole scenario. Yet this, of course, comes with guilt. Why am I not doing more? What could I have achieved in this time in which distractions are fewer? Early on, there was talk about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine during an outbreak of the Black Death in the early 1600s. This was capitalism wrapping its tendrils around these uncertain times by way of telling us we must be productive, we must also be optimising, always be doing something. 

You might wonder what my biggest lockdown achievement is? My King Lear? Well, I’m now able to write out my shopping list in a way that best correlates with the layout of the aisles at Morrisons so I can swiftly glide around the store during the weekly big shop. Will people perform my shopping lists hundreds of years from now to get into drama schools? Maybe. Will they be part of the GCSE Curriculum one day? Only time will tell. 

If King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare’s best works, then deciding what Reese Witherspoon’s King Lear is will depend on who you are as a person. Is it her performance as Elle Woods, the beauty-obsessed lawyer who proves everyone wrong? Maybe its Tracy Flick, the eager student vying for power during a student election? Is it June Carter-Cash, the singing southern belle that won her an Oscar? Or perhaps, it’s Madeline Mackenzie, the bitchy and nosy Monterey mother/murderer? 

Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies / CREDIT: HBO

Maybe Witherspoon’s magnum opus is her persona itself. Not only is she America’s sweetheart, but she has, in recent years, become a symbol of autonomy in Hollywood. Her production company Hello Sunshine creates shows and films based-off books with women at the centre. She is a champion of diversity and for the LGBTQ+ community (although, the latter has yet to substantially show up in her work). While her online book club provides a bump in sales for the featured titles, she, like Sarah Jessica Parker, has been able to carve out a place for herself in the literary world and her seal of approval is much coveted. 

But maybe, what we should examine is Witherspoon’s power as a producer. A recent profile in Vanity Fair revealed that, after being considered a ‘has-been’ at 36, Witherspoon started to produce her own work so she could take back control. Thus, she optioned the rights to Gone Girl and Wild, two vastly different books by female authors, and was to play both the sadistic Amy Elliot-Dunne and the grieving Cheryl Strayed. Ultimately, Witherspoon decided not to star in Gone Girl, with the role going to Rosamund Pike instead – who gave one of greatest performances cinema has ever seen (I’m serious. Go and watch it again!) And with that, Witherspoon’s position as a top producer was cemented.

Legally Blond
Legally Blonde / CREDIT: MGM

In 2015, both actresses were up for an Oscar. Not only had Witherspoon earned herself a nomination for her role in Wild (as was Laura Dern for the same film) but she was there alongside Pike, on her first nomination. This, in a lot of ways, is symptomatic of the projects Witherspoon works on; women get recognition in bucket loads. In fact, in most of Witherspoon’s produced works, her female co-stars are the ones who receive accolade after accolade. Nicole Kidman raked in awards for her role on Big Little Lies, as did Dern, while Jennifer Aniston won a SAG award for her performance on The Morning Show twenty-four years after she last won for Friends. Currently, on Little Fires Everywhere, Kerry Washington, who has yet to win any of the major awards she’s been nominated for, is acting up a storm opposite her. Maybe she’s the next actress to receive this Witherspoon adjacent acknowledgement? 

Little Fires Everywhere, which is available on Amazon Prime now, is hopefully an indicator of where Witherspoon is headed. The show not only deals with race, something Big Little Lies was accused of avoiding, but also with queerness and motherhood. She currently has a series in the works with Zoe Saldana, Mindy Kaling has been hired to write the script for Legally Blonde 3, and she has an adaption of The Gilded Years starring up-and-comer Zendaya. As she told Ann Patchett in Vanity Fair, she ‘wanted to make parts for women of colour, because if she was having a tough time finding good roles, she could see that what they were facing was considerably harder.’ 

Witherspoon is busy and, as I’ve watched time float by like a rubber ring on a Lazy River in a shitty European waterpark, I’ve been thinking about productivity and how we utilise our time. Seemingly, we have all the time in the world right now to read, create, or consider things. To be our own version of Witherspoon, to channel that Witherspoon Ethic ™ (okay, it’s not really a ‘™’ but it has a real ring to it, doesn’t it?) We can’t go out and meet friends or family, we can’t go to the pub, or out for dinner, so those hours are now empty. But do they need to be filled? 

Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere / CREDIT: Hulu

After all, you can’t scroll on Instagram or pick up a water bottle without being reminded you have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé. You can’t look online without seeing the life hacks, the homemade herb gardens, the #girlboss, the banana bread, and crochet kits. Yet, it’s also okay to do nothing, to sit back and just take in this moment. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in her memoir, ‘How wild it was, to let it be.’ 

Witherspoon might be a beacon of hard work in the industry, a symbol of someone who’s taken her career into her own hands. It’s a path becoming more and more common as stars like Margot Robbie and Alicia Vikander join Charlize Theron, Queen Latifah, and many more who are producing their own projects. But, it’s also okay to look at the Witherspoon Ethic ™ (she currently has ten projects in the works) and simply admire it from afar. What we need to remember is where it comes from; being called a ‘has-been’ at 36, taking autonomy over her career. So, while we can look at her successes and see her thriving, we can also know that we don’t have to be just like her to be successful. The Witherspoon Ethic ™ is about self-fulfilment. If what fulfils you these days is lying in bed until 2pm and eating leftovers for dinner then go for it. Simply put, it’s okay to ask yourself, What would Reese Witherspoon do? and answer: ‘Absolutely fuck all’ then go back to sleep. 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Adaptations

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Adaptations

May 17, 2020

Lockdown has meant more time to read. Instagram has been filled with to-read lists, #Bookstagram, and snippets those currently being read posted to stories. Or, the other extreme has meant some people haven’t been able to read at all. As Candice Carty-Williams wrote in The Guardian recently, ‘My thoughts are scattered. The idea of writing feels far away. I keep trying to get into a novel, but it’s not happening. For the first time in my life, I can confidently say: “It’s not you, it’s me.”’ 

I have fallen somewhere in-between. At times I’ve been rapt by books, I’ve devoured Station ElevenGirl, Women, Other, and An American Marriage. On the other hand, I’ve never in my life started so many books that I’ve ultimately put down, various acclaimed novels and memoirs have been thrown back onto the bookshelf because it seems I need something very specific during these hard times. I just wish I knew what that ‘specific’ thing was… 

Being unable to leave the house has also allowed people to explore the books they’ve had on their shelves for years. The ones they always meant to read but, for some reason, haven’t. For me, that book was Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 masterpiece about two young Nigerian lovers, who are pulled apart by distance as one travels to America and the other lives, undocumented, in the UK. The book had come to my attention in 2014, just after Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar for 12 Years A Slave and, in the wake of her win, as is common with newly minted stars, news stories appeared in the trades of what the actress had lined up next. At the time, it was a film adaptation of Achiche’s novel starring Nyong’o as Ifemelu opposite David Oyelowo as Obinze.  

Lupita Nyong'o at the 86th Academy Awards / CREDIT:  Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Lupita Nyong’o at the 86th Academy Awards / CREDIT: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

During lockdown, the book was on my radar again because the casting for Nyong’o’s adaptation had just reached me, following the news late last year that it would be a ten-episode mini-series on HBO. The playwright and actress Danai Gurira would pen the scripts, and Oyelowo was no longer attached, but in his place was up-and-comer Zackary Momoh as Obinze. At the same time, Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba had also joined the cast

As I read the novel, which contains astute observations on race in America as well as immigration, class, and gender, it seemed so clear to me that this novel would be a good series, not a film. Clocking in at around 400 pages and approximately 151,960 words, there was so much depth and intensity to the book. It had so many moving parts that, to condense it down to a two-hour movie would mean losing so much of what made this complex and sprawling novel so unique. 

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale / CREDIT: Hulu/Channel 4

I wondered what had changed since 2014, why the film adaptation had become a TV adaptation. Looking at the past seven years, TV has changed, and books have been adapted at a far more rapid rate. There’s been adaptations of Margret Atwood’s depressing dystopian, but all too relevant,  The Handmaid’s Tale and the prison-based memoir by Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black. We’ve seen comedies like Shrill, a series based on Lindy West’s first essay collection, and the fantasy tomes of George R.R. Martin became HBO’S biggest hit in recent memory, Game of Thrones. The Italian sensation My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante also came to HBO, a gender-swapped version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity hit Hulu, and of course, there’s been Reese Witherspoon’s obsession with ‘little’ things, be they big lies or fires everywhere

There was a time when books were deemed intellectual, film considered artful, while television turned your brains into mush and gave you square eyes. If a book was a success, then the film rights would be snapped up a production company, and it would turn into something lavish, and Oscar-baity. While that is still somewhat the case, it’s also becoming more commonplace for books to appear on TV. Before now, it seemed that the books adapted for TV were near exclusively period dramas, pulpy teen novels, and crime thrillers but now all types of novels are turning to the small screen rather than film. Literary hits like Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie, Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults, Samantha Irby’s Meaty, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven are some of the many books currently with TV adaptations in the works. 

Normal People BBC
Normal People / Credit: BBC

Then, there is Normal People. The adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel has become one of the most significant cultural events of 2020 and for good reason. The story follows two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne, and their intense romance over a few years, from their hometown of Sligo to the campus of Trinity College Dublin. The novel, sparsely written and keenly observed, was translated into twelve perfect episodes, and each felt like it really captured the atmosphere of the book in a way few adaptations do. The casting of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal was pitch-perfect, their steamy sexual chemistry a beauty to behold. Mescal especially has hit well with viewers, and his embodiment of the stoic and chain wearing Connell Waldron has inspired Instagram accounts dedicated to his jewellery and a collective thirst on twitter that can seemingly never be quenched. 

I guess the question is, what’s next? Books are still becoming films at a more frequent rate than they become TV shows, but it’s becoming clear that the latter is a better format to do the novel justice. Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, is being adapted for TV by the same team behind Normal People and other books are likely to get similar treatment due to the shows overwhelming success. 

I love film, I really do, but for every brilliant adaptation like Little Women or The Personal History of David Copperfield, there’s plenty of lacklustre and ill-considered adaptations like How to Build a Girl, the most recent Emma, or, The Goldfinch. It’s understandable, that film and the novel have been so linked throughout history because the film industry was usually the only place that had the kind of cash a good adaptation needs but, that’s just not the case anymore. That narrative ended when Netflix spent $130 million on the first two seasons of The Crown

The Line of Beauty
The Line of Beauty / CREDIT: BBC

TV also is far more level in terms of access. I remember, as a kid, seeing the ads for The Line of Beauty on BBC; a handsome Dan Steven’s charging around a London backstreet as suggestions of gay sex and romance were offered in small flashes. The three-part drama was adapted from Alan Hollinghurst’s 2004 Man Booker-winning novel (next on my lockdown to-read list), and it still sticks in my mind as one of the earliest glimpses of gay life I saw. Seeing that ad, though admittedly I was unable to watch the show itself, as it was beamed into my home via BBC Two made me aware that gay stuff existed out there in the world and that maybe, one day, I’d be able to see it. The way TV is now, with the majority of it available via the internet, people are far more likely to be able to access it. What I’m trying to say is, books not only get more time when they’re adapted for TV but they also get a wider audience, and that can mean that those you really need it, can see it. 

Of course, we can only hope this trend leads to more readers. If once again, Instagram is a barometer of the current mood, then a lot of people are picking up Sally Rooney while they wait for the days when we’ll be allowed out again. Even some of her short stories have been released via Audible to try and appease those looking for more after finishing the show. It seems like Normal People might have paved the way, and the future looks bright.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Survival Without the Cinema

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How Film Changed Me: On Survival Without the Cinema

May 3, 2020

My first memory of the cinema is the mezzanine. Looking down at rows of empty seats, the art deco fixtures of a time long gone, and all of it lit up by the blueish light from the screen. I was with my Grandma watching a re-release of The Little Mermaid, my hands gripped the brass bar in front of our seats, my knuckles turning white. I was around five years old. 

The local Odeon, now transformed into a cultural hub in my hometown, was a place I longed to be. I craved its dusty theatre and shabby, rundown lobby. As a teenager, when loitering around the city centre, specifically outside McDonald’s, as was the social convention, waiting for someone to invite you to a party that night, I used to try and convince my friends that our money was best spent at the cinema. We could catch an afternoon screening and still be out in time to find out which of our friends older siblings might buy us booze for that night but, they didn’t take to it. 

I would have similar debates with my Dad, a man who thought of the cinema as an extravagance. To him, it was a place you go when it’s cold or raining, or as a special treat. He saw no sense in spending bright summer days cooped up inside a multiplex when the country parks and the great rivers of our nation were all free and readily available. We argued about it all the time. I begged to spend two hours in the dark instead of doing anything remotely ‘outdoorsy’, and he would not entertain it. I always lost this battle, if you could even call it that. I once wrote him a letter explaining, in ten bullet points, why we had to go to the cinema to see The Incredibles that weekend so I could complete a primary school homework assignment on reviewing. He wavered, unsure if it really was as necessary as my scribbled plea made out. That Saturday however, turned out to be one of those cold, rainy, days and so, mostly because of nature, he gave in. 

The Long Day Closes, dir. Terence Davies / Credit: BFI
The Long Day Closes, dir. Terence Davies / Credit: BFI

When semi-independence reared its head around sixteen, and I got my first job at a retail chain, I spent every weekend (and most of every payslip) at the cinema. Myself and three friends formed a small troop of cinemagoers who would forgo some of the adolescent evening festivities in favour of film. Our taste was, well, to be polite, mixed. We saw The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on opening night, Revolutionary Road one blurry Sunday afternoon, The Strangers on a dark night that would make us terrified waiting for a ride home, Inception in a packed theatre, and Australia on an icy New Year’s Day. We saw whatever was new that week, with no real idea about reviews or aggregate websites. It was just the three of us, joined by the mutual love of cinematic escape. 

When I lived in London in my early twenties, that escape became crucial, a tool to wield against the loneliness that comes with large cities. As long languid winter nights passed by, as taxi cabs waited, and bike messengers whizzed past, gliding through puddles made of endless rain, I would want to be anywhere other than in the city. The two hours I was able to spend in a different life kept me sane, kept me from giving in to the crushing isolation that felt so heavy. I would leave reality and enter into strange the German humour of Toni Erdmann, the escapist pleasure of La La Land, the close tension of Personal Shopper, the dark, sexy magic of God’s Own Country, and the beautiful calm power of Moonlight

La La Land, dir. Damian Chazelle / Credit: Lionsgate
La La Land, dir. Damian Chazelle / Credit: Lionsgate

Yes, my love affair with the cinema has been a long one, and it is, and likely always will be, my favourite place to be. So, during this period of lockdown, it’s been hard to focus, to find any kind of experience to replicate this absent one. So far, the only thing I’ve taken solace in is that the last film I saw in the cinema pre-lockdown was Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, with its French restraint and love blooming in relative isolation, it feels like a fitting final film. 

Of course, it’s not possible to recreate that cinematic experience at home. It’s too light out, the cat walks in and out of the room having a sneezing fit, and my housemates check their phones, send texts, or scroll on twitter while we watch. I am not innocent of this either, distraction happens so easily when not communally frowned upon. Last week, we made some microwavable popcorn and gobbled some store-bought sweets while watching a new release, available via streaming, but it couldn’t quite live up to the classic cinema experience. Still, it added a little zest to watching a new film at home and new releases are still coming, though at a slower pace. 

Maybe this pandemic will alter how we think about film distribution, now that it’s somewhat levelling in terms of access. I find it hard-pressed to imagine any of the chain cinemas near me, who favour larger blockbuster fair near exclusively, would screen Eliza Hittman’s starkly subtle polemic Never Rarely Sometimes Always, yet it’ll be available to rent from May 13th. The same goes for BFI Flare’s ‘online festival’, making up for the cancelled event, including Sam Feder’s essential documentary Disclosure or Liza Xi Xiang’s regulated and mesmerising A Dog Barking at the Moon. These were all films that would likely have required considerable travel and money, on my part, to see. That’s if they screened near me at all. 

The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro / Credit: Searchlight Pictures
The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro / Credit: Searchlight Pictures

There are cinephiles, the urban city types, who love to talk about male auteur filmmaking, who consider the likes of Netflix to be the ‘death of the cinema’. Even prominent name directors like Steven Spielberg find the streaming sites to be a real thorn in their arty sides. Except they don’t look at the reality; most people don’t have access to arthouse films on their doorstep. Leveller’s like Mubi, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, and others have made it a great deal easier for most people but is ease even the issue? What it comes down to for most people is money. So many people are priced out of the cinema-going experience, with tickets well over £12 these days and travel to be considered too. If you can rent a film at home, for £15.99 and three or four of you can sit down together, snug on the sofa, at watch together for around £3.99 each, who’s to say that isn’t the best option? 

Sure, I love the cinema. I love it more than eating a good meal, more than getting the weekend papers and reading them in bed. I love it more than fish and chips on the beach in some seaside town as the sun sets, more than napping, more than finding a tenner you didn’t know you had in your jeans pocket. Hell, I love it more than sex. I would even go as far as to say I love it more than good sex, than mid-blowing sex. It’s a vital part of my identity, of my routine, and, like so many other things right now, it’s not available to me. 

It’s a great privilege to be able to go to the cinema regularly, as is the ability to miss it. People who are worried about job losses, financial hardship, or the vulnerable groups who are most susceptible to this virus have more substantial things to worry about during this pandemic. That this is one of my more significant issues with lockdown is a symbol that, really, I’m not all that affected. 

When lockdown is lifted, and businesses reopen will I be heading to my local cinema with bells on? Yes, I will but maybe the way I approach it has changed. Last week, my housemates and I split the cost to rent the new Juliette Binoche thriller, Who You Think I Am and the South African military drama Moffie (both on Curzon Home Cinema). We’ve never done that before but liked both films and paid around £3 each to watch them. So, I couldn’t help but wonder*, maybe it really is time for us to reassess our viewing habits? 

*Sorry, it’s the first column, and I couldn’t resist. 

Also Read: The Problem with the role of ‘The Wife’ in movies like ‘Dark Waters’

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Editorials

Is 2020 the Year of the Musical?

April 5, 2020

In 2017, pundits set their sights on La La Land, the little-jazz-musical-that-could, as taking Best Picture at the Oscars. Famously, that did not happen, but it marked a substantial cultural reawakening for the movie musical. The circus-based extravaganza The Greatest Showman followed a year later and, after a slow start, dominated at the box office, and its music infected the radio with remixes and covers. Then came Cats, inarguably a phenomenon from its first trailer, which arrived last December to a somewhat muted reception. Still, the derailing and strange spectacle that was Cats doesn’t change the fact that 2020 is expected to a pretty big year for the big ol’ thumping musical.

Musicals exist in this strange realm, akin to sci-fi and fantasy. They live in parallel universes, similar to our own, except a character can take five and sing a power ballad about how they’re feeling with a full orchestra playing somewhere off-screen. They appeal to our need to be heard, to process the complicated and confusing emotions we run through daily living in the modern world. It feels like 2020 might be when we need that escape the most.

Initially expected in JuneIn The Heights will likely arrive later this summer. The adaption of the Tony-winning musical, from Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, follows a group of characters in the predominantly Latinx community of Washington Heights, New York City. Things take an exciting turn when Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) sells a winning lottery ticket from his struggling bodega, meaning someone from that rundown section of Manhattan has won a whopping $96,000. The film, directed by John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), looks like a colourful and vibrant visual feast full of optimism and is, potentially, tipped for Oscar glory.

IN THE HEIGHTS / PHOTO: Warner Bros. Pictures

Another Broadway adaption, this time for Netflix, comes in the form of The Prom. This star-studded story, directed by Glee’s Ryan Murphy, follows a self-involved Broadway actress (played by Meryl Streep) as she and gaggle of theatrical characters descend on a small town in Indiana where the school has cancelled their prom. Why? Because a female student has asked if she can bring her girlfriend and this rag-tag bunch of performers are looking for an ‘issue’ to solve. The original show wasn’t a massive hit during its initial Broadway run but seeing the likes of Streep alongside Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and Kerry Washington will likely be something that draws in a big audience. But, The Prom isn’t the only choice when it comes to queer-centric musicals expected this year as Billy Elliot meets RuPaul in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie which due this October. Richard E. Grant and Sharon Horgan join newcomer Max Harwood in this adaption of the Olivier nominated musical set in Sheffield the story follows a sixteen-year-old boy with aspirations to become a drag queen.

It’s also safe to assume we’ll see Leos Carax’s Annette on the film festival circuit this year (if they go ahead). The film, which finished shooting last year, has been in the works for a while with stars like Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Rhianna, and Michelle Williams all attached at some point before Oscar-winner Marion Cottillard joined Adam Driver for this Los Angeles set love story with original music from 70s alt-rock band Sparks. Described by Cottillard as having ‘profound depth’ and a ‘singularity’ to it, Annette is likely to be one of the stranger, yet like visually stunning and moving, musical offers of the year.

WEST SIDE STORY (2020) / PHOTO: Amblin Entertainment

The last musical release of 2020 is likely to be a big one as a beloved classic returns to the screen after 60 years. Despite most of its promotional shots looking like they’ve been swiped from a Marks & Spencer catalogue, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake is expected on December 18th. The story, a revised take on Romeo and Juliet, sees young love blossom at the centre of a gang war between the Jets and the Sharks. This remake aims to update the 1961 classic for today’s audiences though it’s unclear, outside of the casting actual Puerto Rican actors to play the Sharks, how it’s planning on doing that. From the on-set photographs and the new stills released in Vanity Fair last month, it looks as though the film is retaining the 1950s setting unlike the latest ‘millennial’ revival currently running on Broadway that does away with most of the iconic choreography (as well as two songs) and aims for a stronger political message adding Black Lives Matter and border walls into the mix. It may well go the route of the 2009 Broadway revival, a production saw Stephen Sondheim, the original lyricist, team up with Lin Manuel Miranda to translate some of the lyrics and the dialogue into Spanish for a more authentic feel. Still, it’s unclear if Spielberg’s remake, which explicitly sought Spanish speaking actors, is going to do the same. Whatever Spielberg does, will it be enough? Will any of these big, bold, musicals be enough? Will the singing and dancing be enough to raise our spirits?

It might seem facetious to ask what it is about our current times that is drawing us back towards the musical? The constant onslaught of politics, social issues, Brexit, division, COVID-19, and the rise of populism (to name a few) might mean that, globally, we are craving the escapism and magic that movie musicals bring. After all, it’s scientifically proven that music makes us feel better and who doesn’t need a pick me up in 2020? 

WEST SIDE STORY (2020) / PHOTO: Amblin Entertainment

Hell, even beyond 2020 we’ll be craving that hit of dopamine a big dance number brings. Thankfully, it was recently announced that Jake Gyllenhaal will star in an adaption of Fun Home, the award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel’s seminal graphic novel, while Scarlett Johansson and Taron Egerton are supposedly circling a Little Shop of Horrors remake but that casting has already been criticised. There’s still a long-awaited adaption of Wicked in the works and, of course, the much talked about Hamilton movie will eventually make its way to the screen. By the looks of it, we’ll have the movie musical to escape into for a few years yet. Fingers crossed.

Once, the musical was once the toast of Hollywood, almost like comic-book movies are today, and now it’s safe to say they’re less bankable. But, it’s still here. It’s fighting, with every jazz hand and Fosse neck it can, to stick around and we need it. In the face of it all, we need the singing, the dancing, and the joy. We need the escape, to find a place that isn’t like our modern times, one where emotion is made sense of through song. To quote one of the aforementioned musicals, we hope that ‘peace and quiet and open-air / wait for us somewhere’ but until then, let the musicals whisk us away. God knows we need it.

Also Read: How The Coronavirus has Affected The Film Industry

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Editorials

‘And Then We Danced’, Robyn, and Music in Queer Cinema

March 21, 2020

No, you’re not going to get what you need. Baby, I have what you want. Merab stands, cigarette in hand, topless, a crucifix on a chain around his neck. Come get your honey. Orange light floods the conservatory. Irakli’s dark eyes watch him as he puts on a white hat, adorned with feathers. I got your honey, baby. Then the beat kicks in. Every colour and every taste. Every breath that whispers your name. It’s like emeralds on the pavement. Merab dances, his body in perfect sync to the bass of the track. Irakli laughs, taken in by the jovial smirk on Merab’s face. The dance is part seduction, part game. It’s sexy and fun all at once. Then the music cuts. 

And Then We Danced, a film by Levan Akin, is a tender story of first love between two men in the world of Georgian folk dancing. Upon its release in Georgia, it was protested and considered a ‘moral threat’ by conservatives in the country. With this in mind, Robyn’s 2018 dance hit ‘Honey’ accompanying this tantalising seduction feels even more potent. The link between queerness and music has long been noted, from the adoration of icons like Cher, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross, to the likes of Beyoncé, Carley Rae Jepsen, and, of course, Robyn, whose music regularly reverberates of the walls in queer night clubs today. Music, in fact, is one of the first-time’s queer people felt they had some semblance of power, of having a say in something. In the 1970s, to get a disco track to be a hit, the song had to be playing in gay bars. This connection, to the upbeat sound and lyrics about oppression and loss, scared white heterosexual executives so much they that formulated a consigned effort to invalidate its success, and thus entered the ‘disco sucks’ crowd.

Music and cinema have also always been intrinsically linked. From silent movies accompanied by live pianists to the use of the ‘Unchained Melody’ in Ghost to Mr Blonde’s mischievous dance to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’, many of the most famous scenes in film have been set to now equally renowned music. In queer cinema, however, the relationship between the music and the characters feels more tangible, something that works on multiple levels. In 1970, Kenneth Nelson performed a truncated version of gay icon Judy Garland’s ‘Get Happy’ in The Boys in the Band. Garland’s popularity amongst the gay community is practically unparalleled, the phrase ‘a friend of Dorothy’ was historically used to discreetly describe gay men in reference to Garland’s most famous starring role. In 1989, Longtime Companion, the first studio movie to discuss AIDS, has a character lip-sync to the Dreamgirls cast album while unpacking boxes. The Broadway musical, a roman-à-clef based on the story of The Supremes, was a bit hit in 1981 and was recently described as having a ‘piercing message of self-empowerment and self-love’ that appeals to queer folk, both then and now. 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert features a whole host of disco and camp classics on its soundtrack as three drag queens travel across the Australian outback in a supped-up bus. In essence, the music acts as the sound of liberation, freedom, and unabashed queerness. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Miseducation of Cameron Post / PHOTO: Vertigo Releasing

Often, music in queer cinema works not only as a soundtrack for the experience of the LGBTQ+ characters on-screen, but acts as a signpost to the queerness that exists beyond the edge of the frame. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood features a pivotal moment set to ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna, a current icon for the gay community, idolised for her no-bullshit attitude and pop music prevalence. Or Xavier Dolan’s use of Lana Del Rey, famous for her musings on deadbeat men and ethereal ‘sad girl’ energy, in his Palme d’Or, winning Mommy. Luca Guadagnino not only featured new songs by queer-friendly Sufjan Stevens in his coming-of-age story Call Me By Your Name but also included ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs, a song that was written for those who were struggling with their sexuality in the eighties. While Desiree Akhavan’s tale of youths in conversion therapy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, sees a moment of jubilance and freedom to the 4 Non Blondes song ‘What’s Up?’, whose lead singer, Linda Perry, famously performed with the word ‘Dyke’ scribbled on her guitar at the 1994 Billboard Music Awards. 

That brings us back to Robyn, the Swedish queen of Europop and recent RuPaul guest judge, who has risen to be a substantial icon for the queer community. She was recently described, by Tom Rasmussen for Another Man, as a woman who ‘gets it’, ‘it’ being the queer experience. Her lyrics cater to the ‘outcast’ and capitalise on ‘the exact tension between the agony, and the ecstasy inside the agony.’ Her music understands the unrequited, the existential, the messy, the dramatic, the murky areas between the lines, and as such appeals to a lot of what makes queer desire so specific. 

Levan Gelbakhiani & Bachi Valishvili, stars of And Then We Danced / PHOTO: CAROLINA BYRMO

‘Honey’, which has been described by Robyn herself as being about a sweet and gloopy ‘state of mind instead of the actual substance’, features lyrics of delicate and sensual longing, a desire to provide and open up for a lover. In Merab’s case, he’s been taken in by the dark and brooding Irakli, his passion is seeping from his skin, his longing visible in each pained stare. In this moment, as the only two people awake late at night, they share an intimate moment so palpable, so crammed with sexual tension, that heart rates will pound along to the electronic beat. 

And Then We Danced is the latest in a long line of queer films that utilise that relationship between LGBTQ+ people and music, specifically their connection to the content and power that music historically brings. So often cinema, like music, is an act of translation. Queer people find a way to relate to the stories on screen that rarely represent them, but in those that do, it feels exciting and even liberating. For a soundtrack to acknowledge that musical connection is like acknowledging the whole notion of queer struggle and how music has been central to queer lives for years. 

And Then We Dances (Official Trailer)

And Then We Danced is available to rent / download now

Also Read: “Birds of Prey” and the Curse of Being Casually Queer

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Editorials

The Problem with the role of ‘The Wife’ in movies like ‘Dark Waters’

March 1, 2020
Anne Hathaway - Dark Waters

‘Don’t talk to me like I’m the wife,’ Sarah Billot (Anne Hathaway) says towards the end of Todd Hayne’s latest film Dark Waters. Until now, she’s had a few scenes complaining that her husband, Rob (Mark Ruffalo), hasn’t picked up granite samples on his way home from work, telling Rob’s boss that she used to be a lawyer before she had kids, and complaining that Rob’s workload has overtaken his ability to pay attention to his family. She’s been hovering around the home, chastising their three kids for their behaviour, and acting as a voiceless, sounding board for Rob’s theories about the corporate juggernaut, DuPont. She has existed to support Rob, to show what he is sacrificing in his crusade against the establishment. Now, teary and with her voice cracking, she defends him.

There is a problem with ‘The Wife’. No, not the film Glenn Close film from 2017 but the age-old, underappreciated, and undervalued role that somehow perseveres. It goes like this: A woman, often a well-respected and acclaimed actress, plays ‘the wife’ in a movie about how a man (or a group of men) do great things. She’s often stood in the kitchen when the man returns from work or waits by the cordless phone for bad news. She asks questions like ‘When are you coming home?’ and makes curt statements such as ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’ More often than not she’ll ask the man not to do the dangerous, political, or selfless thing he’s planning on doing because of the kids, or the risk, or the ramifications. She’ll eventually come round and support him on his journey, standing up for him when someone else doubts his conviction or progress. In the final act, she might have an emotional speech, something she’ll say with tears in her eyes, something that’s just long enough for the Academy to consider her for Best Supporting Actress. Recent examples, alongside Hathaway, would be Claire Foy in First Man, Catherine Keener in Captain PhillipsGugu Mbatha-Raw in Concussion, Laura Linney in Sully, Sienna Miller in American Sniper, Maura Tierney in Beautiful Boy, Tatiana Maslany in Stronger, and the list could go on.

First man Film
‘First Man’ / Universal Pictures

In 2019, The Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 40% of women seen in film were seen in work-related roles, compared to 60% of men, and 52% of female characters were predominantly identified by their personal life, such as a wife or a mother. We see women in their relation to men, how they respond and exist within a man’s world. Overall, only 61% of women on film had a discernible job and were substantially less likely to be seen at work than their male counterparts. Hathaway’s Sarah, for example, has a profession but doesn’t practice anymore and, despite seemingly having been to law school, has very little to contribute when it comes to Rob’s burgeoning legal case. In fact, the only contribution she makes is by accident, stumbling upon a leaflet in the glove compartment.

Some films try to subvert this, to consider the domestic trappings of marriage with consideration and gravitas. For example, Glenn Close almost won an Oscar for playing Joan Castleman, a wife who wanted and deserved recognition after years in the background. Ironically, Close told The Hollywood Reporter, ‘It was actually hard to find actors who wanted to be in a movie called The Wife’. 

So, there is a chasm at the centre of moviemaking; wives are essential to cinema, as displayed by the array of women standing by their man, but wives themselves are not interesting. Once a woman has disposed of her maiden name, she herself is disposable. 

The Wife Movie
‘The Wife’ / Sony Picture Classics

The broader implication, of course, is that Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with women outside of placing them next to a man. Whether she, like Claire Foy, has had great success on television or, despite critical acclaim and awards, she’s approaching her forties and as such is ‘harder’ to sell to men as a ‘sex symbol’, like Hathaway, they’re at a loss. So along come the offers to play wives, girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, or Aunts to a teenage superhero as a way of offsetting the problem. It also has to be noted that ‘The Wife’ role typically appears in films by male directors (who still direct around 96% of major films released) and that work by directors such as Greta Gerwig, Nicole Holofcener, and Lulu Wang, or producers like Reese Witherspoon, consider the female viewpoint with great importance they just don’t get the same recognition, culturally.

The fact is, these ‘wife’ roles don’t bring the awards attention they used to, with so many of them being ignored come Oscar season. Is that a sign of the times? Recently, in The Guardian, Steve Rose wrote about how ‘issues movies’, like Dark Waters, were once the pinnacle of Hollywood and awards season but now they’re ‘drying up’. It is time to say the same for ‘The Wife’? Absolutely! Routinely, women in film end playing second fiddle to developed male characters, they exist to pressure them or provide comfort. Even their deaths are used as character development, to give a man drive and depth. They exist to make sure the audience can see a rounded portrait of the man at the centre, and, as such, the women are painted with broad strokes and the various wives of cinema are often interchangeable from one and other. Changing this might require a more significant cultural shift, one in which society views women as more than wives and girlfriends and then cinema can follow. Or, perhaps, it’s the other way round. After all, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?  

Dark Waters (Official Trailer)

Dark Waters is in cinemas nationwide from 28th February

Also Read: ‘Birds of Prey’ & the Curse of Being Casually Queer

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Editorials

‘Birds of Prey’ & the Curse of Being Casually Queer

February 22, 2020

I’ve been burned before. The promise of queer representation dangled, cruelly, in front of me before it’s swiftly pulled away and edited out for China. Routinely, we’ve seen big studios get a lot of press by announcing the first ‘gay character’ in their particular franchise. It happened with Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: ResurgenceBeauty and The BeastAlien: CovenantFantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindlewaldAvengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to name a few. First, a fuss is made in the gay media and mainstream news, people on Twitter cry that ‘WOKE PC CULTURE IS RUINING CINEMA’, and then the film comes out and… well, it was all for nothing. There’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kisses, hand brushing, suggestive looks, or single lines (or worse, jokes) that simply hint at a character’s sexuality. It all passes you by so discreetly that most people don’t even notice.  

In some ways Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) does better. Sure, it approaches the bisexuality of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn with an easy-to-miss millisecond in the film’s opening animation and the much-talked-about relationship between villains Black Mask and Victor Zsasz (played by Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, respectively) is nothing to write home about (even if Zasaz’s bleach-blond dye-job screams ‘gay man in distress’.) All that being said, it does have Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez; a jaded queer cop with a penchant for speaking in 80s cop clichés. It’s revealed, in voice-over, that Montoya has an ex-girlfriend (played by Ali Wong) who works for the DA in Gotham. Montoya is far more rounded and substantially queer than anyone in those movies mentioned above but it still doesn’t quite feel like enough. I’ve seen countless muscled white dudes kissing different skinny white women in almost every superhero film ever. I’ve seen men and women, in all kinds of romantic scenarios, kissing while they run from volcanoes, spaceships, or supervillains. I was even recently subjected to Rey and Kylo Ren’s horrendously odd kiss in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s all there, right in your face, all the time. So why, when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters, does it all feel so, well, casual? 

Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey / Warner Bros. Pictures.

Whether it’s categorised as queerbaiting or seen as studios trying to ‘toe the line’ for the elusive and hard to define ‘Middle America’, it always comes down to money. If not for those in ‘the middle of the country’ then the problem is outsourced to other countries, like Malaysia or China, who won’t spend their hard-earned cash on LGBTQ+ content. It seems the big studios, and those in charge of franchises, want to have their Queer Cake and eat it too. A little deniable queerness please, they say, but not too much that it might genuinely mean anything. Mass appeal is the driving force but ultimately that means that queer people, who are so used to watching straight folks copulate on screen, get a whole lot of nothing.

LGBTQ+ relationships, romances, and experiences are frequently side-lined in this system. They’re never central to a film’s plot so it can be recut and still make sense. But what is the overall effect? A feeling of being second-class to heterosexuality? A lack of worth? When queer characters exist on the fringes, in fleeting moments, in the subtext, it sends a message: these stories, these people, are not worth the airtime compared to their straight counterparts. I mean, the most prominent TV show of the last decade, Game of Thrones, featured a substantial amount of straight sibling-on-sibling action. How does incest play in ‘the middle of the country’ I wonder? A whole lot better than a two-second gay kiss, I guess.

Is there hope for the future? Who can say? Patty Jenkins has been spotted filming scenes featuring the ‘Silence = Death’ protest signs for her upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Kevin Feige has promised an LGBTQ+ character in The Eternals, a story about God-like entities from space. While recent Oscar-winner Taki Waititi has teased that Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie will finally take flight as a fully-fledged, and explicitly acknowledged, bisexual woman in Thor: Love & Thunder.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie / (20th Century Fox/Twitter)

But hope, well hope is a dangerous thing for a queer like me to have. These promises, the big studios waving their rainbow flags on the horizon, don’t inspire much trust. I know we have Ryan Murphy on Netflix with his adaption of Boys in the Bandfeaturing an all-gay cast of actors. We also have Murphy’s grander adaption of the Broadway musical The Prom, with a (mostly straight) all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington to name a few. Actual real-life queer woman Kirsten Stewart is also set to star in a Thanksgiving-themed lesbian Rom-Com from Clea Duvall, and Britain promises to unveil its film adaption of the drag based musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie this Autumn but who can say how big any of these films will hit. It doesn’t feel obtuse to suggest that it won’t be on the level of any major franchise.

At the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards, a clip of the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles singing about ‘The Gayest Moments in Other Films You May Not Have Realised Were Gay’ went viral. Its appreciation of the queer lens, of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Laura Dern’s entire career was funny, accurate, and unmistakably the product of Gay Twitter. Even so, it was a little sad to think that so many queer people are, out of necessity, watching and claiming things that weren’t made with them in mind. Of course, there is power in reclamations, in queering the narrative, in forcing yourself into a place that didn’t consider you and making it your own, but it shouldn’t have to be that way every time LGBTQ+ people watch a blockbuster. Will that ever change? I’m not holding my breath.

Also Read: Where Are All The Young Moviegoers?

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Editorials

It’s Time to Talk About Marielle Heller

February 2, 2020

On the 13th January, Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s Insecure, announced the directing nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards. ‘Congratulations to those men,’ Rae jibed as the names of the depressing all-male line-up loitered on the screen. Moments like this have appeared more frequently over the past few years. At the Oscars in 2018, presenter Emma Stone proclaimed ‘These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year’ shortly before revealing the (not-so-surprising) male winner. A few months prior, Natalie Portman, at the Golden Globes, prefaced her announcement with ‘And here are the all-male nominees’. Routinely, presenters, notably actresses, have taken their moment on stage to voice the frustration at the numbing lack of female nominees amongst what the academy denotes as the year’s best, as worthy and important.  

In 2015, Maureen Dowd’s piece for The New York Times called ‘The Women of Hollywood Speak Out’ hit the newsstands. The article was built on interviews with around 100 women who worked in the film industry from directors, to actors, to writers, and producers. It’s spark? The routine elevation of male filmmakers to the big leagues while female filmmakers are left clambering for recognition from the industry at large. Specifically, the news that Colin Trevorrow’s admirable, but average, debut indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed had yielded a coveted gig: to direct Jurassic World with a $150 million budget. It was then followed by news that he would helm the ninth Star Wars movie (something that would not actually materialise). As Dowd wrote, ‘That kind of leap — from indie to blockbuster — is almost exclusively reserved for young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves.’

Wedged in amongst the other quotes was writer and director Marielle Heller. ‘In some ways, I think women are perfectly primed to be directors,’ she told Dowd, about the nurturing required by actors on sets. Her debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, had premiered at Sundance that past January to strong reviews, earning it a ‘fresh’ 95% on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. The film followed Minnie (a jubilant and doe-eyed Bel Powley) as she begins a journey of sexual discovery in San Francisco during the seventies. It took what could have been a tricky and challenging story, that saw Minnie, a 15-year-old, enter her first sexual relationship with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a significantly older man. It allowed Minnie agency and feminist authorship of her own story that lent the film a mature and fascinating vantage point. 

Director Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski.
Director Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (Photo by Mary Cybulski.)

Now, five years after that debut, and the article, Heller has released two films within a year of each other. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her sophomore feature starred Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2018. A story of loneliness filled with wit and darkness dealt with an acidic queer writer in self-orchestrated isolation who begins forging notes by famous writers. It deftly honed in on the fragments of Israel’s isolation that resonated deeply with audiences and critics. Richard Brody called it a ‘movie of endings, a mournful film, suffused with an air of doom’ in The New Yorker. While Emily Yoshida wrote, for Vulture, it was ‘one of the most visceral depictions of loneliness [she had] seen in a while.’ 

Her third feature, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, has its roots in that 2015 article. Heller, at a children’s birthday party, found herself in conversation with Tom Hanks (Heller was close with Hank’s son, Colin). It had not been long since the publication of Dowd’s piece, and Hank’s had been moved by it. So began a series of events that led to kismet: Hanks, a powerfully empathetic actor, working with Heller, a powerfully empathetic director. 

Director Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks on the set of TriStar Pictures' A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. (Photo by: Lacey Terrell)
Director Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks on the set of TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. (Photo by: Lacey Terrell)

A Beautiful Day the Neighbourhood is a quintessential Heller film. It’s an exploration of people and the complex nature of good and bad. It’s about forgiveness, nihilism, daddy issues, family, kindness, cynicism, and rage. It’s driven by a stormy performance from Matthew Rhys as a journalist assigned to interview Mister Rogers (Hanks) and is visually compelling, quirky, and vibrant. At its core though is Heller’s profound empathy, something that reigns in all her films. An anthropologist of the human condition, finding every shade and facet of her characters, Heller creates a greying portrait of manhood, of forgiveness, of the aggressions we hold inside us. 

In 2020, Heller is one of many female filmmakers that have been overlooked and ignored by The Academy, but there is something about her omission that feels so glaring. Not only did she direct Hanks to his first Oscar nomination in twenty years but there is something in her style of filmmaking that stands face-to-face with ‘the old guard’. Her brand of filmmaking is emotional without melodrama, wit without cruelty, nuance without broad strokes. It’s what allows a saintly American icon of children’s television, a sour queer woman, and a euphoric teen on the precipice of sexuality equal space and importance. 

Smaller films, bathed in compassion and understanding, are ignored when they’re showcased next to the machismo and violence displayed by this year’s directing nominees. It’s what denied Gerwig a nomination for her masterful helming of Little Women, it’s what kept Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers off the board entirely, and it’s what keeps Heller from taking her rightful place as one of the most talented and consistent directors working today. Against the barrage of war films, violence porn, and movies about fucking cars we need to refocus our attention. We should turn our eyes away from the deeply repetitive boredom of awards season sexism and put in the legwork, start conversations about the merit and style these filmmakers demonstrate, and people will have to listen. So folks, with that in mind, it’s time to talk about Marielle Heller.  

Also Read: The Biggest Financial Film Flops

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Reviews

Review: Bombshell

January 11, 2020

Does it refer to the huge news story? So gigantic it exploded onto the 24-hour news cycle in 2016, dominating the conversation for weeks. Or maybe it means the striking skinny blond newscasters who delivered that story on Fox News? The film’s title, Bombshell, isn’t the only thing that’s hard to pin down in this fictionalised retelling of the sexual harassment scandal that exposed conservative juggernaut Roger Ailes, the head of the controversial cable news channel, as an abuser and predator. 

Bombshell is, politically, a mess. That is to say, its politics are hard to gauge and at times difficult to decipher. The rise of Donald Trump, from an outlier, that no one is taking seriously to the Republican Presidential nominee, plays out in the background, as the severity of Ailes comprehensive harassment becomes clear. Yet, at no point does the film choose to explicitly link the two. It decides to forego the ‘grab them by the pussy’ audiotape or the accusations from at least 23 women, from the 1980s to today, detailing harassment and abuse from Trump himself. It also neglects to mention that after Ailes resigned from Fox News, and took a sizeable pay-out to the tune of $40 million, he walked straight into a job as an advisor for Trump’s presidential campaign

Bombshell / LIONSGATE

You might well wonder if considering the film’s politics necessary. Is this not a bipartisan tale of overcoming sexual harassment? The answer depends on how you view the ‘Fox News’ of it all. Bombshell isn’t any sort of ‘leftist propaganda’ trying to tear down the Fox News monolith. Nor is it really a heroic story of three conservative women, that praises their efforts to cleanse this media giant of bad behaviour. Instead, it sits somewhere weakly in the middle, too scared to really wrestle with the complexity of the situation. One that follows women who worked at the network that helped get Trump elected that has been accused multiple times of doctoring video footage, as well as having severe issues with race and islamophobia. As Alison Willmore wrote for Vulture, the film never significantly engages with the ‘the ideological Jenga of trying to push back at a particular form of oppression while trying to leave all the structures that support it undisturbed.

Outside of the murky omissions and the ignored parallels, the movie faces another hurdle. First and foremost, it is essential to note that sexual harassment, no matter who it happens to, is bad. But when it comes to cinema an audience needs someone to root for, someone you care about and, on some level, like. Thus, the other obstacle facing Bombshell simply: how do you make Megyn Kelly a hero? 

The first step? You get Charlize Theron to play her and have her give an immersive, gripping, and enthralling performance. As an actress, she is relatively unmatched in her commitment to transformation, both here and in her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. But Theron isn’t just about make-up and prosthetics, her range is wide-reaching as evidenced by her comedic performances in last year’s Long Shot or 2011’s Young Adult. Theron uses those comedy chops to great effect for some of the films lighter or more self-referential moments – including a fourth-wall-breaking introduction to the Fox News machine. 

The second step? You avoid the stories that made Megyn Kelly the conservative controversy magnet she is. You choose instead to focus on her more palatable actions; namely her challenging of Donald Trump’s misogyny during the 2016 presidential primaries and less on her various shall we say… contrary opinions (though the film does, briefly, address her ‘Santa is White’ comments). 

Bombshell / LIONSGATE

It’s also useful to surround Theron with a cast of likeable and renowned actors including Kate McKinnon’s secretly suffering liberal staffer, Rob Delaney’s sympathetic producer, and Alison Janney’s gruff-voiced attorney. Elsewhere Nicole Kidman is strong as Gretchen Carlson, the original whistleblower, but is in third place, narratively behind Kelly and Margot Robbie’s fictional Kayla Pospisil; a young conservative woman with a dream to be on Fox. Pospisil, our gateway into the newsroom, is a composite character cleverly utilised to show the extent of horrific Ailes abuse without having to expose or monetise any specific woman’s interactions with him. 

Behind the camera, the mixed-messages continue with Jay Roach, the director of grounded political TV-Movies like 2012’s Game Change (that saw Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin), teaming up with Charles Randolph, the writer of the flashy and trick-filled The Big Short. As a result, stylistically, Bombshell falls somewhere in between. The handheld camera and intrusive close-ups give the film a sense of realism. That the action is captured almost like a documentary with multiple cameras on the go at once gives a claustrophobic and newslike feel. Then, occasionally, the film widens out and has actors talk directly to the camera or blends it’s ‘fictional’ narrative with actual documentary as the audio of real testimonies made by six women who accused Ailes of assault are heard with accompanying photos. Yet, the grounded nature of Roach and the showy antics of Randolph never quite gel, leaving it to feel like you’re flicking between two different movies – both of which could be quite interesting.

Bombshell may be a mess politically, disjointed stylistically, and have plenty of other significant issues but, somehow… it’s still entertaining. Maybe it’s a testament to the casting, with Theron especially doing the heavy lifting to pull it all together in spite of everything stacked against her. Perhaps the film is messy, but not quite messy enough. Bombshell might be like the pile of clothes you stuff under your bed or into the bottom of your wardrobe. The room looks clean enough, but the mess is still there, lurking, and you’re going to have to deal with it someday. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Bombshell is in U.K cinemas from 17th January 2020

Also Read: JoJo Rabbit (Review)

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Reviews

Review: Parasite

December 28, 2019

When a parasite connects to its host, it’s trying to survive. As an organism it has adapted to this way of life, to rely on its host to endure, to feed, and to live. The host is noticeably weakened by the parasite, its resources now feed two beings and as such parasites are merciless. 

In Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winning Parasitethose organisms are the Kim family. A group who, struck by misfortune and lack of wealth, try to make a living from what they can in their semi-basement apartment. They fold the pizza boxes for a local restaurant, use the WIFI of the person who lives above them, they risk their own health to take advantage of local fumigation via their open windows, and they have to watch each night as drunk men piss outside those same windows. So when an opportunity to tutor the daughter of the wealthy Park family befalls the son of the family, Ki-Woo (played with hope and grit by Choi Woo-shik) a plan emerges. 

Ki-Woo likes plans, to know the next step, to already have his counteraction prepared. As it becomes clear the youngest Park child needs an art tutor, he suddenly ‘remembers’ someone he’s heard of and thus, his sister, Ki-jeong (a deftly cool and calm Park So-dam), takes up the mantle of Jessica – an artistic genius and expert in art therapy who studied in the USA. Soon, there appear to be roles for the entire family and they set about making it happen. Utilising titbits of information they hear from the family they find ways to oust the driver and the housekeeper, leaving room for Ki-teak (Song Kang-ho) and Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) to take over. Their infiltration of the Park family is ruthless and smooth.

Parasite Film
“Parasite” screenshot (credit: Universal Pictures)

What then of their host, the Park family? The mother, Yeon-gyo (played sweetly by Cho Yeo-jeong) whose ignorance to the world outside is unwittingly antagonistic and her maternal anxiety only seems to stretch to her youngest son. The father, Dong-ik, the CEO of an IT company, who brings home the money and wins over his son with gifts. They are two people who, as the film twists and writhes into unexpected places, become more grotesque as their out-of-touch air wrestles with their lack of empathy for others. As for their children, Da-song, is a seemingly wild, uncontrollable child while Da-hye is a shy, self-conscious teen, aware of the lack of attention she gets from her parents and thus finds romantic entanglements with all her tutors. 

The Parks live in an enviable mansion mostly protected from prying eyes by tall trees in their garden. The suave house, filled with motion sensors, cool chrome finishes, and Voss Water, is the stage on which this symbiotic relationship plays out. The Kim’s infiltrate and live off the Parks and the Parks, ignorant to the toils of the working classes, are none the wiser. 

To talk too much more about the film’s plot would rob the viewer of experiencing its wild ride (and it is wild). Instead, what is more, beneficial is thinking about Parasite has to say, with class strategically centred in this astute and pointed story of a wide and cavernous divide. But, make no mistake, the evaluation of Parasite as class warfare is not this critic engaging with the film’s subtilties, far from it. The film wears its anti-capitalist message on its sleeve, open and in plain sight with no chance you could miss it. That is, in fact, one of its strongest qualities: its unabashed commitment to its thesis. The world of the film is the same as the world we live in, the rich find it hard to see the poverty for the trees that they surround their massive houses with. Global warming leads to hotter summers for those beach getaways and rising house prices mean a stronger investment in property and likely more needy tenants to rent to.

It is not the only film to grapple with this divide that simply cannot be ignored. In a piece for Vulture, critic Alison Willmore wrote, “[C]lass rage on the big screen provides a reflection of the particular despair and frustration underscoring our real-world present, where the divide between security and anxiety, both here and abroad, is ever more cavernous.” Willmore placed Parasite alongside 2019’s slew of films that examined that class gap including Ready or NotHustlersKnives Out, and more. Does this mean things are changing?

Parasite
“Parasite” screenshot (credit: Universal Pictures)

Parasites notably weaken their host, but when it comes to class nothing seems to be budging, nobody appears any frailer. The rich keep getting richer, the money builds up as billionaires see tax decreases and off-shore accounts continue to exist. But the working classes see none of that dough, it isn’t put back into the economy unless you count the poor wages paid for zero-hour contracts or casual work. And if you don’t like it? There’s a line of hundreds just like you, in need of work, lining up around the block to survive. If there were a job opening ‘500 university graduates would go for it’, Ki-Taek says, highlighting the grim prospects that a lot of young people know all too well. 

Bong Joon-ho’s social commentary flick is made more effective through the stylish and gripping way the story unfolds. It’s dark, funny, clever, surprising, and I’m sure I could use almost every adjective in my lexicon. I could go on for hours about the way class and politics come into play but I won’t. All I’ll say is this: parasites don’t intend to harm their host, that is a by-product of the way in which they exist. They want, as all creatures do, to live. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Parasite is being distributed by Curzon in the UK and will be in cinemas 7th February 2020.

Also Read: The Anatomy of a Christopher Nolan Film

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