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Author: Jon Paul Roberts

Queer Writer. Northern.
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 open in ‘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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Editorials

“Little Women” & Cinema for the Self Partnered

December 26, 2019
Little Women

When Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women she didn’t want Jo March, her fiery, emboldened, and strong-minded lead, to be married by the novel’s end. This was, like Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation stresses, a choice of her publisher and a sign of the repressive times she lived in. Alcott herself defied that rule in real life, choosing not to marry and instead devoted herself to artistic endeavours. In fact, history is littered with literary women who decided to forego their expected life paths such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickenson, and more. 

Gerwig’s film is really an ode to those, to borrow a phrase from one of its stars, self-partnered women. Women who have defied the confines of marriage, whose passion is just as important as their prospective nuptials. As Gerwig said of her aspirations for Jo’s relationship with the audience, ‘What if you felt when she gets her book, the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed?’ Thus can you imagine, if we cared as much about a woman’s achievements as we do whether or not anyone puts a ring on it? 

The Cast of Little Women
Little Women (credit: Sony Pictures)

Gerwig rearranges the story thematically and structurally to breathe new life into it on screen and puts marriage firmly at the centre. The film begins with the March sisters on the precipice of adulthood. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York writing wild stories about violence because that’s what sells. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest sister, is living in marital bliss with two young children – except she’s broke. Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris, practising her painting and being courted by the super-rich Fred Vaughn, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the youngest, is at home with her mother, her heart weakened by a bout of scarlet fever. They’re four twenty-something women with their childhood in the rear-view, their memories and losses framing the decisions they make. Meg is releasing the life she aspired for isn’t always perfect while both Jo and Amy navigate the decision on who to marry or if they should marry at all. 

‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,’ Jo says (a line lifted from Alcott’s journals), though she fears the loneliness of such a life, even if she believes that women are capable of more than just love. While Amy sees marriage as an economic proposition, something she can use to support her family. ‘I believe we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person,’ she says, in a debate that frames her as sensible and explicitly aware of her role in the world. How a woman approaches that role and marriage, be it with contempt of Jo, the practicality of Amy, or head-over-heels love of Meg, is something that still lingers today. 

Florence Pugh in Little Women
Little Women (credit: Sony Pictures)

The shape of marriage in our modern world is shifting. It’s moving away from its history as a business transaction (one that could procure a dowry and help business) and toward being the pinnacle of romantic idealism. Just entirely how that happened, no one is really sure. Capitalism undoubtedly played a significant role – the selling of the ‘dream wedding’ to women soared as a business since Victorian times. Then, of course, came the idea of ‘marrying for love’, a new way of entrapping young singles when their betrothal didn’t come with the promise of a small plot of land and a few cows to boot.  

The fact is that marrying for ‘love’ only entered our collective consciousness around 250 years ago. Before then it was merely one of several factors to be considered when pairing up young singles (and, dear reader let me tell you, it wasn’t very high up the list of concerns either). As Stephanie Coontz wrote in her book Marriage, a History, “it was inconceivable that people would choose their mate on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love.” And, while people did indeed fall in love, the choice to marry because it was seen as a threat to a particular social order, one that could risk men and women abandoning their commitments to family, neighbours, and, above all, God. 

Even if marriage has rebranded itself as the symbol of ‘everlasting true love’, does that mean it can outrun its deeply gendered history? The gendered concepts of such a union are still unavoidable with a 2014 study of Harvard Law School graduates showing that more than half of the men surveyed expected their careers to take priority over their spouses. As writer Jia Tolentino notes, in her book Trick Mirror, “gender inequality is so entrenched in straight marriage that it persists in the face of cultural change.” Thus, Jo’s (and indeed Alcott’s) disdain for settling down still seems more than reasonable and, in 2019, she wouldn’t be alone. 

The cast of Little Women
Little Women (credit: Sony Pictures)

This past year has been peppered with films that celebrated singlehood. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers focused on women’s ambition, sisterhood, and their refusal to continue to face abuse from the ruling classes. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen 2 offered Elsa, a Queen who aspired to fulfilment and self-actualisation while being the first Disney princess to nix falling into the arms of an interchangeable price with a china doll face. Sophie Hyde’s Animals came with the view that marriage is an obstacle to a lifelong friendship rather than something to be sought after and prized. While the sad obsessive loner who ultimately commits heinous acts of violence in Todd Phillip’s Joker is #SingleGoals for faceless bros on Twitter. 

Whether it’s 2019 or 1869, marriage still looms large over society and, indeed, cinema. The choice to remain single is still a threat. As the philosopher, Alain de Botton wrote,

“Anyone who lives alone and manifests no longing to be in a relationship is – in our times – almost automatically (though more or less secretly) viewed as both pitiable and deeply troubled. It’s simply not thought possible to be at once alone and normal.” 

– Alain de Botton

Do any of the Little Women end up alone you ask? Gerwig wants you to think so as she suggests that the ending of Jo’s novel (which sees her fall into the arms of a man) isn’t the one Jo chooses for herself and this is an act of tribute to Alcott. It blends the author and fictional character together even further. Gerwig chooses, as Alcott did, not to follow what is expected, to defy the end of the novel and say, boldly, that marriage is not all a woman is fit for, both then and now. 

Little Women is in cinemas nationwide on 26th December.

Also Read: How To Revive A Franchise After Many Years

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Editorials

The Best LGBTQ+ Films of the Decade (2010 – 2019)

December 12, 2019

If the 1990s gave us New Queer Cinema, and the 2000s gave us mainstream successes, like Brokeback Mountain (2005), then what did we find in the 2010s? There was, of course, more mainstream entries like Love, Simon (2018) or Dallas Buyers Club (2013). There was the return, whether we liked it or not, of Queer Eye (aptly dropping ‘For The Straight Guy’ from its title) which showed that LGBTQ+ centric content was on the minds of studio executives but that maybe they were still making the same mistakes.  

However, a dominant swell of independent cinema (sometimes called New-Wave Queer Cinema) that took on identity, the intersection between sexuality and race, homophobia, our collective history, the AIDS epidemic, sex, and so much more came to the forefront. Yes, LGBTQ+ independent film left few stones unturned over the past ten years as it portrayed varied and nuanced experiences. Even so, there is still a significant lack of representation of disabled LGBTQ+ folk, as well representation of trans folk and people of colour is still substantially lower than it should be which will hopefully change in the decade to come.

These films from the past 10 years grappled the challenging decade it has been and found hope, anger, and desire in the process. Here are some of the highlights…


Pariah‘, dir. Dee Rees (2011) 

Focus Features: 2011

Dee Rees’ has become one to watch over this past decade, with her work on HBO’s Bessie and Netflix’s Mudbound, her hazy and fresh style landed her an adaption of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (scheduled for release next year). But it all began with Pariah, adapted from her earlier short film, it is a story of a teenager in Brooklyn navigating identity, first love, and familial pressures. 


Weekend‘, dir. Andrew Haigh (2011) 

Peccadillo Pictures: 2011

In this early indie hit, Russell and Glen men meet at a bar and go home together. Over the following days the two battle with the idea of commitment, monogamy, intimacy, and love in Andrew Haigh’s debut film that is simple, subtle, and modern with a mixture of pathos and joy. 


Stranger by the Lake‘, dir. Alain Guiraudie (2013)

Les films du losange: 2013

A French sexual thriller that dared to be bold and vivid, the film utilised graphic portrayals of sex and violence. The film revolves around a murder in a prime cruising spot and a sexual relationship that is complex and dangerous, passionate and risky. Featuring stark nudity, rising tension, and gorgeous cinematography, Stranger by the Lake is a sultry and dangerous ride. 


Tangerine‘, dir. Sean Baker (2015)

Magnolia Pictures: 2015

A genuinely original independent production shot entirely on iPhones, Tangerine is a brash, bold, and initiative film filled with humour and struggle. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor star as two sex workers looking for an ex-boyfriend on Christmas Eve in LA, and their performances are deeply grounded and light up the screen with a flurry of energy and presence. Also, it’s the best queer Christmas movie to date!


Carol‘, dir. Todd Haynes (2015)

The Weinstein Company: 2015

The slow, cold, burn of Todd Hayne’s Carol whipped people into a frenzy in 2015. The adaptation of famed lesbian author Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film saw Cate Blanchett’s housewife fall for Rooney Mara’s sensitive shop-girl in a wildly cinematic romance that could put classic cinema to shame. 


In Between‘, dir. Maysaloun Hamoud (2016)

Peccadillo Pictures: 2016

The story of three women who share a flat in Tel-Aviv who have to navigate their conservative families and the cultural divide. One that leaves them influenced by the West but living in the Middle East – a situation that brings into question things like religion, sexual violence, tradition, sexuality, and female kinship. The director, Maysaloun Hamoud, had a fatwa issued against her for her frank depictions of sexuality, drugs, and womanhood.


Moonlight‘, dir. Barry Jenkins (2016) 

A24: 2016

Taking the Best Picture Oscar at the 89th Academy Awards, Moonlight cemented itself into cinematic history. The film explored queer longing and desire from the black masculine perspective in a way that was tender with cinematography that firmly placed male beauty and black men at its centre.


120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)‘, dir. Robin Campillo (2017)

Memento Films: 2017

Boldly political and deeply enthralling, Beats Per Minute follows the Parisian branch of ACT UP in the 1980’s as they fight for visibility and recognition. It’s an elegy for the people who were lost and visceral protest for them too. Enthrallingly rich, sexual, personal, and queer BPM is queer cinema at its most perfect. 


A Fantastic Woman‘, dir. Sebastian Lelio (2017)

Sony Pictures Classics: 2017

Sebastian Lelio brings his hazy glow to the story of Marina (Daniela Vega), a waitress and nightclub singer, who is grieving the loss of her boyfriend while also facing suspicion from the police that she was involved in his death. Vega’s performance is one of the best this decade with nuance and anger rolled into a mish-mash of jubilation and sadness.


God’s Own Country‘, dir. Francis Lee (2017)

Picturehouse Entertainment: 2017

Set in the Yorkshire countryside, Francis Lee’s protagonists find romance amongst premature lambs and blistering cold. Decidedly dark and moody, the film is beautifully tender with erotic sex in the mud, self-sabotage, and questions of commitment, xenophobia, and love. 


1985‘, dir. Yen Tan (2018) 

Peccadillo Pictures: 2018

1985 flew mostly under the radar but packed an emotional punch into its short runtime. Adrian, (Cory Michael Smith) returns home to his family with some news he’s reluctant to tell them. Smith and Jamie Chung, who plays Adrian’s high school best friend, are superbly matched in this tribute to a generation of LGBTQ+ people who were abandoned. Brutally emotional and superbly considered, 1985 is a true revelation.


The Miseducation of Cameron Post‘, dir. Desiree Akhavan (2018) 

Vertigo Releasing: 2018

The decade brought with it a Vice President of America who believed in conversion therapy. Akhavan’s sweet, harrowing, mature, and underrated tale about a group of young people finding each other at that one of those camps was the perfect antidote. Both politically and emotionally engaging, Akhavan blends the format of a teen comedy with the prevalent spectre of right-wing bigotry as the film found joy in the kinship of queer folk, the awkward nature of teenage sexuality, and examined the evil within those that want to convert them.


Pain and Glory‘, dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2019) 

Sony Pictures Releasing International: 2019

No list on Queer Cinema would be complete without Pedro Almodóvar and his deeply personal 2019 film about legacy, mortality, and memory was extraordinary. Through the vessel of Antoni Bandaras, Almodóvar creates a portrait of himself, his losses and his relationships with supreme precision and emotion. It is a master working at the height of his craft and it’s thrilling to watch. 


Portrait of a Lady On Fire‘, dir. Céline Sciamma (2019)

Pyramide Films: 2019

Radical and tender, Portrait of a Lady on Fire oozes with longing and passion. It’s part gothic novel and part feminist reclamation of the past. There is a trend of ‘repressed lesbian period dramas’ of late, but this film feels more modern than most movies released in 2019 with its approach to examining female autonomy and gaze, with an exceptional retelling of a famous Greek myth to-boot. A true must-see!


Honourable Mentions: And Then We Danced (2019) / End of the Century (2019) / Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018) / Sauvage (2018) / Paris 5:59: Theo & Hugo (2016) / Certain Woman (2016) / Nasty Baby (2015) / Grandma (2015) / Pride (2014) / Love is Strange (2014) / Lilting (2014) / Keep The Lights On (2012) / Kaboom (2010) 

Also Read: Rebel Without A Pulse, Art Without A Soul

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Editorials

Dear Straight Actors Who Want to ‘Play Gay’: Don’t.

November 17, 2019

There is a utopia on the horizon, distant and hazy like tarmac in the heat. It’s one where people sit around in dark rooms watching films and say, without any level of irony or ignorance, that ‘acting is acting’. Where LGBTQ+ actors are playing straight and the straights are playing gay, trans folk are playing cis-roles and everyone is blissfully equal in what they’re offered. But looking around at the dingy and grim corners of modern cinema anyone can see that we’re not there yet. We’re only squinting at blurry figures just about coming into view. 

Earlier this month the author of Call Me By Your Name, noted straight man and self-confessed paedophile, André Aciman called those that question straight actors playing gay roles ‘small-minded‘ while promoting his second book to profit off LGBTQ+ experience. In the past, Cate Blanchett said she would “fight to the death” to play gay roles, while Rachel Weisz and Matt Smith compared playing gay to playing alcoholics and heroin addicts, respectively. Alternatively, Darren Criss recently announced that his role in American Crime Story would be the last gay role he would play. “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role,” he said in an interview with Bustle. Similarly, Armistead Maupin, the gay author of Tales of the City, told the BBC he thought “a gay actor can bring something special to the role from their own experience” and that an LGBTQ+ actor would likely stay closeted to avoid getting typecast or overlooked.

Darren Criss is The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story / Credit: FX

As 2020 draws closer, the spectre of Jungle Cruise and Supernova are beginning to materialise. The former featuring Jack Whitehall’s controversial ‘openly gay’ character for Disney (who is conspicuously quiet in the films recently released trailer) and the latter, a recently wrapped dementia based film starring straight men Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as partners directed by up-and-coming straight director Harry McQueen. The announcement of both projects, once again, sparked debate. ‘IT’S CALLED ACTING,’ people cry on Twitter or in Facebook comments and yes, in that utopia, it is.  But maybe I should say it again, one more time, for the people in the back: We are not there yet. 

Earlier this year Ryan Gilbey wrote “Would there be enough out LGBT actors – brilliant, out LGBT actors, that is – to fill all these vacant parts?” in an article for The Guardian that failed to understand the crux of the issue; opportunity. LGBTQ+ actors are not often considered for straight roles under the guise that audiences won’t ‘believe them’. Out actors have routinely faced difficulty in finding work post-coming out, which has ultimately damaged their career while others are out but try to avoid the moniker of ‘gay’ altogether while straight actors don’t see gay roles in the same light. They are told that ‘playing gay’ will increase their range and potentially bring acclaim (and awards). Why? Rami Malek, Olivia Coleman, Hilary Swank, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, and countless other straight (or assumed straight) actors to be have been nominated (or, in some cases won) a slew of awards for playing LGBTQ+ roles.  

Rami Malek / Credit: ABC Studios

The continued trend of straight folk being awarded for LGBTQ+ roles is a clear indicator of why they don’t want to give them up and what we are facing. For these actors, it is an experience akin to playing an addict and they don’t care that these comparisons trivialise sexuality and frame it as an experience, a passable affliction instead of something intrinsic to someone’s identity. They frame it as a phrase, something that can be thrust upon us and then overcome with a stay in rehab or the kindness of a stranger. And, simply put, it shows that they just don’t understand. 

What do we do then? Do we stop paying to see mainstream films that censor gay sex and reduce all queer intimacy down to quick pecks? The films that are made mostly to appeal to a straight audience and feature so little LGBTQ+ content that it can be edited out entirely and only lose three minutes of its two hours and thirteen-minute runtime. The short answer is: Yes.

L to R: Félix Maritaud, Adéle Haenel, Tracy Lysette, and Tessa Thompson

Maybe it’s time to say enough is enough? To put our money and effort into the rising European stars of Félix Maritaud and Adéle Haenel, who are proof that LGBTQ+ actors can create a name for themselves in queer cinema. Or into actors like Tracy Lysette, who had a role written specifically for her in the critical and box office hit Hustlers, or Tessa Thompson who came out as bisexual in an interview with Net-A-Porter. After all, the French author Édouard Louis suggests that LGBTQ+ people could be the best actors we have to offer as they spend their lives performing to ‘to protect [themselves] from homophobia and masculine violence.’

The aforementioned utopia only shimmers into existence if we are the ones to manifest it. We can explain over and over again to straight cisgender actors that taking the only roles Hollywood will consider queer people for is a problem or we can stop paying to see these movies. We can make movie stars of LGBTQ+ actors, ask LGBTQ+ directors to hire LGBTQ+ actors, shout from the rooftops about the films that get the experience right, and chastise those that get it wrong (or those that try and water it down). We can build that utopia, brick by queer brick. 

Note: The term ‘actor’ has been used throughout this article as a gender-neutral term (as opposed to the gendered ‘actress’) and as such its use is not intended to misgender but rather to level the playing field and avoid unnecessary gender divisions. 

Also Read: Sorry We Missed You: Film & The North

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Editorials

Sorry We Missed You: Film and the North

October 31, 2019

Sorry We Missed You, the latest endeavour from Ken Loach (KesI, Daniel Blake), is a harrowing addition to Loach’s specific brand of socialist realist cinema. Featuring performances from a group of largely undiscovered actors, the film is a damning condemnation of zero-hour contracts and the current ‘gig’ culture that idealizes the entrepreneur, one who grafts alone to achieve and draws us, as a country, further away from empathy and collectivism. Set in Newcastle, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) takes up work as a delivery driver for the fictional courier service PDF. In a role in which he is considered ‘self-employed’ and finically responsible for the parcels he carries, he doesn’t ‘work for’ the company he works ‘with them’. He isn’t hired but rather asked to ‘come on board’, a manipulative twist on language to appeal to those in need. Sorry We Missed You captures working life in the North and the current state of the working-class in Britain with laser-like precision. The setting and subject also lead to a revaluation of the question: What is the relationship between film and the North? 

The North of England is largely misunderstood by those that don’t live here. The thrill of hearing a Northern accent on a night out, the obsession with gravy, and the ‘correct’ word for your evening meal are all points of fascination and humour to those who didn’t grow up above Birmingham. Over in Hollywood, that misunderstanding is even worse. There’s the age-old adage that when asked by an American where you are from in England they are surprised or confused if you don’t say London yet, films from the North have often proved to be complex and intricate, writhing with history and division, with sex and sexuality.

God’s Own Country (Credit: ORION PICTURES)

Last month, I wrote about British Romantic Comedies and how they are, to their detriment, apolitical. They ignore the issues of class, sex, race, and many others that face our country today. Cinema from the North is the exact opposite: Mike Leigh’s Peterloo told a socialist story and portrayed a massacre that most had forgotten, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor is an experimental genre-blend that explored race and gender inequality on a Bradford Estate through the experience of Andrea Dunbar, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is a rich, political, and delightfully queer story set in the Yorkshire countryside, and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is an electric story of deception and desire filled with sexuality and power.

It seems cinema and the North are perfect bedfellows yet to some if you want to experience ‘the arts’ you have to perform the pilgrimage down to London and sell your soul for a Pret A Manger wrap… but creators and artists have had enough. There is a fight to create more opportunities and indeed more stories from the North with the recent move of Channel 4’s HQ to Leeds and the current construction of a film studio in Liverpool to rival Pinewood proving a good start. If the industry in place then hopefully vital voices will come through.

A Taste of Honey (Credit: BRITISH LION PICTURES.)

When Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey (one of the most performed plays in British history and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1961) she did so after a boy trying to impress her took her to the Manchester Opera House to see a play. She wrote in a letter to theatre producer Joan Littlewood, ‘I had discovered something that means more to me than myself.’ As such, she created work that found drama and gravity in the world she came from. She found a voice and something to say and dared to push forward into a world she knew wasn’t built for her. 

Like Delaney, the North is a place talent can, if given the opportunity, thrive. It has produced writers from the working-class comedy stylings of Willy Russell to the intrigue and betrayal of Jed Mercurio. It has formed directors like Terence Davies, whose Liverpudlian self-portraits are stunning and musical. Acting-wise, it has offered some of the strongest and most memorable performances in cinematic history. This writer has issues every day knowing we live in a world in which Julie Walters did not win an Oscar for her role as the chain-smoking, brash, ballet teacher living in Thatcher’s Britain in Billy Elliot. Nor will he be able to sleep well at night ever again knowing Jane Horrocks wasn’t even nominated for her dazzling and wild performance as a shy woman with a talent for impersonating musical icons in Little Voice. He will also forever be frustrated that Maxine Peake’s talent continues to go underappreciated and that routinely that affluent actors from the South continue to gain the most acclaim

That relationship then? One in which talent has to stand out and fight for a seat at the table, to work to prove that the North is a place of art and culture, and to tackle politics and class head-on. It will strive to eviscerate British cinema’s idea of classlessness and fight to render the idea of a single ‘British accent’ entirely moot. It will not rest until the North is seen as it really is: diverse, visceral, and truly alive. 

Sorry We Missed You is released nationwide on November 1st.

Sorry We Missed You (Official Trailer)

Also Read: “Sorry We Missed You” UK Premiere Highlights & Interviews

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Reviews

Review: Monsoon [London Film Festival]

October 13, 2019

Monsoon begins at a junction. The cars pass, slowly and orderly, before mopeds and vans swirl into the mix. Chaos fills the road with no markings, no sense of order, but yet there is no catastrophe only narrow misses and swerving bikes. The camera rises up, higher and higher, enlarging the scope of the madness, of the disorder, before cutting to Kit (Henry Goulding), who sits in a taxi, on his way to a hotel. 

Kit has returned to Vietnam after 30 years in England. His family escaped during the war after his father was arrested when Kit was only six. He is back in Saigon to find a location to spread his mother’s ashes but he finds that the little he does remember of his once home is gone – the small pond behind the flat he grew up in where he used to play, has been filled in and built over and the building the flat is in is likely to be knocked down in due course. He remembers flashes, brief and small images from his short time in Saigon, but he lacks more than that. When his family fled they burnt all their family photographs to protect those closest to them, so they couldn’t be identified.  

Monsoon / Peccadillo Pictures

While in Saigon, Kit meets Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American man in Vietnam to set up his clothing company ‘Curve’ – so named because Lewis is ‘not straight’. The two meet for a drink on a rooftop bar, discussing their online dating profiles, before heading back to Kit’s hotel room. They kiss, take off their shirts, and it feels like it might be leading somewhere but the film cuts to the two men, post-sex. It’s disappointing that the sex in Monsoon is so regulated, with each scene cutting away before anything really raunchy or even tender happens. The only scene with any hint of actual sex is during a hook-up Kit has on a trip to Hanoi, as he turns his lover around and kicks aside his leg in a move of aggressive sexuality.

This is an all too common problem for queer cinema; figuring out who it is appealing to, a queer audience or a straight one? Sex scenes, like those in Call Me By Your Name or Brokeback Mountain, are short and relatively un-sexual in their sparseness to keep a straight audience interested and the former came under fire for watering down the famous ‘peach scene’ from the book. In the case of Monsoon, it feels the director and writer, Hong Khaou, wanted the sex but worried about alienating a straight audience which leaves the film feeling somewhat censored, as if there are parts missing.  Especially in contrast to the other queer film’s screening at the festival like Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced which is deeply erotic and charged, the tender nudity in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or the full-framed rawness of the sex in Lucio Castro’s End of the Century.

Goulding and Sawyers have good chemistry and their scenes together do feel the most real and warm, their flirting feels playful and sweet. Goulding’s performance in-particular is quiet and brooding most of the time which adds another string to the bow of a man who’s already been compared to Clark Gable. Yet something feels like it’s missing (and it’s not just the sex). 

Henry Goulding / PHOTO: GQ.

Hong Khaou’s debut film Lilting in 2014 was about a young gay man living in London trying to form a connection with the mother of his dead boyfriend. It was a deep and rich film that delicately unravelled itself before your eyes. In this way, Khaou’s films feel like they are about translation; of language, of emotion, of experience. They find themselves within a world of shifting cultures and personal hardships. They’re often quiet, still, and creeping. They look at disconnection and wonder what fills that gap between people. They look at loss and how it wraps itself around you and consumes you. Yet, Monsoon doesn’t quite live up to the emotional weight of Lilting nor does it seem to have the same focus or drive. It loses itself in what it’s trying to say and ultimately never quite makes its mark. It’s hampered by dialogue that is riddled with exposition. As such it never really feels like the film is in the moment and, as an audience, we’re being asked to catch up constantly. 

As emphasised by its impressive opening shot, Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is the film’s strongest asset. The slow-moving or often still camera compliments Kit’s position – stuck between England and Vietnam, between past and future. He is mysterious and doesn’t reveal his cards right away and the camera does the same, its slow pans and stationary shots of skyscrapers don’t reveal their intention immediately, but cause you to wonder and guess at their meaning in a way that feels considered and intentionally vague. Kracun, whose recent credits include the dark thriller Beast and the rave oriented Beats, is certainly one to watch.

Despite its stronger moments, Monsoon unfortunately doesn’t feel like a worthy follow-up to Lilting. Instead, it finds itself lost somewhere between romance and family drama, unable to really make an impact in either category. While the chemistry of its two leads is, at times, palpable it’s not enough to turn it into the Before Sunrise or Columbus it feels like it wants to be. 

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Monsoon will be distributed by Peccadillo Pictures.

A release date has yet to be announced.

Monsoon (Film Clip)

Also Read: Understanding The British Rom-Com

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Reviews

Review: Honey Boy [London Film Festival]

October 11, 2019

‘The only thing my dad gave me that was worth anything was pain and you want to take that away from me,’ says Otis, a former child actor who is currently attending court-ordered rehab. He is in the process of therapy, something that is being recorded to prove to the courts he is recovering and  Honey Boy was written from that exact place. 

Shia LaBeouf, once a famed child actor and now more commonly known for his performance art and various arrests, wrote the first draft of the script from rehab where he sent it to Alma Har’el, a friend and confidant (who would later become the film’s director). It was an unfinished draft, born from LaBeouf’s therapy sessions, and once LeBeouf was out of rehab the two finished it together. While this might sound like the kind of Hollywood vanity project fuelled by ego that you might expect from someone in LaBeouf’s position, it’s couldn’t be further from it. It’s tender, disarming, sympathetic, hypnotising, and raw. 

The film follows an adult Otis (Lucas Hedges) as he examines his past and his relationship with his father after being diagnosed with PTSD from his childhood. Through flashbacks, we see a younger Otis (Noah Jupe) on the set of his TV show (with scenes reminiscent of Even Stevens) and his life with his father, James (Shia LaBeouf). Their life, in a motel complex somewhere in LA, is not the life you’d expect a child star to live. Otis often walks himself home and steals food from the set. While his dad grows weed in secret by the freeway and attends AA meetings regularly. It is not the lifestyle that comes to mind when you think of the ‘Hollywood Elite’ who are so often pontificated about.

Writer and star Shia LaBeouf / Photo: Larry Busacca

This life couldn’t be further from that of the Kardashian’s or any other Hollywood ‘royalty’ we have become used to. Otis’s dad refuses to hold his hand anywhere people might see them, he doesn’t want to be seen to be soft or caring. He is an addict, four years sober, who didn’t achieve what he wanted. He is a  former clown and performer who, after an arrest and sexual assault allegation, found himself divorced and working for his prepubescent son. He is an abuser, emotionally and physically. He’s a man in pain. In some moments we feel his pain and at others, we detest him – sometimes feeling both simultaneously. We see his hurt, we see its roots and we see its reach. 

Can we inherit pain? If those around us, who raise us, are racked with hurt do we then carry that burden too? How do we take that on? How does it manifest within us? How does it hinder us, grip us, affect us? Some scientists believe that the trauma of our parents changes our genetic markers while others disagree. Either way, growing up near so much pain is bound to have an effect and Honey Boy wants to understand that effect, to inspect it, and portray it. 

Director Alma Har’el / Photo: AdAge

Har’el’s direction does just that by cutting right through to the essence in this, her fiction film debut. Her ability to jump from bombastic montages set to thumping hip-hop to quiet, sombre, introspection is masterful. She straddles the narrative and the avant-garde with ease, superbly creating a dreamlike, hazy, feel to the overall film while continually rooting it in reality. She makes the film feel like memory and reality are converging on each other, the line between them becoming hazier with each scene but then, all at once, plummeting back into certainty. She continually charms you with humour and light before shocking you with aggression and gloom. It’s LeBeouf’s world but Har’el weaves it into a tapestry that is complex and disarming. 

Har’el is also skilled with actors. LeBeouf’s performance is a career-best as he draws the character, based on his own father, in the grey areas. Outside of LaBeouf, there isn’t a dud performance to be seen. Relative newcomer Noah Jupe shines as a young boy managing his father’s temper and expectations while elsewhere Lucas Hedges continues to prove he’s one of cinema’s most interesting and versatile talents as the older Otis. FKA Twigs (in her film debut) exudes cosiness and melancholy as the girl growing up across the street from Otis, her performance is deeply rooted in physicality and quietness. Even Natasha Lyonne, though never seen on screen, provides audio cameo in one of the films funniest yet tragic scenes as Otis’s mother. 

Honey Boy, at its core, is a portrait of broken people. From those who are trying to build themselves again and those who have shattered beyond repair. It’s about addiction and the ways in which we become our parents. We watch their demise, their mistakes, and then do the same thing in a way that feels almost inevitable, unavoidable, and mythic in its tragic nature. The film itself feels like therapy for its writer but not in a way that feels solipsistic or melodramatic. It feels deeply personal and intimate yet never closed off. It feels like Honey Boy is an example of something not often seen, in which an artist abandons their ego, owns up to their mistakes, and cuts through all the noise to tell an honest, human, story.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Honey Boy is scheduled for release in December.

Also Read: The Lighthouse (Review)

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Editorials

Too Awkward For Love: Understanding the British Rom-Com

October 8, 2019

‘[R]om coms will never die THEY WILL JUST EVOLVE INTO NEW FORMS,’ one Twitter user wrote in response to series of Tik Tok videos playing out a queer romantic fantasy. It’s true, no other genre has endured the declaration it’s dead and born again as many times at the romantic comedy. It’s withered on the vine and flourished, it’s succeeded wildly and failed gloriously. It remains one of the most beloved and hated genres in cinema. Yet, when it gets it right it can soar to unimaginable heights. 

It may seem like the UK is not a perfect fit for the hopelessly romantic. Are we too worried about causing a fuss to perform grand-gestures? Do the words our grandmothers said, ‘you’ll catch your death’, stop us kissing in the rain? They didn’t use to. Once, there was a gleaming moment of splendour when the UK was a major exporter of meet-cutes, break-ups, and running to the airport. In the nineties and early noughties films like Four Weddings and a FuneralNotting HillBridget Jones’s Diaryand Love Actually enjoyed substantial box office returns and critical success. For around fifteen years the UK produced some of the most universally recognisable romantic comedies ever made. So, in a world governed by concerns around Brexit and what do we have to offer the world, have we forgotten that once we lucratively exported romantic comedies? 

To understand the British romantic comedy and its success you have to understand how the world sees Britain. The blundering brits who inhabit these films are too awkward and well-mannered for games of love, in stories that are riddled with etiquette. It’s no wonder that Hugh Grant, the angel-faced-bumble-machine, was the heartthrob of the period. Grant typified what the wider world wanted from a British man: received pronunciation, charm, and good looks. But what about British women? 

Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones (Credit: Working Title Films)

Bridget Jones offered that alternative, a woman to root for instead of a man to lust after. Renée Zellweger starred as the supposed British everywoman; awkward, clumsy, and chain-smoking. Prone to embarrassing encounters and passionate conundrums she resonated with a generation of women and so she returned in 2016, after a twelve-year hiatus. Bridget was, and still is, a symbol for the single woman; for better or worse. Some find comfort in Bridget’s fallibility, while others fling the name as an insult akin to ‘crazy-cat-lady’. There is no doubt, however, that the character is one of the most recognisable in British cinema and audiences want to see her return once more.

In Britain, we have a history of beloved female characters in romantic quandaries. The prolific writer (and star of the ten-pound note), Jane Austen revelled in tales of love won & lost (Bridget Jones herself was based on the quick-witted fan-favourite Elizabeth Bennet). Nevertheless, Austen is also famous for her male love interests. Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, for example, has been co-opted by many as a slang term for the ‘perfect man’. Yet, the two most famous iterations of Darcy (both played by Colin Firth, in the BBC Mini-series and the Bridget Jones films) are sexualised ideals of the polite, if not substantially repressed, British man; someone who is brooding, quiet, and unable to open up. 

Billie Piper and Toby Wolf in Rare Beasts (2019) (Credit: Western Edge Pictures)

Where does that leave us in 2019? The Beatles infused Yesterday was, at its strongest moments, a fairly decent romantic comedy that saw Lily James and Himesh Patel as friends who might be more. The upcoming Rare Beasts, written and directed by Billie Piper, calls itself an ‘un-romantic comedy’ and casts Piper as a career-driven single mother who falls in love with a man who holds more traditional values. The film, which is screening at the London Film Festival in October, based on its description might be willing to bend those structures we’ve come to know. Then, of course, we have Last Christmaswhich sees a man and a woman fall in love in London during the festive period set to the music of George Michael and Wham… which may be the most ‘British’ sounding film ever. 

Henry Goulding and Emilia Clarke Last Christmas (2019) (Credit: Universal Pictures, Feigco Entertainment)

There are some glaring problems within the genre, of course. The characters, for example, are all so often white, without disabilities, and almost always straight – even if Last Christmas is inspired the music of a queer icon, the trailers include no suggestion of that. Britain in these films often avoids questions of sexuality along with issues like class, political unease, race, and wealth disparity that grip our country in real life. They’re made to appeal to anglophiles over-seas by presenting these beguiling men and relatable women, the idyllic countryside locations and the rainy London streets – not to represent how it actually is.

It is true that cinema can’t always reflect the times and the argument for it as escapism can be just as valid. Though, it’s sad to watch a genre continually avoid engaging with the world or represent all those who live in it. Maybe a change is due? Queer rom-coms are in the works in America and recent British films, like Animals, show a shift in perspective in the UK. Who knows who’ll be kissing in the rain in years to come…

Also Read: Is Queer Autobiographical Cinema Subtly Political?

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Reviews

Review: The Farewell

September 20, 2019

‘Based on a true story’ are words even the most casual of movie-goers will recognise. They’re almost in-built into the DNA of modern filmmaking, no matter how loosely they’re used. Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell, however, announces it’s ‘based on an actual lie’. 

In 2013, Wang found out her grandmother (her Nai Nai) had Stage 4 Lung Cancer and was given three months to live. Her family decided not to tell Nai Nai she was sick, something that is relatively common in China, as a way to spare her the pain of knowing that her life was ending. Instead, they staged a ruse wedding as an excuse for everyone to travel home, to Changchun, and say goodbye. 

The Farwell is introspective and layered with a beautifully melancholic score by Alex Weston and gorgeous cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano. It is a rich meditation on culture, family values, the familial bond, mortality, morality, truth, and pain. It features a cast of talented actors, who imbue the family at the centre of the story with nuance and complexity, led by a dazzling Awkwafina as Billi, a Chinese-American woman who acts as a stand-in for Wang. 

The Farewell / A24

As Billi returns to China she is forced to confront the parts of herself that have shifted since she left when she was six-years-old. It was a move that left her feeling disjointed. In China, she feels American, she speaks a language she can’t read and every so often doesn’t understand certain words or phrases. In America, she feels lonely. Her family and her happiest memories are from her childhood in Changchun. She feels as if her connection to her home is dwindling, fizzling out before her eyes. The house she lived in was sold, her Nai Nai’s old house is long gone since the neighbourhood was renovated, and she lost her Grandfather when she was younger and was unable to attend his funeral. When she hears Nai Nai’s diagnosis, she fears she’ll lose her too and her connections to her childhood, and to China, will be severed for good. 

Billi wants this visit, the one that might be her last with Nai Nai, to mean something but she’s not sure it can if Nai Nai doesn’t know the truth. In western culture, we are obsessed with knowing everything, obsessed with the truth no matter how much it hurts. We cannot conceive, even for a second, that knowing it all might not be in our best interests. We have difficulty embracing the mere idea of collectivism, as our identities are often built around the western ideal of individualism and our societies exist around the self, our histories are built on it. We live our lives within family units and social groups but ultimately we live for ourselves, first and foremost, but The Farwell lays out its delicate counter-argument. 

‘In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole,’ Billi’s uncle reminds her, that Chinese culture and family values differ significantly from her American ones. It is then, their final act of kindness, of love, to carry the emotional burden of illness for a family member. To let them live their final few months without that knowledge, without the emotional weight of such news. As the old phrase goes: what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Or, as Billi’s mother says, ‘When people get cancer they die… it isn’t the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.’ 

Writer and director Lulu Wang / Photo credit: Elias Roman

The Farwell is not unaccompanied this year either, as 2019 has been a busy year for directors exploring their personal histories, with the past two months alone seeing the release of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Yet, even in a somewhat crowded field, Wang’s film feels distinctly unique. It’s deeply particular and has emotional heft that writhes beneath the surface. The evocations of childhood, Billi’s grandfather, and her inner conflicts are exquisitely drawn yet Wang deftly weaves in moments of comedy that are tender, perfectly contrasting the sombreness of the occasion – often boldly directly juxtaposing the two. 

The Farwell is uprooting in the best ways. It modifies your thought process, dissects your preconceived notions and challenges you to let them go. It’s quiet and looming, with each character being worthy of their own two-hour film to see how they respond to the lie. The Farewell is the kind of film that demonstrates what cinema can be (powerful, moving, and specific) especially when diverse creators are able to handle their own stories, ones they draw from personal experience. It’s clear that Wang is a bold cinematic voice, one that has something distinct and nuanced to say, with a long career ahead of her. So, rather ironically, The Farewell feels like a significant arrival. 

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

The Farewell (Official Trailer)

The Farewell is in cinemas nationwide on the 20th September.

Also Read: The Unlikely Sucess of A24

Editorials

Is Queer Autobiographical Cinema Subtly Political?

August 30, 2019

‘It’s about my inability to love… but I’m fine now,’ says Benjamin, the titular filmmaker at the heart of queer comedian Simon Amstell’s latest film. It’s a film about intimacy and it’s challenges, about pressure and it’s ramifications, and it finds itself in an interesting position. It’s at the intersection between two genres; autobiographical cinema (a genre that is ever-expanding and gaining popularity) and queer cinema (a genre that has experienced a major boom since the nineties).

Autobiographical cinema is easy to explain, it’s a film based on the writer-directors own personal experience, but ‘queer cinema’ can be harder to define. In their book ‘Queer Images’, film critics Benshoff and Griffin suggest there are at least five ways to categorise queer film. Their first two categorisations, about subject matter and authorship, are the most commonly adhered to. If a film concerns itself with queer characters and focuses on a queer narrative, generally it is considered a queer film. However, if it was written, directed, or produced by queer people (regardless of subject matter), then it could also be considered queer. Often, these two things overlap with queer filmmakers commonly making films about the queer experience. 

It is this authorship though that defines Autobiographical Queer Cinema, as the filmmaker infuses a narrative with their own personal experience which will be, inherently, queer. For example, the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman’s art film News From Home (1977) features images of New York City played over Ackerman reading letters from her protective mother. The narrative itself isn’t queer but Ackerman’s identity as a queer woman could classify it as such. The same could be said of the work of Terence Davies, whose films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) or The Long Day Closes (1992) create a tableau of his childhood and family life in Liverpool during the 40’s and 50’s. They’re not explicitly queer, but his viewpoint is. 

Simon Amstell, writer and director of Benjamin (2018) (Photo: HARRY CARR)

Benjamin (2018) is an insight into Amstell’s own fears. As Benjamin, an avatar for Amstell himself reconciles his anxieties about the release of his second film, a romantic comedy based on a Buddhist philosophy of the self, he finds himself drawn to a French musician called Noah (Phénix Brossard). In their relationship, Benjamin is needy, insecure, and unable to fully commit but not really able to let go either (some of which has been addressed in Amstell’s stand up and subsequent memoir, Help). 

Amstell finds himself in territory that has been explored by filmmakers before; the anxiety that comes with revealing your art to the world. The same issue plagued Federico Fellini with  (1963), which in turn inspired Bob Fosse and Woody Allen’s All That Jazz (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980), respectively. Amstell himself, in a Q&A at the London Film Festival in 2018, cited Allen as an influence on Benjamin.‘It’s a bunch of people looking for love in a major city and it’s funny,’ he said. He also referenced Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), from which he found the blend of comedy and drama a point of interest. 

Desiree Akhavan, creator and writer of The Bisexual (Channel 4) and, the feature film, Appropriate Behaviour (Peccadillo Pictures) (Photo: TEREZA CERVENOVA)

It stands to reason that a lot of queer filmmakers have found inspiration in the work of cis-straight-white-male filmmakers because it is what they have been exposed to. Desiree Akhavan’s 2012 feature Appropriate Behaviour, for example, shares a lot in common with the Woody Allen comedies from the seventies and eighties, as does her TV show The Bisexualbut what makes it different is her identity as a queer Iranian woman and the experience she brings to the table. 

What does it mean then, when queer people who have contextually absorbed the mechanics of this type of film make their own? Is their response, their queering of the conventions, political? Is it postmodern or more explicitly post-heterosexual? The idea of postmodern art is that it reacted to the ideas and values of modernism, which had maintained dominance in the middle of the 20th Century. Could this style of queer filmmaking be a reaction to the kinds of films made by straight men that have enjoyed dominance since the dawn of cinema? 

There is a political connotation to any queer film. In a time in which rights can be stripped away and hate crimes are on the rise, the idea of exploring queer life in a nuanced and tender way becomes a counter-argument that people wish didn’t need to be made; that queer people are people too with intricate lives and not just statistics on the evening news. 

Benjamin, and films like it, subtly challenge the way we absorb queer identities. They are influenced by a cis-straight-white-male style of filmmaking, they even share similarities in subject matter and character types, however, they stem from a queer experience and that is key. The autobiographical nature of these films adds a level of visibility as if to say ‘This is how queer people live and it cannot be denied because this is my experience’. They use their own experience, and the building blocks of hetero-normative film, to create something that can be quietly political, distinctly queer, and specifically true.

Also Read: The Rise of Nigerian-British Filmmakers