The Punk Singer (2013)

I love almost everything about this, and its subject Kathleen Hanna, except the music. Though her domain is punk rock, it reminds me of this feminist rap group I saw open for Tegan and Sara. I’m sure I’d agree with them on a lot of stuff politically, but the music itself was completely unpalatable to me. But that is just musical taste. This is why insisting on the subjectivity of art is important to me because I don’t want to be held accountable for rendering some authoritative verdict on a piece of art, which would do a disservice both to myself (perhaps having to equivocate my own response) and to the art.

Thankfully, this being a documentary and not an album, the quality of the music isn’t of essence, rather the context of the music, both what formed it and what impact it had. Watching this film I thought a lot about GamerGate, a recent movement as such targeting women in the video game industry and highlighted the misogyny present there that can make it a community unwelcoming to women. The documentary does a pretty good job showing some of the ways the music scene did that as well and some areas where Hanna fought back. Something as simple as moshing presented a hostile environment, and in speaking out politically as a feminist through her songs and actions, Hanna was the target of hate and threats. There is also some interesting things about how the media coverage of women in music was problematic. It all strikes a familiar note.

The final third goes into a different, more personal direction, getting toward the answer posed at the start of why Hanna, this dominant force in feminist punk, disappeared from the scene. I won’t spoil for those who don’t know but it is an emotionally powerful look at how one’s idealized self can sometimes be undone by human frailties. It is a demonstration of just how hard it is to be a feminist icon because there are a lot of symbolic expectations that come with that. Like the punk genre of music, the documentary certainly has some rough, lo-fi aspects, but it does pack a pretty powerful punch.

B

What If (2014)

What If, a non-romantic comedy about Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) falling for Chantry (Zoe Kazan) but not being able to do anything about it as she has a long-term boyfriend. This is a conundrum I know well (whether the hold-up be unavailability or lack of reciprocated interest) and it is a challenge worth considering because as much as positive thinking types stress not to fear rejection because it doesn’t have consequences, sexual interest isn’t consequence free. Even though it is the most natural thing in the world, we don’t seem to have figured out a good way to deal with the fact of sexual interest in a non-sexual relationship that allows that relationship to still thrive. As famously postulated in When Harry Met Sally, “the sex part always gets in the way.”

I’ve had the privileged to know a great many exceptional women, smart, beautiful, fiercely independent. These wonderful traits are things that draw me to want to be friends with them, but also make me want more and it is a constant struggle and I think What If does a great job handling the nuance. It does so in a slightly over-the-top way with both real and fantasy plot elements that push realism, which make it easier to accept the improbabilities of the genre. It really succeeds based on the highly charismatic cast and sharp dialogue, namely from the trio of Radcliffe, Kazan and Adam Driver but even with the rest, it is exceptionally cast.

If there is one gripe, it is that Wallace’s plight isn’t that troubled. He’s had many girlfriends and has many options, his problem of finding himself on the outs is pretty confined to this relationship, the problem for him is he is caught too much on this one ideal woman. That is less sympathetic than someone more lacking in success or options. I pray that in my own life, if my Zoe Kazan is unavailable, I will not be too fixated to know that when life gives you Megan Park, you fuck Megan Park.

B+

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg is quietly becoming one of the better filmmakers working, and this despite a workrate that exceeds even Woody Allen over the past few years. If my November has been characterized by stuffy epics, Swanberg’s films, generally under 90 minutes and with a distinct lack of formality, are the perfect antidote. While the mumblecore movement, from which Swanberg emerged, is sometimes associated with being so improvisational and authentic as to feel slight, each of the past three Swanberg releases I’ve seen (Drinking Buddies and All The Light In The Sky) have had just enough of a hand guiding the naturalism to hit on meaningful parts of humanity. If I had to pick, I’d say AtLitS is my favorite, with its portrayal of strains on a woman in Hollywood hitting a complex age in the industry, but Happy Christmas goes somewhat back to the thematic well that Drinking Buddies hit, with a tension between carefree types and more organized ones.

Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are proper adults now with a young son, but some of the strain of the way the role of mature adults is imposed on them because of having a child. Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay after her relationship falls apart and she provides a source of chaos and immaturity. In this she often provides an example of how problematic that immaturity is, especially in the context of parental responsibility, but it also provides a needed injection for Jeff and Kelly to find a place in their lives for a little more freedom. This manages a relatable nuance while never feeling tedious or obvious. I did feel a bit of sympathy for Jenny, even though she’s the clear problem child of the film. Watching the way the film cuts around her use of alcohol I couldn’t help but think what an editor could do with the footage of my life to make things look much worse than I think they are. Anyway, time for me to dig further into Swanberg’s filmography.

B

A Way of Life (2004)

One of the trickiest things to manage in cinema is making unlikable characters sympathetic. A Way of Life, the debut film from Belle director Amma Asante, is centered on Leigh (Stephanie James), a young mother reliant on government support and her brother’s gang of petty criminals. She is very abrasive (it was hard for me to avoid thinking of Andrea Arnold and the prickly Mia from Fish Tank, though as a young mother she is more like the lead from Wasp), and it is especially hard to watch the racism spewed by her and those around her. Yet, even if she isn’t a superstar mother, her love for her daughter ultimately does connect you to the character. All these other things, her lashing out, opens up as kind of a primal maternal reaction to both real and perceived threats to her ability to be mother.

There is a pointed comment here. Even in a more robust welfare state in the UK, we see how society is kind of failing Leigh as a mother, never really giving her enough to thrive. Instead, it gives just enough that society feels it can blame her for not being good enough. There are obviously situations where society needs to step in on the behalf of a child, but this cautions us against rush to judgment. While I think it is a bit less successful overall, the film’s handling of racism does at least remind us of the way that economic uncertainty, rather than uniting the underclasses, can often cause tensions, especially surrounding race (or, especially in the US, matters of religiosity). There is a gut punch moment in the film that kind of speaks to similarities in experience, blinded by racial animus.

As a piece of filmmaking, this is rougher, and more inconsistent than the precision Asante would demonstrate with Belle (or that Arnold has done with gritty realism) but it is ultimately a strong, compelling work. With two such films under her belt, Asante is definitely a director to watch going forward.

B

Olympia (1938)

First, apologies for my disappearance. I’ve been reviewing films but just not getting them posted…I’ll try to get caught up.

Part 1:

I’m pretty sure the internet has ruined the Olympics. Watching this two hour summary broadcast of the 1936 Olympics it is kind of surprising how much is packed in, but yet with how much detail. Yes, theoretically a lot of non-competitors are cut out and yes, sometimes the events are sliced up enough that you don’t retain a great handle on what is going on (though part of the blame for this is the lack of fancy graphic technology). But the thing that has ruined the Olympics is how accessible results are. Even though this particular Olympiad is almost 80 years old, I didn’t know the outcomes so often the events were actually pretty gripping in how they were presented. Admittedly this production only captures the classical track and field events, not the mass of additional sports that have been added to the tally, but there is something nice about having everything in a tight package. Modern Olympiads are scattered to the wind of a dozen cable channels at all hours of the day. Even if you try to watch the more cultivated tape-delayed prime-time displays it is a painful slog of commercials and puff pieces. Riefenstahl cuts to the heart of the matter and it is surprisingly satisfactory…if you combined that efficiency with modern graphics and a touch more space for context or coherence and it would be a much more satisfactory way to get back to that natural element of sport, especially national competition, that makes the Olympics such an alluring concept every two years (until the aforementioned spoiling, commercials and excess ruins it).

But this is a film, not a sports broadcast. In this respect it has two primary attributes, both tied to its placement within Nazi Germany. For example, the opening ceremony’s entry of countries, typically so dreadful starts to feel pretty creepy, not just when the overtly fascist countries walk by with full Nazi salute, but even the other countries. There’s just something about a military-style parade that gives me an odd feeling. Probably my favorite thing in this part is watching Hitler watch, and react, to the Games. The behavior is common enough, excitement at victory for his country, disappointment with defeat, but everything is different when you’re Hitler.

Ultimately more substantial is the place of race. Certain overt, and frankly unnecessary to anyone with eyes, callouts of race in the commentary definitely place it in a different time or culture, but the film itself is quite honest in showing how much Jesse Owens and the other black athletes kicked butt. Released two years after the Olympics, I suppose Germans had gotten over the performance at that part, but there is a surprising honesty about it. Instead of showcasing a master race, it perhaps unintentionally helps mark a symbolic turning point, a loss of dominance coming from a breaking of the controls that allowed white people to paint themselves as superior. Still, moving back into the film’s unintentional humor, perhaps the best moment on race is after Owens sets a World Record in the 100 meter dash only for it to be discounted because he had a wind at his back. Typical of the white man to come up with a bullshit excuse to deny recognizing the achievements of a minority (though Owens did get the gold if not the record).

Part II:

If any part of this film (or films, if one insists) that could perhaps be claimed as tilting toward propaganda in promotion of the aryan race, it is the opening of this film and its female gaze appreciation of a pristine assemblage of sporting men, having completed running, in a state of undress. This also is one of only a few places in this part that really feels like it justifies separation and a title indicating a focus on beauty. For the bulk of this second part, it feels like more of the same, though now with those sports that mostly fall outside the track and field context. A few of them, like gymnastics and diving are perhaps more aesthetic competitions but ultimately I feel like the divide is minimal. There does seem to be a more abstract approach to the coverage of many of the events so as sports broadcast it is less effective.

The tricky thing about the artistry of Olympia is that it is hard to appreciate revolutionary technique decades later when the revolutionary has been adopted as the mundane. With a lot of research I could get an exact sense of what is revolutionary about it, but I wouldn’t really feel it. There were more moments in this part that were bold enough to break through this and stand out and ultimately I can see why someone with a more scholarly and technical approach to cinema would value this film particularly highly. But in terms of the narratives of the games that stood out in the first part, this one seemed a lot less interesting and it started feeling a bit long in the tooth. I certainly don’t see much in the film (in this version, apparently early versions in Germany did cut a lot of the Owens stuff) to feel the need to write it off as technical craft in service of something terrible, like Birth of a Nation or, apparently, Triumph of the Will. On the whole I’d say a decent time was had, even though I wouldn’t see myself revisiting it or claiming it as a favorite.

Viridiana (1961)

This is a challenging film, and I can’t claim a partiality for being challenged, preferring to feel inspired by articulate clarity. Still, whereas Under The Skin is a film that provoked too little (I do think that is a film I’ll have to go back to), Viridiana provoked quite a bit, but the pieces don’t go together snugly.

The first half, where Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) visits her uncle and benefactor Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), seems like a pretty clear condemnation of the Catholic Church and probably Franco Spain’s patriarchy. When Viridiana subsequently takes up the mission of direct service to those in need, it seems to be an act castigating organized Christianity for its failure to remain committed to the true purpose. This is all very interesting but the turn taken in the second half leaves me unsettled, both in interpretation and in part because the second half gets a bit anarchic and disrupts my desire for order. Is this chaos a warning of what would happen if Franco were to lose power? This kind of pro-authoritarian statement hardly seems the kind that Bunuel would make. Alternatively, maybe it is casting further doubt on the entire notion of self-sacrifice or even charity. An ending that hints at the sexual revolution of the late 60s and perhaps a rise of hedonistic approaches may well confirm this. It makes for a coherent through-line, though a somewhat depressing one that makes me feel less engaged.

As a film to spark discussion (and I hope we get a couple people watching this month such that we might get a spoiler thread going) it is quite well enough. It does feel a bit like a film where the discussion is more rewarding than the actual film. Even as I was intrigued by the ideas I wasn’t actually that invested in the story or the characters and didn’t feel in awe of the filmmaking in any notable way. This fits into a type of viewing of which I’m certainly appreciative, but not something that would lodge the film among those I champion myself.

B

It Felt Like Love (2013)

There is nothing more lonely than being the third wheel (or relevant odd number to a group of couples). Even if you aren’t otherwise love hungry, just being surrounded by their little romantic gestures is enough to throw one’s mood out of whack. Add to that the pressure of adolescence, with its keen need to fit into an identity, and the feeling that others are going places you aren’t makes it that much more isolating. Let’s just say that this isn’t the most rational state of mind and for LIla (Gina Piersanti), it leads to pursuits that aren’t exactly the most healthy or nurturing.

This is a decidedly small film but it is well measured. I liked one set of scenes involving Lila and her friend Chiara’s dance practice. Even here Lila seems slightly out of place amid three other girls who seem older and just have a more sensuous movement. It matches a bit with her attempts at sexuality…her approach is based on imitation rather than any passion (even the naive, idealistic passion of youth). This is just one of many nice moments and Piersanti is strong here in the kind of performance Carey Mulligan (to whom I feel she bears a bit of a resemblance) might give…bordering on too understated, though in a way that didn’t irk me as Mulligan has from time to time..

B

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