Posts tagged ‘movies’

Queen of Hearts: An interview Yellow Rose producer Cecilia R. Mejia

By storm, Yellow Rose, 2020

Yellow Rose (dir. Diane Paragas) is currently in the midst of its theatrical run in the US after taking the Asian American film festival circuit by storm in 2019. I talked with producer Cecilia R. Mejia about the film’s significance to herself and to the Asian American community at large.

BA: So it’s pretty exciting, to get theatrical distribution.

CM: When we got bought by Sony, it was exciting. And then with COVID, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but Sony said, we’re gonna do it anyway. So it’s been like a little weird, because we don’t know what the box-office numbers would have been if people felt safer to go to cinemas. But conversely, we also don’t know if they would have put us in that many theaters if COVID wasn’t happening.

BA: It’s funny because I had a film (Love Boat: Taiwan) that was playing at a lot of the same festivals as Yellow Rose, and it was always sold out before I could get a ticket. And it always won all the awards. I remember saying, “Yellow Rose is playing with my movie again–oh, well, there goes all the awards!” (laughs)

I teach Asian American film history, so that’s another reason I was super excited about this movie, because it’s a Fil-Am film, And the last Filipino American movie that I remember being in theaters might have been The Debut back in like 2000.

CM: I think they they also did it themselves–they self-distributed.

BA: That’s right, so it’s different because you got a major distribution deal. Are you the first Filipino American film to do that? Probably HP Mendoza did more like an indie route. He definitely wasn’t with Sony.

CM: I think it’s safe to say that we’re the first by major studio, so it’s super exciting to have that backing.

Music, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: What do you think contributed to you being able to get that kind of deal?

CM: I think some of it was the music. What makes our our film quite different is there’s the added element of the music and Sony also does music, so they also have the soundtrack that they’re pushing. I think what was appealing to them was, here’s this really interesting story about a community that’s never really seen on screen, and there is this element of country music, which is very popular.

BA: And Lea Salonga is in it too, right?

CM: Yes, she’s probably the most well-known Filipina in the world, along with Manny Pacquiao. She has a huge following. I think people really fall for Eva (Noblezada) too. People say to me, I feel like we’ve found a star.

BA: I’ve only heard good things about the movie. I mean, a film can be popular, but there’s always someone who’s hating on it. And I’ve never heard any hate for this movie.

CM: I know! We had a great festival run. We couldn’t have asked for a better opening than at Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival.

BA: How do you feel about like this giant Asian American film festival circuit? And how did that help out with getting more visibility for the movie?

CM: I think it helped a lot. I actually studied Asian American Studies in school, but I hadn’t really collaborated that much with other groups outside of Filipino Americans. And I thought, “I need to do that.” I feel like if we had been in those big festivals (like Tribeca), the film might not have been embraced the way that it was or understood the way that it was. It was just embraced by every community that we showed it in. And I just feel like it was nice to introduce some of our people and our crew members to the world of Asian film festivals because they hadn’t been part of any of that.

So I think I think it helped us because it gave us this boost and it helped build this community. I think the traction that we were getting at every festival was getting some buzz–people were talking about our film. Every time we were we were somewhere there was so much buzz.

BA: Yes, I think it was the buzziest movie last year at Asian American film festivals.

Buzziest, Yellow Rose, 2020

CM: Yes, and around this time of the year the festivals seem to all be around the same time. We had to divide and conquer–Diane was in Hawaii and San Diego. And I went to Philadelphia, Vancouver, Houston. It was like this whole circuit. And it was interesting, because we were all texting each other, “I think we won!”

BA: When you made the movie, I can’t imagine that you thought that it would be so popular. Do you remember what you were thinking when you started working on the film? Why did you decide you wanted to do this story?

CM: The backstory was that I have been working on this for almost a decade with Diane (Paredes), the director and writer. She herself has been working on this for more than 15 years and she had just sort of given up at some point and started her career as a commercial director, did a documentary. And then she decided,  “I want to tell the story.” I was working with the Philippine American Legal Defense Fund at the time, was just out of grad school and I wanted to embed myself more in the public policy world. I was also working in and out of the UN, signing up people for DACA and working with Jose Antonio Vargas. And Diane came to our office to do research. She said, “I’m doing a film on an undocumented Filipino immigrant who loves country music,” and she showed me the look book. And I was so intrigued by it, because I’ve always been a lover of films, especially indie film. I didn’t think it was possible for me to infiltrate or be part of that world. So when she was showing it to me, I was really fascinated–I had never met a Filipino filmmaker before. So she asked me, “Do you want to do help me do research on it?”

So I was helping her and it snowballed. I was working on a really short documentary about undocumented Filipino immigrants who were detained, which we used as research. And then we were writing grants, and I was helping her reach out to the Filipino community and reaching out to different people. As the years were rolling on I started working as a full-time producer with her.

You mentioned The Debut–I had never seen a film that represented us since The Debut. I was waiting for something like that and so that was one of the driving forces for me–the whole backstory of a girl trying to find a home and understanding that experience from that perspective. So my goal was always to get the movie made, that was always kind of in my brain.

Changing culture, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: Is there anything else that you personally really have gotten out of this experience? How has it changed your life?

CM: If I hadn’t worked on this film think I probably would be in some sort of government position, or heading towards public policy. But I’ve come to realize, especially in the last three years working with PJ (Raval) that there’s this medium of art and activism that is quite powerful. And if you watch someone like PJ navigate what he’s doing with his documentary Call Her Ganda, you see the impact of it. So this whole experience has helped me define where it is I want to go. It’s melded the things that I love most, as far as work is concerned–art, education, and philanthropy.

I think for most people film is a medium that reaches almost everyone. Whereas in public policy, you have to play politics more, and it’s also such a huge system. And you have to be like an ambassador or someone who works closely with  an ambassador to get anything really done, otherwise, you’re just sort of kind of moving the machine and absorbing information. Whereas I think with film you’re able to do stuff quicker.

BA: Even though it takes like five years to finish a movie. (laughs)

CM: It’s not just this whole traditional medium of film, but art in general, I think, that has a way of changing culture in a way that nothing else can.

My goal is for people to leave the theater after watching this film and changing the way they think about immigration and about how they experience the Filipino community.

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BA: Is there anything else you want to add before we finish?

CM: Yeah, there’s this. There was a review we’d read early on that was clearly written by a white woman. And she said that Yellow Rose was a white savior type of movie, because we have a lot of white characters. And I thought that was such an unfair comment, because I don’t think she did the research about who was behind the film. I also thought it was a dangerous review, because it also deters people from wanting to see the film, and supporting a community like ours, supporting filmmakers like Diane. So I thought, you know, how dangerous and irresponsible for a reviewer to do that. I don’t think people know the Filipino community, which is why maybe she said that, because she has no familiarity with it. So maybe since this month is Filipino American History Month, people maybe need educate themselves on who the Filipino American community is.

We had generally great reviews for the most part, but when I read that review, I thought, maybe because she saw Sony was behind it, maybe she didn’t know the backstory of how long it took for this movie and that it was actually the Filipino community that that funded this film. Or how historic it is to put Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga in one film together, and someone like Princess Punzalan who’s an icon to the Filipino community, and the fact that Diane is the director and writer, and that this was a Filipino American-led film.

I think that that’s that’s something that mainstream viewers can’t understand, why it’s so important that these movies are there for us. It means more than just paying money for a ticket and watching something. We have our hearts and souls invested in these films.

BA: I just I just feel like every Asian American film that gets finished is like a miracle, honestly.

CM: Yeah, And I hate that some people say, well, we already had The Farewell. So literally, there’s that (Asian American film) for this decade. We’re two totally different stories!

Yellow Rose is currently showing at theaters across the US.

October 30, 2020 at 5:05 am Leave a comment

Marry The Night: 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Stylized, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

NOTE: Because of the crunch of completing Love Boat: Taiwan for the past six months or so I’m very behind on my postings here. Starting with this entry I’m going to try to catch up as best I can with the backlog, so apologies for the anachronistic timings.

This past March I took my first trip back to Hong Kong in nearly two years, after I spent last year dealing with a life-threatening illness, for the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Because this year there were no weekday matinee screenings, with programming most days beginning after 6pm, my screening schedule was somewhat less frenetic than in past years, but I still saw many great movies in just under a week of viewing. In no particular order here are some of the films I caught.

 

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Sharper, G-Affairs, 2019

G-Affairs (2019), Lee Cheuk-pan’s directorial debut, is an interesting amalgamation of styles and tropes from past and present Hong Kong cinema, but with a sharper edge than many recent commercial films from the territory. Sex, crime, violence, and corruption permeate the proceedings as this bleak and nihilistic view of Hong Kong society follows several characters including a corrupt cop (Chapman To), a world-weary prostitute (Huang Lu), and a troubled teenaged student (Hanna Chan) whose teacher sexually exploits her. The film implicates those with power and authority who continually fail the younger characters, suggesting the betrayal of Hong Kong’s youthful dreams in the decades following the 1997 handover.

 

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Backstage, First Night Nerves, 2019

A completely different sort of Hong Kong movie, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves (2019) is an excellent example of what used to be called a women’s film, with a female-centric plot and strong women characters. Sleek and assured, Kwan’s backstage drama, his first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Cantopop divas Sammi Cheng and Gigi Lai as rival actresses. The film includes clever dialogue that references the tensions between Hong Kong and China and harkens back to the heyday of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

 

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Complex, Everybody Knows, 2019

Everybody Knows (2019), Asghar Farhadi’s latest joint, is as usual full of moral ambiguity and complexity but a bit more plotty than his other films, including his Oscar-winners A Separation and The Salesman. A family reunion at a wedding in Spain dredges up past secrets and unresolved conflicts that come to a head when the daughter of one of the attendees is kidnapped. As usual Farhadi creates finely drawn, complex and ambiguous characters full of flaws and virtues, and draws out excellent performances from his cast, most notably the outstanding turn by Javier Bardim. His co-star and fellow international star Penelope Cruz is also good, although at times a bit too florid in her rendering of a mother desperately seeking her disappeared daughter. The screening I attended at HKIFF proved why seeing movies in a theater will always be superior to watching them online as the audience was totally into the film and gasped and laughed at the plot twists and reveals, thus enacting that ineffable cinema viewing experience.

 

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Iconic, Barber Takes a Wife, 1947

The festival also featured a clutch of four restored films starring the iconic Shanghainese actress Li Lihua. I was able to catch two of them including Barber Takes a Wife, a beautiful and charming screwball comedy from 1947. Full of snappy clothes and snappy dialog, led by the queen of the arched eyebrow Li Lihua, who is vivacious and charismatic, the film reflects the sheen and sophistication of pre-revolution Shanghai.  In contrast, Bright Day (dir. Cao Yu, 1948) is full of social realism. There’s a bit too much exposition at the start but the movie eventually resolves itself well. Li is not quite as radiant as in Barber Takes a Wife but she is nonetheless lively and engaging. Director Cao’s background was in theater and the film is somewhat less cinematic than it could be, though there are flashes that are more filmic in the use of camera, lighting, and editing.

 

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Pranking, Hidden Man, 2018

After my viewing of Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man (2018) at the film festival I thought it was a mess of a movie and I feel asleep despite (maybe because of) the film’s overblown action and hyperactive structure? Eddie Peng plays a similar role as Lee Byung-Hun in the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, a returning expat who fled to the US as a child to escape violence and who is on a mission to avenge the deaths of those close to him. But I thought that Hidden Man never found its focus and jumped maniacally from person to place to topic, and that the characters were shallowly drawn. I also thought that the anachronistic cultural references and puns seemed forced and overly smirky.

But although I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it, on the recommendation of Ross Chen from lovehkfilm.com I watched it again on the plane ride back home from Hong Kong. Somehow it was better the second time around once I realized that Jiang Wen is a big joker who is pranking his audience throughout the movie. Some of the action choreography is quite good too and Eddie Peng looks good with his shirt off. And the way the film casually kills off major characters is very interesting, as if Jiang is making a mockery of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

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Vulnerable, Eight Taels of Gold, 1989

The festival also included a focus on the legendary Hong Kong actor, producer, director, and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who is probably most famous for his collaborations with his “brothers” Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in classic martial arts films such as The Prodigal Son, Wheels On Meals, and Project A. I caught his starring turn in Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet drama Eight Taels of Gold (1989), which is really the best movie ever. Touching, vulnerable, and beautifully directed by Cheung, the film showcases Sammo’s acting chops as he plays a Chinese expat who’s spent many years in the US whose relationship with his cousin (Sylvia Chang) becomes complicated when he accompanies her to her wedding in their home village in China. Poignant, emotional, and humanistic, the film focuses on different side of Hung that contrasts with his more familiar comedic martial arts/action persona.

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Bold, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

Xiang Zi’s debut feature, A Dog Barking At The Moon (2019) is a stylized film that also has strong characters and an interesting plotline about a Chinese woman returning home to her dysfunctional family. Zi makes some bold stylistic choices, including theatrical interludes and overly mannered camera placements, and for the most part they work as they are self-conscious without being distracting. However, the narrative is very full and includes repressed sexual longing, homophobia, and cult indoctrinations, among other angsty developments. But the mother’s attraction to the cult and her ultimate motivations are believable and the Zi’s risky directorial decisions work more often than they don’t.

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Conventional, A Long Goodbye, 2019

A Long Goodbye (2019), a family melodrama from Japan, is stylistically the opposite of A Dog Barking At The Moon. Director Nakano Ryota’s film, which follows a family as its patriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, is conventionally presented and relies on strong acting and invisible direction for its impact. Leaning towards tearjerker, it skates close to melodrama without actually fully falling into the abyss.

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Groundbreaking,Varda by Agnes, 2019

Fittingly, the last film I saw at this year’s festival was Varda by Agnes (2019), which was a brilliant and prescient elegy to the groundbreaking nouvelle vague filmmaker wherein Varda herself looks back on her long and storied career. As well as being a noted director Varda was also an accomplished photographer and visual artist—later in life she worked in multi-channel media installations. I saw this a day after Varda’s death and it was an outstanding self-tribute that provided a fascinating look into the director’s creative process.

Postscript: As I write this in June 2019 the people of Hong Kong have been protesting and demonstrating against a draconian extradition law that may be a turning point in the territory’s relationship with its overlords in Beijing. Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its “one country, two systems” existence, which has already been severely diminished, or will Beijing further erode the civil liberties of the restive region? As the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past couple weeks have proven, Hong Kong isn’t going down without a fight.

June 15, 2019 at 5:29 am Leave a comment

New Power Generation: Jia Zhangke and Lunar New Year films 2019

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Jiang hu, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

This has been an interesting few weeks in Chinese-language cinema screenings here in the Bay. This is due in part to the recent Lunar New Year/Spring Festival holiday in China and related territories, during which a whole slew of new movies were released to capitalize on the extended vacays of most people during that time. Because of the glut in product and the large Chinese-speaking population in the Bay Area, a select few of those releases made it across the Pacific to San Francisco movie houses. Coupled with an extended series of films by one of China’s premier arthouse directors, this meant that I managed to catch many Sinophone films in the month of February.

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Cameos, Missbehavior, 2019

I started my Lunar New Year viewings with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Missbehavior, one of two Hong Kong films that made it to San Francisco in February. (Sadly, I missed the other one, Felix Chong’s action thriller Integrity, due to scheduling conflicts). Pang is Hong Kong’s 21st century bad-boy auteur who’s racked up a number of well-received hits including Isabella, Vulgaria, Aberdeen, and his Love In A Puff series that stars Miriam Cheung and Shawn Yue. Miss Behavior is a low-budget quickie that carries on in the best tradition of New Year’s films, with a big cast with many famous people making cameos, a lighthearted comic tone, and a lowbrow sensibility including an extended sequence of the glamorous Dada Chen discussing her bowel movements. Though it’s not one of Pang’s deepest or most thoughtful films (the setup involves a group of friends frantically trying to locate a bottle of breast milk) the narrative  is actually very well-constructed and it moves along at a good clip, briskly shuffling its many characters in and out and climaxing with a free-for-all in a big ol’ shopping mall after hours.

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Spectacular, The Wandering Earth, 2019

On the other end of the production-values spectrum is China’s very first foray into the big-budget science fiction genre, The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo). Based on a short story by well-known Chinese author Liu Cixin, the movie is a big, spectacular piece of moviemaking that rivals anything that Hollywood has put out lately. Although there are no aliens, the film does include huge vistas of spinning planets, individuals at peril in space and planetside, spaceships and other hardware exploding, random science-babble, and other markers of every sci-fi movie of recent vintage. The production design is also on point, portraying an Earth of the near future as dark, chaotic, and polluted (not unlike modern-day Beijing).

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Collectivism, The Wandering Earth, 2019

But at heart it’s a Chinese production, emphasizing collectivism over individuality and the importance of very long-range goals. Also of note is the absence of almost any US presence to speak of—in China’s futuristic vision everyone speaks Mandarin, Russian, French or Japanese, and most of the planetside action takes place in China or other Asian countries. A massive box office hit in China, the film grossed more than US$300 million in its first weekend of release and has gone on to an impressive haul of more than US$650 million worldwide in just under four weeks.

And on a different tip entirely was the Jia Zhangke series at SFMOMA and BAM/PFA that included Jia himself in person at two of the screenings (a delayed plane flight prevented him making a scheduled third appearance at a show earlier in the series). The series included every one of Jia’s feature films (documentaries and narratives both), as well as films by other directors that have had some direct influence on his work.

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Underbelly, Unknown Pleasures, 2002

Some of the pairings worked really well together such as the double-bill including Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), both of which looked at aimless young people wandering through life. Jia’s film explores the seamy side of China, with Jia using the under-construction highway between Datong & Beijing as a visual metaphor for the rough underbelly of China’s economic miracle. A prequel of sorts to Jia’s latest film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), it follows an emo pretty boy in love triangle with the chanteuse Qiao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, a low-rent loan shark mobster.

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Ennui, The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983

In contrast, Hou’s film is quiet and still compared to the barely restrained chaos of Jia’s movie. As opposed to the undercurrent of grinding industrial cacophony in Unknown Pleasures, the sound of lapping waves is an aural backdrop to most of the action in a small seaside town where group of young dudes hang out and try to find meaning in their lives. They eventually end up in Kaohshiung, the closest city to their tiny coastal burg, where more ennui and confusion awaits.

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Rivers and lakes, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

Other film matchups at SFMOMA were more loosely connected—for instance, according to the programmers Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) was paired with 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2009) for the sole reason that both films are about cities. Similarly, the programmers grouped I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010), Spring In A Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), three wildly disparate movies, because they are all set in Shanghai. But the smart pairing of Johnny To’s Election (2005) and Jia’s Ash Is Purest White cleverly focused on the jiang hu, the criminal underworld in both Hong Kong and China.

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Chinatown new wave, Chan Is Missing, 1982

The series also matched up Jia films with non-Asian movies, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Jia’s Xiao Wu (a show that Jia introduced himself at SFMOMA). And props for including Chinese American director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982), which evokes the nouvelle vague by way of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I’m happy that I was able to squeeze in a bunch of screenings in the mini-hiatus from editing my film, Love Boat: Taiwan, because the next four weeks or so will be solely dedicated to finishing up the movie for its world premiere in early May. More info soon on this, but please go here if you want to find out about Love Boat: Taiwan and how you can support it .

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Ash Is Purest White opens theatrically on March 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and on March 22 at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara, CNMK Fremont 8 in East Bay, and CNMK Milpitas 20 in San Jose.

March 3, 2019 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

Long Dark Road: 2019 Noir City film festival

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Party Time, Pickup On South Street, 1953

The 2019 edition of the Noir City film festival just finished another excellent run and there was a party atmosphere for the 10-day festival as the Castro Theater hosted full houses for almost every show. As usual Noir City had value-added features including live music in between some shows, screenings of rare clips and trailers, and informative and edifying introductions by Noir City founder Eddie Muller and other knowledgable film noir geeks/authors. The movies I attended were uniformly good, but a few stood out due to the significant combination of a great cast, a strong script, and excellent direction.

Some of the festival’s offerings fell a bit short on one of the three key elements above, making for less than satisfying results. For instance, legendary director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca; Mildred Pierce) helmed The Scarlet Hour (1956) with a sure hand, and the script is classic noir, about a femme fatale and her hapless sap of a boytoy who are involved in a jewel heist. But rookie actresss Carol Omhart isn’t quite up to scratch in the lead role and despite its other strong elements the film falters on her uneven performance. Conversely, The File On Thelma Jordan (1950) includes an excellent performance from Barbara Stanwyck and moody and evocative direction by Robert Siodmak but the script’s improbable plot twists diminish the film’s overall impact.

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Struggling, Nightfall, 1957

Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957) is a much more successful endeavor. Although not possessing the mournful beauty of his classic noir Out of the Past, Nightfall still showed Tourneur’s strong directorial touch. The film’s two thugs, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond, feel truly menacing and Aldo Ray as the protagonist on the run conveys a strong sense of a man struggling to keep his bearings in the shifting sands of noir-world danger. A very young Anne Bancroft is Ray’s love interest and her performance displays a strength and gravity beyond her years. The film has just the right touch of fatalistic peril and dread to keep the viewer engaged.

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Complex, Pickup On South Street, 1953

One of my favorite films of all time, Pickup On South Street (1953), was part of a trio of movies directed by Sam Fuller in this year’s festival, and it fully demonstrates a film firing on all cylinders, with acting, script, and directing all top-notch. Fuller’s kinetic directorial style and his intense, fast-paced script brilliantly complement Richard Widmark and Jean Peters’ performances as streetwise characters who are constantly maneuvering to survive. Thelma Ritter contributes a stellar performance as an aging stool pigeon, delivering a complex and emotional turn that forms the moral center of the movie.

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Sultry, The Crimson Kimono, 1957

The festival also screened Fuller’s 1957 film The Crimson Kimono, which is notable for including a Japanese American character, Joe Kojaku (played with sultry subtlety by the doe-eyed James Shigeta), in a romantic lead. The film also includes a sympathetic and mostly Orientalist-free representation of the Los Angeles JA community with Nisei characters who speak in unaccented English and who are human beings instead of exotic caricatures. The film falls a bit short, however, in its analysis of race relations as it suggests that Joe’s experiences with racist microaggressions are a figment of his imagination. SPOILER: He does get the girl, however, which for mid-1950s America was pretty revolutionary.

 

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Tense, Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a tense crime thriller produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, also possesses the magic combination of script, cast, and direction. The film shows a darker side to Belafonte’s usual upbeat persona as he plays Johnny, a nightclub singer facing dire straits due to his gambling addiction. After loan shark enforcers threaten his family with harm Johnny teams up with a couple of other shady characters including Earl, a racist from Oklahoma played by Robert Ryan, and David (Ed Begley), a fallen-from-grace cop. They three attempt to pull off a risky bank heist but the meat of the story is the strong character development of both Johnny and Earl. Director Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sand Pebbles) delves into both characters’ personal lives to give weight and heft to what’s at stake for the two. As a result the film’s climax and conclusion are exceptionally tense and gripping. Also, unlike The Crimson Kimono, racism doesn’t get a pass in this film SPOILER and in fact Earl’s flagrant bigotry is a key culprit in the failure of the heist.  END SPOILER Bonus points for supporting roles from Shelly Winters as Earl’s long-suffering girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as the sexy neighbor upstairs, as well as for the excellent score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The festival concluded with a pair of hard-boiled films from 1961. Sam Fuller’s third installation in this year’s festival, Underworld USA, is a bleak little number full of vengeance, double-crosses, and grudges. Cliff Robertson snarls his way through the film as a safecracker out to get the thugs who killed his dad some twenty years prior. With almost no redeeming characters the film is an existential ode to the shady side of life, where the only motivations are revenge and survival.

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Twisted, Blast of Silence, 1961

The festival closed with the excellent and underappreciated Blast of Silence, a low-budget gem directed with a stylish and jaded eye by Allen Baron. Baron also stars as Frankie Bono, a creepy hitman who presages Travis Bickle in his angst-ridden interior monolog and his twisted, affectless approach to killing. The film follows Frankie as he plots his next hit and depicts his sad and stilted attempts to make meaningful human contact beyond his gruesome professional responsibilities. Bleak, hard-boiled, and grim, and set in the dead of winter between Christmas and New Year’s day, Blast of Silence is like an icy slap of cold air on a winter’s day.

 

February 6, 2019 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

Once You Get Started: Frameline 42 Film Festival

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Tapestry, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Like Hong Kong, San Francisco is an excellent city for film-viewing, and with Frameline (official title: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival) in full swing this week I suddenly feel like there are not enough hours in the day to see all of the movies I want to see. But I’m valiantly carrying on despite the burden of sorting through and prioritizing the festival’s ridiculously stacked schedule. A few highlights from my Frameline viewings this week include three outstanding documentaries and a narrative that demonstrate the high bar of the festival’s stellar programming this year.

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Mixing it up, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Irene Lusztig’s documentary Yours In Sisterhood has a simple premise. Back in the 1970s thousands of women wrote letters to Ms. Magazine, the premiere mainstream feminist publication of the day, but due to space restrictions only a handful of those letters were published. The rest reside in an archive at Radcliffe University that Lusztig accessed some years ago. From that archive she chose about 300 letters and then found women from the same locales as the original writers to re-read the letters on camera—from those 300-odd readings she chose twenty-seven for the film. The results are a brilliant tapestry of 1970s feminism and the resonances from that era to the present day. Lusztig presents the first several of the re-readings straight up to the camera without commentary, then gradually embroiders this format, showing the responses of the modern-day readers to their 1970s counterparts’ missives. A handful of the letters are reread by their original authors as well, including a particularly poignant coming-out letter written by a woman who was sixteen in the 1970s. After reading her letter she recalls how at the time she thought that being queer meant that she would be lonely all her life and that she would never marry or have children. Happily, this bleak prediction did not come to pass as the woman reveals that in the intervening years she and her longtime partner have raised two children and are well-liked in their small-town community.

Lusztig also provides a bit of dyke fanservice by including lesbian author Deena Metzger reading her 1970s letter onscreen, which was cheered loudly at the Frameline screening I attended. A minor quibble: the film includes only one Asian American woman and one Latina, which I understand reflects the mostly-white demographics of the Ms. Magazine readership back in the day. But other than that Lusztig does a great job mixing up the optics of the film and presenting a diverse range of points of view.

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Imbalance of power, Call Her Ganda, 2018

PJ Raval’s documentary Call Her Ganda follows the case of the murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude, who was killed in a fit of gay panic by US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. Despite being convicted of the crime Pemberton was shielded from imprisonment by the US government, much to the outrage of the Filipino populace in general and the transgender community in particular. Raval’s film explicates the fraught history of the United States and the Philippines, using Laude’s case as an example of history of colonialism and the imbalance of power between the two countries. The film’s gliding camerawork effectively captures the glowing lights of Olongapo City by night and its hodgepodge of street markets, as well as the utilitarian bleakness of US military bases in the Philippines, which has long been exploited by the US due to its strategic location in the Pacific theater.

By focusing on the grassroots activism surrounding Laude’s murder Raval’s film recalls seminal Asian Pacific American documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin? and The Fall of the I-Hotel which similarly depict the empowerment of the API community in the face of systemic injustices.

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Vibrant, When The Beat Drops, 2018

Jamal Sims’ exuberant documentary When The Beat Drops is a vibrant celebration of bucking, or j-setting, a dance form originating in the black gay community in Atlanta. Based on moves from female cheerleading squads at historically black colleges and universities, in particular the cheer squad from Jackson State University, bucking primarily takes place in gay clubs throughout the south and southeast United States.

The movie helps to explode definitions of what makes a man and the fluidity of the various characters is breathtaking and effortless. It’s beautiful to see men so confident in their maleness that they are able to demolish the gender binary and let the many facets of their identity shine through. Added to that are some dope AF dance sequences, in clubs, in competitions, and en la calle, that strikingly depict the dynamism and creativity of the j-setting scene. I especially love the fact that the bucking competitions shown in the film are judged by some of the female cheer squad members whose routines j-setting pays homage to.

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Perspective, Retablo, 2018

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo is a beautifully told narrative that further explores the boundaries of masculinity, this time through the lens of a Peruvian family in the Andes. Delgado-Aparicio beautifully uses the cinematic grammar to underscore the mindset of Segundo, his young protagonist, who inadvertently finds out an uncomfortable truth about his father Noe. Noe is a master artisan who is training Segundo to create retablos, three-dimensional tableaux that act as family portraits, as devotionals, and as representations of significant events in their small Andean village. In the first part of the film Segundo’s worldview is stable and stationary, framed almost exclusively in master shots, which echoes the proscenium framing of the Noe and Segundo’s retablos. Once Segundo learns about his father’s clandestine trysts with other men the film’s framing and editing become more jagged and abrupt, reflecting Segundo’s unsettled state of mind. Delgado-Aparicio’s limited use of conventional tight shots and point-of-view shots in the first part of the film also pays off when he finally frames a key moment in the film in close-up from Segundo’s vantage point. The impact is shattering, reflecting the moment’s effect on Segundo’s previously limited perspective.

Retablo also explicates the village’s cultural taboos around same-sex relationships by emphasizing the hypermasculinity of Segundo’s friend Mardonio, whose bragaddocio possibly masks his insecurity about his own sexuality. Segundo and Mardonio enact a classic homoerotic triangle with local shopowner Felicita as Mardonio crudely sexualizes Felicita in order to deny his attraction to Segundo. The film’s dialog in both Spanish and Ayacucho Quechua, one of the most widely spoken Andean dialects in Peru, also lends an immediacy to the film.

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Intimate, We The Animals, 2018

Still to come this week at Frameline: big, showy titles including those focusing on queer superstars Emily Dickinson (Wild Nights With Emily), Alexander McQueen (McQueen)and Robert Mapplethorpe (Mapplethorpe), the Chloë Grace Moretz vehicle The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and the closing night doc Studio 54, about the legendary New York City disco of the same name, the ever-popular shorts programs Fun In Girls Shorts and Fun In Boys Shorts, and smaller, more intimate movies such as the Sundance favorite We The Animals and the UK/Spain co-production Anchor And Hope, (starring #HarryPotter alumna Natalia Tena). I’m hoping to make it to most of these shows since I love me a good film festival, and this year’s Frameline is one of the best.

June 21, 2018 at 7:15 am Leave a comment

Thinking Out Loud: 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival

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Paternalism, Angels Wear White, 2017

The San Francisco International Film Festival is in full swing right now and as usual the fest has a great lineup of world cinema. Although my viewing schedule was very truncated due to life circumstances I still had a quality film festival experience over the first weekend.

 

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Compassionate, The Third Murder, 2017

I started my mini-marathon with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, The Third Murder. As per usual Kore-eda goes directly to the psychological heart of his characters, examining their motivations without judgment or prejudice. In The Third Murder a seemingly straightforward homicide investigation takes several unpredictable turns and eventually leads down many unexpected paths. Almost every character presents an unreliable point of view, contributing to the many shades of gray of complicity and blame. Yet Kore-eda emphasizes the compassionate over the judgmental and the film’s open-ended conclusion questions assumptions of guilt and innocence.

The Third Murder is beautifully lit and shot, with Kore-eda using gliding zooms and slow pans to delineate the cinematic space. The film also makes great use of reflection and mirroring to suggest complicity and transference of guilt, since almost everyone in the film lies at one point or another. Performances are also on point, led by the ever-awesome Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance? The Eel) as the man accused of murder, and the dapper Fukuyama Masaharu (Like Father, Like Son) as the lawyer assigned to the case who begins to doubt everything and everybody as the film progresses.

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Vulnerable, A Man of Integrity, 2017

I continued my festival viewing with A Man Of Integrity, by Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof has been arrested in his home country and banned from making films, so A Man Of Integrity was shot on the down-low in a wintry northern area of Iran. The film is a bitter and intense drama about a family settled in a remote Iranian village that comes face to face with the town’s intractable corruption and cronyism. The delicate and vulnerable goldfish that they farm become a metaphor for the family’s tenuous status in the town, and the film is grounded in strong and intense performances by Reza Akhlaghirad and Soudabeh Beizaee as the couple who stand up to corruption in the village.

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Power dynamics, Angels Wear White, 2017

Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White also looks at corruption and power dynamics, this time in a seaside village in China. It’s a gripping narrative about the aftermath of an assault on two schoolgirls and the reverberations of that crime on its small-town location. Director Qu captures the precarious position of the female characters in the film, most of whom are suffering under a sexist and paternalistic system, and she brings out great performances from both the adults and the preteen and teenage actors. Also of note is the film’s excellent editing which moves the story along at a steady and assured pace.

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Obscured, The White Girl, 2017

The White Girl features some beautiful cinematography by the legendary cameraman Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express), who co-directed the film with Jenny Suen. Set in one of the last fishing villages in Hong Kong, the film follows a young woman known for her very pale complexion that she protects religiously, supposedly due to her allergy to sunlight. Along the way she encounters a mysterious dude (Joe Odagiri) who lives in a ruined building that is also a camera obscura. Added to mix is an evil developer who wants to pave over the cute fishing village and a subplot involving the white girl’s mother, a famous singing star who long ago abandoned her partner and daughter. The film is heavy with allegory about Hong Kong’s current struggles with China and is a little too elliptical for my taste, but it’s always a pleasure to hear Cantonese dialog.

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Struggles, Minding The Gap, 2018

I rounded off my viewings with Bing Liu’s Minding The Gap, which blends character-driven verite with personal documentary. The film follows Liu and two of his skateboarding friends who talk about surviving life in Rockford, a picturesque city about 1.5 hours outside of Chicago that in fact suffers from a high crime rate, most of which is due to domestic violence. The film becomes cathartic for its three distinct and sympathetic characters, including Liu himself, revealing the struggles each encounters in reconciling their painful histories with their current lives. It’s the kind of humanistic doc that Kartemquin Films (which executive-produced the film) is known for, their most famous film being Hoop Dreams. Minding The Gap is good, solid documentary filmmaking that isn’t afraid to touch on difficult topics like alcoholism, wife beating, and child abuse.

Also upcoming this week—the US premiere of John Woo’s latest actioner Manhunt, which may or may not be a return to his past heroic bloodshed glory, Sandi Tan’s personal documentary Shirkers, Hong Sang Soo’s latest Claire’s Camera, and Lee Anne Schmitt’s essay film Purge This Land, among many other cinematic treats.

for tickets and more information go here 

 

April 12, 2018 at 9:41 pm Leave a comment

Get Ur Freak On: Favorite Movies of 2017

My favorite films from 2017 made the list for a variety of reasons but these are the movies I most enjoyed from last year. Three of the films were theatrically released in 2016 but I viewed them first at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) in 2017 so I’m including them here. I saw Get Out and The King on plane flights, but the rest I watched in a cinema somewhere. Listed in no particular order.

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Pulchritude, Jung Yonghwa and Nicholas Tse, Cook Up A Storm, 20171

1. Cook Up A Storm: This film is on the list for the purely aesthetic pleasure of seeing Jung Yonghwa’s perfect features on the big screen. There’s also a lot of nice food porn cinematography but the movie itself is quite lightweight and if it didn’t star my boy Yonghwa (as well as the equally photogenic Nicholas Tse) I’m not sure I would have even given it the time of day. But I’m a big fan of pulchritude so I’m putting it on my list.

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Emo, Lee Byung Hun, The Fortress, 20172.

2. The Fortress: Lee Byung Hun rehabilitates his public image completely in Hwang Dong Hyuk’s absorbing and emo historical about a famously tragic moment in Korean history. While Lee is brilliant as the courtier who must make an unbearable moral choice the rest of the cast is also excellent, including Kim Yoon Seok as Lee’s counterpart, the equally conflicted royal advisor who also pays a heavy price for his decisions.

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Wary, Song Kang Ho, A Taxi Driver, 2017

3. A Taxi Driver: Song Kang Ho is solid as usual in director Jang Hoon’s retelling of the 1980 Gwang Ju uprising, in which the repressive government brutally put down student protestors in the southern Korean city. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the political ramifications of the story it’s still very character-driven, as Song’s wary taxi driver gradually comes around to the side of justice and truth. Bonus points for a dope car chase that turns spunky taxicabs into vehicles for the resistance.

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Indistinguishable, Jung Woo Sung, The King, 2017

4. The King: The third South Korean film on this list attests to the strength and diversity of that country’s commercial film industry. Han Jae Rim’s brutal and cynical political thriller, in which the gangsters are indistinguishable from the lawyers and politicians supposedly opposing them, includes a great performance from rising star Ryu Jun-yeol, who also had a strong supporting role in A Taxi Driver.

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Complicit, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

5. Mon Mon Mon Monsters: Giddens Ko’s horror film/teen movie presents a nightmare high school scenario where no one is innocent and everyone is complicit. As he stated in his introduction to the film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, who is the real monster in the movie?

 

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Fierce, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

6. I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck’s doc about the legendary James Baldwin shines when it connects the dots between past and present racism in the U.S. Although Samuel Jackson’s does a fine job narrating the film, he is easily upstaged by archival footage of Baldwin himself fiercely speaking out about race, politics, and the historical and contemporary struggles of African Americans. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Tensions, Justin Chon, Gook, 2017

7. Gook: Justin Chon’s indie gem presents the Korean American perspective on sa-i- gu, the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the Wind, Powell, Koons, and Briseno, the four police officers caught on video beating motorist Rodney King. Chon miniaturizes the conflicts of the time and his film effectively captures the racial tensions of that moment in time.

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Lovely, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2017

8. Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me: An outstanding essay film directed by João Botelho, one of the influential Portuguese film director’s protégés. The film looks at the relationship between the late director and Botelho and concludes with a lovely restaging of one of Oliviera’s unfinished silent films.

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Ellipses, Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahad Hosseini, The Salesman, 2017

9. The Salesman: Director Asghar Farhadi creates another humanistic look at moral ambiguity and human frailty. As in A Separation (2011), his use of narrative ellipses and architectural metaphors is masterful, as is his ability to draw out strong and sympathetic, vividly shaded performances from his cast. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Unexpected, Window Horses, 2017

10. Window Horses: Another excellent animated feature from Ann Marie Fleming (The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, 2003), this time following a young Iranian-Chinese Canadian poet named Rose as she travels to her father’s home country for a poetry festival. Yes! Totally fun, unexpected and imaginative, with a gorgeous blend of hand-drawn and digitally generated animation.

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Bleak,Tadanobu Asano, Harmonium, 2017

11. Harmonium: an utterly bleak family drama in the tradition of Tokyo Sonata, Koji Fukada’s movie shows the catastrophic consequences of a few bad life decisions. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at CAAMfest.

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Bravura, Youth, 2017

12. Youth: Feng Xiaogang’s look at a theater troupe in Cultural Revolution China uses a familiar trope of the youth romance film—the awkward country bumpkin outsider rebuffed in her attempts to join an elite, more sophisticated group–to cleverly investigate the deeper political and social elements dividing the country at the time. Utilizing his familiar bravura filmmaking style, including swooping camerawork and intense and masterfully conducted battle scenes, Feng never loses his focus on the impact of great historical events and social movements on ordinary human beings.

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Unease, Terry Notary, The Square, 2017

13. The Square: Ruben Ostlund kicks up the social commentary a notch from Force Majeure (2014), and The Square is an even better film about male anxiety and weakness than its predecessor. Ostland is a master at inverting cinematic conventions and manipulating sound, image and editing to create maximum awkwardness, discomfort and unease.

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Horrors, LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out, 2017

14. Get Out: A brilliant brilliant movie that proves that commercial genre films can be as significant as any other art form in capturing the zeitgeist of a moment in time and place. Director Jordan Peele utilizes the horror genre to reveal the true horrors in the U.S., where racism and oppression lie just below the surface of seemingly benign everyday gentility.

January 23, 2018 at 7:33 am Leave a comment

Rebel Without A Pause: Why we need GOOK

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The Korean American view, GOOK, 2017

Just caught a matinee of Justin Chon’s film GOOK at the Alamo Drafthouse here in San Francisco. Although the movie is a bit rough around the edges for the most part it’s an absorbing and successfully mounted film that focuses on the Korean American perspective of a particularly fraught moment in US history.

The film follows Eli and Daniel, a pair of Korean American brothers who run a small and funky shoe store in Paramount, an unincorporated area bordering South Central Los Angeles. It’s set during the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of the four LAPD officers caught on camera beating unarmed motorist Rodney King, but most of that action takes place offscreen. Instead the film miniaturizes the conflicts that occurred during that time, focusing on a small group of individuals repping for the entire city of Los Angeles. Several times characters refer to action taking place in South Central but aside from a few digitally added columns of smoke on the distant horizon we don’t actually see any widespread violence. This is no doubt in part due to the film’s indie budget which probably precluded any large-scale set pieces of buildings on fire or shit getting fucked up. So we get a couple broken windows, some beatdowns, a few guns being fired into the air, and other incidents that gesture toward the greater unrest without actually staging any of the mass devastation and destruction that took place during that time.

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Time and place, GOOK, 2017

Justin Chon does a good job with his actors (himself included) and demonstrates that he has an eye for time and place in the worn-out, working class neighborhood he places his story in. He’s also got the 1990s kicks fetish down pat as one of the narrative threads turns on the acquisition of several pairs of expensive sneakers. The film’s art direction also works hard, with baggy jeans, overalls, and asymmetrical jheri-curl hairstyles capturing the period’s fashion sensibilities. Although I have some issues with the resolution of the character arc of Kamilla, the young African American teen who befriends Eli and Daniel, for the most part Chon directs with a steady hand and maintains a tone of tense wariness in the film’s multiethnic milieu.

And like MOONLIGHT, which the film in some way resembles, there are no white people in the movie, which attests to the racial and social stratification that led to the explosion of tensions in 1992 following the verdict that acquitted Officers Powell, Wind, Koons, and Briseno of beating Rodney King. Instead the film tells its story from a Korean American POV, one which has for the most part been lacking in mainstream depictions of the 1992 unrest. This omission is especially glaring considering the fact that the Korean American community suffered huge property losses during the unrest and that sa-i-gu, or April 29, is considered a watershed moment in the Korean American community.

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Important, GOOK, 2017

Even in the 21st century the focus on a Korean American perspective is especially important, and this was all the more apparent to me after watching the ads and trailers that preceded GOOK’s screening at the Alamo. The cinema is a hipster haven located in what used to be a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and I counted exactly one non-white person in the many trailers for the various indie films in the upcoming schedule. Likewise, the ironic midcentury aesthetic of the found footage in-house announcements were decidedly not very diverse. One short clip featured an all-white group of young people from the early 1960s dancing to African American style choreography. This moment was presented without a hint of irony and its glaring cultural appropriation felt decidedly tone-deaf.

So even though I feel like I say this a lot, it clearly bears repeating. Unconscious Eurocentric bias makes it all the more important to support films like GOOK. Now more than ever, as Trumpism threatens to turn back the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement and its struggles for equality and social justice, we have to keep decentering the master narratives of white hegemony and bring Asian American voices to the fore.

September 5, 2017 at 4:23 am 3 comments

Keep Your Head To The Sky: 2017 CAAMfest

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Angsty emo, The Lockpicker, 2016

CAAMfest is just around the corner so I’m posting a few quick recos to help people wade through the massive program. As usual this year the festival is screening more than 100 films, plus music and food events, so finding your bliss can be a daunting process. Here are a few things that I’ve seen that I like. Get your tickets while they’re hot—they’re going fast!

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Wood paneling and wide ties, The Tiger Hunter, 2016

The Tiger Hunter, dir. Lena Khan

A sweet and amusing comedy set in the 1970s about an Indian guy who moves to the US to make his fortune, The Tiger Hunter is a crowd-pleaser that’s set as the CAAMfest opening night movie. Danny Pudi is appealing and genial as the son of the titular tiger hunter and the ensemble cast brings a goofy charm to the rest of the film. Speaking as someone who grew up in that inglorious decade I can also say that the 70s art direction is totally on point.

The Lockpicker, dir. Randall Okita

Randall Okita’s teen angst drama made my best-of list for 2016 and I’m sticking by that decision. Asian American narrative film directors have pretty much mastered the art of mimicking Hollywood movies these days, but The Lockpicker is a different animal altogether. Raw, unstructured, and brutally honest in its examination of some of the worst aspects of adolescence, the film is anchored by a charismatic and emo performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang. As I’ve said before, as a parent of teenagers this movie terrified me in its depiction of the casual cruelty of ennui-stricken youth.

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Sunkrish looking fly, Chee and T, 2016

Chee and T, dir. Tanuj Chopra

Tanuj Chopra’s latest flick is a wacky ride through the wilds of Palo Alto with a couple slightly sketchy desi dudes who exist on the fringes of Silicon Valley’s tech wonderland. Funny and frantic, with typical Tanuj Chopra hijinks including hallucinogenic drugs, ethically questionable characters, and surprising individuals who are not what they seem to be.

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Search for self, AKA Seoul, 2016

AKA Seoul, dir. Jon Maxwell

An intriguing look at the experiences of a handful of twentysomething Korean adoptees as they return to Seoul to search for some of the answers to their family histories. Along the way they discover that uncovering the truth may not always be the best way to determine your destiny and that detours don’t necessarily mean derailment on the track tracks of life (wut?).

Basha Man, dir. Daniel Chein

A perceptive look at the conflict between capital and culture, this short documentary profiles a young tour guide and performer in a small village in western China. The film explores the difficulties in maintaining a cultural heritage in a rapidly commodifying world.

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Francis cameo, Bruce Takes Dragon Town, 2015

Bruce Takes Dragon Town, dir. Emily Chao

Returning to Taiwan during Ghost Month takes on extra significance for a Taiwanese American filmmaker tracing her family’s migrations. This short experimental doc gets bonus points for featuring clips of the obscure Francis Ng film Banana Spirit.

It Is What It Is, dir. Cyrus Tabor

This short experimental documentary uses home movies, archival footage, and a personal narrative that attempts to unlock family secrets across generations and between continents. Dreamy, sad, and perplexing, with a blurry sheen of flawed memories that demonstrates the difficulties in finding the line between truth and fiction.

Death In A Day, dir. Lin Wang

A brief look at a significant moment in a young boy’s life, this sharply observed short narrative, told from the boy’s point of view, is full of subtlety and symbolism.

March 8, 2017 at 7:16 am Leave a comment

So what: Miles Ahead and I Saw The Light movie reviews

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Don as Miles, Miles Ahead, 2016

Movies about famous people are a Hollywood staple, and stories about the disheveled lives of tragic pop musicians are an especially popular subgenre. Although I haven’t caught up with either the Amy Winehouse or the Nina Simone documentaries from last year, I recently saw two new biopics about American music legends that are currently making the theatrical rounds.

The first of these, I Saw The Light, traces the meteoric rise of country music superstar Hank Williams, following the last six years of his life as he dominated the charts with thirty hit songs (and seven number ones) in the 1940s and 50s. These include classics like Lovesick Blues, Jamabalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’, and many more. I’m a fan of Williams’ stripped down country tunes and I also like Tom Hiddleston, who stars as Williams, so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. Although enlivened by Hiddleston’s charisma the film alas is a pedestrian retelling of Williams story that veers away from the sharp edges of its subject matter.

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Tom as Hank, I Saw The Light, 2016

Williams led an interesting life as one of early country music’s most influential singers and composers but the film focuses entirely too much on the boring relationship between Williams and his talentless estranged wife Audrey, as well as other relationships with various women throughout his life. Although the movie doesn’t ignore Hank’s drinking and philandering ways, it only briefly references his pill-popping and his morphine addiction. Weirdly enough, the film elides what might have been one of its most dramatic event, Williams’ sudden death from a drug/alcohol/heart problem cocktail at age 29. Instead we get a solemn epilogue that explains his passing and its effect on his fans.

Tom Hiddleston demonstrates why Loki is the best part of the Avengers franchise, showing off his magnetism and his lean and lovely good looks. He also sings all of the songs himself (although Hank Williams isn’t that tough to imitate) and looks dapper and hot in various vintage suits. But at age thirty-five Hiddleston seems a bit too old to be playing Williams in his mid to late 20s, with his receding hairline and crow’s feet telling the tale.

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Hey, Good-Lookin’, I Saw The Light, 2016

The movie also fails in its attempt to make Williams into a spiritual ancestor of 27-club rock stars Morrison, Hendrix, and Cobain, mostly because the film averts its eyes whenever the picture might get too seedy. We don’t see Williams at his worst and the film’s glossy star treatment avoids showing anything too messy. Cherry Jones as Williams’ mom brings a salty dimension to her character and there are hints that her contentious relationship with Audrey could spark into something more lively, but even their mild catfights are sadly muffled. Entirely too genteel when it should be down and dirty, the movie lacks the edge that would elevate it beyond an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. In addition, the film never gives a sense of Williams as a musician or a musical talent besides his ability to make hit records. It’s more about his celebrity than his artistry and as such doesn’t offer a lot of insights into why Williams merits a movie of his own in the first place.

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80s Miles, Miles Ahead, 2016

Miles Ahead, which looks at the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is an entirely different story. Don Cheadle directs and stars in this one and, unlike I Saw The Light, the film revels in Davis’ eccentricities and dirty laundry, as well as giving a sense of his enormous musical gifts. Alternating between a fictional account of Davis’ lean years in the 1980s, when he was suffering from artist’s block and hadn’t released an album in more than five years, and the 1950s when he made his most celebrated music and was also married to his first wife, dancer Francis Tyler, the film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ cocaine habit, his cheating on Francis, his love of guns, or his questionable taste in clothes in the 1980s. Cheadle presents Davis as a complex human being with many warts as well as a celebrity and a musical innovator. Like Hiddleston, Cheadle also plays many of the songs in the film, apparently having spent years learning the trumpet in preparation for this role.

Cheadle adds some imaginative cinematic touches to the movie that give a sense of the addled and sideways-thinking interior of Davis’ head. In defiance of conventional moviemaking logic he includes several clever fantasy-based scene transitions and during one sequence he abandons realism completely, cutting rapidly between 1980s Davis getting into fight at boxing match and 1950s Davis playing his horn in a session in a nightclub. The scene ends up with 1950s Davis and his combo jamming in the middle of the boxing ring while 1980s Davis flees the scene. Despite mostly having control over the more fantastic elements of the storytelling, Cheadle’s cinematic invention at times threatens to go a bit too far. An extended plot element involving the heist of the master recording of one of Davis’ studio sessions featuring Ewan McGregor as the obligatory white guy, aka a completely fictional character invented to appease Hollywood investors, at times veers very close to becoming a Guy Ritchie movie complete with car chases, shootouts, and shady gangsters. Here the movie plays fast and loose with some of the facts for the sake of ginning up the narrative to make it more commercial.

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Black lives matter, Miles Ahead, 2016

The film’s treatment of another aspect of Davis’ life also reflects Hollywood’s tendency to avoid representing difficult topics for fear of losing audience and profits. The movie soft-peddles Davis’ abusive relationship with his first wife Francis, making him out to be an overly controlling partner instead of an out-and-out batterer. While it’s creepy that Davis forces Francis to abandon her career as a dancer, the film implies that the two of them loved each other despite Davis’ abusiveness. However, Cheadle doesn’t shy away from another less-than-rosy episode Davis’ life, recounting Davis’ 1959 run-in with the NYPD during which he was beaten and jailed for walking a white woman to a cab. In these days of heightened awareness of police brutality against the African American community this sequence takes on an added relevance, documenting the historical precedents for contemporary discrimination and racism.

Though not without flaws, Miles Ahead is a much more risky and creative biopic than I Saw The Light. Add in Cheadle’s spot-on depiction of Davis in all his quirky genius, either as the suave and sexy 1950s Miles or the frazzle-haired and coked-out 1980s Miles and the film is pretty consistently engaging throughout its running time.

 

April 9, 2016 at 9:02 pm Leave a comment

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