[What Did Jaci Think? SIFF2019]

Some things from SIFF that I feel like mentioning, in alphabetical order:

* Banana Split. The new girlfriend and the old girlfriend become friends and try not to let the boyfriend know about it. Teen girl friendships are my kryptonite, guys. It’s unfortunate it hit at the same time as Booksmart. We need both movies (and obviously we need movies where the girls aren’t white). A festival note about this: the director, Benjamin Kasulke, is better known (to me) as a cinematographer, & this film’s cinematographer, Darin Moran, came with the film as well, which meant a lot more lighting discussion than we usually get. It was a nice change.

* A Family Tour. This was the best film I saw at SIFF this year, a heartbreaking story of a filmmaker who has been banned from mainland China. The family syncs a trip for a film festival with her mainland-residing mother’s bus tour in Taipei, but in order to avoid drawing attention they stage accidental meetups and pretend to not be related. The fraught reunions are made all the more tense by being set against the backdrop of holiday-making.

The story is based in experiences of the filmmaker, but gender-swapped, which means we get that rarer depiction of the female filmmaker, as well as to see her husband in the role of family project management and provider of emotional labor. Lovely and layered.

* Fly Rocket Fly. Look. I hated this documentary. It’s about a bunch of jackass Germans going to Zaire to blast off rockets, & the movie thinks it’s some sort of badass rebel tale, but instead it’s a super racist documentary about a herd of jerks. There were something like 40 Germans and 200 Zaire people involved in creating a self-sustaining village and building and launching the rocket, but not a single Black person is interviewed in the entire documentary.

The film undermines itself a little – often white interview subjects will go on about the hard work they did all alone, only to have the picture cut to archival footage of Black people doing the actual labor. But with the lack of Black interview subjects I believe this undermining is accidental. You cannot tell me that no one in Zaire had an opinion on how the project impacted them and their country. For some it might even have been a positive impact, but we’ll never know because the film does not value those people or their labor.

* I Do Not Care if We Go Down In History As Barbarians. The second-to-last film I saw at festival and it knocked my goddamn socks off. A Romanian film, it’s an often-comic picture shot in the tone of a documentary as a theater director puts together a public theater event recreating the 1941 Odessa massacre. Apparently an inability to grapple with one’s own history is not a purely American problem, who knew. Vital and timely.

* Little Tickles. Based on Andréa Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman stage show, this film uses stage elements, dance, and terrific editing to tell a hard story of surviving childhood sexual abuse and remembering one’s own story.

* Maiden. Thrilling (and moving) documentary about the first all-female crew to enter (and, spoiler, finish) the Whitbread Round the World Race. I challenge you to watch it and not fall in love with every one of these badass women.

* Retrospekt. A fragmented tale as a domestic violence support worker attempts to fit her own story back together after a traumatic brain injury, one of my favorite things about the film was actually the soundtrack – a borderline operatic English score commenting on and against the action.

* Top End Wedding. A crowd-pleaser of a romcom from Australia, a pure delight, and much better than it needed to be.

* Vai. A similar concept to last year’s Waru, this is a film comprised of eight short films, all about a Pacific Islander woman named Vai, from girlhood to elder. They’re different women in different indigenous cultures, but spiritually the same woman, with the same characters moving in and out of her life. Beautifully done.

* The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. A documentary about giraffe researcher Anne Innis Dagg, one of the first Westerners to study animal behavior in the wild, it’s fascinating but also infuriating, as she returns from South Africa to be thwarted at every turn by male-dominated academia. You watch something like this and you just want to scream at all the knowledge we’re missing because white guys gonna white guy.

ALSO WE SHARE A BIRTHDAY. Well, I was excited about it.

[What Did Jaci Think? Who Even Knows]

Hello, yes, let’s dive in. This summer my life was devoured by The Untamed, a Chinese web series based on a (deeply problematic) BL wuxia (or more accurately, xianxia) webnovel. It’s the fourth adaptation, which is amazing. If you have any Western examples of multiple media adaptations of sprawling medieval fantasy epics where the gay heroes fall in love with each other against a backdrop of clashing sects and soap opera revenge, please tell me, otherwise your faves could never.

A mainland program is obviously unable to include the physical relationship of the novel (honestly for the best, having read it: all the intimate stuff is terrible on multiple levels), but the creative team ran with the challenge, emphasizing their faith, commitment, and link as soulmates, which had the effect of making it all the more romantic. There’s a whole essay to be written on how they used the tools of story structure, blocking, music, cinematography, and acting to make their relationship clear, and let’s be honest, I’m waiting for someone else to write it.

The Untamed is free on Viki & YouTube, but it’s also allegedly coming to Netflix, which honestly makes me a nervous. Fandom people should absolutely watch it and no one else should lest you see too clearly my id. Thank you.

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I’ve seen over 130 films since last time I posted here so obviously we’re not going to talk about all of that. Have some quick hits instead:

* Booksmart. My movie of the summer. I saw it four times & bought it the day it came out. There’s a lot to love about it (ride-or-die ladies! queer lead! bad sex!) but specifically something that I haven’t seen talked about is the fact that Beanie Feldstein is not a stick insect and yet her body was never an issue or a consideration or anything ever. The early bathroom scene, where they call her a “butter personality”? That she could desire & be an object of desire? I have never seen anything like that before, and definitely not in a teen comedy.

Also, I would 100% watch a movie about any and all of the side characters (as one would expect from a movie cast by genius Allison Jones) but especially my boys Theo & Tanner  (and of course Gigi). Bless.

* Downton Abbey. Totally unnecessary and also I loved it, and there’s a Thomas moment that had me biting my fist in delight.

* Fagara. A lovely, woman-focused family drama with Kore-eda aspirations. Three half-sisters reunite after the death of their father to manage his hot pot restaurant through the end of its lease. Food, family, and learning you don’t need Andy Lau to take care of you after all.

* Friend Zone. Don’t let the title turn you off! I don’t believe in that concept, and the film, a cute Thai romcom, doesn’t either. The male lead does it to himself by lying when his friend asks him if he loves her like a friend or as something else, and the film is clear (through the lead and a group of guys he’s telling his story to in a wedding-reception framing device) that this was dumb of him and people should just communicate. You gotta love a film that critiques its own title.

* Hustlers. “Climb in my fur” is the iconic line of fall; I will not be taking criticism.

* In Fabric. Look, if the concept of a killer dress is not enough for you I don’t know what to say. Gorgeous, strange, and often hilarious, capitalism will eat you alive, but at least you’ll learn a lot about how washing machines work in the process.

* The Reports on Sarah and Saleem. This film did the rare, most satisfying thing of ending on exactly the shot I wanted it to end on. What a thrill! Saleem is Palestinian, Sarah is Israeli, and they’re having an affair that gets mistaken for all the dangerous political mess you might expect. It’s not a film that I vibed with at the beginning – affairs are not super compelling to me – but when the film shifted to focus more on Saleem’s pregnant wife Bisan, they had me. Maisa Abd Elhadi is terrific as Bisan, a total badass.

* Shadow. So glad I made a space for this during SIFF. It has a slow burn open setting up palace intrigue, but then when the action takes off it is absolutely gorgeous.

[What Did Jaci Think? Early April]

First off, I got good and mad and wrote a standalone on sports doc In Search of Greatness. (I don’t know where all those sports feelings came from either.)

Onward! Wonder Woman was not the best Wonder Woman movie that came out in 2017 (that honor obviously goes to Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, which you should absolutely check out) but Captain Marvel is the best Captain Marvel movie of 2019. Shazam! tries its best, though. It’s goofy & kind of adorable, and the final showdown is pretty great, but the film is weighed down by Mark Strong’s dour villain. Also, it leans into the Big comparison, which is apt, but it suffers by it too, as Zachary Levi is no Tom Hanks. (He’s also no Marsai Martin, who had me fully believing she was a tiny, angry Regina Hall in Little.)

An acquaintance hailed me from across the lobby at work to ask if I liked High Life, which is basically an impossible question to answer. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that you like or don’t like. It’s sad and beautiful, strange and horrifying, and basically nothing that happens in it is consensual. I’m glad I saw it, how about that.

As for at home viewing, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ended, and it was perfect. The whole series is on Netflix now, if you want to see the finale I always wanted but never thought I would get. What a journey. PS Donna Lynne Champlin is my queen.

I also watched a less-than-legal copy of Jean of the Joneses, a film I recommend seeking out legally if you’re in Canada, otherwise good luck I guess. It’s a woman-centered family dramedy with a side of romance, and that romance is with Mamoudou Athie who should be in SO MANY MORE ROMCOMS. Get on that, world.

Finally, two rewatches: Killing Eve (which is the best thing on television that I watch anyway, ps the second season is also terrific so far) & Infinity War (which was a fucking slog and I plan on never watching it again.)

[In Search of Greatness]

Sports documentary In Search of Greatness has an interesting idea at the heart of it, namely the role that creativity has in sports excellence, how that creativity can be found and nourished, and how early specialization and over-structuring might harm the progress of young athletes.

It focuses on three athletes, all from team sports: Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, & Pelé. They have a lot in common as to how they approach their particular games and thoughts on what helped them overcome perceived weaknesses. It can objectively fascinating to hear people who are or were the best at what they do talk about who they are, what they love, and how they got there. But of course the other thing they have in common? They are all men.

Unsurprisingly, the film suffers from this purely male perspective. I read later that the filmmakers had hoped to include Serena Williams but could not thanks to scheduling difficulties. That fact does not impress me when the five on-camera interviews they do include – the three athletes plus two commentators – are all men, and when the off-camera interviewer refers to great athletes in general with masculine collective nouns, like “guys” or “fellas”. Serena Williams is one of if not the greatest athlete of all time, and that the filmmakers could not think of a single other woman to include speaks volumes.

This skewed perspective can’t be undone by a handful of archival clips, most notably of the Williams sisters, especially when the most prominent interview subject is neither Serena nor Venus but their father. Honestly, I would have preferred a documentary that pretended women in sports did not exist rather than one that threw in this  & two clips of gymnasts and called it good.

In fact, even this token inclusion of gymnasts (in a section of the film criticizing – I believe fairly – parents who turn what should be play into a job for their children) shades the argument a bit. It made me wonder what a film would look like that included sports which are judged both on athleticism and on style, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating, or snowboarding.

The film wraps with an almost-lament, about the athletes we’re not seeing due to lack of access to opportunity, also around the very strange idea that there is an upper limit to be found in sports, the maximum achievement by man (of course men, only men, always men) where once reached we’ll no longer be interested as athletes or as an audience. The first point made me want to scream in frustration given the lack of opportunity within this very film, and the second point was frankly absurd.

It’s such a limited view of sports to assume the full appeal in participating or observing is to reach some sort of objective pinnacle of achievement: the highest point game, the fastest run, the longest jump. This is the exact attitude that devalues women’s sports. But there’s more to sports than numbers, more to the greatest than stats, more to the geniuses than this film could have imagined.

There’s the game.

[What Did Jaci Think? Late March]

First off, I recently took the opportunity to participate in Directed by Women’s year-long communal blogging initiative, and I encourage all of you to participate by writing your own reflection, 365 words or less, on a film (or short! Or episode of television!) directed by a woman in the 21st century which you deem to be crucial. You can message me with any questions about the process; if my imposter syndrome can make it through, anyone’s can. I want to read your work!

I wrote about Rama Burshtein’s crucial romcom The Wedding Plan. I love this movie, as everyone should.

Onward! More Than Blue, a remake of a Korean film I have not seen, is an honestly absurd story about two friends who are secretly in love with each other. When K learns that, like his deceased father, he has cancer, he decides to keep it a secret and get Cream married off to a nice guy so she’ll be taken care of when he’s gone. Look, I’m not recommending that anyone see this, but I will freely admit that it features gorgeous people crying a lot while wearing beautiful sweaters, and the night I saw it that was exactly what I needed.

Pulling up the IMDb page for The Crossing, I was astonished to see it was the first feature from writer/director Bai Xue. I hope this is the beginning of a long career. The Crossing is the story of a teen girl who lives in Shenzhen and goes to school in Hong Kong. There are a number of crossings at work in the film: from child to adulthood, daily back and forth through customs, and from a side hustle in phone cases and screen protector application to smuggling phones from Hong Kong to the mainland. It’s a strong debut, a woman-focused film with elements of noir, and a frankly terrifying scene when she needs to get a broken screen replaced. I can’t wait to see what Bai Xue does next.

I’ve talked a lot about Us in the real world, so here I’ll just highlight a few things: 1) nominate Lupita you cowards 2) also please create an award for choreographer/movement consultant Madeline Hollander 3) there are a lot of ideas here and seeing it a second time pays off, seeing how everything ties together 4) I will read every piece everyone writes about this movie forever.

French near-future disaster movie A Breath Away provides an unexpected argument in favor of upzoning. After an earthquake, Paris is filled with a heavy, poison gas. If you’re on the top floor, you will survive (for now, at least). The story centers on a family, separated parents who are still very close, caring for their teen daughter who has a respiratory disorder which requires her to live in a bubble. They make some bad decisions, or so it seems to me, a sworn victim living outside of the movie, but it was fascinating as non-Hollywood genre films often are.

It’s very French in terms of how characters relate to weapons, and there are a few scenes where you can imagine how different an American film handling the same premise might be. This film keeps the story intimate in both character and location. Bonus: it features Romain Duris in full-on hot dad mode.

Giant Little Ones is a small Canadian film about a boy who has an undefined sexual encounter with his best friend on his seventeenth birthday, and then tries to figure out what (if anything) it means. His father is played by Kyle MacLachlan, an absent parent who doesn’t want to be, and who’s later-in-life coming out adds another wrinkle to this complex story about sexuality. It’s also complex on gender – our lead has a close friend who is AFAB, but MOC and maybe trans. While some folks will probably be frustrated by the lack of firm conclusions on either point, I appreciated a more fluid story. A lot of people don’t have answers to those questions by seventeen. When I was seventeen, I didn’t even know there were questions! Anyway. Also, Kyle MacLachlan made me cry, damn him. He has a lovely scene reminiscent of Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech at the end of Call Me By Your Name, though of course MacLachlan’s character made a different choice.

I didn’t know I was seeing Transit until it happened, and my regret about that is I didn’t have a chance to rewatch Barbara & Phoenix ahead of time. Transit is the end of that loose trilogy, also a WWII story, but set loosely, eerily, fittingly, in present day Europe. Even the tech – or lack thereof – is unsettling; there are surveillance cameras, for example, but no cell phones. Georg is trying to get out of the country with the assistance of two dead men, and as we learn eventually, he’s not even telling his own story. It’s haunting.

For home viewing, obviously Shrill, which I’m delighted to report has been renewed, thank you Hulu.

Also, I tried Operator, which has been in my Netflix queue for ages. I added it for Martin Starr, but it turned out to be a movie about how he didn’t deserve to be married to Mae Whitman, and also where Cameron Esposito scared the shit out of him (this part was deserved). Opening the IMDb page now I’m actually annoyed all over again by the movie, this time by the framing: “Joe, a programmer and obsessive self-quantifier, and Emily, a budding comedy performer, are happily married until they decide to use one another in their work.” No. They’re in a codependent relationship until he asks her to provide the voice for an automated phone system, at which point he decides he prefers interacting with the AI of his wife rather than with his actual wife, and she uses improv to process this bullshit. Whitman was really great in it (and Esposito was a treat!), but Starr’s character needed a lot of therapy and less sympathy from the film.