“It’s done,” Céline Sciamma said through laughter, “I don’t need your approval!” Ten minutes earlier, a lengthy applause break punctuated the film screening and Sciamma was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation. Sitting in a folding director’s chair on-stage in the sold-out Music Box Theater in Chicago, IL, Sciamma shared insights on the filmmaking process during a question and answer session with the audience. The early pre-screening of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) was part of a press tour preceding the films wide release in the United States.
"First Love" is a comedy-drama, set in one of Miike's favourite environments, the world of the Yakuza (Gangster). A promising boxer, Leo (Masataka Kubota), is surprisingly beaten in a contest and is informed it is probably due to an inoperable brain tumour. Whilst walking the streets attempting to process this news, he bumps into drug-addicted sex slave Yuri (Sakurako Konichi) and inadvertently messes up an attempt by a crooked cop and an up-and-coming Yakuza to steal a drug shipment from the local crime family. Along the way, we meet One-armed Chinese crime bosses, deadly female assassins, and murderously unhinged girlfriends, amongst other characters too numerous to list. Somehow, amongst the violence and craziness, the two form a connection with each other, but only if they survive.
Doused in colorful lighting, Lola (Madeline Brewer) sits in front of a webcam with a knife in hand. She raises the knife to her throat and carefully presses down, releasing fake blood that flows down her front. Lola’s fans go wild, tuning in to more of her shows and sending her tips. Lola, who goes by Alice off-cam, is thrilled — she’s moving up the ranks of the livestreaming site thanks to her hard work crafting unique and exhilarating shows like the fake suicide show. With her newfound success, Alice continues to set up eye-catching shows to move further up the ranks. Another cam girl gets in her way, though. And she looks freakishly similar to Lola/Alice. The film takes a quick turn into psychological horror territory as Alice embarks on a mission to find the doppelganger and get to the bottom of things.
“Honey Boy” is a deeply sad, yet still hopeful story of a child, Otis, who essentially raised himself. That child’s story is largely based on the life of Shia LaBeouf, the writer and star of the film who plays his own abusive father. The film is raw and hard to watch at times as a young Otis (Noah Jupe) acts to support his parents while living in a motel with his father, James (Shia LaBeouf). Even with the upsetting events that take place, Otis finds joy in his work and through his friendship with a neighbor (FKA Twigs).
The titular character of Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age classic, “Lady Bird” (2017) is equal parts pretentious and endearing. Lady Bird – as stated above, a name given to herself by herself – navigates her senior year of high school and the many relationships encompassed within it. The premise of the film is simple. A coming-of-age story. But what is extraordinary is how it taps into the humanness of growing up. “Lady Bird” for me is what “Boyhood” (2014) did for my brother. It held up a mirror to my most vulnerable truths, and actually made me feel okay about that. Lady Bird, portrayed so earnestly by Saoirse Ronan, is dramatic. “Come here often?” she asks her crush in the grocery store as if they are gender-bending roles in an old Western. She calls herself from the wrong side of the tracks when there are literal railroad tracks to get to her house.
In 2000, we learned that my grandfather had cancer. He went through chemotherapy, and my mother and I went up to help him and get him to doctor’s appointments as he ended up in assisted living. I was there the day he received his terminal diagnosis, and 7 of the next 10 weeks were spent trying to comfort him, and get things prepared for after the inevitable happened. It finally did in late July. I was very close to him- he was like another parent to me. It was devastating. Those months come to the forefront of my mind in contemplating Lulu Wang’s beautiful dramatic comedy, “The Farewell.” Inspired by her own life, Wang tells the story of her family whom, when they find out the worst about their beloved Nai Nai, they do what is unthinkable to most of us- they don’t tell her.
There is a strangeness to “Knives and Skin” (2019) that makes it difficult to put into words precisely what it’s about and how it made me feel. Jenifer Reeder’s film is eerie, bright but dark, funny but upsetting. It puts you on edge but also has you really feeling for the people on screen. If you like films by Peter Strickland or David Lynch you’ll love it. If not, I recommend pushing your cinematic comfort zone. Fifteen year old Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) has an encounter with sexually aggressive Andy (Ty Olwin) which ends badly. She goes missing and the town is shaken. Her mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) slowly loses her mind but others in the community have just as tenuous a grip on reality.
Seeing that Naoko Yamada’s “A Silent Voice” made our list for the Top 50 Films of the Decade was an absolute treat. Not only because it’s always nice to have some anime appreciation, but it’s also great because the film isn’t talked about as much as it should. Yamada’s adaptation of Yoshitoki Oima’s manga of the same name is easily one of my favorite anime films as it pulls no punches in delivering a timeless story about redemption, understanding others, and finding your voice.
A dry humour. An uncomfortable satire. A stunning fairytale tableaux. “I Am Not A Witch” (2017) has an impact that’s hard to describe. The film starts with a young Zambian girl Shula (non-professional actor Margaret Mulubwa) being accused of witchcraft. She is given the choice of being turned into a goat or declaring she is a witch. She chooses to say she is a witch and is taken to live in a ‘witch camp’. At the witch camp Shula is cared for and encouraged by the other women who all remain attached to long white ribbons at all times lest they fly away. Tourists arrive by minibus to leer at them as a local attraction and they’re loaned out to work long hours for someone else’s benefit.