Heaven Will Wait

Heaven Will Wait (Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, 2016)


Heaven Will Wait is a terribly uneven and messy film.  Intertwining three to four storylines, Heaven Will Wait attempts to fully depict the environment in France which creates youth terrorists.  Unfortunately, it attempted far more than it could succeed at and what’s left are a handful of disjoint stories of wildly varied quality dependent solely on the actresses’ ability to salvage each respective piece.

The primary focus of the film was on two juxtaposed teen girls. Sonia, Noémie Merlant, attempted to fly to Syria to be a martyr for Islam, but was stopped.  After that, she’s arrested for conspiring with terrorists and is placed under house arrest.  Her story in the film picks up here as she and her parents struggle with her as she attempts to deprogram the terrorist doctrine that had been ingrained in her.  Mélanie, Naomi Amarger, on the other hand is a traditional student, who seemingly gets good grades and is an accomplished cellist.  After her Grandmother dies though, she searching for meaning is coerced into the world of a violent sect of Islam.  The additional storylines receive significantly less development and screen time and include an older woman, Sylvie, who seems to be struggling with her past associations with ISIS (though to be honest, the development of her story was so poor that I couldn’t say I really know what was going on).  Finally, the film frequently checked in with a support group for parents of children who became involved in terrorism.  It’s unclear whether this final section constitutes its own storyline or not as this was where the additional plots feigned some sort of connectivity.

Due to this lack of real connectivity, Heaven Will Wait seems more like a handful of vignettes thrown in a blender than a cohesive whole.  At very minimum throwing out the Sylvie plot line would have allowed us to focus solely on the recruitment practices and aftermath on young women.  Instead it became very clear that director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar bit off far more than she could chew, and the film suffers for it.  When examining Mélanie’s plot line in particular, she was given so little development as a character that the entire story came off as forced and fabricated.  ACTRESS is not truly to blame for this dissonance, though I have to assume a stronger performance couldn’t have hurt, but she was given very little to work with.  She goes from happy and content to sad and mournful to suddenly a devote Muslim who is ready to travel to Syria with a complete lack of development in between.  There may be a story worth telling here, but this film has no interest in actually telling it.

Noémie Merlant, on the other hand, puts in such a strong performance as Sonia, that even the lack of time and under writing leaves her story believable and engaging.  I sympathize over the struggles that she’s dealing with as she detoxes from her experiences.  Her father’s demonization of all of Islam instead of the sect that lead her to her beliefs seems instinctual, and her response to not being even allowed the religion that brought her initial comfort is heartbreaking.  It’s this performance and story that leaves me unable to issue a blanket dissuasion of the entire film.  Instead I can only long for the film that would have been if Noémie Merlant was given the full time to explore Sonia.


Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016)


Centered around the rebellious teenager Dounia, Oulaya Amamra, Divines tells a coming of age story of a rebellious teenager as she tries to find her path to both adulthood and early wealth.  Coming of age stories about women are always welcome, as men seem to dominate the genre, and this one specifically sets out to prove its uniqueness by blending the traditional coming of age drama with a plentiful helping of melodrama.  While this mixture isn’t quite as smooth as I would have preferred, the result is something unique that has continued to capture my thoughts even after viewing more films.

We are first introduced to Dounia as she distracts her best friend Maimouna, Déborah Lukumuena, from her prayers at a make-shift mosque.  Her rebelliousness is further portrayed as we watch her shoplift, and get kicked out of school in subsequent scenes.  We do get a potential reason for this behavior soon after as we are shown a scene of her and her drunken mother being fired from the bar that they both work at, and then proceed home to the slum they live in.  This opening is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film, and highlights the director Houda Benyamina’s relative inexperience.  The first twenty minutes feel like an afterthought as if the rest of the story was already written and filmed but some sort of establishment needed to be included to bring believability to the characters.  An additional ten minutes to let the characters develop slightly more organically would not have been a begrudged addition to the only 90-minute film.

If Benyamina was dead set on keeping the film at 90 minutes, there is at least one additional plotline that fell flat.  Throughout the film, Dounia has frequent scenes where she watches, in an eerily stalkerish way, grocery security guide/ aspiring dancer Djigui, Kevin Mishel, as he attempts to get the lead role in a local dance performance.  After weeks of voyeurism, Dounia is confronted by Djigui and is eventually thrown into an awkward pseudo relationship.  While I do believe that the watching and lusting over the male body constitutes an important level of character development for Dounia, the budding/ seemingly serious relationship seemed unnecessary and very sudden.

Weaknesses aside, Divines develops into a beautiful melodrama.  Dounia’s interactions with Rebecca, Jisca Kalvanda, feel like an extremely genuine predator prey relationship.  Dounia wants so badly to be an adult and find the fortune that she couldn’t hope to attain otherwise, that she deludes herself in fantasies of what her future will be while committing crimes for Rebecca.  And Rebecca completely believably see’s Dounia’s passion and obedience and quickly finds the way in which she can best take advantage of the situation.  The result is that Dounia does quickly grow up, though not in the way that she necessarily envisioned.

And that highlights what really is the strength of the film.  Amamra’s portrayal of Dounia is engrossing.  No matter how poor decisions she makes, I manage to feel both sympathetic to her while still understanding why she made the decisions that she did.  It’s rare that you can watch a film where the protagonist makes bad decision after bad decision and yet still sympathize for her.  The realness behind Dounia has me forgiving most if not all of Divines’s flaws.

My First TIFF

I know that I haven’t written anything in months.  Life has taken its toll on me as I’ve attempted to find my new life post transition.  Things still aren’t really settling down, but there’s nothing like attending a major film festival to reinvigorate your passion for the craft.  And so here I am, thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country leaving me completely dependent on free Wi-Fi as I don’t have international phone service with nothing to do but watch films, eat, and hopefully write.

Signing up for TIFF was an interesting experience.  The only film festival that I’ve done in earnest before was SXSW in which I’ve just purchased a badge and gone to as many films as I wanted only being turned away once in my two years in attendance.  For TIFF on the other hand, I purchased what made sense to me, a 20 film package for the 7 days that I would be in Toronto.  Days before I was allowed to register for films, I set up what my perfect schedule would look like and assumed that everything would work for me.  Not one minute after my registration window was open, I was on the website and realized that the majority of my high priority viewings were already booked.  Unfortunately, this week will not include my chance to view Toni Erdman, Elle, Personal Shopper, Certain Women, The Handmaiden, American Honey, La La Land, or Manchester by the Sea, but I’m still seeing many high priority films on my list as well as letting myself find some hidden gems.

And so with this, all I have left to say is that I’m excited to be back.

Love and Friendship

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Love and Friendship ever since hearing that Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny would be again teaming up with Whit Stillman.  Their last project together The Last Days of Disco from 1998 maintains its status as one of my favorite films, and I had hope that Stillman could bounce back from an uneven outing in Damsels in Distress in 2011 and his unfortunate, failed pilot “The Cosmopolitans” from 2014.  Beckinsale and Sevigny were both a great fit for the quick wit that is Stillman’s trademark and the prospects of all three of them working with Jane Austen was enough to put this film near the top of my most anticipated films list.  After my screening, it has moved from the top of my most anticipated list to the top of my favorites list for 2016 thus far.

Despite being named after one of Austen’s juvenilias, the film is based on her short story “Lady Susan.”  Beckinsale plays the titular character and the film follows her as she manipulates her way in and out of the lives of family and potential suitors.  Her almost every move is calculated such as to ensure her continued fortune and status either by marrying her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) or herself off to a man of wealth and name.  The only time that she lets her guard down is in her interactions with her only real friend Alicia, my much anticipated reunion between Beckinsale and Sevigny.

In all of these interactions, Beckinsale is a joy to watch.  She’s quick witted and expertly mixes Susan’s essential charisma with a hint of underlying manipulation.  In every scene her performance stands out almost to the detriment of the entire rest of the cast.  Beckinsale does detract from the rest of the cast; days later I still remember a little of Sevigne’s performance, but nothing from the rest of the supporting actors and actresses.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The film feels no worse for this disparity in acting talent though the few scenes she’s not in do drag some.

While Beckinsale stole the screen, her performance wasn’t the only standout of the film.  Whit Stillman’s style merged with Austen’s story leads to one of the funniest screenplays of the year.  Stillman’s prior works have all poked fun at traditional relationships, and the constant humor in Lady Susan’s insistence into the lives of others to play matchmaker is another perfect entry.  While it could be argued that Susan’s shallowness in these acts makes her a poor character, she instead is the perfect example of another common Stillman trope: focusing on rich, self-absorbed, somewhat awful human beings.

Like many of his other works, Love and Friendship is filled to the brim with short scenes and constant dialogue.  Characters speak extremely fast, and it can be disorienting if you are unfamiliar with his style.  Some viewers may never be able to accept the pace, but for other long time Stillman fans it will feel familiar.  The speed at which lines are delivered lends itself perfectly to rewatches as additional jokes are heard and understood for the first time with each subsequent viewing.

While Whit Stillman and Jane Austen both are not for everyone, I would recommend Love and Friendship to anyone unless I specifically knew that it wouldn’t be a great fit for her or him, and even then I’d probably still suggest that they see it anyway.  Kate Beckinsale’s best performance in years and Whit Stillman’s return to 1990s form lead to Love and Friendship being my first can’t miss film of the year.

Cafe Society 

It’s been awhile but I’m back with another film festival.  I saw the North American premier of Woody Allen’s new film “Cafe Society” Thursday night.  I know that Woody Allen has been under fire recently by the allegations of his daughter.  I personally believe that it needs to be investigated, but I also do my best to look at art without letting the shortcomings of the artist taint my views of their work.

The opening sequence of “Cafe Society” sums up the film: breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography with awkward voice-over narration.  The cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has already been praised by many, but it really can’t be said enough.  Unfortunately, The rest of the film lacked the same prowess and consistency.

The screenplay was distinctly Woody Allen existing in his own world somewhat removed from actual reality.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a New York native who moves to Los Angeles in hopes of finding a new life with the help of his executive uncle (Steve Carell).  While in Hollywood, he falls in love with a woman named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but when his fairy-tale future with her is destroyed, he returns home to New York.  There he finally finds the professional success he was hoping to find in California, just without Vonnie.  The film follows Bobby in the years that follow as he runs one of the most successful night clubs in New York with his criminal brother.  Despite settling down with a New York socialite Veronica (Blake Lively), he is never able to fully forget Vonnie, and the film lingers on their rendezvous whenever they are in the same city.

The melancholy love story, is inter-cut with the comedic interactions of Bobby’s family.  These moments are jarring to begin with, as they seem rather unconnected to the main story while Bobby is in Los Angeles.  While these comical moments eventually show their purpose with Bobby’s return to New York, they never quite mesh with the main story.  Whether or not they belong, they do bring quite a few laughs with them, and the film is better through their existence.  I only wish that Allen spent a little longer working on their cohesiveness.

The other outstanding issue with the story, is the treatment of Bobby’s wife Veronica.  Bobby meets her at his night club and then pursues her in a slightly predatory manner.  After their marriage, Veronica is thrown away as a character.  It’s as if her only purpose was to give birth so that Bobby could gain the responsibilities of fatherhood, and to give him reason to pause if only for a moment when expressing his lingering feelings for Vonnie on their reunions.  The role is a waste of Lively’s talents, and an unfortunate instance of using a woman as a prop instead of a person.

The performances in the film, similar to the screenplay, are uneven.  The supporting cast is enjoyable and fit their characters well, though none of there writing leads to much nuance.  Eisenberg and Carell played their standard characters which do seem to fit in Woody Allen’s universe, but seemed anachronistic at times.  Kristen Stewart on the other hand was the standout as she continues to prove that she is one of the greatest actresses working in the indie scene today.  The anguish that Sterwart portrays as she is forced to decide between two loves is heartbreaking and genuine.  I only with the film would have stayed with her for a little longer.

“Cafe Society” won’t go down as a top tier Woody Allen film, but is the best he’s put out since “Blue Jasmine”.  Storaro’s cinematography alone is enough to give the film a look, and the positives in the story and performances add enough to make it an enjoyable sit.

My Trip to SXSW – Narratives

I’m definitely still recovering from my trip to Austin for SXSW, but I wanted to get my thought on the festival on record.  I was there for 8 days of the festival and went to 24 screenings, 22 feature length films and 2 collections of shorts.  I made it my goal to see as many female directed films as I could, and while I failed to get to the 50% mark that I wanted, 8 of the 22 features were female directed (I’m calling myself caught up on 52 films by women).  The 22 features were split right down the middle between narratives and documentaries, and of the 11 narratives, 7 of them passed the Bechdel test.  I’m not thrilled with that percentage, but 64% is about average for all films and 36% female directed films is, depressingly, well above average.

Even though I gave each film a quick blurb while watching them, I want to highlight the best ones that I saw.  Two narratives really stuck out to me, and they both share a similar story of women attempting to deal with a difficult time in their lives.  “Miss Stevens” by Julia Hart is an amazing tale of a teacher who takes three students on a weekend trip.  Lily Rabe plays the titular character who is clearly struggling with some emotional distress as she begrudgingly lets the students into her life.  What really made the film stand out was how they subverted expectations right when it looked like it was about to fall into the standard teacher student cliché.  The left turn from that moment elevates the film to the point that I’m still constantly thinking about it almost a week later.

“Claire in Motion” by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson was my standout film of the festival.  Unfortunately , I have doubts that it will receive much in the way of distribution.  Betsy Brandt plays Claire a woman dealing with the sudden disappearance of her husband.  She meets Allison played by Anna Hollyman who had a secret relationship, though not necessarily sexual, with her husband.  Much like “Miss Stevens”, “Claire in Motion” refuses to fall into a simple cliché, and instead is a really brutal exploration of the mourning process.  The camera work is beautiful, and the emotions moved me.  I hope that my predictions are incorrect and that this film sees the light of day.

Friday, I will return to the 52 films by women project (finally going to see Heart of a Dog by Laurie Anderson).  Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about the documentaries that continue to move me.

SXSW Days 6, 7, and 8

I’ve finished up my stint at the SXSW festival.  I’ll go through the last batch of screenings here, and then do a wrap up as part of my normal post on Tuesday.

Morris from America (Chad Hartigan, 2016)

A coming of age story of 13-year-old African American Morris who has been recently transplanted to Germany.  The relationship between father and son feels genuine and is the highlight of the otherwise unremarkable film.

Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Introduced as the Iranian version of “The Babadook”, I had high expectations for “Under the Shadow”.  While it didn’t live up to “The Babadook”, that was an unreasonable goal, and I do understand why they were compared.  Shideh (Narges Rashidi) plays a mother haunted by her inability to practice as a doctor due to her political involvements during the revolution.  While good for quite a few frights, the ending had an extremely defeatist message uncommon to horror movies so dependent on metaphor that the entire film didn’t sit well.

Spaceship (Alex Taylor, 2016)

One of very few films I actively disliked this festival, I have no idea why this film was given a buzz screening.  Focusing on various bits of a cyber-goth community in Wales, “Spaceship” loosely follows a teenage girl as she continues to struggle with the suicide of her mother from years past.  To pad out the 85-minute run-time, the film takes a somewhat vignette approach at looking at other members of the community, but without any real rhyme or reason.  Of all the films I saw this festival, “Spaceship” was the most pretentious without any payoff.

Before the Sun Explodes (Debra Eisenstadt, 2016)

A very cute story of an unhappy comedian who after being kicked out of his home for the evening, goes home with a fellow comedian.  She helps to give him a new look on life.  While a clichéd set up, “Before the Sun Explodes” does have its twist that makes it stand out from any of the other plethora of similar indie films.

The Slippers (Morgan White, 2016)

A really fun documentary on the ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Slippers” was a ton of unexpected fun.  Starting with the finding of the slippers from the countless MGM warehouses, “The Slippers” ends up focusing on the industry of movie memorabilia collecting, which I personally find fascinating.

Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016)

In stark contrast to the lighthearted “The Slippers”, “Trapped” was a gut-wrenching documentary about the legislation passed recently in hopes of closing as many abortion clinics as possible, most notably Texas HB2.  I’ve done some research on the issues on my own, but was unaware of the magnitude that these laws had had on many southern states.  Extremely informative and important.

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, 2016)

I decided to end my festival with the biggest headliner, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused”, “Everybody Wants Some!!”.  “Everybody Wants Some!!” was definitely a solid Linklater film.  It had the tight pace and dialogue that one would expect, but it didn’t manage to live up to its predecessor.  By focusing on college students instead of high schoolers, the dynamic between the 4-year age difference was dampened, as the difference between 18 and 22 is much smaller than that of 14 and 18.  Additionally, Linklater focused on a much narrower group of characters this time around completely removing any female presence except as an object of physical desire.  “Everybody Wants Some!!” was a fine film, but lacks the specialness that we’ve come to expect from Richard Linklater.

SXSW Days 4 and 5

I’m a little behind so I’m just going to dive in with what I’ve seen the past 2 days.

Animated Shorts

I saw the festival’s animated short selection on Monday morning.  Of the 14 shorts, all were good, but two specifically stood out:

Edmond (Nina Gantz, 2016) – Beautiful stop motion art style and an ingenous dark story made Edmond stand out.

LOVE (Reka Bucsi, 2016) – Seemingly inspired by “Fantastic Planet”, the imaginative world evolution depicted in “LOVE” was my favorite of the shorts.

The Alchemist Cookbook (Joel Potrykus, 2016)

I loved the Joel Potrykus’s 2014 film “Buzzard”, so when I saw that he was premiering his new film at SXSW, I knew that I would have to see it.  While similar in style and theme, at first review I don’t believe that “The Alchemist Cookbook” holds up to the high bar that “Buzzard” set.  It lacks the character depth that made “Buzzard” so enjoyable.

Boone (Christopher LaMarca, 2016)

A very raw documentary on the last few weeks of an independent dairy farm in Oregon.  “Boone” isn’t trying to be a big ticket documentary, but instead depicts a slice of these farmers lives without any artifice.  The compassion that they had for their job sells the purpose of the documentary despite the lack of talking heads or other traditional documentary techniques.

Claire in Motion (Annie J Howell and Lisa Robinson, 2016)

Day 5 started with an early morning showing of “Claire in Motion”.  An absolutely brilliant depiction of the mourning process, this film is the most complete narrative that I’ve seen this festival.  Betsy Brandt’s performance as Claire was emotional without feeling exploitative.  This is the kind of film that I think has real possibility of picking up some form of distribution, and the screenplay deviates enough from expectations that I don’t want to give anything away.  Keep this one on your list.

Good Night Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio (Matthew Conboy, 2016)

An impromptu decision to walk to the Rollins Theater led me to this really well done documentary on the fall of one of the premier underground music scenes at the greedy hands of Vice.  “Good Night Brooklyn” perfectly executed its goal.  After seeing it, I have a strong urge to find some of the local music and art scenes when I get home.  If you have any love of underground, DIY art, this film will be a great sit.

Silicone Cowboys (Jason Cohen, 2016)

Someone suggested this film to me while standing in line a few days ago, so when it fit into the time slot that I was trying to fit perfectly, I decided to give it a shot.  Depicting the rise of computer company Compaq, Silicone Cowboys was a well-made traditional documentary, though nothing about it really stood out.  Interesting while watching but overall forgettable.

The Incomparable Rose Hartman (Otis Mass, 2016)

While Silicone Cowboys didn’t stand out to me, “The Incomparable Rose Hartman” will stick with me.  That may be a little biased as I have a love of photography, but no real connection to the personal computer boom of the early 1980s.  Rose Hartman is also an amazingly energetic and fascinating person.  Hearing her speak, and others speak about her brings an enjoyment to the film.

I have three more days of screenings, and anticipate slowing down a little as the exhaustion of 20+ film screenings exerts its toll.

SXSW Day 3

SXSW Day 3

I had a later start yesterday morning so I could check out one of the many brunch places around Austin (went to Magnolia Café), but I dove back into screenings this afternoon.

Miss Stevens (Julia Hart, 2016)

Teacher turned director Julia Hart set out to subvert the tired clichés of teacher/ student relationships ending in a forbidden romance.  Instead, we are greeted with a nuanced look at the struggles of an emotionally connected teacher.  When one of the students, attempting to make his move and complete the cliché, asks if she’s ever had her heart broken, Miss Stevens breaks into tears over the loss of her mother one year ago.  Miss Stevens had me crying in the theater, and Julia Hart’s discussion after on the struggles of being a female filmmaker made me love her and the film all the more.

American Fable (Anne Hamilton, 2016)

The “American Fable” screening was the busiest screening I’ve gone to yet this year turning people with badges away let alone anyone hoping to get in without one.  While most films I’ve seen so far this festival have been small indie dramedies or niche documentaries, this film had the production value of a studio backed film.  The young girl Giddy (Peyton Kennedy) is thrust into a fantastic set of circumstances, and does her best to make sense of them with her imagination filling in the gaps.  The film exists in her point of view, and as such in a slightly warped sense of reality. Definitely a fun, relatively larger budget interjection into the schedule. 

I Am Belfast (Mark Cousins, 2016)

A portrait of the city of Belfast, Mark Cousins attempt at an experimental documentary unfortunately falls flat to me.  While attempting to recreate the magic of classic films like “Man with a Movie Camera” or “Koyaanisqatsi”, it fails to understand that the kinetic energy of those films is what keeps the non-narrative exploration moving.  “I am Belfast” replaces the energy with slow movement and a droning score.  Combined with being an 11pm screening, and the film did more to put me to sleep than pique my interest.

SXSW Day 2

Quite a few films to talk about today.  I watched one last film on the first day and then 4 yesterday, so I’m just going to jump right in.

9 Rides (Matthew A. Cherry, 2016)

While this film did have moments of brilliance when focusing on the experiences of an Uber driver, the film failed at most levels.  The underlying plot seemed forced, and details were muddled about the driver’s reality.  The film was hastily short, and while there were a few moments of breathtaking cinematography, those moments were overshadowed by more moments of no focus or camera shakiness to the point of unwatchablity.  At minimum, the film needed another screenplay review and a few nights to re-shoot some scenes.

Little Sister (Zach Clark, 2016)

I loved this perfect festival film.  Pleasantly quirky, without all the negative connotation that quirk has begun to take on, this film’s depiction of a broken family had me smiling and laughing for its entire run.  Addison Timlin was convincing in her role of a goth metalhead turned nun and a joy to get to know.  While the film lacks the gravitas to be a major player in theaters, I anticipate highly recommending “Little Sister” for years on various VOD services.

The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (Laura Dunn, 2016)

I’m not sure that this beautifully shot documentary got its intended point across.  I’m also not convinced that that’s a bad thing either.  The film veered from its stated purpose of portraying author Wendell Berry, and instead focused more on the community that he grew to represent, Middle America farmers.  Hearing the plight of the farmer over the past 60 years was more than engrossing enough for a documentary, and the overlaid essay experts from Berry still fit theme.

The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil (Marco Del Fiol, 2016)

Marina Abramovic is one of the most fascinating humans on this planet.  I’ve been engrossed watching footage of her doing nothing but sit and stare into people’s eyes.  It should come as no surprise that her enigmatic persona was more than enough to keep me engrossed in an otherwise banal documentary.  That being said, I will revisit “The Artist is Present” again multiple times while “The Space in Between” will end up being a single time viewer for me.

Ovarian Psycos (Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, 2016)

My favorite film of the festival so far, “Ovarian Psycos” is a great piece of feminism.  We get to know the group of cyclists and the ideals that they stand for.  They provide a loving community for women of color, a group whose rights and protections are lagging far behind due to intersectionality.  Watching the strength that the women get from each other, and their dedication to the community despite personal traumas was endearing.  And as I trans woman, I was very happy to hear them always specify that they were open to all female identified riders despite their name.