This week is a really interesting collection of documentaries, horror, and family fare. One thing I like about writing this is that there are so many unique projects that fall through the cracks. I’ve written at length about how women’s films still don’t get the same advertising that men’s films do, that there’s less risk taken or talent pursued when it comes to studios and distributors backing indie women directors – and that this means a lot of mediocre work from men takes up space where more exciting work by women should be getting discovered. That is particularly stark this week when I talk about Floria Sigismondi, but more on her in a second. First, let’s talk about:
Circus of Books (Netflix)
directed by Rachel Mason
Rachel Mason is a composer and director who decided to tell the story of her own parents: owners and operators of a gay pornography store in the 1980s. As a place for gay people to feel normal at a time when they were even more persecuted than they are today, the store became a beacon for LGBTQ people in Los Angeles. Not only could they see representations of gay people being intimate, the store also featured novels by LGBTQ writers and helped to normalize that culture.
Needless to say, Ronald Reagan’s FBI wasted taxpayer dollars trying to prosecute Rachel’s father, Barry Mason. It became an important First Amendment case. This was a time when Reagan was freely and knowledgeably allowing AIDS to spread and kill people in the United States because he knew it hurt gay people and fostered hate toward them.
“Circus of Books” has gotten exceptionally good early reviews, and it seems important – especially now – to remember a time in history like this. It informs us about many things that are current and a persecution of people in our culture that continues to this day.
(I’ve written briefly about what worries me in the modern context of Trump allowing coronavirus to spread – Reagan is remembered as an American icon, and we can’t simply assume Trump will be sunk for simply doing a very similar thing.)
The Turning (digital rental)
directed by Floria Sigismondi
Floria Sigismondi has been one of the most intriguing music video directors working. Her standout work includes David Bowie’s “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “The Next Day”, Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”, and Fiona Apple’s “O’ Sailor”.
Her previous feature was “The Runaways”, a biopic about the rock band starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie. She’s also directed episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “American Gods”, “Daredevil”, and “Hemlock Grove”. Apologies that this is such a list, but Sigismondi is yet another woman director who would be viewed as an incredible auteur studios absolutely needed to be handing features to…if she were a man.
Horror film “The Turning” wasn’t impacted too hugely by social distancing, as it had already made most of its money in theaters (at least in the U.S.) by the time people started reacting to the pandemic. In today’s terms, this digital release is the first time many will have access to the film, so it’s worth featuring as new.
The least expensive place to rent “The Turning” is from Redbox on Demand for $5. You can also rent it from Amazon, GooglePlay, or YouTube for $6.
Special 7 (Hulu)
directed by Harume Kosaka
Yes, there’s no English trailer for a show with subtitled and dubbed versions. More on that in a moment.
“Special 7: Special Crime Investigation Unit” follows a police investigation team in a modern fantasy world. Its members include a human with burgeoning magical power, another human with very selective luck, a politically connected elf, a samurai vampire, a girl driven by a homonculus, a sniper dwarf, and a boss with a psychic connection to his pet dragon. You know what? That all sounds a little ridiculous, but I will gladly take it over the Criminal Minds/CSI/NCIS/SWAT/FBI/9-1-1/Blue Bloods alphabet soup that’s become our incredibly repetitive pool of samey police procedurals.
Now, about that trailer. I’ve checked and the Hulu version does have both subtitled and dubbed versions. Yet Hulu’s once again failed to create any kind of trailer for new content. That’s stunning considering Americans’ appetite for new anime, and it places their content squarely behind Netflix and the more dedicated anime services like Crunchyroll or Funimation.
This is an area where a very low amount of effort could help Hulu catch up. The translations have already been done, they just need to be cut quickly into new trailers or appended to the pre-existing Japanese ones. It’s such a severe oversight on Hulu’s part, especially when so much of its other content is progressively disappearing to major networks’ own streaming services – like CBS All Access or NBC’s Peacock. Anime is an area where they have a good amount of content both old and new, and where they’ll likely continue to preserve a consistent amount of content. They just aren’t interested in doing the minimum effort to help viewers find that content, which is a cardinal sin for a streaming service.
Is the show the “Law and Order: Wizard City” series I’ve always wanted to see? There’s no way to find out without watching. It certainly can’t be worse than “Bright”.
directed by Alla Kovgan
This was featured before when it came available for rent, but now it’s part of Hulu’s streaming service.
Merce Cunningham was a dancer and choreographer who changed the face of dance. He was known for a guarded artistic philosophy that entrusted interpretation to his audience. He worked with an unending number of avant garde and experimental musicians – perhaps most notably John Cage. The two were also lifelong romantic partners.
Cunningham had no single focus, but what might be most striking was his use of space. Dancers weren’t foregrounded, and his pieces often challenged the idea of a central performer. He removed focal points, encouraging the audience to choose where to look among multiple performers and to have various, sometimes disagreeing, perspectives. He pursued elements of the random in his work. True to his priorities, Alla Kovgan’s documentary of him seems more focused on Cunningham’s dance and choreography than it is on his own story.
Kovgan herself is a fascinating documentary director. She’s pursued stories of dance and music around the world. She’s been particularly focused on how myth survives cultural upheavals through art, and how that art enables an endurance through those upheavals. Her lens tends to focus on dance, but speaks to all art and what it provides us in terms of perseverance and persistence.
directed by Jill Culton
This animated film was an event movie that came out in theaters on more than 4,000 screens last September. In this age of social distancing, it’s worth highlighting something that may not be new – but that is newly accessible to many people. It’s a family film about children helping a yeti escape his would-be captors.
Writer-director Jill Culton spent the first decade of her career with Pixar, working as a story artist on the “Toy Story” franchise and other films. She soon moved over to Dreamworks’ “Shrek” and was brought on board as an early hire at Sony Pictures Animation. Here, she got a chance at her first feature with “Open Season”. It did well enough to spawn a theatrical sequel.
“Abominable” is her second feature film and it’s generally been very well received.
Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint
directed by Halina Dyrschka
I want to make sure I add one last thing. “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint” is available on DVD/Blu-ray now. I can’t find it anywhere for digital rental or streaming, but it’s worth mentioning as a documentary to keep your eye on. It tells the story of a woman skipped over by art history:
Hilma af Klint was an abstract artist who pre-figured much of the abstract art by men that we point to and celebrate as evolutionary. She did it first, it just isn’t taught that way. This documentary looks to both discuss her work, and also why she’s left out of these histories.
It looks like the film was scheduled for a U.S. tour before release, but that must’ve been scrapped due to coronavirus. I’ll feature it again should it become more widely available.
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