Berlin 2016: Strike a Pose

20 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray finds Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s doc about Madonna’s Blond Ambition-era dancers moving and enjoyable


Look around everywhere you turn is heartache
It’s everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know

These oh-so-familiar lyrics, from one of Madonna’s all-time bangers, ‘Vogue’, serve as a compressed description of the lives depicted in documentary Strike A Pose, though like the song, there’s a lot more fun to be had here than the literal angst these words suggest.

Goodness know how many documentaries, from the respectable to the cheap TV cash-in, have been made about Madonna. Strike A Pose, from Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, instead smartly takes as its focus the less-documented subject of her backing dancers from the Blond Ambition era.

At their most prominent in the ‘Truth Or Dare’ video (featuring an unscripted gay kiss, radical at the time), over which some of the dancers subsequently sued Madonna, they have largely faded from the limelight since. Even at their height, for many fans, they were viewed collectively, rather than as individuals. This film aims to correct that.

Since the dancers are virtually all gay, virtually all classically trained, and boast an intimate familiarity with the New York drag-ball scene, the chap who initially stands out is Oliver Crumes III, who never trained as a dancer, instead growing up dancing to hip-hop, and, as he admits, scorning gay culture. A flamboyant dresser, one of the other dancers recalls wondering at the time of this odd-man out: “How can you be homophobic? You look like a parrot.” His adjustment to being the only straight in the village makes for a heartwarming journey.

Indeed, heartwarming journeys are the order of the day, as each dancer gets their moment in the spotlight, 25 years on from their heyday, to connect with the camera and share their memories and an update of where their lives have gone since.

Tragedy is abundant – not everyone survived, and some are coping with illness, or have had to fight addictions – and yet the tone is also sweetly comic. That’s largely due to the charm of these open-hearted former peacocks, now chastened by life post-fame, but still able to flash the charisma that secured them the gig in the first place.

Formally unadventurous, the film is largely comprised of talking heads and archive footage, until arguably the most moving scene, where the lads are reunited, a couple of decades after they all drifted apart. The absent figures of dancer Gabriel Trupin, who died of AIDS at just 26, and of Madonna herself, are felt, but in the case of Madonna it feels right that she is not present – we sense the absence of this mother figure in their lives more keenly than if it all ended with contrived hugs and smiles.





Berlin 2016: Kate Plays Christine

17 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Documentaries, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray is gripped by a blend of documentary and fiction exploring an anchorwoman’s on-air suicide in 1974…

Kate Plays Christine

Kate Plays Christine

Boy, is this a film that could have gone very wrong indeed. A risky subject matter (suicide), combined with a formally risky approach (half-fictional, half-documentary, all high wire act), combine in writer-director Robert Greene’s exploration of the 1974 on-air suicide of anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck, via the device of an actor, Kate Lyn Sheil, preparing to play her in a cinematic re-enactment.

With almost irritating finesse, Greene pulls it off, wavering occasionally in a manner reminiscent of a tightrope walker whose wobbles are part of the performance. But perhaps that unfairly suggests the film is a stunt – it’s much more than that.

In other docs, the pertinent opening act information about Chubbuck would have been largely expositional – here, we’re watching Sheil react to the information in real time as a natural consequence of her research process. What we’re experiencing feels human, rather than like a forensic analysis, but confers the same benefits as a forensic analysis in terms of imparting information, with added layers of emotional richness. And that’s the film in microcosm.

With less intelligent handling, this approach could easily have crashed and burned. We never know quite how much of what we’re seeing is scripted, or rehearsed reality, or improvisation, or straight documentary, and that disorienting mixture feels intentional. This is non-fiction film-making with the stabilisers taken off.

Sheil’s performance is a big part of this success. It’s a role that could have been overly “actress-y” or affected, as she searches for commonalities and points of difference with what tabloids would call the “tragic figure” of Christine Chubbuck. The film plays sly games with our desire to both see and not see what happened, pushing and pulling in different directions and needling at our obscure sense of guilt: why are we drawn to such lurid subjects?

Greene doesn’t offer easy answers, but does interrogate the role of the camera in such transactions, which is why Chubbuck’s case is such an apt one – this was a performative suicide, informed by the presence of the camera, the rhetoric of her last words hand-crafted in the language of the newsroom: “In keeping with Channel 40′s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.”

The detail Kate Plays Christine pulls out of this statement that I’ve found myself returning to most since watching the film is the word “attempted”. The precision of her choice of words is chilling; she didn’t know whether she would succeed and was therefore accurate to the last, a macabre piece of journalistic pedantry.

Robert Greene is the first ever winner of the writing prize at Sundance for authoring a film classified as a documentary, and the award is significant in recognizing the capacity of docs to go beyond ripped-from-the-headlines polemics or putatively objective reportage. It is to be hoped that the honour also helps distributors (Dogwoof are handling in the UK) in drawing the audiences this film deserves to cinemas.

See other coverage from the Berlin Film Festival





Berlin 2016: Homo Sapiens

13 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals, Uncategorized

We’re now three days into the Berlin Film Festival, and despite fierce competition from some hotly-tipped heavy hitters (including world premieres of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special & Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, to name but two), the film that has made the biggest impression, and continues to stick with me, was one I saw on opening night: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens.

Homo Sapiens is the perfect festival film. It is dialogue-free, and consists of a series of static camera shots from abandoned, dilapidated and overgrown locations from around the world, presented without commentary or descriptive text. For an hour and a half.

Now, before you high-tail it to your nearest Deadpool screening, bear with me a minute. Festivals give you the opportunity to take a risk with the sort of films you wouldn’t normally go to see (or even be able to see) at your local multiplex. Often those risks don’t pay off, but sometimes they do, and when they do you can feel your cinematic horizons broadening with every frame. Enter Homo Sapiens, a film of formal simplicity that provides a wholly unique, and utterly enthralling viewing experience.

A shot fades in, and immediately the viewer is drawn into an eerie game of cinematic  I Spy, encouraged to decode the image, reverse-engineer the effects of time, rewind the decay to figure out where we are, and what we’re looking at. A golf course? A supermarket? A scrap yard? Geyrhalter cheekily – or cautiously, or cruelly – omits specific location information even from the film’s end credits, so we’re left on our own, scrutinising for clues as we luxuriate in each image’s immaculate composition (a sequence featuring shards of sunlight cutting through holes in the ceilings of cathedrals and cinemas is one of many highlights). Is that a hammer-and-sickle emblem over there? Are we in a former Soviet state? A vending machine stands tall, out of place in a thicket of weeds – is it inscribed in Japanese?

Homo Sapiens makes the modern world seem strange, and before long there’s an odd sense of welcome familiarity, even nostalgia, when recognisable iconography appears, be it a McDonald’s sign or a Twilight film poster. This is the present-day post-apocalypse, and we’re picking through the rubble, accompanied only by wildlife, the elements and the sound of what remains when the human element is removed.

This deserves to be seen on the big screen (in Dolby Atmos if possible), and with any luck it will become an indispensable text for anyone embarking on a project set in a world where human society has collapsed. With this collection of astonishing imagery, Geyrhalter has revealed that such places already exist – you just have to find them.




Berlin 2016: Hail, Caesar!

12 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals

Film4 Site Editor Michael Leader reports on the Berlinale’s opening film, written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen…

Hail Caesar

Since it follows the Coen Brothers’ essayistic dive into 1960s Greenwich Village, Inside Llewyn Davis, by three years, there’s a temptation to expect Hail, Caesar! to be a similar exploration of a community on the cusp of change. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a character based on a fearsome fixer and architect behind numerous notorious cover-ups during his time as an MGM executive, is the latest example of what is becoming something of an archetypal Coens protagonist. Like Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, he is plying his trade in the midst of social upheaval; ‘real world’ threats both spoken and subtly implied, from television to McCarthyism, loom over Mannix’s kingdom, and hint that tinseltown’s lavish spectacle may falter in the post-war, Atomic age.

However, for most of the film, his crisis of faith is a mere backdrop for a smorgasbord of arched-eyebrow pastiche, with the Coens taking the opportunity to roam free on an idealised backlot, hopping from studio to studio and peeking in on broad riffs on familiar 40s films. Hail, Caesar! soon reveals itself to be best described with statements voiced, like its title, in exclamation. Channing Tatum – in an athletic, Gene Kelly-style musical number! Tilda Swinton – as identical twin gossip columnists! Scarlett Johansson – as a seasoned starlet in the thick of a potential scandal! What initially presents itself as an existential drama coiled around a caper (involving the kidnapping of a caddish Kirk Douglas-alike, played by George Clooney) soon unfurls into a series of impeccably realised routines, eye-catching cameos (Christopher Lambert, as a European-in-exile director?!) and film-fan in-jokes.

There’s much to enjoy here, not least a standout turn for Alden Ehrenreich, who turns a parody of wooden Western stars into the film’s most unironically winsome character, but those who responded to Inside Llewyn Davis’ mingling of drama and cultural criticism might be left a little baffled by this lighter, fanciful take on a dark aspect of industry history. Scurrilous tales of Golden-Age Hollywood have experienced a revival in recent years, thanks in no small part to film critic Karina Longworth’s enthralling podcast You Must Remember This and Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ noir-ish crime comic The Fade-Out, which both draw inspiration from Mannix’s exploits. With that in mind, Hail, Caesar!’s most surprising quality is – in the face of Hollywood Babylon-esque legend – that it presents a rather uncynical, even romantic, view of a bygone era and cinema itself. And isn’t that the best way to start a film festival?