Sundance 2020: ‘Miss Americana’ Tries (and Almost Succeeds) to Paint an Honest Portrait of a Pop Star

Four long years ago, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping was released then immediately forgotten about. The much-adored The Lonely Island (the comedy music group and SNL darlings, comprised of comedians and childhood friends Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) were back with their first real contribution to film since 2007’s cult hit Hot Rod, but it came and went with barely a murmur. However, in recent years, the film been reevaluated in parts of the film criticism sphere, acknowledging its overlooked status as somewhat of a comedic masterpiece, as well as a scathing take on the music industry, on the cookie-cutter rise and fall narratives that shape most celebrity profiles, and on the inherent insincerity that comes with attempting to craft a realistic portrait of a person whose entire public identity is more of an idea.

Thus, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping’s legacy entered my mind more than once while watching Miss Americana, the documentary about pop music phenomenon Taylor Swift, and the twists and turns her fast rise to fame endured. It’s the country-turned-pop star’s first public attempt at setting the record straight over a tumultuous past few years, starting with the infamous Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs. This event sidewinded into Kanye and Taylor’s public feud; the recorded phone call, the namedrop in Kanye’s song “Famous,” and a new narrative being crafted around the once-perceived innocent and beloved pop star. Maybe she wasn’t as benign as we had thought. What is with her need to victimize herself in all of her songs? And after her vengeful, bad-girl album “Reputation” dropped in 2017, the public seemed to be making their voices clear. They didn’t want Taylor Swift anymore.

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Review: ‘Badass Beauty Queen’ Goes Behind Anastasia Lin’s Quest For the Truth

If you were given a platform to speak on any issue, what would you choose? What do you think would happen to you for exercising free speech? For some, the stakes are way higher, and the consequences are great. Over the course of history, beauty pageants have served as national stages for young women to shed light on any cause of their choice with some reservations. For a former contestant, the Chinese-born Anastasia Lin, her call to arms would prove to be extremely dangerous and career-threatening.

In 2015, Lin made international headlines when she used her platform to speak out against the human rights crisis in China. In 2016, she made the news again as she advanced to the final round of the Miss World competition in Washington D.C. Lin’s call to action would put her entire family in China in danger, especially her father, a successful businessman. Since 2015, Lin has scored legions of supporters in her plight, yet she is still at odds with the Chinese government.

In the long line of of pageant contestants over time, have any other queens been named ‘persona non Grata?’ Anastasia Lin is the lone woman that has that distinction. “The Badass Beauty Queen” was the term derived from Andrea Thompson’s article in Marie Claire, where she described Anastasia Lin’s fight for freedom of expression in China.

In Theresa Kowall-Shipp’s documentary of the same name, the production follows Lin through her final shot at pageantry, as well as the many attempts to silence her message by the Chinese government and the Miss World Organization. Lin’s story is extraordinary, and one that showcases the importance of the press, standing up for what’s right, and using your platform for the greater good. Badass Beauty Queen is a documentary of which has been years in the making, and one that deserves to be seen.

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EIFF ’19 Review: Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land

Directed by Andy Deere and Ryan Heron, Bludgeon is a documentary which invites the viewer into the fiercely competitive and misunderstood sport of medieval combat in rural New Zealand. Ardently committed to enacting these fantasy battles, players of the sport don antiquated armour and wield handmade swords and battleaxes. Unlike LARPing however, the sport is full contact – players hit hard, and wear costumes weighing almost 30kg. While the film tries to offer insight into the sport and the community who participate in it, what it does instead is covertly invite the audience to laugh at its subjects. 

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EIFF ’19 Review: ‘Sakawa’

Ben Asamoah’s Sakawa follows a group of young Ghanaians, who, facing unemployment and rural poverty, turn to Internet fraud to better themselves. The term ‘Sakawa’ refers to the Ghanaian practice which combines Internet fraud with traditional spiritualist rituals. The Dutch-Ghanaian director manages to capture the intimacy and urgency of this deeply misunderstood subculture, from a compassionate, nonjudgemental gaze. The camera acts as a fly on the wall, hanging back and observing as the group goes about their lives. Through this perspective, the possible tropes of an African developmental narrative are replaced with focused, candid insight. 

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Sundance London ’19: ‘Ask Dr.Ruth’ is a Feature-Length Dedication to Everyone’s Favourite Sex Therapist

Known as the grandmother of sexual liberation, the minute figure of Dr. Ruth Westheimer is an anachronism amongst the mainstream American prudishness of the 1980s. She speaks with a forthright, scientific approach to sexual pleasure, bound to the philosophy that if something isn’t working in the bedroom (or in the living room, or on the kitchen table), then the problem should be remedied, rather than ignored. Even today, her distinctive image still rings as a delightful oddity. Imagine: your lovely gentle Granny telling an audience of millions that they need to utilise the clitoris to achieve orgasm. This is the scene that many envision when considering Dr. Ruth’s career – yet, as Ask Dr. Ruth admirably proves, there is so, so much more to this incredible woman than first meets the eye.

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Ask Dr. Ruth (2019) © Sundance Institute

The documentary begins with Dr. Ruth conversing with Alexa – yes, the Amazon robot – in a charming introduction to a ninety year old who is clearly happy to move with the times. Dr. Ruth laughs as she asks Alexa if she’ll get a boyfriend; “Sorry, I can’t answer that,” the robot abruptly replies, to the complete amusement of both subject and audience. This is a perfect setup for a film which will continue to explore Dr. Ruth’s extraordinarily lovable personality, alongside a deep respect for her academic achievements. 

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“I Wanted to Reflect How Suffocating Gender Norms Can Be” — An Interview With ‘Normal’ Director Adele Tulli

Italian documentaries had a field day at Berlinale this year. Whether it was the innovative Selfie, allowing its subjects to become the cameramen themselves, or the harrowing depiction of Cosa Nostra brutality in Shooting The Mafia, the Southern European country asked hard questions of its society this year. The standout was Normal, the latest documentary from Adele Tulli, which takes a fresh and innovative look at gender stereotypes. Allowing its images — whether it’s boys riding motorbikes, or girls dressing up as princesses, or mothers exercising in the park — to truly speak for themselves, Tulli pushes the absurdity of fixed gender norms to their very limit. We sat down with her to discuss her unique documentary.

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Berlinale 2019 Review: ‘Varda by Agnes’ is the perfect end to an unparalleled career

To capture a lifetime of greatness in just two hours seems like an impossible task, but in ‘Varda by Agnes’, the French New Wave legend accomplishes this and more, producing a documentary which feels almost like an embrace from a wise relative. As she casts her eye back across six decades of her work, Varda recounts anecdotes from her past, accompanied by friends and colleagues, whilst delving into her fond outlook towards film as a medium. In this age of cynicism, 90-year-old Varda’s eternally bright acceptance of modernity feels like a breath of fresh air, and makes for a viewing experience which is truly magical for any film fan. 

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© Cine Tamaris 2018

As an auteur, Varda is confident and passionate when discussing her work, outlining her motivations in an accessible and welcoming manner. The film traces her career with a rough chronology, beginning with her best-known Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), moving through films such as La Pointe Courte (1954), Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), before changing tone to consider the artistic installations that she created in her later career. The completeness of this overlook amplifies just how far the filmmaker’s reach has travelled; from narrative film, to documentary, to modern art, there seems to be very little that she cannot perfect. Each piece is woven with Varda’s acute observational skills, driven by an intrinsic appreciation for humanity. 

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