Wednesday, October 17, 2018

film review: Transformer

Directed by: Michael Del Monte
Written by:  Michael Del Monte, Paul Kemp
Featuring:  Janae Marie Kroczaleski

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

There are many documentaries about bodybuilders and, more recently, trans-people undergoing gender re-assignment, but Transformer is both.

Director Del Monte strikes documentarian gold in profiling Janae Marie Kroczaleski, who is/was Matt, a world record powerlifter. As a child, Matt added muscle to ward off bullies, and now as an adult with three children of his own, he still doesn't feel comfortable in her own skin. It's revealing when she says that most bodybuilders, with their ripped biceps and calves of steel, suffer low self-esteem. That insecurity is the thread that runs through Transformer.

The footage of him as Matt pumping iron is, of course, breathtaking, but it's downright shocking to see Matt turn into Janae as he dons a wig and make-up, then heads off to a gay bar. It's that clash of feminine and masculine that Janae/Matt highlights to the viewer. Is bodybuilding extreme masculinity? How can Matt be drawn to this side of his masculinity, yet only be happy looking into the mirror as a woman?

The film charts Matt's journey to being Janae, a narrative we have seen before, but Transformer offers a new twist through bodybuilding. It's fascinating to see his parents' very mixed reaction before Matt goes under the knife. It's surprising that his three young sons accept Matt's transformation. (By all appearances, Matt is a loving, devoted father.) Unfortunately, Matt's estranged wife is missing from this documentary. Hers would've been a crucial voice. Missing too are Matt/Janae's current lovers. How would such a person accept Matt/Janae's identity and transformation?

The movie moves towards Matt's inevitable surgeries, but lags towards the end. I suspect the 60-minute TV version will flow better.  That said, Transformer is a strong film (pun intended) that will stir your notions on identity and gender.

Monday, October 15, 2018

film review on VOD: The King

Written and Directed by: Eugene Jarecki
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Chuck D, Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris, James Carville

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

There are countless documentaries about Elvis Presley, but nothing like The King. 

It's a simple premise: drive Elvis' Rolls-Royce across America, and have guests in the backseat tell his life story. But--and here's the difference--reflect on race, class, democracy and militarism in the King's time and today. The effect is puzzling at first, sometimes brilliant and surprisingly insightful about Elvis himself.

Elvis was a poor kid who made it big, the embodiment of the American Dream. But campaign strategist James Carville laments that that dream has vanished, because the disparity between rich and poor has widened too far. That poverty is starkly seen when Elvis' Rolls rolls into his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi where poor blacks as well as whites feel forgotten.

Memphis, the home of Sun Records, is little better. It was the center of the Civil Rights Movement and where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Race dominates this film which explores the thorny issue of whether Elvis culturally appropriated "Negro" music of the early-1950's. Elvis historian Greil Marcus, The Wire creator David Simon, and Chuck D (who called Elvis a racist in "Fight The Power") debate the issue--and their discussion is fascinating, though uncomfortable.

So, was Elvis a racist, or did he simply blend the music he grew up hearing--white country and black blues? Then again, why didn't Elvis endorse the Civil Rights Movement, or even put black people in any of his movies when he had the clout?

Elvis was more than just a brilliant singer, he was a symbol. When he went into the army and starred in G.I. Blues, he heralded American imperialism during the Cold War. Until Elvis' death and beyond, the Colonel's greedy exploitation of his career reflected the ugliest side of capitalism.

Director Eugenge Jarecki is a noted political documentarian (Why We Fight), but despite The King's intellectual and political analysis, his films reminds viewers that Elvis was a person, one with flaws and vulnerabilities, therefore deserving of sympathy. The film's most touching moments come when musician John Hiatt climbs into the Rolls and breaks down, sitting in the place of his hero. Country legend Emmylou Harris laments that Elvis never had a chance to grow up like most adults and so never learned to manage his enormous fame. This weakness ultimately crushed him. "He was doomed," she says.

Many of the guests are musicians, both famous and not, and actually don't sing Elvis' songs in their stunning performances: Emi Sunshine & the Rain, Hiatt and the teenage choir of the Stax Music Academy. There's no shortage of the King himself, given the wealth of vintage footage bursting with sparkling audio.

Celebs and Elvis fans such as Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers and Alec Baldwin, confidantes Linda Thompson and Scotty Moore, and commentators like Van Jones and Dan Rather all weigh in on Elvis. Jarecki gathers an amazing array of voices exhalting, criticizing and commenting on the King. This film makes you think about the bigger picture around Elvis and America, without losing sight of Elvis the musician and pop culture icon. The King is not merely for Elvis fans, but those who want a probing look at America today.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

film review on VOD: Mary Shelley

Written & Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Featuring: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, Douglas Booth

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

When this biopic about the 19th-century author of Frankenstein unspooled in theatres last year, it was greeted with apathy, if not disdain. However, it deserves another look on VOD. Elle Fanning carries this uneven film as teenage Mary Shelley, who rebels against her parents by eloping with the flighty, hedonist poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Leading a life of excess, she arrives at wisdom--and a landmark novel.

Dragging along her younger sister (finely played by Bel Powley), Mary journeys through a world of casual sex and earthly pleasures without a thought (or penny) for tomorrow. The Romantics, as the Shelleys and their ilk were called, were the hippies of early-1800's England, reacting against the uptight rationality and tradition that had straightjacketed England.

Mary Shelley and the Romantics celebrated beauty and imagination, but lacked foresight. Free love was fine, but it also destroyed relationships. And living for today meant being broke tomorrow, especially with a baby in tow, as Shelley had until her infant died.

Fanning does a good job fleshing out the naive, idealistic Mary Shelley who yearns to escape her oppressive stepmother, then transitions into a hardened but wiser young woman. She survives her baby's death, Percy's many infidelities, and poverty. In fact, a feminist streak runs through this film that will strike a chord in today's audiences. Then again, Mary's experiences are supposed to inspire the monster in Frankenstein, a creature who is misunderstood and abused. [spoiler alert] But I didn't sense that Percy horribly mistreated Mary Shelley. Sure, he was a cad, but he also edited her manuscript and championed his wife as the true author of Frankenstein in an age which forbade women from writing books. He stood by her. (The vampiric Lord Byron is the true monster in this film, but that's another story.)

Mary Shelley is a  valid glimpse at the creative process of a pioneering artist. Worth a second look.

film review for VOD: After Everything

Written and Directed by: Hannah Marks, Joey Power
Featuring: Jeremy Allen White, Maika Monroe, Marisa Tomei, Joe Keery 

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

A young New York couple fall in love, except that he comes down with cancer. Not exactly your typical romantic film. This is a brave film for exploring the devotion and anguish that drives these difficult relationships. A solid idea for a movie, but told from whose point of view?

My bet is hers, Mia, a no-nonsense young woman who works in a cubicle at a marketing firm. Maika Monroe does a good job of fleshing out Mia as she falls in love with the aimless yet flirtatious Elliot (Jeremy Allen White). Mia then nurses him through endless rounds of chemotherapy. If you've ever accompanied a loved one to chemo, then you now how wrenching this experience is for both parties. This film captures that pain. Further, Mia keeps the relationship alive, working for them both, and carrying the strain of balancing work and his cancer therapy.

[spoiler alert]
However, the movie loses momentum, after Elliot survives chemo. Mia changes, and you sympathize with her. Elliot turns into a dick, and his story is simply less compelling. If Elliott is tortured inside for how he treats Mia, we don't feel it. Instead, you want to know how Mia extricates herself from this failed relationship. After Everything should have been told from her perspective.

Elliot is a bit of a mystery. We're not sure what drives him outside of his battle with cancer and him chasing girls. What are his vulnerabilities? His dreams? Or maybe he has none. Does the cancer force him to confront his life-to-date and discover something lacking in his character? What does this experience teach him? Don't know.

Marisa Tomei cameos as Elliot's doctor and is a welcome presence. Also, the friends and roommates of both lovers provide colour and humour to offset the dour subject matter. After Everything strives for compassion, but never gets weepy or cliched. Though flawed, it is an honest movie.