Mostly British fest's favored films

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023
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'Emily,' 'Blue Jean,' and 'All That Breathes' screen at the 15th Mostly British Film Festival
'Emily,' 'Blue Jean,' and 'All That Breathes' screen at the 15th Mostly British Film Festival

The 15th Mostly British Film Festival, presented by the SF Neighborhood Theatre Foundation, runs February 9-16 at the Vogue Theater. It introduces 25 new and classic English language foreign films from the UK, Ireland, Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa. As usual, there is at least one LGBTQ offering and other movies of queer interest.

"Emily" is the opening night feature that is a part fictional biographical dramatic film on the 19th-century English writer Emily Bronte and her famous authorial family. In her debut, it is directed by Australian actress Frances O'Connor ("Mansfield Park"). On her deathbed, older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) asks Emily (Emma Mackey) what inspired her to write the novel "Wuthering Heights."

Emily relates her then secret passionate love affair with a new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), despite the disapproval of her older, wayward brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) who dislikes Weightman. There was no screener for the press. However, the reviews in England were excellent, approving of its appropriate Gothic tone in the forbidding Yorkshire Moors, with a story as compelling as its source material.

This year the lesbian film "Blue Jean," directed by Georgia Oakley, concerns Jean (Rosy McEwen, "The Alienist") sporting beach-blonde crop hair like her idol David Bowie, as a closeted lesbian gym teacher (what a shock!) at a poor state school. With the arrival of a gawky teen in her class whom Jean senses is probably lesbian and is being bullied, she must decide whether to defend her, which could invite unwanted suspicions about her sexuality (she has a girlfriend).

The year is 1988 and the infamous 28 bill, introduced by Margaret Thatcher's conservative government and enacted by Parliament, instructs British state schools not "to promote the teaching and acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Thus, homophobia is given the stamp of approval in educational facilities. Unfortunately, no screener was available for the press, but reviews in England were generally quite positive, with critics praising the film for spotlighting working-class lesbian life.

One of the highlights of the festival is the documentary "Quant" on the life and career of trailblazing fashion designer rebel Mary Quant, revered in England as an icon, but not as well-known here in the U.S. Director Sadie Frost's love letter to Quant should remedy that imbalance. She's famous as the creator of the miniskirt and hot pants, although this credit has been challenged by others.

She also invented the makeup kit that included eyeliner, lipstick, face powder, eye shadow, lip gloss now ubiquitous in all cosmetic stores. With aristocratic husband Alexander Plunket Greene as her business partner, she opened up a London boutique in 1955. She designed simple, practical clothes for women to popularize her own motto, "I don't want to look like a duchess."

She was the epitome of swinging London in the 1960s with her Sassoon-bob haircut, becoming the best advertisement for her own line of clothes, which she created so "women could have the ability to run for a bus." She became a brand and though by the 1980s styles had changed, she's still a success in Japan with currently over 200 Mary Quant fashion shops.

Although a standard format documentary with talking head endorsements from model Kate Moss, recently deceased designer Vivienne Westwood, and Kinks guitarist Davie Davies, it reveals, while being a professional groundbreaker, in her private life she was a traditional wife and mother. Despite his family's disapproval, she wed her husband in 1957 and had a fulfilling marriage till Greene's death in 1990.

Quant at age 93 (on February 11), doesn't appear in the documentary, but we see several archival interviews and her son gives moving testimony to her as a mother and her milestone career. There's also a (totally unnecessary) dramatic reconstruction of Quant by actress Camilla Rutherford. This absorbing documentary nicely recreates the bon vivant '60s era and makes a solid case for Quant's uniqueness and vital place in contemporary fashion history.

"Carmen" allows us to imagine the fantasy of women Roman Catholic priests. Carmen (Natasha McElhone, "The Crown"), sister of a stern, joyless priest in rural Malta in the 1980s, has been acting as his housekeeper for decades. When he suddenly dies, she's left with no job, home, or money. "Borrowing" the keys to the now vacant church, she impersonates a priest, acting in secret as a confessor to the townspeople, especially advising dissatisfied women how to get rid of their obnoxious husbands.

Her advice is a success bringing skyrocketing donations to the church, some of which she takes to give herself a makeover, but also steals gold and silver goblets and candlesticks she feels is owed to her for years of service. She brings them to a pawnshop where she meets the young proprietor who takes a shine to her. What will happen to her now that she's in freefall, though the omen of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, always hovering around her portends a happy ending.

The story resembles a fable, even if all the details and the conclusion seem far-fetched. There's a joi de vivre quality to this feminist mid-life crisis. McElhone enchants us with her lead performance because despite her dubious machinations, we ultimately only want the best for her.

"Aftersun" focuses on a father/daughter relationship between 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corie) and Calum (Paul Mescal), about to turn 31, as they vacation at a resort town on the coast of Turkey. Calum is no longer together with Sophie's mother, with some regret on his part about past mistakes. We sense that Callum dies sometime after this vacation. As an adult, Sophie, now 31, is remembering this time with her father twenty years prior and a shroud of sadness hangs over her recollections.

There is a close bond between them, even as Calum shows signs of depression, ominously saying, "I don't expect to make it to 40." What director Charlotte Wells does so amazingly is meld fluid images of memory and experience as we observe fluctuations in their relationship of joy, disappointment, and regret. The adult Sophie in her melancholia is trying to discern who Callum really was. Mescal has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his vulnerable performance. Corie should have also received a supporting Best Actress nod. Here's an opportunity to see this devastating, haunting film before the awards are presented on March 12.

"If These Walls Could Sing" is a documentary on the history of Abbey Road Studios in London, based on the memories and experiences of the musicians who recorded there, in celebration of its 90th anniversary in 2022. Directed by Mary McCartney, Paul's daughter, she shares childhood reminiscences of time spent there.

There's a brief overview of the studio's history beginning with the classical composer Edward Elgar founding it in 1932, but we also view archival footage of cellist Jacqueline du Pres, the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as film projects of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with music by John Williams.

McCartney features interviews with Jimmy Page, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Oasis's Liam and Noel Gallagher, Giles Martin (son of the late legendary Beatles producer George Martin), John Williams, and of course Ringo Starr (looking fantastic at 82) and Paul McCartney (less fantastic at 80). The best moments are McCartney and Starr providing anecdotes about their songs, but this documentary is a rote recounting of a story we've heard many times previously.

For Beatles' fans, it will be enjoyable and nostalgic, but it's slightly disappointing in that it only hints at the excitement and innovations of the Beatles and never quite articulates what made this iconic studio so unique. It currently is streaming on Disney +.

"All That Breathes" has the distinction of being the first documentary to win both the Golden Eye Award at Cannes and the Golden Jury Prize at Sundance. It's the story of two brothers, Nadeem Shehzard and Mohammad Saud, who, assisted by their cousin Salik Rehman, run a bird hospital in their makeshift basement in Wazirabad, (New) Delhi where they've helped cure 20,000 raptor carnivorous black kite birds over the last 20 years. The kites also eat garbage which helps the environment.

But they have been falling from the sky at alarming rates due mainly to pollution, as the city has some of the dirtiest air on earth. Along with overpopulation, New Delhi is experiencing environmental catastrophe. The brothers take huge risks trying to save these birds, since Muslims believe feeding the kites expels troubles in one's life.

However, in the background, we hear radio reports of new legislation against Muslims, which hampers their rescuing efforts. Director Shaunak Sen draws a parallel between the brothers experiencing bigotry and the black kites struggling to survive. The film is mesmerizing with a dreamy, poetic quality assisted by the cinema-verite cinematography.

Despite the filthy surroundings, they explore hypnotic moments of inter-species coexistence. This documentary urges that a balance between humans and nature must occur to maintain an already fragile interconnected ecosystem. Humans need the birds and vice versa.

Caring for all that breathes (the phrase comes from the brother's mother) while a noble sentiment, is very difficult to practice in real time. Nominated in this year's very strong Best Documentary category, it is considered the front runner to win the Oscar. "All That Breathes" premieres on HBO starting February 7, but this is one doc that benefits from watching it on the big screen at the Vogue Theater.

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