“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Review: A Breathtaking Romantic Materpiece

By Josiah Wampfler

“Don’t regret. Remember”

It is a bit hard to put into words how emotionally ravaging Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is. Unrequited and ill-fated love has long been a staple of romantic films, especially those of the period variety, but there is something particularly affecting about Sciamma’s film. It is one of those films that completely takes you over from the very beginning and steals your breath by the end. It is, put simply, stunning.

Set on an isolated island off the coast of France, the young Marianne is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse, who is set to be wed to a man from Milan. The catch is – which Marianne discovers once she reaches the island – that she must paint this portrait without Héloïse knowing she is a painter, meaning that she must paint her from memory in between taking walks around the island with her. As the two spend more time together though, an ill-fated love story begins.

As with any romantic film, much of the success of the film lies in the chemistry between the actors and the skill of those actors to portray the emotion not only in the lines of dialogue, but in between the lines as well. On this front, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” succeeds in spades. The two leading women, Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse), give absolutely transcendent performances.

The film is much more inside of Marianne’s experience, which puts extra pressure on Merlant to portray an inner dialogue that can be challenging in a visual medium. But, what Merlant is able to do with the raise of an brow, the tremble of her lip, the quick dart of her eyes, or the slight turn of her head is truly impressive. She lets us in on all the contours of this growing love affair with all these little gestures. A lesser film would have included a narration to help the audience understand the arch of the romance, but Sciamma instead allows Merlant’s non-verbal performance fill in the space. It is a powerhouse performance, both tantalizing and lachrymose, and it allows Sciamma to be frugal with the more overt sexual imagery, putting more emphasis on the smaller moments of sensuality between the two women. The result is extraordinarily titillating.

Haenel for her part, matches Merlant’s performance with a masterclass of her own. Héloïse is much harder to read, and for good reason. Part of the sensuality of romances is the guessing game that happens before two people confirm their feelings to one another. Haenel’s performance is much more stoic and reserved, but she also shares Merlant’s talent for non-verbal performance. I am convinced that you could watch “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” with no sound or subtitles, singularly focused on the eyes of the two women and largely understand the thrust of the narrative. Sciamma has crafted a rare romantic film in which, though their is nudity, it is rarely used for overtly sensual reasons. For “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, the eyes are the windows into these women’s souls and therefore where the sensuality and allure of the film lie.

There are two people behind the camera that ensure these performances are part of a stunning whole: The auteur and her visual craftswoman, Writer and Director Celine Sciamma and her cinematographer Claire Mathon. The screenplay for the film, endlessly quotable as any good period piece should be, is beautifully wrought. The dialogue is poetic without being unrealistic. The pacing is deliberate, but pitch perfect, never becoming too indulgent. And Mathon’s camera seems to choose the perfect way to capture every scene to ensure maximum beauty and emotional resonance. It is a shame that Sciamma as a director and screenwriter and Mathon as a cinematographer were overlooked by the Academy this year. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” owes so much of its success to the incredible work of these two women.

Queer cinema in the last several years has sees to have had a bit of a resurgence, with films like “Moonlight”, “A Fantastic Woman”, “Call Me By Your Name”, and more gaining critical acclaim. Sciamma has quite assuredly made a film that stands toe to toe with those others and is not only an example of excellent queer cinema, but of of excellent cinema in general. Completely overcome and out of breath, just two words were running through my head when “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” cut to black on my TV screen. The first word was stunning. The second: masterpiece.

“Ms. Purple” Review: A Powerful Portrayal of Grief and the Beauty of Letting Go

In just two films, Justin Chon has become one of the most interesting and unique directors working today. With “Gook” he brought a Korean-American perspective to the 1992 LA Riots, told with gorgeous black and white images and a clear knack for finding under-the-radar talent. Now, with “Ms. Purple”, despite also having a small partially Kickstarter-funded budget, it feels like Chon has taken a gigantic step as a filmmaker.

One of the first things you notice about the film is its beauty. The beauty of the lighting. The elegance of Chon’s framing. How gorgeous his characters are. “Ms. Purple”, among other great qualities, is one of the most enjoyable films to look at this year. The visual style throughout, as well as the color-grading, has major echoes of Wong Kar-Wai (which is an automatic draw for me). Yet, Chon and cinematographer Ante Cheng bring their own more modern style to the film to make for a stunning visual experience.

It is in the beauty of the images though, that a story far less pretty and more somber resides. “Ms. Purple” is about a woman taking care of her terminally ill father and needing to reach out to her estranged brother for help. It is about the mending of that relationship and coming to terms with the legacy of their father and their childhood. But, most profoundly, “Ms. Purple” is a film about how sickness and death can take over our lives in insidious ways to the point that we forget to actually live. It is about how the fear of losing someone can make you lose yourself.

Kasie, played brilliantly by newcomer Tiffany Chu, set aside college to care for her father. She was pursuing her passion for piano, but now she hasn’t touched one in quite some time. Somewhere along the way her father’s sickness turned terminal, but Kasie is still caring for him in their childhood home. People keep telling her to move him into hospice care, but she can’t stand the thought of it even after her home nurse quits. So she works nights as a karaoke hostess to pay the bills, which essentially turns into a kind of sex work whether she intended it to or not. Kasie is so far afield from her true passions and self, ashamed of having to do what she does for money but unable to bare the guilt and grief of having to send her father into hospice. She enlists her brother to help with their father and as they all slowly start to repair their familial bonds, she starts to come back to life and take control of her situation again.

“Ms. Purple” is a powerful portrayal of grief and how it can be so much more complex when the death of a loved one happens so slowly. It is a distinctly Korean-American story about the sometimes complicated relationships first generation children have with their parents. It is an empathetic and dignified story of sex work and the dangers that exist for workers. “Ms. Purple” is a fantastically complex and layered film and it tackles everything with a beauty and grace that is so impressive for a filmmaker only on their second feature film. It is a film I will surely be coming back to for future viewings.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” Review: Sometimes Beauty is Enough

I started this film coming down off an energy drink and with a gin and tonic in hand. I was comfortably sleepy getting ready to watch a subtitled foreign film. Yet, this may have been the most perfect way to watch Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. As the fever-dream of a film started, I could tell I was in for a god damn journey.

About 30 minutes in I had to go to the IMDB page because of my confusion. A kind reviewer informed me that the film had been cutting back and forth between the present and 20 years prior and I had not realized it. Once I did, it… helped? I don’t know.

I can’t really explain the plot of the film to you. I can gather bits and pieces, but the whole thing is a little muddled. Yet, I’m not sure it really matters. It sounds like a cop out and it sounds pretentious – and maybe it is – but, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a mood piece. Frankly, it is far too beautiful and far too incredible a spectacle to behold to worry that much about plot. It is a film about loving someone you should have stopped loving long ago. That is really all you need to know I think.

Every single frame of the film is meticulously crafted to create an experience that is truly dream-like. It is gorgeous. It is grimy. It is awe-inspiring. And that is before you get to the 59-minute unbroken tracking shot. Then, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” enters into another level of spectacle. Reality is thrown out the window in more ways than one as you no longer know what is fact or fiction or how the hell what you are watching was even filmed.

And then you get to the end, not completely sure of what you just watched. You miss the characters you barely knew and realize that you have tears in your eyes. For what reason? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, beauty is enough.

*I should note, I did not see this in 3D as it wasn’t available to me, but I’ve heard it is spectacular.*

“The Lighthouse” Review: The Hilariously Disturbing Reason Someone Needs to Check on Director Robert Eggers

By Josiah Wampfler

Director Robert Eggers is fucked in the head and it should be a crime for him to make films. Also, “The Lighthouse” is one of the funniest, weirdest and best films of the year.

At the center of what makes “The Lighthouse” so good is obviously the performances. Who would have known that Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson would make such perfect scene partners? But, this brilliant two-hander brings the actors their biggest challenge in years and they absolutely nail it. Even through the accents, the old-timey dialogue, the beards and the farts (there are a lot of farts), Dafoe and Pattinson manage to bring a true humanity to the characters that we can latch onto. And best of all, they are truly funny! Two actors not necessarily known for their comedy chops deliver on the much needed comedic moments throughout the film.

Beyond the actors, Eggers continues to show himself to be one of the most interesting new directors working today by being obsessed with a more classical style of filmmaking. The film at times truly feels like something made at the height of the black and white era. Shot on true black and white 35mm film and presented in the nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Eggers brings the past back to life on the screen. And it is Eggers images and sound design that deliver on the true horror of the film.

The film is dark. It is grimy. The foghorn is constantly sounding, breaking through the even more constant crash of the waves upon the rocks. With all of this, Eggers delivers a foreboding and genuinely unnerving atmosphere. And when you add Dafoe’s crotchety, abusive Thomas Wake to the mix, you get a place that truly feels a bit like hell on earth and Wake is its devil.

Thematically, there is a lot you could pull from “The Lighthouse” depending on how you choose to interpret it, but for me, the thing that kept on going over and over in my mind was the analogue of Dafoe’s Wake as the boss and Pattinson’s Winslow as the worker. In this way, “The Lighthouse” retools the age old story of Prometheus into one of class struggle. In the end, the overly hyperbolic phrase I could use to sum up my reading of the film and the one I could not stop thinking would be this: Kill your bosses.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as sparring lighthouse keepers who drive each other mad in Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse.” CREDIT: A24 Pictures

“Transit” Review: A Beautiful, Yearning Masterpiece About Fascism in Our Time

By Josiah Wampfler

“Transit” is yet another brilliant masterpiece from director Christian Petzold, following his superb 2014 film “Phoenix”. While Petzold returns to his fascination with the World War II era, the master stroke he plays with “Transit” is to tell the story of a man trying to flee France from the impending Nazi occupation in present day. With the modern setting, this story of the impending onslaught of fascism takes on an urgency and prescience that make this a truly powerful and important film.

If there is one word that comes to mind when I think about “Transit” it is longing. There is such a sense of longing to the film and in so many different ways. There is the obvious longing of Georg to escape France, a longing he shares with many others, though with a difference in degree. There is the longing of men who feel they must leave behind the people they care about in both the character of the doctor and of Georg himself. And the longing of those who may be left behind.

Even the camera has a longing to it, with its slow, methodical cinematography. The images inspire both a dread of the enclosing fascist forces and the longing for our characters to make it to safety, but also the magnificent beauty of coastal France and the longing to stay. It is a longing that helps us understand the reticence of many characters to leave, even though we know the dangers that await them if they stay.

But most profoundly, there is an overwhelming sense of longing to do the right thing and a struggle to know what that is. This question of morality constantly butts up against the characters’ desire for survival and it reveals more than we may care to admit about the current state of the world and our own complicity with the rise of right-wing forces. In one particularly revealing scene, the hotel Georg is staying at is raided by immigration authorities. He remarks through the voice-over as he and the other residents watch a family being dragged from the hotel that none of them could look one another in the eye because of the overwhelming shame. All they can do is stand there, eyes toward the floor as the family screams in terror.


“Transit” has quite aptly been compared to “Casablanca”, as it has similar plot points and similar morally grey protagonists. This is not to say it is a remake or a copy though. I think “Transit” is much more grey all around when it comes to the morality of characters’ decisions than the Bogart classic. The love story at the center is much more messy, and unlike “Casablanca”, the ending to Petzold’s tale is far less hopeful in regards to the state of our characters and turning back the tide of fascism. There is no defiant scene of bar patrons singing “La Marseillaise”. Ironically, though “Transit” is the film actually set in France, there is much more rebellious French spirit to be found in the foreign-set “Casablanca”. In Petzold’s “Transit”, the prospect of any real resistance is quite absent.

And though Paula Beer is certainly as stunning a leading lady as Ingrid Bergman (and gives an incredible performance to match), Franz Rogowski is a much less classic leading man than Bogart. He is not confident like Rick Dalton or classically good looking. Yet, Rogowski is absolutely perfect in the role. His actions in the film are morally complex, yet through the masterful performance you are able to connect quite deeply with him and understand even some of his more questionable choices. And there is an undeniable chemistry between Beer and Rogowski that helps to sell a romance that otherwise may have appeared far too quick for some. His timidity and reticence matches the general feeling of many around him. The world is coming to an end in this coastal French city, but no one knows exactly what to do, so for many life just goes on.

After two viewings, I have no doubt that “Transit” is a bonafide masterpiece, one of the best films of the year and will keep me coming back for more. It is the “Casablanca” for our times and the one we truly deserve; A film that is complex and doesn’t spoon feed us hope, because hope requires action to be realized. Will we take that action or, like the residents of Georg’s hotel, will we avert our eyes because of the shame?

“Little Woods” Review – Your Choices are Only as Good as Your Options Are

By Josiah Wampfler

It is unfortunately all to rare to see films that realistically deal with poverty and deal with it in a way that recognizes it as a systemic problem largely outside the control of the individuals and families caught up in it. “Little Woods”, from first-time filmmaker Nia DaCosta, is one of the rare films. As DaCosta’s own characters recognize in the film, poverty is a cycle and individual choices only do so much when a system of generational income inequality is standing in your way.

The film centers on Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) as they struggle to pick up the pieces after their mother’s death. Ollie is a few days away from the end of her probation. She got caught running prescription drugs across the U.S.-Canada border, something she was pulled into doing when her mother was sick. Deb, living in trailer parked in the parking lot of a shuttered department store with her son, finds out she is pregnant once again. She needs an abortion, but the closest place to get one is hundreds of miles away and she doesn’t have the money to afford the procedure anyways. On top of all the two have to deal with, the one thing they have in the world of any value – their mother’s house – is being foreclosed on.

“Little Woods” shows how expensive it is to be poor. It shows how many times, the only options available to people who find themselves in the hole of poverty is to keep on digging deeper. And by setting the film in rural North Dakota, DaCosta shows the unique struggles poverty presents in such a desolate location when you have few friends, even less opportunities for employment and an entire system working against you. I have seen some audience members claim that the film deals tries to deal with “too many social justice issues”, but this denies the reality of poor people in Ollie and Deb’s situations. The simple fact is, their lack of money means they will be confronted with these issues more than others. They are not insulated from these issues by class position like – I presume – many of the people making these claims.

No, “Little Woods” is the rare film that presents a super realistic picture of poverty. And in doing so, DaCosta also recognizes the bleakness of it. It is not the typical Hollywood bleakness usually associated with films about drugs, poverty or “social issues”, but a subdued bleakness. Because the most depressing part is realizing that none of this is shocking or new to the characters. They’ve been dealing with these types of situations their entire lives. As you’ll sometimes hear around my own part of rural America: “Same shit, different day.”

What truly saves the film from being bogged down in the bleakness of the situation is the performances of Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Thompson gives a lead performance I’ve been waiting to see her get the opportunity to give. And James is a revelation. She adopts a look, an accent (a pretty damn accurate Midwestern accent at that) and an essence I have never seen from her. The relationship between their two characters, though strained for various reasons, is the anchor to the entire film. What both of them are willing to do for each other and their family is inspiring.

“Little Woods” unfortunately was criminally under-seen when it came out in theaters (largely because it didn’t get the distribution it needed). I hope now that it is available to stream that it will find more of an audience. Poverty is one of the most important issues facing the country and I believe that films such as “Little Woods” have a role to play in spreading the empathy that ultimately will lead to solutions.

“Hustlers” – Schadenfreude for The Children of the Great Recession

By Josiah Wampfler

“Hustlers” is everything I want in a big mainstream hit. It’s fun as hell, visually dazzling, has some absolutely tremendous performances at the center, it is smart as hell and has something to say. It is the kind of film that doesn’t often get made. In fact, “Hustlers” is a particular crossroads of different things that you just don’t see in a $155 million worldwide hit.

First off, films as popular as “Hustlers” rarely even deal with sex work, making the film’s treatment of the profession truly remarkable. This isn’t a pity party for these women like so many other films are. It doesn’t demonize strippers and sex workers, but it also doesn’t present an overly-idealized version of being a stripper. “Hustlers” celebrates the athleticism of these women (see: Jennifer Lopez’s opening dance number), lets us experience the joy they get out of it, but also recognizes the problems and abuse they can face. There have been valid criticisms from real-life strippers and sex workers about how accurate the film actually is. This is not discounting those criticisms, but I think on the whole “Hustlers” seems to be fairly accurate when it comes to nature of the profession and does a much better job than most films.

Another thing that we still see far to infrequently is a massive worldwide hit like this being directed by a woman. I unfortunately have not seen either of Lorene Scafaria’s previous two films, but “Hustlers” makes me want to change that, and the film’s success likely guarantees I will be seeing more of her in the future. She directs the hell out of this movie. The film has an incredibly interesting visual style that has the sweeping camera movement reminiscent of a Scorsese film, but that also feels a bit more relaxed and restrained. The film is energetic, but in its smooth, deliberate movements it mirrors the dancers: It is sexy. Yet, there is definitely a female gaze to the film that revels rightly in the beauty of the women, but also doesn’t reduce them to mere objects like the male gaze tends to do.

But, the thing that makes “Hustlers” such a truly remarkable and stunning film is the writing and what it has to say. We are thankfully starting to see more films about poverty, income inequality and specifically the 2008 financial crisis (a la “The Big Short”), but few provide what “Hustlers” provides. In “The Big Short” we see the evil of the banks first-hand, the actual human cost is explained to us and we grow to hate those responsible. But, they get away with it. There are no consequences.

“Hustlers” provides us with catharsis. We get to see these Wall Street assholes get bamboozled out of their blood money. We get to see them for the douchebags that they are. Yes, the women end up crossing into morally repugnant areas and doing obviously illegal things. Yes, the film is also about how you can become that which you hate. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it. And I don’t think it means we shouldn’t enjoy it. None of the people who caused the 2008 financial crisis ever went to jail. None of them faced any real consequences. “Hustlers” is schadenfreude for a nation that was so royally dicked over and never got justice.

And it is Lorene Scafaria’s writing that so brilliantly channels this and the performances of Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu that perfectly synthesizes this. Not only does the film contain dozens of endlessly quotable lines (“This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”), but Scafaria manages to craft a film that feels like a gigantic fuck you to Wall Street while also recognizing the moral complexity of the events and telling an incredibly touching story of a deep friendship mired by this scandal. It is a story of women trying to survive under capitalism and how the system can lead survivors to become the predators.

It is this dynamic that leads to such a compelling relationship at the center of the film, and Lopez and Wu provide the incredible chemistry to fully realize a relationship that makes for a surprisingly potent emotional cocktail. Both women are absolutely pitch perfect, leading a cast that includes several other fantastic performers. And in the end, it is these performances that make the film not just smart, well-directed, and well-written, but fun as all hell. It isn’t just schadenfreude because we get to work out our anger at the Wall Street bros by seeing them lose money, but that we get to laugh with these women who they mistreated. In the end, “Hustlers” among its many other qualities gives those fucked over by Wall Street the last laugh. That is worth something at least.

A Young Pastor Reflects on Faith & Doubt in the BBC’s “Broken”

By Jacob Wampfler

There are times when you run across something so moving, so beautiful that you are left utterly speechless. You know as you are experiencing it that you will never forget it for the rest of your life. This began, for me, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and noticed a plug for a TV show called Broken. My interest was automatically piqued when I saw Sean Bean’s name attached to the lead role. It’s also on the BBC for which I have much love following my repeated viewings of Luther starring Idris Elba. The mention came from an Australian theologian, Michael Frost, and he also linked to a Bible study that could be used with the show throughout the church season of Lent. As a pastor, I’m always looking for these moments. A TV show, a book, a film that might challenge me or help me grow in my ministry. I am always searching for ways to be a better pastor and serve my people and community better and more fully. I had no idea that Broken would rip my heart out yet make it whole again in the span of six episodes. I never expected this show to convict me in my calling and remind me precisely why I began my reluctant journey towards ministry many years ago.

Broken - episode 4

I don’t want to be specific about Broken in this review. What I will say, however, is that this series builds on a growing filmic tradition of examining faith in the midst of doubt. The Christian church throughout time has a difficult history to say the least. It would be exceedingly simple to highlight all of its flaws – of which there are thousands. In this respect, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary and Martin Scorsese’s Silence immediately came to mind as I watched Broken. These films do not ignore the problems within the church and the faith of those who belong to it. They are complicated, messy, just like the characters they show on-screen. They ask more questions than they set out to answer. They don’t spoon-feed the viewer, but rather send you away moved, changed. In my heart of hearts, I hope that Paul Schrader’s upcoming First Reformed follows suit. These are stories that need to be told about faith. People are broken as are the pastors and priests who serve them. As such the series is aptly named. My own brokenness was laid bare by these characters and their stories, and I believe I will be a better pastor as a result.

Broken sets out to share it’s complicated stories over the course of six episodes with a run time of roughly six hours. It’s grueling to be completely honest. But that’s the point. Writer and showrunner Jimmy McGovern did not design Broken to be easy viewing. Where other shows or films would cut away, McGovern’s gaze stays fixed. It’s in this darkness, this crushing misery, where we also find hope. I once heard a pastor of a predominantly African-American church in my community preach on the story of Joseph. Abandoned and thrown into a pit by his own brothers, Joseph had every reason to despair, to give up. The pastor’s overwhelming point, however, was this: you have to go through it. Whatever darkness you’re experiencing, whatever “pit” you’ve been thrown into – you have to live through it to get to the hope on the other side. Broken takes you to the lowest of lows imaginable. Yet it leaves you with a hope for humanity that will make you smile amidst the tears.


This show specifically speaks to me due to its uncanny accuracy of real-life ministry. I have seen some criticisms of the series that point out the coincidence of one priest encountering such a plethora of systemic issues in the span of weeks. Those concerns aren’t necessarily overblown, but speaking personally, a pastor can run the entire gamut of the human experience in a matter of days. I have performed funerals, weddings, and baptisms all in the span of 48 hours. I have held the hand of a dying man and driven down the street to the church school only to be greeted by the joyful faces of children. I have sinned deeply yet am called upon to consecrate the bread and wine for communion, knowing full well my own unworthiness and shame. My mentor and friend writes about this in one of his books. He calls it secondary traumatic stress, a term used elsewhere in the mental health arena. These events on their own may seem negligible or insignificant. But when they begin to compound on each other, they become a burden that no pastor or priest can bear on his or her own. Sarah Hughes of The Guardian put it best when she said, “Throughout it all Bean slowly, carefully builds up a portrait of a man who is both a part of this community and yet somehow apart from it, who gives freely of himself yet sits alone at the local bar, donning his sadness just as he puts on his chasuble for mass. As a study of loneliness it is thoughtful, subtle and ultimately mesmerising: a picture of a man on the verge of breakdown who is holding himself together through sheer faith and a desperate desire to atone.” I nearly wept when I read this description because of its brutal yet honest truth. Thankfully, Bean’s Father Michael Kerrigan is not utterly alone in Broken. He has a mentor and confessor, another priest with whom he can share his burdens. I am blessed to have such a relationship as well. Without that release, I would have quit nearly as soon as I started my ministry.

I’ll leave you with this. No matter what you believe, no matter who you are – watch Broken. It’s the story of a man who, with his entire being, wants to make his little corner of the world a better place. It’s about people who are yearning, desperate for connection and love from other human beings. It’s about faith in the midst of doubt and how despair only triumphs when we let it. And ultimately, it’s about me. It’s about the brokenness that I carry with me every day even though I try very hard not to show it. Broken is about all of us, and it has changed this young pastor’s life forever.  



“Strong Island” – A Man Tackles Race in America Through an Investigation of His Brother’s Murder

Strong Island is such a striking film because, even though it revolves around a murder, it is not your typical crime documentary. In the film, first-time director Yance Ford investigates his brother’s murder, but we never see the killer’s face and his name is never spoken. When William Ford was shot and killed in 1992 by a white man, the case never even went to trial, and it has haunted the Ford family for years. Through extremely emotional and powerful interviews with his family and friends, Yance Ford explores the racial dynamics that led to the murder and the ultimate failure for the grand jury to indict. And through William’s case, we see parallels to more recent incidents of racial bias and the toll unjustified deaths like these take on families.

One of the most important aspects of Strong Island is how it gives space for the Ford family to be angry and for us to see the emotional and physical toll of William’s death. Too often, we see the families of black men killed unjustifiably only for a brief period of time. We don’t often see the type of righteous anger that Ford shows us and we never see the long-lasting effects an event like this can have on families. We see that with Yance’s father, who passed away soon after William was killed, and his mother, who dealt with health complications for years before ultimately passing away.

Strong Island also, importantly, does not portray William as an angel and questions why his killer, and society as a whole, are fearful of black and brown men. Toward the middle of the film, we hear about an incident between William and his eventual killer. William, angry about the guy disrespecting his mother and not having his car work done yet, throws a vacuum cleaner and picks up a car door and slams it down. Eventually, we find out that this is the reason the grand jury did not indict.

Yance asks the question, “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Even though his brother was unarmed at the time of the shooting and several yards away; Even though the incident that caused “fear” happened several weeks earlier; The grand jury thought that his was reasonable self defense. What does that say other than the grand jury thought it was reasonable to be scared of a large black man?

Through a thoroughly engaging film, Yance Ford spells out something that I don’t think a lot of people understand: A person does not have to be completely innocent to be undeserving of being killed. Too often we see the media try to demonize people of color who are unjustifiably shot or we see this rush to prove that they were incredible superhumans of goodness. But they don’t have to be angels. The point is, people of color in the United States should not have to be good to avoid getting killed, and that is a point Strong Island makes brilliantly.

Strong Island is the perfect example of the good that awards bodies can do by recognizing films like it. Even though the film was on Netflix, it wasn’t even on my radar before it got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Netflix, seriously, do better promoting this stuff…). Once I watched it, I saw immediately why it was nominated. Not only does it tell a story that is incredibly moving and important, but Yance Ford also made a beautiful film. There are so many shots throughout the film that have stuck with me, like one where the world is upside down while the camera glides down a street on the front of a car. Or the extremely striking moments where Yance speaks directly to the audience, his eyes clearly conveying the anger, sadness and loss of this painful story.

Personal, enlightening and heartbreaking, Strong Island is as frustrating as reality. The Ford family never got the answers they desire. They never got the justice they deserve. And Yance Ford doesn’t have the answers or justice for his audience. All he can do is ask the questions that will hopefully lead to justice for other men like William.

“Lady Macbeth” – A Period Drama with a Dark, Twisted Edge

By Josiah Wampfler

“Look like the  innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t”

Lady Macbeth – Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Lady Macbeth may not be directly adapted from the famous Shakespeare play (It is an adaptation of the book Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District by Nikolai Leskov), but it takes this quote from Lady Macbeth herself to heart. Under the careful direction of newcomer William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth starts in a fairly familiar place making you believe that it may just be a traditional period drama. But, very quickly, we discover the darkness underneath the surface. Our main character is not the innocent facade she puts forth to the world. Katherine Lester, like Lady Macbeth, is that serpent.

We enter Katherine’s (Florence Pugh) story as she is being married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton). It is soon clear though, that he is not interested in her and he harbors a great deal of disdain for her. On their first night together he orders her to disrobe, takes a long hard look at her and climbs into bed and falls asleep. It is here we start to see the hardship and even the boredom faced by a woman in 1860s England. Katherine’s father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), tells her to her face that he considers her no more than property; a means to an end; a way for his son to produce an heir. She is then understandably relieved when she finds out that Alexander and Boris will be leaving for an extended period of time and she will have the house to herself.

This is where Pugh truly begins to shine. I felt while watching Lady Macbeth like I was watching Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone; Like I was watching a star be born. Here where we start to see “the serpent under’t”, but Oldroyd smartly also gives us a reason to root for Katherine. We see her finally escape the house that has been her prison to walk the beautiful England countryside and we bond with her in her delight. But then, things get complicated as Katherine begins an affair with one of her husband’s workers, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). As Katherine and Sebastian fulfill their desires together, we see her liberated, but we sense something sinister underneath. When Boris finally returns, that sinister serpent reveals itself as she shows that she will stop at nothing to keep her newfound freedom and she doesn’t care who she has to hurt in the process.

Chief among those harmed by Katherine’s ruthlessness is Ana (Naomi Ackie), a black woman who serves as her main housemaid. With Ana’s character, Oldroyd brilliantly shows the complexity of oppression. Katherine treats Ana much the same as the men in her life treat her: with disdain. She shows no appreciation for the work that Ana does and even her affair with Sebastian is a slight to Ana as Katherine first meets him when she find him and the other workers harassing Ana. Eventually Katherine quite literally bullies Ana into silence when she involves her in her devilish schemes. Through this, Oldroyd shows us how, in an oppressive society, the oppressed can quickly become the oppressor.

Lady Macbeth is a slow descent into darkness and that descent is carried brilliantly by Pugh’s performance and Oldroyd’s patient, steady camera. Pugh is very careful not to show us who the true Katherine is for much of the film. Even in the most intimate of moments, there is facade. The brilliance of the performance is how Pugh doles out those little moments of truth. Every cold glance or icy stare warns us about what is to come and Pugh sells each one masterfully.

Both empowering and revealing, Lady Macbeth is the perfect twist on the period drama. The devilishly entertaining performance from Pugh and the thought-provoking way the film deals with oppression and race make Lady Macbeth easily rise above the rest. Oldroyd and Pugh have certainly made their mark and I can’t wait to see what they do next.