The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

This is another of my “held” reviews. I reviewed this film before it screened at the 2010 Frameline festival. At the time, I wrote a full review, which I planned to post just before the picture’s full release. More than two years later, it  still hasn’t been released. So I’m posting this now.

B Period drama

  • Written by Jane English
  • Directed by James Kent
Think of this as a lesbian Merchant-Ivory picture. It’s set in England in the early 19th century. There’s plenty of top hats, bustles, corsets, and very proper diction. You’ve got great British actors behaving in civilized and polite ways, while barely containing the passions on the inside.

Merchant-Ivory films (and their imitations) have always been about suppressed sexual feelings, so the form seems appropriate for a gay romantic drama. The idea seems, in fact, quite promising.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister doesn’t quite live up to that promise, but it’s diaryannelister a more than respectable effort. Miss Lister has a story worth telling, and screenwriter Jane English and director James Kent show grace and economy in the telling of it. (Besides, if someone is going to make a movie about very proper Brits, shouldn’t their names be Jane English and James Kent?)

A disclaimer of sorts: I saw this film on a DVD screener before it opened the 2010 Frameline festival. The version I saw was unfinished, missing some off-screen dialog, other sounds, at least one special effect, and even closing credits. I suspect the music was a temporary track. Subtitles occasionally told me what I should be hearing. The final film may be better than what I experienced. On the other hand, I may have overcompensated, so it could be worse.

English based her screenplay on the diaries of an actual highborn lady–one who never married. At least, Anne Lister never married a man. When we first meet Anne (Maxine Peake) she’s living with her uncle and aunt (brother and sister—they never married, either), and very much in love with the beautiful Mariana (Anna Madeley). It’s mutual, and Anne speaks of them running off and living together. Then Mariana marries an old man for his money, and Anne is left unsure where she stands.

Anne defies conventions enough to start rumors (which are, of course, all true), but the story isn’t about this courageous woman fighting society’s norms. It’s about a woman who must hide her love, and who doesn’t know if her love still loves her.

There’s nothing unique or troubling about The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (at least if you’re not a member of the religious right). But it’s an entertaining enough journey into a life with unique challenges, and into a time and place close enough to our own to be understandable, but far away enough to seem exotic.

Wings of Defeat

I wrote this review in 2008, after previewing this documentary before its screening at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. I held back the full-length review for the film’s planned theatrical release. I feel now that I’ve held it back long enough, so I’m posting it now. Unfortunately, Wings of Defeat isn’t available in any form.

Historical Documentary

  • Directed by Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund

What makes a man (and it’s pretty much always a man) give up his life for his country? Not just risk his life, going into a battle from which he may not return, but go there with absolute certainty to his death. It takes a combination of patriotism, peer pressure, camaraderie, and a fascist government in complete control of the schools and media.

That’s what we learn in Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund’s documentary about the Kamikaze pilots of World War II.

The issue is personal for Morimoto, a Japanese-American who grew up in New York. One of her uncles was a Kamikaze pilot. He survived the war (which ended before he was called to die), but he died before Morimoto could ask him about his experiences and try to reconcile her American stereotype of wild-eyed suicide bombers with her easy-going uncle.

So she went to Japan and interviewed other surviving Kamikaze pilots (yes, that sounds like an oxymoron; how these men survived is part of their tales). In addition, she interviews historians, visits museums and shrines, and tells us plenty about brave pilots whose government treated like tissue paper.

The suicide bomber idea came out of late-war desperation. By the fall of 1944, everyone high enough or smart enough to not believe government propaganda knew that defeat was only a matter of time. The Japanese were running out of both essential resources and the factories to turn those resources into weapons. It was easier to build planes that didn’t need to come home. In fact, some Kamikaze planes had bamboo gas tanks.

One of the experts interviewed suggests that the general in charge of the operation conceived of suicide bombers in hopes that inherent horror of the idea would force the Emperor to seek peace. Instead, some 4,000 pilots died in a strategy that sunk only 40 American ships. After the war, the surviving Kamikaze–who had been celebrated as living gods while awaiting their deaths–preferred not to talk about their now-embarrassing past.

Wings of Defeat avoids the visual banality of so many talking-head documentaries. Morimoto and Hoaglund keep the film lively with battle footage, propaganda (including English translations of actual newspaper headlines), and simple animation that resembles low-budget manga.

Unmade Beds

When I saw Unmade Beds at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, I was under the impression that it would eventually receive a theatrical release. I therefore wrote, and held, this review.

The release never materialized, but the movie is available on Netflix, so I’m posting the review, anyway.

 A- Youth drama

  • Written and directed by Alexis Dos Santos

People slide in and out of each others’ lives in this quirky drama of London youth, and yet the two propagandists barely make contact with one another.

Axl (Fernando Tielve) has come to London to find the father who deserted him as a child. He makes friends, sleeps around, and drinks so heavily at night that he often wakes up not knowing where he is or how he got there. Vera (Déborah François), freshly heart-broken, enters into an anonymous romance–neither names nor phone numbers are to be exchanged. But love has a way of messing up these plans.

The two end up living in the same abandoned warehouse, which other squatters have turned almost into a community. Yet their paths never seem to cross.unmadebeds

Set against a background of punk clubs and binge drinking, Unmade Beds looks affectionately at these two young souls and the other people in their lives. Foremost among these is Mike (Iddo Goldberg), who appears to be if not the leader of the squat than certainly the first among equals. Although not much older than Axl , he comes off as almost a father figure, although he does things with Axl that no father would do.

Any film about youth is going to be in part about music, and writer/director Alexis Dos Santos makes good use of the throbbing punk rock of the clubs that the characters frequent.

The handheld and occasionally out-of-focus camerawork gets tiresome at times, but I liked the way the camera stayed close and intimate with the characters.

Unmade Beds looks warmly at that point in life when restrictions seem irrelevant and anything seems possible. Axl and Vera still have a lot to learn about life, but they’re generally enjoying the process.