Director Sharon Shattuck's documentary From This Day Forward offers an intimate, thoughtful reflection on her father's transgender identity. The catalyst for Shattuck's very personal exploration is the anticipation of her marriage. She remembers years ago her father as Michael, now Trisha, driving her to middle school saying he/Michael hoped Sharon would let him wear a dress to her wedding. 

Commenting in voiceover narration, Sharon says she realizes there's a lot of their past still unresolved and, admirably, sets out to explore her family: her mother Marcia who stayed with Trisha, her younger sister Laura, and her father. Chronologically, through home movies and contemporary interviews, the gender profile emerges of Michael at first cross dressing and subsequently shifting to identity as Trisha. They all are honest and insightful about their confusion, pain, resentment, and acceptance. It's a remarkable exploration of one transgender identity, with Trisha a fine spokesperson. 

Trained as a landscape architect, she paints to express her emotions, loading her striking paintings with strong metaphorical content that she explains. She also describes the two lives she led, the psychological bind she felt and suicidal inclinations. She acknowledges, as she says, "the hell I put them through," and Sharon notes that kids of LGBT parents can also feel as much in the closet as adults since they wanted to blend in as they searched for their own identities. Most complex in this whole story is Marcia, with Michael/Trisha for 35 years. Divorce was contemplated but she couldn't see herself without Trisha. It's a very moving scene.       

Everyone is not accepting. Several neighbors and friends plus one employer comment that once Shattucks moved to a small town in Michigan when Sharon was in fourth grade, everyone knew. Some people were disgusted, they lost friends, and Trisha had a lot of decisions to make, which she explains in the many casual conversations that define this warm, engaging film. The topic couldn't be more relevant: the documentary describes Trisha's and her family's experiences but it opens the door to further productive discussions.

From This Day Forward screens in Webster University's Film Series at Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, June 17 through Sunday, June 19, at 8:00 p.m. each evening. 

 

Rarely has a film shown such contrasts. Sunset Song photographs the beauty of Scotland as a country, and cinematographer Michael McDonough also exploits light and shadow, mist and candles to add dimension to the story. Concomitant with that beauty is the plainly disquieting and repugnant violence of early 20th-century life.

The film is based on the first of a trilogy of novels, called A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a pen name for James Leslie Mitchell, born in Aberdeenshire. An earlier mini-series adaptation Sunset Song played on Masterpiece Theatre 40 years ago. Over weeks, the characters had the time to build sympathy. Here, under the direction of Terence Davies, who also directed The House of Mirth, the characters in the two-hour Sunset Song demand attention more than elicit it slowly.

Chris Guthrie is the daughter of a tyrant farmer father and an overworked, child-bearing mother, who suffers at the demands of her horny husband. Gibbon told Chris' story from 1910 until the end of the Great War. In those years, she buries her parents, marries her lover and bears his son; her husband goes off to war and comes back traumatized. Meanwhile, Chris works like a dog, milking and cleaning. All the study of her young years, her hopes of being a teacher in Scots and English languages, have faded into the mists. What lasts is the land and only the land. Chris's fortitude in the midst of misery carries her through both microcosm and macrocosm of her world.

Agyness Deyn plays Chris without one ounce of sentimentality. Kevin Guthrie plays her husband Ewan well, succeeding as a gentle courter and as mentally-wounded soldier. Peter Mullan (also in War Horse) plays her horrible father credibly.

Much of the Scottish tongue is impossible to understand, but where the words lag, the pictures fill. Davies' direction makes Sunset Song meaningful.

 

Director Peter Flynn's documentary The Dying of the Light begins appropriately in the decrepit projection booth of the Columbus Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. Built in 1926, abandoned in 1979, it still houses the sturdy, Peerless 35-mm projectors that provided dazzling carbon arc light for thousands of movies. 

After a heartfelt, bittersweet, historical homage to film projection, Flynn returns in his concluding scenes to this "place of mystery and wonder" to test the durable quality of these iconic projectors, delivering another magical moment. It is immensely moving given the context, for in early titles on screen, Flynn announces that "within the last decade, the film industry has converted to digital projection," 14% of cinemas in 2008, 93% in 2013. Flynn adds, "The practice of handling and exhibiting photochemical film is now virtually gone." 

Through his 95-minute chronological summary of over a century of motion picture projection, Flynn provides insight into the projectionist's job with an explanation and demonstration of the 1890s magic lantern, various film gauges, and the serious fire danger with nitrate film, used until safety film replaced it in the 1950s. He explains projector design, the behind-the-scenes work of setting changeover cues, preparing film for projectors and platters, the transition to automated booths, the difference with hard drives, and the cost. This comes to life through archival photographs, snippets from films, and visits to once extravagant movie theaters, all of this informed by captivating interviews with veteran projectionists 

Compared to the wizard behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz," projectionists explain their apprenticeship and formative, sometimes surprising, experiences. For example, Herb Nipson, who worked at a 19 theater New Jersey Cineplex, verified he walked 28 miles in one day. Visits to Boston Light and Sound, Coolidge Corner, Harvard Square's Brattle, Bryant Park, Lansdowne, Fremont (Michigan), and the Sutton and Northfield Drive-ins make palpable the digital impact. The Dying of the Light reveals what we've lost, though in his closing commentary, veteran projectionist Walter Gonet expresses a positive attitude. 

The Dying of the Light screens as part of Webster University's Film Series at Winifred Moore auditorium from Friday, June 3 through Tuesday, June 7 at 8:00 p.m. each evening. 

 

For her documentary Dark Horse, writer/director Louise Osmond faced a tough challenge: make a story about an underdog athlete and his working class owners feel fresh, original. In this case, it does help that the athlete is a Welsh-bred racehorse without an impressive pedigree, and the same holds true for 30 owners hailing from Cefn Fforest, a Welsh mining village.

Osmond found the way to energize this story. Let a handful of these unassuming, real women and men talk in their own words about a mind-boggling decision. Though knowing next to nothing, they set out to breed a racehorse. The instigator of this crazy idea is barmaid Jan Vokes who resolved, pretty much out of the blue, that's what she wanted to do. She and husband Brian, called "Daisy," couldn't come close to affording an entry into this expensive sport, but figured if 30 people contributed £10 a week, they could do it. And thus they formed the syndicate that backed the horse they all voted to name "Dream Alliance."

Along with archival video, photographs, and briefly reenacted events, the film relies primarily on contemporary interviews with Jan, Daisy, and other syndicate members, who are in their own right quite unique characters, along with one of Dream's trainers, Johnson White. Each provide a piece to the picture that emerges of an amazing horse whom we see in time lapse, via closed circuit cameras, being born. The film moves fairly quickly through Dream Alliance's many races (leading up to the 2009 Welsh Grand National) with insights and reactions from his backers. We come to understand that Dark Horse is more about these coal mine village residents than this amazing horse. They continue to surprise, especially Jan who, needing the money for Dream Alliance, gets a second job as a cleaner at discount grocery store Asda. Several other syndicate members are equally economically challenged but hang on to their fairy tale horse. For them, this isn't a business; it's a love affair.

The film builds slowly through its 85 minutes. Perhaps because I'm a horse owner myself, I wanted more information on the training and behind-the-scenes experience of their racing world. We get only a smattering of that while, as this exceptional story develops, totally unexpected problems arise. As a result, for its second half, the people on camera lay bare a profound, deep emotional investment that invites our own. Without my giving anything away, I can assert the film becomes deeply moving and inspirational by its stirring conclusion.

Dark Horse won the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Fest and Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards. It's now showing at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

Writer/director Whit Stillman has a firm grip on satirizing a society's manners and protocols. His 1990 Metropolitan perfectly and humorously depicted pretentious, 20th century young Manhattanites. Whitman proves this was no fluke with Love & Friendship, an inspired, often hilarious adaptation of Jane Austen's short novel Lady Susan, a primer of late 18th century, upper-class British etiquette and matchmaking.

Described as "the most accomplished flirt in all of England," the central character and manipulator par excellence is Lady Susan Vernon, a widow on the hunt for a wealthy husband for herself and one for her undereducated daughter Frederica. Exiled, as the film begins, from one estate, she retreats to her sister and brother-in-law's rural home, Churchill, with several visits to London to see her equally amoral American friend Alicia. To Alicia, Susan unabashedly confides her real motives, keeping us abreast of her self-serving schemes and values. For example, when Susan realizes her daughter has become devious and manipulative, she calmly confesses, "I couldn't be more proud."

A parade of husbands and wives and potential husbands flow in and out of beautiful drawing rooms, exquisite gardens, and horse-drawn carriages, all the characters in gorgeous costumes and impressive surroundings. Whitman clarifies the significance of the many characters with on-screen titles introducing the eligible Reginald as "Catherine's young and handsome brother" or there's "Alicia's older & respectable husband." As appropriate to high society, so much more is suggested than is explicitly or, heaven forbid, crudely stated. Whitman knows the best satire comes with no wink-wink to the audience but straight ahead, dead serious. The actors superbly deliver their impressively clever dialogue with panache. Kate Beckinsale is a magnificent, dazzling Lady Susan who wields the only power she has in this society with intelligence and charm. All the actors fully inhabit their characters: Stephen Fry, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark, Xavier Samuel. The music is period appropriate and used well, the pace brisk. In fact, Love & Friendship is a film to see at least twice to catch and relish the fabulous art direction and brilliant writing. At a Landmark Theatre.

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