Archive for the 'Review' Category

15
Mar
16

Song of the Sea

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Christ, what an asshole.

Song of the Sea is by the studio that made The Secret of Kells, and it’s funny, warm, beautiful, and sad, as you’d expect, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

Song of the Sea is about Ben, an Irish boy, and his relationship with his Selkie sister Saoirse, and their race to save her life and the lives of every other fairy or magical creature in the world. It does a lot of things right — the quiet way it lets the family’s trauma play out, the awful (but not quite abusive) way Ben treats his mute sister, his dawning self-awareness about how odious he’s been — those are all handled well, but there are two fundamental things the movie does that bug me:

First, the story is about Ben, not about Saoirse, despite it clearly being her story, not his. I understand this is typical of these kinds of movies, to make the audience stand-in the normal person, but Saoirse is a normal person for the bulk of the movie. She doesn’t have any particular knowledge or insight that would be problematic if it was given or withheld from us, she has the same emotional turmoil and catharsis to go through as Ben, she is literally the person who saves the magical world at the film’s first climax, but she’s consistently backgrounded in his favor, literally deprived of her voice, and it’s frustrating and alienating in a movie that is otherwise so deft emotionally; imagine if Harry Potter were written exclusively from Ron’s standpoint. If there were a gap between the characters — if she were significantly older or younger, say, or bigger or smaller, or more magical, or something — it would have gone down smoother, but the movie has an extended piece through the middle where they are literally tied together (because he has leashed her like a dog, which is simultaneously incredibly assholeish and a particularly well-observed bit of eight year old older brother dickishness), made a narrative unit even as he continues to belittle and berate her. You wouldn’t have had to do much to shift the emphasis here, either — simply shooting the same scenes from her perspective would have done the trick — but that might have made Ben out as too much of a villain. I don’t know. He should have been framed as more of a villain, maybe, and I’m sorry the movie didn’t commit to that empathetic leap. My sympathies as a viewer were entirely with her, but the film kept putting me in his place, and that dissonance was continually distracting.

Second, all the magical creatures go off to the Other World at the end of the movie, like they always do, and that always frustrates me. If your story is about leaving fantasy behind, or transcending it, or going through the harrowing process and returning to the other world informed and enlightened, that sort of thing makes sense, but Song of the Sea was explicitly about accepting yourself for who you are and the people you love for who they are, and not shutting things away simply because they’re uncomfortable. Ben and Saorise go through an entire movie to return her to her true, magical self (at which point she’s finally able to speak!), only for her to cast that away five minutes later because it would mean leaving her frankly terrible human family behind. She gets to keep her voice, I guess, but that’s still pretty paltry a reward. Hell, they get their dead mother back, and she goes off into the Distant West almost immediately. What was the point? That nothing comes without a cost? It feels undercooked. Compare the ending here to Labyrinth — which has a similar “you are a terrible older sibling now go save your kid brother/sister and also magic is real” plot, but which ends with Sarah partying with her goblin friends in the real world, having grown from her experience but not having to repudiate it all to return. That’s satisfying.

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That’s how you do it.

11
Mar
16

Four Oddballs

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Modesty Blaise

There are two of these. The more recent one is actually a pretty decent movie (and definitely worth a look as an honestly feminist spy movie where the action hero draws her power from the connections she’s made, not violent isolation) but the original one is candy colored and BALLS CRAZY. About equal parts Danger: Diabolik and Our Man Flint, it’s inexplicable, campy and fun as heck.

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Ravenous

A black comedy (or comedic horror movie) about cannibals and the Wendigo, written and directed by and starring vegetarians, so there are a lot of queasy shots of meat both animal and human. Featuring Guy Pierce, the guy from the Full Monty and Jeffery Jones (of Howard the Duck fame!). Look for the chase sequence set to the banjo music from Raising Arizona.

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The Revenger’s Tragedy

You just never know with Alex Cox. His influences are all over the map, and sometimes he’s just damn unwatchable. (The dreary, muddy Borges adaption Death and the Compass?) But other times he’s sublimely inartistic—Repo Man, sure, or the even awesomer Repo Chick—or here, where he somehow found funding for an original language version of a Jacobean revenge play set in the grim post apocalyptic world of 2012 Liverpool starring The Doctor and The Master (Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi, if you’re a philistine). Oh, and Eddie Izzard is in it as one of the less flamboyant characters, so there you go. Hard to follow in a noisy environment, but then the dialogue is kind of secondary, anyway. Everybody wants everybody else dead, and there’s some incest too, just because.

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Lemora

I don’t even know about this one. Sort of like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, and sort of like Teeth, and sort of like neither. Lila, a fundamentalist pre-teen girl leaves her creepy pedo foster parent (a really broad caricature of an evangelical preacher) and goes in search of her missing father, a violent 20s style gangster. She runs into zombies, slimy bus drivers and an old witch before falling in with Lemora, who might be her mother, or another witch, or herself as a sexually mature woman. Weird, culty, doing that feminist reworking of fairy tales as a sexual coming of age story thing. Especially great for a scene where Lemora pursues Lila as her clitoris embodied as a burning torch.

11
Mar
16

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

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I’m reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Clover, a seminal (in every sense of the word) analysis of the genre published in the early 90s that looks at the way gender and fear of gender plays out in the horror movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s great, and manages (so far, anyway), the delicate task of acknowledging both the obvious subtext playing out in the movies AND the explicit text that is often disregarded or explained away as merely a thin cover for the subtext. She talks about, for example, the way slasher movies use the female Last Girl to stand in for an adolescent male audience but also how that decision to make the protagonist female is meaningful on a literal level. She also talks about medieval notions of slippery gender, which is catnip to me.

Anyway. Last night we watched A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a 2012 flick starring Simon Pegg, and it’s an interesting parallel to what Clover discusses. The second chapter of MW&C talks about possession movies, and how they are generically split into two parts: the female possessed who is narratively underdeveloped and the male in crisis who is forced to confront his own deficient or overdeveloped masculinity due to the possession. Clover says that the female possession, which is usually manifested as a hysterical femininity or a cross-gender machoness, is necessary to allow the man to embrace behaviors that would otherwise be coded as feminine — she is thrust beyond the pale to open the space up for him, emotionally speaking. Typically, in her analysis, the man starts the film off as emotionally closed, and it is the job of the horror to force him open — sometimes cathartically (as in Witchboard), and sometimes destructively (as in The Exorcist).

A Fantastic Fear of Everything, though, collapses the two into one character, Jack, played by Simon Pegg, who starts the movie off in the normally feminine space of the possessed (in this case by a crippling paranoia and agoraphobia triggered by an overdose of Victorian murder research) and as the emotionally shuttered man in crisis: Jack was a successful children’s author, but he resents that part of his career, which he blames for ruining his marriage, and wants to write a more properly masculine series of television shows about Victorian bloodshed called Decades of Death.

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Jack and Sangeet

The movie plays with his gender throughout: he spends the first major section of the movie in a short robe that reads like a dress from a distance, his hair long and ragged, twitching and shrieking at every little noise. The image at the top is a good example — his knees are even kept decorously together, as a proper lady should keep them! At the end of the movie, after having been harrowed first by a series of domestic catastrophes, then by a traumatic visit to a laundromat, then finally by an actual serial killer with abandonment issues similar to his own, he resolves the major conflicts plaguing him, recognizes how traumatized he was by the loss of his mother, and embraces the unmasculine role of children’s author. At this point his voice deepens, his hair is cropped short, and he is rewarded with a relationship with the attractive women he was kidnapped with; he has relinquished his toxic obsession with masculinity and shed his destructive femininity. His psychiatrist friend, in a bit of metacommentary, congratulates him on how his latest book synthesizes Freudian and Jungian themes in one hedgehog. Despite his newfound gender identity, he is still threatened by relapse, though — his literary agent introduces him to a creepy, ambiguously queer American who is interested in producing Decades of Death (he chides Jack for missing an earlier meeting with him, calling him a “naughty boy,” and claws at the air suggestively), and Jack is washed with the old paranoia, nearly fainting, until his new girlfriend rescues him, both from the literal faint AND from the subtextual gender panic. Jack promises the American to “think about it” and runs away into the credit sequence with her, masculinity redeemed.

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19
Jan
12

Interstella 5555

There are times when I desperately miss MTV’s Liquid Television, an off-putting showcase of animation bizarre, gross or just plain experimental. A lot of the shorts were dialogue-free, or nearly, relying in true MTV style on the kineticism of the visuals to carry the film. There isn’t really anything like it anymore, although Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 comes pretty close.

Written by Daft Punk and Cédric Hervet and animated by Toei under the direction of Kazuhisa Takenochi, I5555 is anachronistic as all hell, a slice of early 80s anime that somehow fell through time and space to crash into DP’s Discovery. The story is… well, pretty thin (alien musicians are kidnapped by an Earth cult as part of a plot to conquer the universe utilizing the power of 5,555 gold records?), but so what? The movie reeks of wish-fulfillment, a chance for the band to work with an animator that they loved, and that kind of obsessive labor of love is the pure beating heart of cult.

I’m still waiting on that Jem movie, though!

02
Jan
12

The Sound of Music

We’ve been watching a lot of movies as we pack everything away for the move, mostly old favorites (Dirty Dancing!) or things you can leave playing in the background without losing too much (Mega Piranha!), since moving is a sad, stressful, lonely time when everything fun is getting packed away and the apartment looks terrible and I need all the help I can get. But we’ve also been watching a lot of things in general, including old standards that Vicky or I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet. So: The Sound of Music.

Let me just say right at the beginning that I don’t particularly care for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Neither their lyrics nor their music are anything more than workmanlike, without the complicated, challenging syncopation of Sondheim or the anything-goes lyricism of Menken and Ash. Still, though, they’ve got a knack for putting together beautiful projects that transcend the rumpty-tum material they write: there’s no question that the Sound of Music absolutely deserves its place at the table, despite an opening act so saccharine it causes cancer in lab rats.

It’s such a filmic movie — we watched it on a tiny little laptop screen, and I found myself longing mightily to see it in a proper movie theater, even as I groaned my way through the glurge of My Favorite Things and Do-Re-Mi. Director Robert Wise captures the sheer dazzling space of his mountain vistas in a way I’ve never seen before. And then the script is fantastic, and underplayed magnificently by the supporting cast. Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn especially, as the Baroness and Uncle Max, do amazing things with very small roles. Peggy Wood got the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which doesn’t make any sense to me; her abbess is solid, certainly, but it’s a fairly standard role played in a fairly standard way, while Parker as Julie Andrews’s romantic rival takes a traditionally misogynistic and one-dimensional villain role and makes it immensely human. And not just human, but actually adult: she respects Maria enough to actually talk to her about her intentions and interests in Captain von Trapp, and very visibly understands what it costs Maria to congratulate her on her engagement. She makes the simple line “Thank you,” sad, respectful and triumphant all at once, and by such little gestures makes her character empathetic and even a little tragic (very slightly, since she is, after all, immensely wealthy and self-sufficient).

And everything after the wedding is so absolutely perfect: moving, tense and funny all at the same time, and crammed to the gills with beautiful shots, rotating between German Expressionism, mid-century Impressionism and the very beginnings of that wonderful seventies silence that you never see anymore. Anyway. You’ve probably seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Feel free to roll your eyes at the sentiment that bloats the beginning, but trust that things will settle down at last. If you’re absolutely allergic to sweetness, just jump ahead to the last half hour, and prepare to be schooled.

15
Dec
11

Dead Hooker in a Trunk

Back in October, Vicky and I went to GeekGirlCon down in Seattle, a convention “dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture.” We had a great time, obviously, and saw a lot of badass female geeks, nerds and dorks discussing everything from atheism to comics, Doctor Who to horror movies. One of the more memorable panels we attended was Beyond the Scream Queen, moderated by Hannah Neurotica and featuring Jenna Pitman, Jessica Dwyer, Shannon Lark and the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia. While it was undoubtedly Shannon Lark’s short film Lip Stick that stole the show — an incredibly visceral examination of self-destructive sexuality featuring the world’s most uncomfortable sex toy — it’s Jen and Sylvia Soska’s much more crowd-friendly Dead Hooker in a Trunk that we’re looking at today.

Let’s start with the trailer:

The acting is wooden and awkward in the best film student tradition, the plot and characterization veer wildly between non-existent and insane, and there’s gore everywhere, all of which are Dead Hooker’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. It’s deeply unsatisfying as a story, because you’re never really given a reason why any of this is happening or why everyone involved seems to think it matters, but I don’t think the movie’s really concerned with any of that. The Soska twins started out intending to be stuntwomen, not filmmakers, and so they make only the slightest of concessions to anything that isn’t going to be balls-out awesome or crazy or crazy awesome. Characters are so sketchily filled in that they don’t have names, only vague cognomens like “Badass” or “Junkie.” Plot is just something that happens on the way to chainsawing an arm off, popping an eyeball out or drop-kicking a cowboy pimp in the chest. While the Soska’s clearly have a love on for Robert Rodriguez–that’s El Mariachi’s Carlos Gallardo as a taxi driving “God”–Dead Hooker is much closer to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead than anything else. Minute for minute, there’s a lot of bloody humor crammed in here: a sequence at the very end of the film has the main characters dumping body after body into the same body of water. As they stand against the setting sun, one of them observes, “I can’t believe there weren’t any repercussions from any of that crazy shit.”

I’m not sure what to make of the gender politics at work here. According to the probably reliable IMDB, actor CJ Wallis was a last minute addition to the cast, as the actress formerly cast in his role dropped out at the last minute. The four principals were originally all women, adrift in a mostly male world. As it is, the villains are all male — ranging from religious serial killers to corrupt cops to the aforementioned Cowboy Pimp — but if that’s part of some larger statement it’s not made explicit. There’s a constant cycle of reciprocal, gendered violence: a hapless trucker rips the Junkie’s arm off accidentally and the Badass takes him down with one brutal fist; a shadowy male figure knocks the Geek’s eye out and they torture him to death; two uniformed policemen try to blackmail the Badass into fucking them, and she knocks them out and handcuffs them together. In a film that took itself slightly more seriously all of this would seem like transparent revenge fantasy; here, everything’s so disconnected and chaotic that none of the violence seems truly systematic. Early on, there’s a scene where the twins’ father accidentally murders their mother and is then killed by the eight-year-old Badass. On paper that sounds as simplistic as Zack Snyder’s similarly, er, archetypal Sucker Punch, only where Snyder milks child abuse as a lazy way to flag his villain as truly villainous, the Soskas seem content to use it to establish that their characters have always been what they are. Badass kills to revenge her family or friends — never protect, mind you, always revenge — while the Geek is detached from everything, literally in another room, incidentally playing with a tarantula.

It’s that willingess to subvert convention without letting that subversion get in the way of the fun that elevates DHIAT. Evil Dead took the idea of the Scream Queen or Last Girl and inverted it: Ash is cowardly, stupid and sexually promiscuous, but survives everything in spite of himself, in defiance of horror movie conventions, but that never becomes the point of the movie the way it does in Wes Craven’s Scream. Dead Hooker in a Trunk plays with tropes in the same way, but it never lets any of that slow it down. Badass just kills and Junkie just lights up and no one ever feels the need to point out that THESE ARE LADIES YOU GUYS, and really who cares? There’s blood to spray and arms to reattach!

12
Nov
11

Grace of My Heart

Allison Anders is one of my favorite directors and I was really excited to finally watch Grace of My Heart which I’ve been wanting to see for forever. While I didn’t like it as much as Mi Vida Loca or Gas, Food, Lodging and it does have some structural flaws, it is an incredibly feminist movie in lots of ways and I think it is a more successful effort than Things Behind the Sun.  The inspiration for the movie came from the Brill Building era of American popular music, when the songwriters, producers, and recording studios were all working in the same building, just across the hall from each other, and churning out a new hit record every week. The movie follows Illeana Douglas as an aspiring singer turned song-writer, Edna Buxton/Denise Waverly and travels through several decades of music history along the way.

There were so many things that were refreshing and amazing about this movie. It is chock full of a laundry list of lovely feminist touches. Edna is not conventional, Hollywood pretty. Instead, she is intelligent, talented, funny, and ambitious. The movie follows her story and is told from her perspective. It is so rare to see such a well-developed female character at all, much less a film that follows her journey and lets her drive the plot. On top of that, it is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that was really about a woman’s career and her ambition more than her love life. While Edna’s relationships are important components of the story of the film, they’re important because they develop her character and give her life fullness for us, not because that’s the whole focus of all the movement in the film, which is exactly how romance is used in most movies about male main characters.

The strongest relationships Edna ultimately has are the friendships that she builds with other women trying to succeed in the business and her boss, played really wonderfully by John Turturro. The strength of the bonds that exist between women is a recurring feature in Anders’ movies and it was especially well done in this movie, especially because Anders also shows the initial rivalry and jealousy that can exist between women in the professional world and then shows the women breaking through that. So. Amazing.

Additionally, the movie also lightly touches on the racism, poverty, and homophobia of the time, which gives the movie a lot of extra merit that could have easily been left out or watered down by another director. I especially really loved how Anders included a riff on Lesley Gore’s experience as a lesbian recording artist during that era. She also shows what Edna goes through as a single mom and it is one of the few movies I’ve seen where the children don’t just disappear mysteriously into the background immediately after they’re born. Instead, we actually see Edna’s daughter through the whole movie, we see Edna being a mother while also having a career and dating and living a well-rounded life as most moms do. We see how she has to arrange for child care and we see poignant moments with her little girl. Again, this is something you just NEVER see in movies.

Where the movie kind of falls apart for me is when Edna becomes involved with Anders’ riff on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The real heart of the movie is in the Brill Building and when she leaves New York for L.A., the movie drifts away from its real strengths. Brian Wilson’s whole bizarre personality and life story could clearly be a movie all its own and it feels awkward to have it added on. It takes the drive of the story away from Edna and we lose all the beautifully rendered color and energy of the Brill Building. With that said, it is definitely well worth seeing and it makes me really wish that Anders would make another movie soon.