Posts Tagged ‘Review

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.

29
Sep
10

Apartment Zero

I just watched Apartment Zero, which has been on my cult movie list for a long time after being recommended by Videohound and one of Scarecrow’s clerks ages ago. It certainly wasn’t entirely what I expected since the box sells it more as a horror and instead of the psychological thriller with very pronounced homoeroticism throughout that it is. With that said, it was definitely an unusual and surprising film. There are very strong similarities in tone and subject matter to Polanski’s The Tenant, which is another paranoiac film about getting along with your neighbors, although in some ways it is its polar opposite. In contrast to The Tenant’s harmless, socially awkward main character who mainly just wants to get along with his unsettling neighbors despite the way they increasingly intrude on his privacy and sanity throughout the film, however, Apartment Zero’s lead LeDuc is openly hostile to his friendly, though eccentric neighbors from the beginning in this film. Then again though, like the best Polanski films, Apartment Zero has the audience on pins and needles throughout, the twists and turns of the plot are truly unpredictable in a way that most thrillers aren’t, and it explores non-mainstream sexuality in a challenging way.

What I also really liked about Apartment Zero was the way that although all of the characters in the film have very large and obvious flaws, almost everyone is at least sympathetic with many of them being pretty likable. I wouldn’t call it a great movie per se, as overall it is fairly uneven. In certain parts it can feel less unpredictable and more like the movie can’t make up it’s mind about what it wants to be, teetering between black comedy, romance, horror, and even quasi-porno. And it also hits you over the head with the homoeroticism in a way that’s bordering on totally bizarre and laughable. I appreciate the ambitiousness of the attempt though and Colin Firth’s performance is really excellent.

11
Aug
09

An Angel at My Table

an angel at my table

With my recent discovery of another sprawling, chaotic video store to haunt, I finally tracked down a scratchy VHS copy of An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion, which has been surprisingly difficult for me to find considering that it was recently released by Criterion Collection. As usual, I’m sure the fact that it was directed by a woman and is about a woman writer has NOTHING to do with being unable to find it anywhere.

Anyway, the film is a biopic about New Zealand-born writer, Janet Frame, which starts with her working class childhood, extends through her adolescence, and on into her early adulthood with three separate actors for each phase. I really liked the movie, although I do have a couple complaints. For one thing, I did not have the benefit of closed captioning/subtitles while watching it, which caused me to miss a fair chunk of the dialogue between the thick accents and the poor quality of the VHS copy I watched. I would definitely recommend trying to get the DVD version if you can because I imagine subtitles will make it much easier to follow.

Secondly (and no doubt relatedly), the scene changes in the film are often pretty abrupt and several times I got confused about what was happening and who different characters were. There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along.

There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along. The edges become a little blurry in terms of how much time is actually passing from scene to scene, what the relationships between different characters are, etc. At a certain point, you kind of just have to let go of understanding a lot of the background particulars.

With that said, it was impossible for me not to identify with the main character and to feel compelled by her life story. As a card-carrying introvert, I always really appreciate movies that focus on people who are painfully shy, even if they make me cringe intensely. This movie is an intense, sensitive portrayal of the character that manages to pull her inner life out through a lot of subtle details in the landscape, the framing of the shots, the narrative choices, and last, but definitely not least, absolutely fantastic acting. I think Campion must have left a lot of blanks in the movie in terms of the story, not only for practical reasons, but also because this style forces the audience to watch the movie in the hyper-observant way that Janet Frame lived her whole life. By the end, you feel like you’ve really been inside her world, with all its beauty and pain. Much recommended.

05
Aug
09

moon

rockwell-moon-1

Here is another quickie review today. I was a latecomer to Moon because I suspected it was going to be one of those anxiety-filled, Kafka-esque sci-fi movies that make me even more nervous than I am on my own and I was right to a certain extent. It is definitely very tense for most of the film. Yet, somehow it was tense in a way that didn’t wear on the psyche and it was very absorbing to watch.

There are some interesting plot twists along the way (that I won’t ruin for once) which wake the audience up a little bit and there are a couple scenes out on the moonscape which actually does a lot to relieve the audience’s claustrophobia. I also think there’s something about the muted vacuum of the space station setting which oddly mellows the emotions in this movie out, which is kind of the opposite of a few other sci-fi movies I can think of. Generally, there are definitely echoes of some of these other films, Dark Star, Solaris (the American remake version, as opposed to Tarkovsky’s heavier endeavor), and even the other recent, fabulously executed sci-fi movie, Sunshine. But the charm of the movie isn’t really so much from it being particularly groundbreaking or even all that philosophically deep.

Mainly the movie’s charisma is thanks to Sam Rockwell’s amazing, bravura performance and a carefully written script. So much of the believability and pathos of the film rests squarely on Rockwell’s shoulders and I thought he did a spectacular job during what must have been a lot of green screen time. It’s a little indie gem that’s worth checking out even if you aren’t particularly big on the genre. I can at least say that I felt like it was worth addling my nerves a bit to see it.

03
Aug
09

Yes Madam, Sir

yes-madam-sir_592x299

The IFC Center is hosting Docuweeks in NYC this month, which is a festival of documentary films from all over the world which are screened here and in Los Angeles to put them in the running for the Oscars. This weekend I went to see Yes Madam, Sir, profile of Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer. After refusing time and time again to compromise with a corrupt, networking/politically-based system, Bedi is dumped in numerous unwanted, nightmare positions and manages to make some powerful reforms in a notoriously ill-run prison she oversees and at a police academy which has been allowed to be lax in its discipline and training regimen before her arrival. It is a very interesting portrait of a strong, passionate woman who has always pursued what she felt was best. While there are obviously some very meaningful feminist components to the film, I appreciated the fact that the movie does not hit you over the head with them and that it realistically portrayed the difficult choices many ambitious, principled women must make as they seek success in a patriarchal world.

While watching the film I couldn’t help making comparisons between Kiran Bedi’s life and my mother’s. She is a similarly strong-willed, ambitious woman who started out (at least during my lifetime) as an LDS housewife and went on to go to a prestigious law school and fulfillment in her career. I think one thing that struck me during the movie was how, beyond the nobility of relentlessly sticking to her moral code, there are deeper reasons why Bedi’s opinions had to be so firm and her assertiveness so unbreakable. For many women, particularly women who are trying to make progress in a very male-dominated field, compromise is not an option. While certain compromises might soften you in the eyes of some, they will ultimately be unforgivable to those who judge women much more harshly and will use any opportunity to undermine their authority and strength.

A significant subplot in the film revolves around Bedi’s relationship with her daughter and other members of her family. As is common for so many strong women, it seems like Bedi has been forced to neglect her family as she pursued a larger agenda for the betterment of her country. Toward the end, you can see very clearly both how painful it’s been for her daughter to grow up without having her mother as much as she wanted, but also how much respect she has for her mother and how she would not have wanted her to back down from the numerous fights she found herself in. I feel the same way about my mom. Whatever sacrifices my dad and I made to move with her to law school were very much worth it to see my mom succeed where others said she would fail. I’ve learned so much from what my mom went through and it makes me want to pursue my career with the same drive and also, just be myself in a way I don’t know I would have the courage to otherwise. It is great to see such a fascinating woman portrayed with real depth and insight into what she faced along the way and I hope this film will have a chance for wider distribution in the near future.