Monday, November 16, 2009

Link Roundup

Here's what I've been up to lately:

My most recent review is a smack down of Mira Nair's tepid, disappointing biopic, Amelia, for In Review Online.

My review of Drew Barrymore's delightful debut, Whip It, is already up on In Review Online and will also be featured in Sadie Magazine's next issue.

This is the introductory post to my very own feminist film column at In Review Online, which I've named Kinofemmme.

Stay tuned for my review of Lauren Montgomery's Wonder Woman, Sally Potter's Rage, Top Feminist Films List, and more!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bright Star

Hey everyone,

My review of Jane Campion's masterpiece, Bright Star, is now up on The Feminist Review. Also, please feel free to read my interview with Jane Campion while you're there! :-) Thanks.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I can't stop thinking about Jane Campion's Bright Star

Some notes on Bright Star:

It's been nearly two weeks since I saw Jane Campion's newest film, Bright Star, and I can't get it out of my system. I'm currently writing a review of the film for the website I help edit, The Feminist Review, and I also have the great honor of being able to interview Jane Campion this upcoming Thursday. She has been one of my greatest heroes for a very long time. I love all of her films (including In the Cut!) and I've been anxiously awaiting her next project for six long years. Bright Star was worth the wait. I'm writing my feelings about the film here before I continue with my review in the hopes that I can write more cohesively about it in my more formal piece.

I don't really know what I was expecting from Bright Star, but I don't think I was really prepared for the emotional sledgehammer it delivered. My mind keeps drifting to the quiet moments of pure romantic entanglement between Fanny and her Mr. Keats. Though Bright Star is only a PG rated film, I can't for the life of me remember another cinematic romance that so enveloped my mind, body, and spirit in recent years. Whenever I think about it, I feel my cheeks grow warmer and my heart race faster. I feel like I just left the theatre. If you know me, you know that I watch movies with my soul hanging out. Most movies fail to penetrate its exterior and add their unique flavor to my persona, but some movies do. Bright Star is certainly one of them. I could hardly breathe when I left the theatre and I can hardly breathe right now while just thinking about it. There are so many seconds of pure bliss inside Bright Star's tender, tragic frames that I don't even know how to articulate its entire effect on me. I know I've described some of the physical sensations, but...I'm just so overwhelmed and destroyed by its effect on me emotionally that I don't know where to begin. This is why I could never be a truly academic film critic. I get too wrapped up in the glory of film to think about it from an objective standpoint. Writing like that is just so passionless and bland. I'm fully aware that that way of thinking might become detrimental to my future career, but I don't think I'll change as long as movies like Bright Star continue to bowl me over with their exceptional beauty and artistry. That's what cinema is all about. Bright Star opens on 9/18 and I encourage everyone to watch it. Please look for my review and interview around that time!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bad Form

Tsk, tsk.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Death Proof

This is an essay I wrote for a Road Movie class in 2008. Enjoy!

Quentin Tarantino loves women. Of the six films he’s made to date, four of them have female protagonists who star in films that deal very directly with womanly plights. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) expresses the frustration of an aging black woman who has bared the brunt of society’s turmoil and builds a better life for herself. Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003) makes a woman’s choice to retire from her job in the manly world of professional killing to raise a family seem wrong because she is so skilled at her job. And, in Kill Bill vol. 2 (2004), the main character realizes she can have both her job and her family and still be happy. However, it is in his latest venture, Death Proof (2007), that Quentin Tarantino both out-do’s and out-don’ts himself by juxtaposing eight different women with each other under the watchful eye of both feminism and the road movie genre conventions. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is a kick ass woman’s picture that has a lot to say without a lot of ways of saying it.

The film tells the tale of two sets of girls who encounter a man with a “death proof” car by the name of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). The first group of girls, Butterfly/Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Julia (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and, to a lesser extent, Pam (Rose MacGowan) are a group of gal pals who suffer the wrath of Stuntman Mike and his misogynistic tendencies because they succumb and accept the lifestyle bestowed upon them by society. The second set of female friends, Zoë (Zoë Bell), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) defeat Stuntman Mike because they band together in sisterhood and embrace their own inner-masculinity to fight back against oppression and sexism. These two sets of women are clearly juxtaposed to one another in two one-hour segments that follow the same basic plot structure - they get into a car and talk, meet somewhere and talk some more, interact with Stuntman Mike, and then either collapse or thrive under the bombardment of the Stuntman Mike persona - one that is never really explained or justified by him.

The only clues we get as to why he takes it upon himself to teach the girls a lesson by trying to kill them occurs at the very beginning of the film - the first image we see is of Shanna’s foot dangling on the dashboard of a car with red nail polish. The second is of Stuntman Mike’s death proof car with the sterling silver duck emblem on the hood going extremely fast down a narrow highway. The third and fourth images, that of Julia’s sultry bottom in cheetah-print panties walking down a hallway and Butterfly holding her crotch when she has to go to the bathroom are also cut in-between the Stuntman Mike moments. The forward motion of all the fetishized female images when compared with the forceful nature of Stuntman Mike’s car going down the highway eludes to two things - one) Mike is chasing them and two) Mike wants to be inside their bodies. The fast speed of the car contrasted with the fragmented female images implies that Stuntman Mike only sees them as sexual objects, objects that need to be conquered with his phallic-car. In fact, throughout the rest of the film, Stuntman Mike only talks and interacts with the girls on an objectified level, such as making remarks about their hair or licking their feet when they’re not looking.

Julia, Butterfly, Shanna, and Pam all fall prey to this type of misogyny from the stuntman and the rest of the men in the segment because they find it flattering. For instance, there’s a moment in the film where Julia essentially forces Butterfly to perform a lap dance on Stuntman Mike at a crowded bar. Instead of opting to not do it and keep her dignity, she performs because he was the only person to ask her all evening, telling her “there’s nothing more beautiful than an angel with a bruised ego.” The other gals’ have similar experiences with the men at the bar, specifically Shanna and Julia who drink vast amounts of alcohol given to them by Eli Roth and another fellow because, as Roth so eloquently puts it: “those fuckin’ bitches will drink anything as long as the guy’s are buying it."

And, unlike the second segment, the first group of girls don’t appear to have any personal boundaries. Aside from Julia, none of them speak about having jobs or responsibilities. Nor do they emit the sense of sisterhood the second set of girls’ has. These women seem to be friends because they enjoy being catty to one another. These conventions are most appropriate to the road movie genre, that of not having an important job and/or responsibilities or, in some cases, a sense of companionship on the road, but it is certainly unusual for a woman’s picture to have such a segmented window for one to look through, almost as if it were a “before” and “after” type of scenario.

The “after” occurs fourteen months after the “before,” - Stuntman Mike is hospitalized for the murderous car wreck that brutally maimed and destroyed the first set of girls. In fact, he fetishized them to death. All of Julia’s limbs went flying off, Shanna’s entire body went through a small, circular hole, and Butterfly’s face was rubbed off by a tire. He’s back on the road again tracking down the second set of girls and finds them after they find one of the most masculine cars of all time - a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a white paint job. The same car Kowalski drove in his cross-country journey in Vanishing Point (1971).

The biggest jump the gals’ in the second segment have over the first set is their ethical nature. They’re still fun, sexy, and beautiful like Butterfly, Julia, Shanna, and Pam, but they have more than pretty faces. They’re hard-working gals (two stunt-women, a make-up artist, and an actress to be exact) who are surviving in the very male-dominated industry of Hollywood filmmaking. And, yet, they’re all still capable of being in loving, fruitful relationships with men, friendships with women, and of even having children, like Abernathy does. Most importantly, the girls’ are able to utilize these tools when Stuntman Mike starts to fetishize them on the road.

While playing a game of ship’s mast with the Challenger, Stuntman Mike smashes into the car and tries to veer it off the road so that Zoë, and perhaps the rest, dies and he keeps spouting off dialogue like “why don’t you suck on THAT for a while” and then rams his car into the side of theirs. Kim is able to keep the car steady enough to ensure that Zoë doesn’t go flying off of the hood and Abernathy does her best to dissuade the stuntman. The tables turn after Zoë survives the incident and the girls form a female phallic unit of sorts inside the Dodge Challenger and go after the stuntman. Each woman takes on the same mindset, they become a trio of revenge-filled ladies who all want to destroy the man who did this to them! Kim starts screaming bits of sexual dialogue like “I’m gonna tap that ass” in reference to the Challenger smashing Stuntman Mike’s car. Thankfully, they destroy both Mike’s phallus and Mike himself - in fact, the last time we see him, Abernathy is kicking his skull in.

The second part of Death Proof is a little less faithful to the conventions of the road movie because its characters have their acts together so well. Typically, a road movie will feature one or perhaps two characters who are loner types of people that don’t really care about daily life. They don’t care about jobs, money, or responsibilities. Characters in traditional road movies are on kind of a listless mission to get from one place to the other and experiencing life through that mission is the key concept in their journey. The second set of women in Death Proof sort of set-out on that type of journey when they play ship’s mast, but any feelings for that sentiment are quickly resolved when Stuntman Mike comes into the picture because they are all on such a designated mission to destroy him.

Quentin Tarantino is one of the few male filmmakers in this day and age who is willing to experience female problems and plights through his own creations. His beloved filmography speaks for itself. Death Proof is just another layer of icing on the cake - another pro-female film that, while not his most popular, is certainly fitting amongst the rest of his womanly film history. Part road movie, part feminist propaganda, Death Proof is an unusual mainstream film that all too clearly dictates between the good female wrong and the bad female wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

A new friend of mine named Theresa Shell started a support site for Terry Gilliam's newest endeavor, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While it has (kinda maybe sorta) secured distribution in Europe, the rest of the world is still anxiously waiting for the unveiling. Please visit the site and voice your support!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hollywood's Top-Earning Actresses

Oh, Hollywood. Why do your contemporary ways always disappoint me?

These were the highest paid actresses last year. Though the numbers are down from last year, the majority of these ladies' really pushed themselves into new career paths/roles and I'm glad they were singled out. Without further ado, here are the sad, hard facts:

1. Angelina Jolie ($27 million)

2. Jennifer Aniston ($25 million)

3. Meryl Streep ($24 million)

4. Sarah Jessica Parker ($23 million)

5. Cameron Diaz ($20 million)

6. Sandra Bullock ($15 million)

7. Reese Witherspoon ($15 million)

8. Nicole Kidman ($12 million)

9. Drew Barrymore ($12 million)

10. Renee Zellweger ($10 million)

11. Cate Blanchett ($8 million)

12. Anne Hathaway ($7 million)

13. Halle Berry ($7 million)

14. Scarlett Johansson ($5.5 million)

15. Kate Winslet ($2 million)

Actresses' Grand Total: $183 million. Not bad, right? Well, last year they earned almost $245 million collectively, but that's not what my blogging gripe is this time around.

Guess what their equally talented, attractive male counterparts, cohorts, and co-stars earned in total last year? $393 million.

That is ridiculous.

Eight of these women are Academy Award winners. Each and every one of these ladies' is honored and cherished in her own way. Some of them not only act, but also manage their own clothing and perfume lines and write and direct films as well. Why, then, are they paid so much less than their male co-stars? The answer is painfully obvious and painfully out of date. Though the studio system is much kinder to the working class actress these days (in terms of allowing her to balance work, kids, and privacy), women just aren't box office draws anymore. In the last six months (correct me if I'm wrong), only three female-driven films topped the box office: Hannah Montana: the movie, Obsessed, and The Proposal. And what are those movies? Pieces of self-serving, irresponsible garbage. We gawk at Angelina Jolie for raising six kids, serving as Goodwill Ambassador, contributing to countless charities, and acting in at least one movie a year, but she does it all and she seems to do it well. So why does she earn so much less per film than her macho co-stars? Why does hasbeen Harrison Ford earn more than Meryl flurking Streep who continues to work both well and regularly? Why do audiences flock to the box office whenever someone like a bloated Tom Hanks or crazy Tom Cruise graces us with their presence? Almost all of the actors who earned their way into the list keep giving us recycled performances in redundant remakes or sequels while nearly all of the underpaid actresses are taking on daring roles and/or experimenting with their image. Frankly, I'm delighted by Drew Barrymore's next step in the director's chair with Whip It! This decade, however, is bullshit. Talented actresses like Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Garner NEED to stop appearing in simpering, one-dimensional male fantasy romcom's like The Ugly Truth and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Women contribute to the box office success of Transformers and the like because we don't have any strong women on screen. Sex and the City proved that if you center a film on female friendship that it's possible to earn money. We don't need films like Obsessed or, undoubtedly, the new Buffy the Vampire slayer movie to falsely represent us. We need these actresses, female filmmakers and technicians, and critics to stand up and at least try and take charge of this horrifying situation by saying no to demeaning roles, writing/filming strong female characters, no matter the size of their part, and pointing out the flaws and successes when they happen. Perhaps, in ten or so years, we'll have better roles for women of all ages, colors, and sexual orientation and better paychecks if we keep that in mind now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fallen but not quite Forgotten

These photos were taken for a project on "Fallen Princesses" by Dina Goldstein. She says: "These works place Fairy Tale characters in modern day scenarios. In all of the images the Princess is placed in an environment that articulates her conflict. The '...happily ever after' is replaced with a realistic outcome and addresses current issues."

While this project is a great idea in theory, I don't think Goldstein put enough effort into cementing her jabs. Specifically, the Jasmine and Little Red Riding Hood photos have caused a great amount of controversy on the internet because their messages are so unclear. Is Jasmine supposed to be a terrorist or a soldier? Why is she the only Princess to have a photo centered around race? The Little Red Riding Hood photo could have gone in so many directions. A pedophilia centered photo would have been more appropriate. Is she reinforcing the stereotype that fat people are only fat because they eat junk food?

Personally, my favorite of the bunch is the Snow White photo. It has the most direct agenda and I've often pictured Snow White in that very setting.

What do you guys and gals think? You can read the actual article here and read more commentary about the project at Bitch Magazine.

Belle is working hard to stay beautiful.

Jasmine is fighting...something?

Little Red isn't so little.

Chemo has taken its toll on Rapunzel's long golden locks.

Cinderella lost her slipper in that shot glass.

Snow White should have stayed with her little friends in the forest.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

From Jungle Red to White Bread: The Women (1939) to The Women (2008)

"There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel." - Crystal Allen, The Women (1939)

When Clare Booth Lace wrote The Women in the mid ’30s, she had one main objective: to satirize the hell out of all the rich, petty women surrounding her in high society. Ms. Booth Lace worked for a living, married an intellectual equal, and only joined in on the malicious sewing circle of death out of sheer curiosity and disbelief. She found that the female upper crust managed to avoid mass suicide by stockpiling up on soap opera shenanigans in order to keep life interesting. Tabloid affairs, catfights, and pop fashions added the spice while gossip, lunches, and parties added fuel to the fire. No one really liked each other and yet they were always together, flitting about like ruffled hens in a barnyard. Clare Booth Lace saw the dramatic and comedic potential in satirizing their lives as well as knocking the bourgeois down a peg or two at the height of the economic crisis. Needless to say, the all-female play she ended up writing was a smash hit and MGM quickly nabbed the rights to the story in 1938.

After being fired from Gone with the Wind (despite filming its best scenes) famed woman’s picture director, George Cukor, stepped on the set of The Women and immediately got to work. Jane Murfin and Anita Loos, who penned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, adapted the play for the screen and “jazzed up its lingerie” with naughty sexual innuendo. Together, Cukor, Loos, and Murfin faithfully brought the story of Mrs. Stephen Haines (Mary), a darling, rich housewife whose life is turned upside down when her husband has an affair with a perfume salesgirl, to life with all of the zest and zing of the original play. The film starred Norma Shearer as Mary, who was finally free of creative restrictions because her husband, producer Irving Thalberg had died that year. It also starred the adorably gawky Rosalind Russell as catty Sylvia Fowler, Joan Crawford as sultry perfume girl Crystal Allen, and Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard as two more hens in the hen house. These five ladies headline an entire female cast that delights as well as destructs. All bets were off with this throng. And yet, despite the scrumptious catharsis one feels while watching these dillies do their dallies, Cukor also manages to make us feel empathetic for their plights as well. He was the best woman’s picture director in the business because he, as a gay male working in the industry, understood the feeling of being an outsider housed in polite casings for mass consumption. Though he clearly dislikes most of the women in The Women, he still recognizes their own brand of persecution at the hands of patriarchy. For instance, if the film had been placed in the hands of any other director, I think the character of Crystal Allen would only have hit the “slut” note and backed away. Cukor admires her sexiness and daring for going after what she wants and he and Joan Crawford make her a three-dimensional character. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Crystal Allen isn’t afraid of ambition and hunts for success the only way she knows how: by conniving and clawing her way into a solid, wealthy marriage. I think the real threat she instills in the rich bitches around her isn’t that she’s going after Mary’s husband. No, they hate and tear her down because she uses those jungle red nails to grasp what they did once upon a time, except she’s doing it from a lower social status and succeeding all the same.

All of Cukor’s characters have that gray matter feel to them. The ladies’ start out at one extreme and gradually gravitate toward the middle of the spectrum by the film’s end. Though they’re all terrible people in one way or another, the film still manages to celebrate the camaraderie of the female soul through so many different types of powder puffed trixies. We don’t watch the film to see Mary get her husband back; we watch it to see women interact with one another on an even playing field that usually involves witty banter, fabulous clothes (Adrian is a saint), and equal doses of social backstabbing and friendship. Diane English doesn’t understand that.

With her first feature film, English successfully pecked out all aspects of the original Women that made it so timeless. Now, it’s just Sex and the City with better source material. Before directing, English’s previous claim to fame was writing and producing the somewhat feminist hit show, Murphy Brown, with Candice Bergan. She’s been tinkling around with this remake for over a decade and finally released it last year. And yet, her efforts are no more artistically apparent than your average run-of-the-mill director for hire job. Go figure?

In the updated story, there are fewer female characters and fewer bouts of feminine bravado and brassiere blazing. Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) is a happy-go-lucky rich hippie chick living in NYC’s suburbs with her tween daughter and wall street bound hubby. Her best friends are Sylvia Fowler (Annette Benning), a fashion magazine editor, Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), an artsy stay-at-home mom with four daughters and baby #5 on the way (she wants a boy, of course), and Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), a stereotypical lesbian with one published book under her belt. The bland as balls Crystal Allen in this version is played by the insipid Eva Mendes, who has the right look for the part (I guess…), but none of the pizzazz or personality of her originator. Well, that’s kind of unfair because few people could live up to Joan Crawford’s personal laundress, let alone one of the parts she played. But both Mendez and the direction English took with her character are about as interesting as white painted walls. Fortunately, Cloris Leachman, Candice Bergan, Bette Midler, and Carrie Fisher in supporting roles make up for some of the wishy-washy main characters, though they can hardly save the day.

No, the remake fails to live up to the original’s bite because it’s just too nice. Too nice and too phony. While it’s always a pleasure to see women on screen get their groove on in the workplace and bond with one another, there’s just nothing earnest or potent within the film’s narrative to make it worthwhile. These modern women may pursue goals when they’re not around their men, but the male characters are still the driving force of their actions. By taking out the apparent satire of the original to make her version more friendly, Diane English has also taken out the emotional resonance and chemistry of the characters as well. The original film’s tagline may be “It’s all about men,” but it’s really about the women and how we use society’s perceptions of ourselves to manipulate certain situations and ideas. The women in the remake have little to no original thoughts and only pursue life by bouncing off the invisible male characters dealings.

On one of the documentaries included in the DVD, Diane English gives a guided tour through the history of her relationship with the remake and why she wanted to do it in the first place. She thought it was a good story, but “women don’t act that way anymore” and the original’s “camp value” detracted from its social message. How can someone so passionate about a project miss the point so thoroughly? Many terrible remakes have been created by modern Hollywood to eliminate the so-called camp/antique feel of classic cinema. How is the original campy? Just because they wear big hats and yell occasionally? It’s truly ironic and sad that a female director and mostly female crew managed to be just as unfeeling and convoluted about the female role as everyone else in Hollywood these days.

What might have been a golden opportunity to update a classic was truly wasted with English’s The Women.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Woman in Berlin

This was originally published in Sadie magazine.

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Sadly, World War II seems like cinematic roadkill these days. World cinema, especially Hollywood, treads over so much of the subject year after year with story after story that there really shouldn’t be much of the narrative carcass left to peck. So much glossy exposure to any event is bound to desensitize viewers.

Though I’d glanced at the corpse beforehand, watching A Woman in Berlin truly brought this idea to my attention. My cynical, jaded eyes made me think it was another dime a dozen World War II picture the first time I saw it. However, upon my second viewing, I realized my mistake and acknowledged that it’s actually one of the more distinctive films to be released about the fray in many years.

One of the last taboos of the Second World War occurred as it was waning down in 1945. The Russians took hold of Germany for seven months and made Berlin their headquarters. Unfortunately, the Russians also demonstrated their clout by forcing the remaining German women, children, and elderly to do their bidding.

Though it’s hard to estimate, it’s been said that thousands, perhaps even millions, of German women were raped during this short Russian occupation. One of them, a worldly journalist who calls herself Anonyma, wrote her experiences in a diary that was later published across the globe. She is one of the few surviving women to ever tell this story because, according to the film and press notes, it affronts German women to even mention this time period. A Woman in Berlin is an adaptation of her personal saga.

Before the war, the German-born Anonyma (played by Nina Hoss) lived a life of cultural refinery as an educated writer. She used her fluency in five languages to report on stories from around the world. Both her diary and the film itself utilize her journalistic instincts to present her story in an unsentimental, objective fashion. There’s no apple pie Americana or tragic GI romance to make us feel for the characters—just realistic human reasoning for us to connect with and understand. The romance between Anonyma and the Russian officer is seen purely as solace and not as the end-all-be-all romantic awakening like it is in films like Pearl Harbor and Black Book (Zwartboek). Despite the brutality she endures, Anonyma never sees herself as a victim. Why should we?

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In exchange for bodily security and a smidgen of power, Anonyma and the other women in her band of generally nameless pioneers prostitute themselves to the highest-ranking Russian officers. Though the movie entertains a World War II movie cliché through Anonyma’s relationship to her officer, the filmmakers don’t make it the focal point of her journey.

The film’s strongest scenes occur when Anonyma and the other afflicted women sit around and converse about their lives. Without shame or remorse, they candidly talk and even laugh about how many times they’ve been raped, the effects of syphilis, and their fears for Germany after the war is over. By excluding men from these scenes, the women are able, probably for the only time in their lives, to discuss their situation without feeling ashamed or disgraced. These parts of the movie are more harrowing than any battle scene ever could be.

Much like Fassbinder’s Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, the anonymous, enigmatic Anonyma is a resilient German heroine who demands survival at any cost. The unsentimental view with which she observes and writes about her current circumstances also applies to her fearless persona. In more than one scene, she gallantly walks up to a hoard of catcalling, threatening Russian officers and demands that attention be paid to the rape crisis. While she’s met with outright hostility and callous attitudes, it doesn’t stop her from trying again and fighting back. Even without a real name, Anonyma resonates because her mission for survival is so direct, hard-boiled, and sincere.

German filmmaker Max Färberböck, famous for his highly acclaimed Aimée & Jaguar, is devoted to portraying the situation fairly and accurately. For the most part, he does not present the Russian officers as faceless monsters or the women as nameless victims or statistics (which makes the plentiful rape scenes even more traumatic to watch). Though Färberböck clearly sides with the women in the film, he also creates an underlying political ambiguity between all of the characters. The movie is neutral and sympathetic to both German and Russian beliefs. It never takes the easy route by exploiting the circumstances for a political agenda.

Aside from the brief, generic battle scenes on the streets of Berlin, the film soars in articulating Anonyma’s inspiring endurance tale. After her book was met with an astounding amount of controversy, Anonyma refused to take credit for her work and demanded that her real name never be printed, even after her death. To this day, her book is seen as the pivotal source for information about the Russian’s stay in 1945 Germany.

A story like this could never really have a happy ending, but Anonyma and lots of other women survived the ordeal and quietly rebuilt their lives from the bottom-up. Anonymously or not, Anonyma bravely spoke against injustice when nobody else would. I can only hope that she used her objective reasoning to recognize what an impact she made in the world by sharing her experiences as both a rape and war survivor.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sara's Favorite Movies of 2008

Yes, I know it's March. So what!

2008 was one of the best and worst years of my life. On the plus side, I graduated from college with high honors, presented a paper at Notre Dame, started my professional writing career, and reunited with my dog-child, Libby. Negatively speaking, my life was turned upside down shortly after graduation because of my impending move to Madison, WI. Though I hated my entire stay in Madison for many reasons, my gravest complaint about the situation is that it single-handedly withdrew me from cinema culture and my film project. Failure isn’t something I’m accustomed to or take lightly. I rarely quit something once I’ve started it. I’m sincerely sorry to everyone who joined-in on my feminist film bandwagon and felt let down by the sporadic posting.

However, I’m going to try and make amends by catching-up on some of the more important female-driven flicks I missed last year. Those reviews will appear alongside the new reviews of 2009 releases because I‘m going in for year two, round two with my project. Hopefully I’ll be all caught-up by the end of spring.

As it stands now, I don’t think it would be ethical for me to write my proposed essay on 2008 female cinema. I’ll wait until I feel I’ve seen enough 2008 releases to warrant that endeavor.

Until that day in May, I’ll leave you with my mishmash of a top ten list. I think it accurately represents my very weird (but mostly awesome) taste in movies. I keep looking at this list and wondering what in the hell it must say about me. But if you’re reading it, then you probably know that I’m more interested and attracted to films that attempt to tread new thematic ground instead of meandering through the same old shit over and over again. All ten of these flicks, as varied as they are in budget and genre, are brave, brazen works of art that made a significant impact upon my way of thinking and feeling. They’re also films you won’t generally find on most generic top ten lists. I love Wall-E as much as the rest of ’em, but it’s been written about enough.

Aside from The Last Mistress (which is my favorite flick of ‘08), they are presented in no particular preferential order:


The Last Mistress (2007, Catherine Breillat)

Asia Argento is my favorite presence in 2008 cinema. While her other efforts this past year (Boarding Gate, Mother of Tears) were more or less under appreciated by the greater cinephile world, I’m very grateful that The Last Mistress earned some well-deserved praise and recognition. As an actress, I find Argento perfectly suited for the melding and melting of the great cinematic auteurs and their projects. Much like Deneuve and Magnani in their prime, her unique style transcends language, genre, and even gender conventions.

However, I don’t think her specific knack was fully utilized until Breillat cast her as the enigmatic La Vellini, a fiery French/Spanish coquette who, despite her better judgment, is drawn to the flame of eternal love with a subtly charming, social-climbing scallywag named Ryno de Marigny (Fu‘ad Ait Aattou). Though they’ve basically been together for ten years, Ryno is set to end their relationship permanently because he is about to marry a virtuous, boring heiress for financial security.

Breillat may not be the most skilled contemporary cinematic artist working today, but her compositions for The Last Mistress (which are full of dramatic reds, whites, and blacks) are candid pathways to classic romance. The passion Vellini and Ryno feel for one another as well as the plights they encounter greatly remind me of a dirty version of Rochester and Jane Eyre in Bronte’s novel or even Scarlett and Rhett in Gone with the Wind. It’s epic in emotion and enduring in intimacy.

But classic doesn’t always have to mean “stilted.” Though The Last Mistress is a period piece and the exhibited themes are as old as time, the combination of Breillat’s modern sexual flare for storytelling and Argento’s fearless chutzpah makes the material feel light, fresh and deeply affecting.

Like the blood Vellini sucks and licks from Ryno’s bullet wound, The Last Mistress is dripping wet with cinematic fervor and everlasting romance. I've already seen it three times and I can't wait to watch it again.

The Genre and Gender-Benders with a Super Natural Flare
Mad Detective (2007, Johnnie To)
Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)

Mad Detective: Johnnie To is one of contemporary cinema’s greatest treasures. Like Exiled and the Election duo, The Mad Detective addresses masculinity and male kinship in a sensitive, almost trusting fashion that is really unique. There’s no useless dick-swagger or one-upsmanship in the To world, just a lot of sweet bad ass guys and (some) gals who know how to use weapons effectively and purposefully. Plus, the film is really funny, bat-shit insane, and full of weird mythology.

Let the Right One In: As a bit of a vampire fiend, I applaud Let the Right One In’s ability to simultaneously distance itself from traditional vampire fare through the relationship of the main characters and somehow stay true to its mythological roots by simple integration. The fact that Eli is a vampire is secondary to the essential building blocks of their coming of age tale. Sadly, this flick is already slated for a remake by the likes of JJ Abrams – a film that will no doubt take away all of the mystique and sensitivity of the original. Plus, Eli will undoubtedly be a girl and the tender gender-bender angle will be lost in the process.

The Cheese Stands Alone
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008, Marina Zenovich)

I’ve already written about this one here. Similarly to The Thin Blue Line, Zenovich dissects the entrails of this chaotic court case and unravels the truth entangled within it. Her efforts may have allowed Polanski to come back to the US if he wants to as well.

The Weird and the Whimsy: Two Underrated Gems
Boarding Gate (2007, Olivier Assayas)
Be Kind Rewind (2008, Michel Gondry)

Boarding Gate: Dirty-pretty is the term I’d use to describe Boarding Gate. It’s messy, kind of slutty, and chockfull of Assaya’s jet-setting, sleek aesthetics. While it lacks the soul of Clean and the cinematic pulse of Demonlover and Irma Vep, I’m somehow more passionately drawn to Boarding Gate than any of his other flicks. Go figure?

Be Kind Rewind: Sadly, earnest cinema is mostly a thing of the past. Films today are either too self-aware of their intentions or too auto-fellatious (I’m looking at you, Quentin Tarantino) to pull it off. That’s why it’s so remarkable that a big-budgeted flick that references countless blockbusters and starring Jack Black succeeds so admirably. It also celebrates history and the importance of a close-knit community in this otherwise commercial world. Plus, it’s absolutely whimsical! The references and good-natured feelings practically bounce off the screen with vivacity and warmth.

I Promise They’re Not Porn
Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2008, Jamie Babbit)
Midnight Meat Train (2008, Ryuhei Kitamura)

Itty Bitty Titty Committee: This is what Jessica Valenti’s rant-happy Full Frontal Feminism should have felt like. I wish I could have seen a movie like this when I was a teenager because it would have made the “f” word seem much more tangible and realistic. It’s a great introduction to feminism because it’s not pandering or self-conscious about its intentions and makes feminism appealing in a fun, political fashion. It would have played much better on the festival circuit and on DVD if it didn’t have such a terrible name. Many video stores refused to carry it because they thought it was porn. Hopefully it’ll become a classic much like Babbit’s other film, But, I’m a Cheerleader.

Midnight Meat Train: A contemporary horror film with a social conscience? Get out of here! Based on Clive Barker’s short story of the same name, Midnight Meat Train is a taut thriller with lots of amazing, eye-popping gore (snicker, snicker) that also acts as a scathing critique of the modern art world. Plus, the relationships existing between each of the characters feels genuine and human, unlike other recent horror flicks where all of those assets are taken for granted.

Socially Conscious without being Self-Conscious
It’s a Free World…(2007, Ken Loach)
Frozen River (2008, Courtney Hunt)

It’s a Free World…: Speaking of scathing critiques, this Ken Loach picture doesn’t let anyone off the hook with its wise look at our capitalistic system. I don’t really want to talk about the story because it’s such an impacting experience all the way through, but the film really is a forceful sledgehammer of intentionally exploitive circumstances.

Frozen River: Unlike Wendy and Lucy or even The Wrestler, Frozen River understands that poverty, while it certainly sucks, isn’t an entirely black and white situation. Being poor forces you to be creative and grateful for what comes. No one in this movie just sits around and mopes because they’re unfed, poorly paid or flat broke, they go out into the world and try to make their lives better. Alas, some of their choices aren’t always the right ones, but they don’t wriggle out of their mistakes either. It’s refreshing to see characters facing everything in their lives head-on. I can’t wait to see what Courtney Hunt does next.

Honorable Mentions:
Shotgun Stories, Girls Rock!, and Caramel.

Mainstream Flicks I Loved:
Wall-E and Milk.

Ones I Liked:
The Dark Knight, Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married, Encounters at the End of the World, Reprise, Mother of Tears, The Wrestler, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Body of Lies, Flight of the Red Balloon, Christmas Tale, Paranoid Park, etc.

Biggest Disappointments:
Wendy and Lucy, Changeling, Sex and the City, and though my expectations certainly weren’t very high to begin with, Iron Man. Ugh.

Shit List:
The Reader, Gran Torino, Australia, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and too many more to mention.

Sad I missed:
Duchess of Langeais, Synecdoche, NY, Fear(s) of the Dark, The Pool, Sparrow, Bachelor Machines, Chop Shop, In The City of Sylvia, Quantum of Solace (kind of…), Sylvia Scarlett at the Gene Siskel Film Center, The Tenant at the Music Box, Last Year at Marienbad at the Music Box, Lola Montes at the Music Box, and probably more.

Archival/Retrospective Highlights of 2008:
- An American in Paris & Meet Me in St. Louis (July, The Music Box)
- The Young Girls of Rochefort (April (?), Rosenbaum’s Transition series at the Gene Siskel Film Center)
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (April, Wisconsin International Film Festival)
- The Big Country (April, Wisconsin International Film Festival)
- Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (May, Rosenbaum’s Transition Series at the Gene Siskel Film Center)
- Max Ophuls retrospective (Fall, UW-Madison)
- Text of Light (March, White Light Series at La Salle Bank Cinema/Bank of America Cinema)
- Posthumously Yours: The Films of Zack Stiglicz (January, Gene Siskel Film Center)
- Insect Woman (Imamura retrospective, Gene Siskel Film Center)
- 4th Annual Horror Movie Massacre (October, Music Box). Highlights: Old Dark House, Dead Alive, Phantom of the Paradise, Keaton’s The Haunted House, and the aforementioned Midnight Meat Train.
- Day of Wrath (December, Music Box)

Favorite DVD Releases/Discoveries:


- Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women (Street of Shame, Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy, Women of the Night), Eclipse Series #13
- Ernst Lubitsch’s Musicals (Smiling Lieutenant, Monte Carlo, Love Parade, One Hour with You), Eclipse Series #8
- Bette Davis Collection vol. 3 (Old Maid, In this Our Life, All This, And Heaven Too, Deception, The Great Lie, Watch on the Rhine), Warner Bros.
- An American in Paris SE, Warner Bros.
- Gigi SE, Warner Bros.

- Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV Series
- The Quiet (2005, Jamie Babbit)
- Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2006, Jennifer Fox)
- Pilgrimage (1933, John Ford)

Movies I’m Looking Forward to Most in 2009:
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Public Enemies, Bronson, Tree of Life, Up, Bright Star, Puffball, Summer Hours, Bad Lieutenant: The Port of New Orleans, and lots more.

Favorite Actress: Asia Argento for The Last Mistress, Boarding Gate, and The Mother of Tears.

Favorite Actor: Michael Shannon for Shotgun Stories and Revolutionary Road.

Lastly, I'd like to thank all of the following cinematic institutions for showing all these great movies:

Music Box Theatre

The Gene Siskel Film Center

Doc Films

Landmark Century Centre Cinema

White Light Cinema Series

The Nightingale

Bank of America Cinema

AMC River East 21

Facets Cinematheque

Please, do your best to support these Chicago institutions by attending their movies. Aside from the AMC and Landmark, they’re all (mostly) independent venues that would certainly benefit from your attendance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road

A variation of this review was also posted here at The Feminist Review.

In 1997, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio changed the face of cinema history by starring in the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Despite its expensively hokey exterior, Titanic demonstrated that DiCaprio and Winslet have talent to burn and mutually possess an intimate, intense chemistry that keeps audiences coming back for more. Following the success of the picture, both actors skyrocketed to superstar level fame, but neither one of them succumbed to the pressure by rarely appearing in mediocre work. Instead, each one continues to flourish as an artist by choosing their material wisely and challenging themselves with difficult characters.

Needless to say, their time apart from one another has been fruitful; both actors have earned critical success as well as multiple Oscar nominations since their pairing. The parts they’ve played over the past eleven years have ultimately helped in preparing them for the two most demanding characters of their careers thus far: Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. As a pair of nobodies who think they’re somebody’s in the 1950’s, Frank and April are coming to terms with the fact that they’re living the same suburban lie as everyone around them. On an individual level, April is dealing with the unhappy housewife syndrome (which would later be ordained the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan) while Frank grapples with the loss of masculinity in the mindless workaday business world. In their reunion film, Winslet and DiCaprio are full-blown adults that are struggling to find the beauty within themselves, their relationship, and the stagnant society surrounding them.

Revolutionary Road is based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by Richard Yates. Though the movie is somewhat plot-less, it revolves around Frank and April: a pair of nobodies who think they‘re somebodies living the same 1950s suburban lie as everyone else around them. By meandering through their life decisions, the now thirty-something couple find themselves settled down with two kids in a house with a white picket fence on the prestigiously middle class Revolutionary Road.

Seven years later, Frank and April now battle their individual demons by making each other miserable. They constantly fight, bicker, and moan, but never really do anything to make their lives or relationship better. Ultimately, the lack of communication and understanding within their world leads to disastrous consequences.

A filmed adaptation of the book has been in the coming-and-going stage of creation since the rights were bought in the 1960’s. Though, if you ask me, they should have let it stew a bit more on the page before bringing it to cinematic life.

Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of such films as American Beauty and Road to Perdition, was the wrong director to helm this project. Revolutionary Road suffers from the same bombastic arrogance that plagues the small-town America depicted in American Beauty. Both films are about contemplation and maturity, but there’s absolutely no sense of that within the film’s visual or thematic subtext. Each character is constantly spouting what they’re thinking without really thinking about what they‘re saying or feeling. Frank and April feel good about themselves because they understand the societal trap they’re inside, but they won’t do anything about it. Frank is afraid of the failure he may face if he leaves it and April is afraid of leaving Frank’s shadow, afraid of actually being April instead of Mrs. Frank Wheeler. The film itself is afraid to take flight and actually make a statement about the society April and Frank live in.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t raise any potent issues and questions. Though presented like quarrels between children playing house, Frank and April’s tit-for-tat arguments with each other do address the surface level problems in the era’s middle class lifestyle. Gender roles, abortion, infidelity, and martyrdom are all nicely compressed into the film, but even those facets are too watered down and neutral to make a significant impact. Ultimately, it’s not the melodramatic potboilers that make Revolutionary Road compelling to watch, it’s the fear every single character possesses.

An “Oscar” film contender at its core, Revolutionary Road doesn’t succeed in influencing our cultural understanding of 1950s Americana. We’ve seen it all before and in much better place (Peyton Place, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Harriet Craig, The Best of Everything, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History). What you will get out of Revolutionary Road is the pleasure of seeing three absolutely terrific performances by Kate Winslet (who was robbed of her nomination), Leonardo DiCaprio, and relative newcomer Michael Shannon, who steals the show in his limited time on screen. Coupled with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, the performances are what make Revolutionary Road worth watching.