Archive for January 2018

Signature Move

January 15, 2018

signature-move-2017-001-wrestler-masksIf you feel like registering a gentle complaint about the current leadership, you could do worse than Signature Move, a lesbian dramedy about the maybe-sort-of-something between a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer and a Mexican-American bookstore clerk. Zaynab (co-writer/co-producer Fawzia Mirza) meets Alma (Sari Sanchez) at a friendly bar; they drink, dance, and fall into bed. The proudly out Alma would like the fling to become something more. Zaynab, fairly tightly closeted, isn’t sure; she keeps her sexuality from her recently widowed mother (Shabana Azmi), who spends her days sitting in Zaynab’s apartment, watching Pakistani soap operas and spying on passersby with her binoculars.

The script, by Mirza and Lisa Donato, is neatly assembled. The soap operas (Alma speaks in praise of telenovelas too) as well as a seemingly discordant note — female lucha libre wrestling — form part of the movie’s theme about acting, pretending, lying. It’s maybe a little too much of a coincidence that Zaynab takes wrestling lessons from a client (as payment for Zaynab’s legal services) and then meets and beds the daughter of a once-famed, now-retired luchadora. But I didn’t mind, because metaphorically it’s sound — the universe is conspiring to show Zaynab in ways painfully emotional and physical that she has to stop acting.

Director Jennifer Reeder, an indie-film veteran, keeps Signature Move bubbling atop a low flame, occasionally turning up the heat when the lovers enjoy each other (always clothed — save for a couple of words, this could be a PG film). It’s assured work from a filmmaker who values human-scaled awkward comedy over grand passion; the movie itself could have been handled as a soap opera, but Reeder disdains cheese (this is most welcome during the climax, at a lucha libre event). The women are agreeably paired: the warm and fleshy Sanchez matches up amusingly with the angular, neurotic Mirza, whose short swept-up hair and stoic default expression give her a resemblance to the young, imperious Camille Paglia.

One odd motif is the concept of a human being “coming out of” another human, the unlikely link mothers and daughters have despite deceiving looks. It also neatly sums up the dichotomous feeling many modern LGBT folks have when trying to reconcile their heritage with their sexuality. Sooner or later Zaynab has to move on past her mother, and so on. Signature Move packs a lot under a relatively small hood; the film weighs in at a slender hour and fifteen minutes, and sometimes feels like an extended pilot for a Pakistani-American lesbian New Girl. Join Zaynab, her girlfriend Alma, and their zany friends and family every week on NBC! Certainly there are worse things to say of a film than that we’d gladly spend more hours with its characters.

That’s probably more a result of the charm of the actors (I especially liked Audrey Francis as Zaynab’s wrestling coach, sort of an Illeana Douglas with biceps) than a reflection of the filmmakers’ goals here. Signature Move is short, but sticks around exactly as long as it needs to in order to make its point about the courage of declaring oneself (or one’s self). The abbreviated length also means we don’t have to wallow in the lovers’ temporary misery for very long. The movie is a perfectly pleasant bonbon for its target audience and its allies, and likely poison to those who don’t care for Pakistanis, Mexicans, gays, or women.

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The Year in Review

January 7, 2018

mother2Well, 2017 certainly was a year. It more or less began with craziness and pretty much stayed that crazy — though near the end, say in the autumn, we started seeing some pushback in the form of #MeToo. In fraught political times, every work of art seems to comment on those times, even when the commentary is unintentional.

My picks for the top two films of last year seemed to stand cheek by jowl in their efforts to explain the world in which we find ourselves, even though they were conceived and written long before January 20. Jordan Peele’s electrifying Get Out ran a paranoid premise through the filter of a lone African-American’s terror at the hands of outwardly benevolent white liberals. With its airtight structure and attention to detail and theme, it’s built for repeat viewings and long conversations. Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, hotly polarizing among critics as well as audiences, recast a biblical fable as an environmental cautionary tale — much like Aronofsky’s previous Noah. It was, in my view, the film of the year, a daft and impassioned folly that proves stubborn art is still possible on the major-studio level.

I loved Peele’s and Aronofsky’s efforts and look forward to more from them. I also celebrated the return of Patty Jenkins, who directed her long-overdue sophomore film Wonder Woman and made it into a fine refutation of nihilistic male domination in favor of female perseverance (the No Man’s Land sequence was instantly iconic). It became the official “Nevertheless, she persisted” movie, and seemed to set the stage for a period in which male sexual predators were called onto the carpet. One of them, Louis C.K., made a film that didn’t get released (but was shown at film festivals and sent out on screener discs to critics for awards consideration before its maker was disgraced) yet seemed to have the current moment on its mind.

The excellent series capper War for the Planet of the Apes was another accidental commentary on this xenophobic “build the wall” era. So was Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, which boasted, for me, the year’s great female performance (Salma Hayek) and found it within itself to allow some wit and dignity to a snide billionaire antagonist (helped by John Lithgow’s compassionate work). Colossal maintained that women can be monstrous too, though not as monstrous as a resentful, friend-zoned man. The tepid Wilson practically gave up on its eponymous anti-hero (Woody Harrelson) and let Laura Dern, as his long-estranged ex, take over the movie. Dern also shines, I hear, in the latest Star Wars episode, which I have not yet seen.

Star Wars, too, has become about how disaffected young white men can re-animate a bad old ideology (the First Order = white supremacy) while disillusioned old white men leave the battle for good to young women and people of color. (Eventually, the self-exiled, gray-bearded Luke Skywalker pulls himself together.) Blade Runner 2049, bloated as it was, spoke compellingly about the role of humanity in a cold tech future. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 was a terrific old-fangled yarn with old-school prosthetic gore as well as a 1970s respect for quiet human moments; it seems to cloak within it a sad critique of white-knightism and toxic masculinity, as did Zahler’s previous Bone Tomahawk. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to have confidence in the potential for redemption, even for violent racists. Two middling efforts, The Shape of Water and I, Tonya, still put complicated, suffering femalehood at their centers in all its passion and rage.

In and out of the movie theater, 2017 was a year for struggling with the national identity. Are we to be compassionate or indifferent to injustice and inequality? How shall we define ourselves as a country — what world do we want to make for ourselves and our neighbors? The movies continued to tell us it’s important to stand against oppression in all its forms, even while some of those involved in making those movies were outed as hypocritical victimizers or enablers. (Kevin Spacey found himself un-personed out of the year-end Oscar bait All the Money in the World, replaced by Christopher Plummer.) Will we take up our swords and fight for the good we can be, or will we sink into self-abnegating despair like Luke Skywalker or Wilson or Rick Deckard? Increasingly, we are seeing women and non-whites stepping in. “We got this,” they seem to say; “be our allies or get out of our way.” The quality of our 2018 depends largely on the lessons we learn from 2017 — and its art.