Archive for the ‘romance’ category

Riot Girls

September 22, 2019

riot-girls-scratch-gun-1092x667 Jovanka Vuckovic’s lively feature debut Riot Girls is set in 1995 and seems to be a war between the ‘90s aesthetic and the ‘80s ethos. The heroes dress like the grunge army and listen to bands like L7; the villains wear varsity jackets and blare a hair-metal anthem called “Danger in the Air.” The mohawks versus the mullets. The Southside Serpents against Cobra Kai. Riot Girls is also post-apocalyptic, which makes this an alternate-history dystopia. A strange illness has eliminated all the adults, and only the teens are left. (We’re not briefed on whether the teens will expire at a certain age.) This effectively clears the board of baby boomers and many Gen-Xers — I was 25 in ’95 and leaves the world in the hands of late-Gen-X and early millennials.

Really, though, all this just builds a world in which teens are in charge. It’s a premise, not the plot. Riot Girls focuses on two heroes: Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), girlfriends who live on the East Side of their emptied-out town of Potter’s Bluff (the evil jocks reign over the West Side). Nat’s cocky brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) has a habit of disabling West Side vehicles and raiding them for whatever supplies he can find; during one such foray, he’s captured, and Nat and Scratch ride off to the rescue. The grrl-power vibe of the piece has already been so firmly established that the script-flipping of the girls saving the boy doesn’t feel gimmicky — it feels like a necessary rejoinder. Jack goes off by himself impetuously, not listening to any of the girls around him, and the girls have to put things right.

The resemblance of Riot Girls to Riverdale in terms of emphasis and style (for instance, Celiana Cárdenas’ colorful cinematography) is most likely accidental; Vuckovic, previously the editor of the Canadian horror-film magazine Rue Morgue, seems to look to genre favorites like Massacre at Central High and Return of the Living Dead (whose signature song, “Partytime” by 45 Grave, underscores one scene). The script, by Katherine Collins, kind of proceeds from one situation to the next — the pile-up of familiar complications feels perfunctory. But Iseman’s soulful vulnerability and Kwiatkowski’s tough-girl Joan Jett deadpan (under which, of course, a soft gooshy heart beats) compel our interest and affection. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a girl-girl romantic adventure, with realistic gore that perhaps only a Rue Morgue veteran would insist upon. (The dark blood drips and spatters maybe a shade too convincingly for this teen fantasia.)

I’ve seen Riot Girls dismissed as disappointing and slight, which shows the weight of anticipation that can bog down the reception of any female-centered work. My guess is that the movie is offered as the kind of low-budget mid-‘90s Blockbuster rental that would’ve swum in the same waters as Hole’s Live Through This, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Rafal Zielinski’s Fun, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, and Alex Sichel’s All Over Me. This movie would have fit in perfectly then, and may be at the spear’s tip of the inevitable ‘90s nostalgia (when the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends takes over the media for a solid week, as it did recently, something is happening).

So Riot Girls is both retrograde and progressive, which fits this polarized time. Vuckovic’s direction is assured, steady and earthy; the images and sound have a pleasing solidity. We may question, after the fact, the sociological details of the milieu (has every town and city split into factions like Potter’s Bluff?), but in the moment we just accept it as the reality. The story only seems political insofar as it sees the same flaws (and strengths) continuing into the next generation. There’s a whiff of Lord of the Flies about it, as well as a passing fragrance of The Chocolate War. In brief, Riot Girls, if novelized, might turn up on school summer-reading lists (and promptly be protested by the usual bluenoses) — if not now, then certainly in 1995.

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Tell It to the Bees

March 10, 2019

tell-it-to-the-bees1 Tell It to the Bees is a modest, satisfyingly morose drama that tries a little too hard to be poetic and literary. (It’s based on a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw.) In 1952 Scotland, two women from opposite paths — working-poor mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) and doctor Jean (Anna Paquin) — fall in love, and, with Lydia’s little boy Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), keep house for a while. What sets this particular tale of repressed/suppressed passion apart are its expansively bleak milieu of Scotland and its general tone of British fatalism. Things don’t go well for the lovers or for anyone (supportive or otherwise, mostly otherwise) around them. Tell It to the Bees is a collective portrait of misery, and its refusal to crowbar in a happy ending is admirable though not especially entertaining.

Yet I was held by it, by its seriousness and its honesty about poverty and intolerance. Adapted by two sisters (Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth) and directed by rock-video vet Annabel Jankel, Tell It to the Bees is suffused with a refreshing femaleness, conveying a trust and a relaxed contentedness that can really only happen between women. Lydia and Jean don’t have a great love for the ages, with wildly ripe passages of erotic gyrating. They keep each other company for a while, and feel easier around each other. Their affair — Lydia is actually married, to a saturnine bloke (Emun Elliott) who came back from the war darker and angrier from what he saw there — is not emphatic or even very dramatic. They don’t fight about anything — they don’t have time to. Outside forces drive a wedge between them soon enough.

Some of the film takes the point of view of Charlie (and is narrated at the end by Billy Boyd as an adult Charlie), who only objects to Lydia’s relationship with Jean insofar as she isn’t truthful with him about it. For the most part he’s happy enough looking after Jean’s beehives in the back yard. Ah, yes, the bees. They listen to Charlie; he tells them secrets. They also buzz, like the gossips in town who make life so fraught for women who don’t fit in. (For good measure, there’s an abortion performed by force on a young woman pregnant by a black man, as well as rape attempted and, by several boys years earlier, fulfilled.) The bees, not always physically convincing, are probably the only special effects in this first feature in 25 years by Annabel Jankel, who in another pocket of her career co-created Max Headroom and co-directed the Super Mario Bros. movie. No evolved dinosaurs or stuttering talking heads here; Jankel finds lyricism in nature and in hushed, intimate moments between adults. But the bees are also a bit much, especially when they come to the rescue during the climax.

Even there, though, I had to ask myself, Did you really want to see the alternative? At least one horror is averted. Tell It to the Bees doesn’t strike me as a film that will become avidly beloved among its target audience, but then I thought the same about Lost and Delirious and have been regularly surprised over the years by its scattered cult following. This film might follow suit, although there’s little terribly daring about it, nothing much to compel that sort of giddy “Rage more” loyalty. It is one of many, many narratives about same-sex lovers in a time and place that rejected them. A large part of why it might work for viewers can be credited to Grainger and Paquin, who play small and subtle notes. While the bees and the buzzing get louder outside (in working-class Scotland there’s mud and disapproval everywhere you look) the women address each other in breathless whispers. The very quietude of their love is convincing; they share an oasis of calm in a town that seems to care about nothing so much as crushing the joy of its women under its masculine muddy boots.

What confuses me is that this is a film that traffics in romantic daydreams (there’s a fair amount of drifty dancing to turntable big-band records) and ascribes higher retributive intelligence to bees, but that can’t quite bring itself to give its lovers a fairy-tale ending. It’s as if the filmmakers (and perhaps the novelist before them) were saying “Bees will swarm to stop an assault more credibly than women can live together unopposed in 1952 Scotland.” Or in much too much of 2019 America, for that matter. The plotting seems punitive in a way that was common back when entertainment was required to show that crime did not pay — and homosexuality was a crime. As I say, I was held by the performances and the tone, but a narrative like this seems more at home in the era it’s about than the era we live in. We need more punk now, more stories of triumph and opposition, gobs of spit in the eyes of the buzzers, and to hell with the bees.

Cold War

December 30, 2018

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.

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.

La La Land

February 5, 2017

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.

That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.

No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.

La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.

Accidental Incest

May 8, 2016

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In the affably filthy sex farce Accidental Incest, the title tells the tale: the libertine couple Milton (Johnny Sederquist) and Kendra (Elyssa Baldassarri) both feel like soulmates to each other, but that’s just because they’re technically brother and sister — the separately sired results of their mutual father’s sperm-bank donation. They discover this about a third of the way into the film, and then the plot deals with the consequences, going deeper and darker though no less outrageous. Providence director Richard Griffin, working with a script by Lenny Schwartz based on Schwartz’s play, takes this taboo and good-naturedly manhandles it into service as the premise of a romantic comedy. This, heaven help us, is the ever-transgressive Griffin and Schwartz’s version of a Hollywood meet-cute.

Filmed mostly in microbudget-artsy black and white, Accidental Incest could be described as a boxing match between Kevin Smith and John Waters, with Waters handily winning and then going off to fuck Andy Milligan in a bathroom. The movie has the raffish sexual candor of Smith’s best early comedies, the prankish perversity of Waters, and the all-encompassing hostility of Milligan. Griffin keeps things jumping visually, especially in the sex scenes, edited and rhythmed for comedy rather than eroticism (which, contrasted with the usual po-faced treatment of carnality in American film, just serves to make the festivities more erotic).

The movie signals its stage origins by having the lead characters address us directly, a useful way to cut to the chase. Milton and Kendra have been leaving relationship wreckage everywhere they go, and it becomes clear that the reason is that they hadn’t met the right person yet — i.e., each other. Sederquist, a manic Griffin Dunne lookalike, and Baldassarri, whose smile has a hint of Anne Hathaway innocence, dive into the deep end of sin and hysteria and passion, with Griffin’s eager encouragement. Because these characters start out so scummy and irredeemable, we paradoxically believe that much more in their redemption via taboo.

Griffin’s roots are in disreputable genres — horror, sci-fi — and he and Schwartz throw in some fantasy here; there are angels and a hipster God (Aaron Andrade) who performs a rap. Accidental Incest is partly a musical, and there are some comically bitter or obscene songs here, though not enough to dominate the narrative. They’re essentially what Roger Ebert used to call semi-OLIs — semi-obligatory lyrical interludes; they’re smoothly performed and a welcome way of changing up the tone. The cast is fiercely game, and I confess I laughed hardest at Jamie Dufault’s near-psychotically closeted Alex (Kendra’s ex) and Josh Fontaine (whose comic timing is flawless) as the Gimp-like Adam. Many of the actors are Griffin mainstays, and once again he brings in Michael Thurber, who photographs so beautifully, especially in black and white, and emotes so dead-on satirically that if John Waters ever makes another film he should look to Rhode Island.

If the title Accidental Incest puts you off, truthfully Griffin and Schwartz don’t do much to win you over. It’s as cracked as it sounds. Those who respond to the title with an amused, curious attitude of “Oh, this I gotta see” are probably better-prepared for the party. It’s more sex-positive and less hung-up than the other incest comedy you may have heard of, David O. Russell’s debut Spanking the Monkey. And if it sounds like your cup of iniquity, it could use your help: the movie’s DVD distributor has been gun-shy about it due to its title — and it’s not something you’ll find in a Redbox in any event — so if you’d like to support Griffin and his brand of happy degeneracy, your best bet is video on demand or amazon.com.

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.