Saturday, 21 September 2019

"Wind of Change" - Scorpions

It's a funny thing, the iconic reach of this song. Written by Scorpions vocalist Klaus Meine, it's one of the premier power ballads of all time -- one of the few globally successful ones sung by a continental European band. You're as likely to hear its whistled opening refrain in Argentina as in Uzbekistan, in St. Petersburg as in Johannesburg.

"Wind of Change" is remembered as the theme song of arguably the last great political-cultural moment in world politics -- the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the former USSR in 1989-90. It was indeed inspired by those events: Scorpions played in Moscow in 1989, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign of glasnost (openness). But the song wasn't released until November 1990, and didn't become an international hit until well into 1991. It went on to be voted "Song of the Century" in a German ZDF network poll. As I say, you hear it damn near everywhere.

Adorable and just a little kitsch, "Wind of Change" draws its central motif not from Central Europe, but from Africa. The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, addressing a recalcitrantly racist parliament in South Africa in February 1960, declared that a "wind of change" was sweeping the African continent -- one of national liberation and political independence. (His speech ever since has been remembered as the "Winds of Change" speech, but it was WIND, and Scorpions got it right.)

The direct references in "Wind of Change", however, are not to Africa but to post-Soviet Russia -- as the video (below) also makes clear. The Moskva river and Gorky Park are mentioned at the outset, establishing an ambience of intoxicated emancipation that carries through the anthemic and only slightly cringe-inducing chorus ("the magic of the moment / On a glory night ..."):
Follow the Moskwa
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change
An August summer night
Soldiers passing by
Listening to the wind of change

The world is closing in
Did you ever think
That we could be so close, like brothers
The future's in the air
Can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
In the wind of change ...

The wind of change
Blows straight into the face of time
Like a storm wind that will ring the freedom bell
For peace of mind
Let your balalaika sing
What my guitar wants to say

Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow share their dreams
With you and me

Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
In the wind of change

Inseparably connected as "Wind of Change" now is with perhaps the greatest mass-freedom movement of the past four or five decades, one would expect to see it deployed where activists are pressing for their own national liberation and/or democratization. (I just bet this was a popular song in North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring.) Anyone wishing to express their support for such movements could do far worse than look to Scorpions' epic ballad.

Here's the original video of "Wind of Change":

And a live version with symphonic backing:

Scorpions have also recorded Spanish and Russian-language versions of the song.

Other Resources

Available on Scorpions, Crazy World (1991).

Wikipedia page for "Wind of Change."

Scorpions played the song at Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday party in 2011!

Friday, 20 September 2019

Classic Movie Review: Shampoo (1975)

Shampoo (1975)
Directed by: Hal Ashby.
Written by: Robert Towne & Warren Beatty.
Starring: Warren Beatty (George), Julie Christie (Jackie), Goldie Hawn (Jill), Lee Grant (Felicia), Jack Warden (Lester), Tony Bill (Johnny Pope), George Furth (Mr. Pettis), Jay Robinson (Norman), Ann Weldon (Mary), Luana Anders (Devra), Randy Scheer (Dennis), Susanna Moore (Gloria), Carrie Fisher (Lorna).
Shampoo is an odd movie. It is essentially a screwball comedy – featuring one man juggling multiple different women, and the husband of one of those women – and his business – and yet as directed by Hal Ashby, the whole movie goes a little slower than screwball comedies do. The dialogue doesn’t snap – if played another way, it could snap – but here, everyone seems laid back. It’s also a screwball comedy with a melancholy ending – and that melancholy seeps into the movie slowly as it moves along, so that it certainly feels earned in the end. I’m not quite sure that all the political stuff going on in the background of the movie quite works – it feels a little like the film is straining for some greater significance that it doesn’t quite have – and frankly doesn’t quite need. It is used to signify the end of the era – the 1960s – and how eventually, all these ‘60s kids have grown up, and will sell out.
It’s also an odd film in that it was co-written by Warren Beatty, and is clearly at least in part based on Beatty himself, and yet it isn’t really a vanity project. His George is a dim bulb, a womanizer who both understands women, and on another level, is clueless about women. There is a reason why so many women want to sleep with George – and more reasons why none of them really stick around. He can offer them great hair, and great sex – and when you’re with George it’s great. But when George isn’t right there with you, he’s completely gone. He’s the type of guy who when caught cheating can say – and mean – that it just kind of happened, he didn’t plan it. And that’s because George never really plans anything. Which is why he will always end up alone.
In the film, George – an in-demand Beverly Hills hair stylist – juggles multiple different women. His current girlfriend is Jill (Goldie Hawn), a beautiful, young, insecure actress who hasn’t yet figured out who precisely George is. He’s also sleeping with Felicia (Lee Grant) – the older wife of a wealthy businessman, Lester (Jack Warden) – who may, or may not, invest in George’s salon he wants to open. Lester’s current mistress is Jackie (Julie Christie) – who used to be George’s girlfriend, and they are still friendly. At some point in the movie, George starts to believe that perhaps Jackie is the one that got away – and he wants her back.
The film takes place over just a few days, leading up the 1968 Presidential election, when Richard Nixon would become President (the film came out in 1975, just after Nixon resigned). You can use a lot of signifiers for the end of the 1960s, and the election is a good one. There is a sense that George is getting too old to keep doing this – Beatty was in his late 30s when Shampoo was made, perhaps playing a little younger (he could pull it off being such a beautiful man). That his life of womanizing has gone on too long. But he is incapable of really changing. He is incapable of seeing that Jill really does love him – despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to listen to her. He is chasing after Jackie – but is it because he actually does love her, or because she has slipped through her fingers, and is now with Lester.
If there is a central flaw in Shampoo, it is probably that Jackie is a fairly unwritten character, so you’re never really sure which one she is. It feels more like she is a prize to be won by one of the two men in the film – Beatty, or Jack Warden, the older, wealthy businessman who supplies everything to women – money, security, etc. – that George cannot, while not being able to provide what George can. In a strange way, even though Lester is older than George, he is the future – and George is the past. Shampoo was prescient in this observation – the rising tide of conservatism in America that would make people like George seem more like relics than people like Lester. You can make the argument that Lester is perhaps the most complex character in the movie – his “morning after” showdown with George is the best scene in the film to be sure.
The other female characters in the film are better written. Goldie Hawk is excellent as Jill – the naïve actress who gets her heart broken. She’s not playing the likable, funny dim bulb of her Oscar winning Cactus Flower – but perhaps that character a little further along, a little wiser, but not wise enough. It would be easy to write her as a dumb blonde – but the film doesn’t do that. Out of all the characters in the film, Jill is the one whose emotions feel the most real. Lee Grant is great (perhaps not great enough to warrant an Oscar in a year where they nominated Lily Tomlin for Nashville against her, but great still) – as the older, cynical woman. She sees through George, but doesn’t much care. She doesn’t much care about anything – not her husband, not her daughter (Carrie Fisher). She uses George for exactly what George is good for.
I do want to talk a little about the scene between George and Lorna – played by a then 19-year-old Carrie Fisher – which culminates with her asking him “So, are we going to fuck?” – which cuts to Lee Grant walking in on Lorna on her bed, and George walking out of her bathroom tucking in his shirt. Is this the scene where George really does lose the audience – where you really do completely see through him? Because for the first hour or so of this film, it’s fairly lightweight and fun – like I said, a laid back California version of a screwball comedy – but here, when you see just what George will do – practically anything – he isn’t quite the fun loving guy anymore. It’s one thing to sleep with a bunch of women – who whether they realize what he’s doing or not – are old enough to make their own decisions. It’s another to sleep with a teenage girl. It’s clearly consensual – I’m not arguing that – but I cannot help but wonder if this is where George crosses the line that he cannot be redeemed from, at least in this film – or if I’m watching a film from 1975, set in 1968, from the vantage point of 2019. Either way, I think it works.
Shampoo isn’t quite the film that Ashby’s other masterpieces – The Last Detail and Being There – are, but it’s close. Like I said off the top, I’m not quite sure all the Nixon stuff quite works – while I see what they are going for there, it comes across as fairly heavy handed, despite the fact that it’s always just there is the background. And it’s not really needed – because everything with George and Lester does the job better than those snippets do. And I still do wish that Jackie was a more complete character – Christie’s performance is quite good, but I don’t think the screenplay quite has a handle on why she does what she does, a part from the fact that it needs her to do it for the sake of the story. Still, those are minor complaints for a movie that is funny on the surface, but slowly, steadily sneaks up on you with more substance than you think will be there.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Movie Review: Hustlers

Hustlers **** / ****
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria.
Written by: Lorene Scafaria based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler.
Starring: Constance Wu (Destiny), Jennifer Lopez (Ramona), Julia Stiles (Elizabeth), Keke Palmer (Mercedes), Lili Reinhart (Annabelle), Cardi B (Diamond), Lizzo (Liz), Madeline Brewer (Dawn), Mette Towley (Justice), Trace Lysette (Tracey), Mercedes Ruehl (Mom), Vanessa Aspillaga (Manuela), Tia Barr (Talia), Wai Ching Ho (Grandma), Usher Raymond (Himself), Frank Whaley (Wall Street CEO), Georgia Ximenes Lifsher (Crystal).
Director Lorene Scafaria makes no secret of her influences in Hustlers – opening the movie with the kind of long tracking shot, following someone through a nightclub, that Martin Scorsese has used often – most notably in GoodFellas, a film that that Scafaria has obviously seen many times, and lifts the structure and style from for her film. Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best (and considering what we’ve heard about Joker so far, she’s not the only one directly lifting from Scorsese this fall movie season). Hustlers isn’t the film that GoodFellas is (seriously, very few films are), in part because Scafaria’s film never really questions her characters, and their morality, the way Scorsese does in that film. GoodFellas is a riot, and wildly entertaining, until it’s not – and while the depiction versus endorsement argument has plagued Scorsese for his entire career – you have to be blind to not see he’s think the people in GoodFellas are awful people. Scafaria never quite gets there in Hustlers – and yet, to a certain extent that’s understandable. No one dies in Hustlers, and for the most part the people who get stolen from are bigger crooks then the strippers the film celebrates. Yet, I do think that when it’s all over the pleasures of Hustlers are more surface level than Scafaria’s influences.
But what surface level pleasures they are! After that dynamite opening shot, the film falls into a little bit of an exposition dump mode with Destiny (Constance Wu) explaining everything in voiceover (another GoodFellas lift) about her job at this strip club in Manhattan. She makes money – but not as much as the other girls. This is necessary place setting, but not all that exciting. The movie really takes off when we are introduced to Ramona – played by Jennifer Lopez in her best performance probably since Out of Sight way back in 1998. The film introduces us to Ramona as she dances on stage to Fiona Apple’s Criminal – and the money from the crowd covers the stage. As she walks off the stage, past an awestruck Destiny, Ramona says “Doesn’t money make you horny” and it may just be the best sequence in the entire movie.
You know where this going – Ramona will take Destiny under her wing, and the pair will make money – a lot of money. Destiny explains everything to us in the voiceover – how to spot the different kind of Wall Street guys, and take them for as much as you can. This is 2007, and times are good. Everyone is making money – and the strippers are no exception. The bottom falls out with the 2008 Financial Crisis – which is the same time Destiny gets pregnant, and leaves the game for a few years. But trying to get back into the job market as a single mother with little other than stripping experience is hard. And when Destiny hooks back up with Ramona – there is a new plan. No more dancing for dollar bills tucked into G-strings. Ramona and her crew – which also includes Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) – have a new plan. They go fishing – picking up wealthy men at bars, drugging them, and taking them to the club – where they will spend thousands on their credit cards, and the crew all gets a cut. This is, of course, illegal – but as Ramona correctly states, what are they really going to say? Are they going to call the cops and complain that they spent a few grand at a strip club? They going to tell their wives? Or are they quietly going to accept the loss, and move on.
Hustlers is not really a movie that thinks much of men – or much about them. The men in the movie are all the kind of Wall Street assholes who spout misogynistic bullshit right out of The Wolf of Wall Street. If they aren’t that, they’re the kind of meek, mild, sort of pathetic guys who want to be that, but can’t be – but are still at the club anyway. The girls sometimes have boyfriends – they aren’t depicted very much either, and aren’t much better – the fantasy of having a stripper for a girlfriend clashes with the reality of having a stripper for a girlfriend, when eventually they figure out that these are actual women, and not sex objects. At work, they play that part – but they are in control (mostly). They see the men in purely objective terms as well – it’s only fair, right?
Eventually, of course, the good times are going to end. The film contains an unnecessary framing device of having Destiny being interviewed by a report (Julia Stiles – who it’s nice to see again, although she isn’t given much to do) – which provides the voiceover narration (here, they should have stuck closer to Scorsese – you don’t need a reason for narration). The fall here isn’t the operatic one as in GoodFellas, but something far smaller, although it doesn’t seem like it for the women.
The cast here is good – Wu is kind of stuck with the blander leading role – the audience surrogate, although she’s quite good in it (I think there is a turn in her character very late where she becomes very desperate, and kind of pathetic, that doesn’t work – but other than that). The supporting cast is in fine for as well. But it is Lopez who owns Hustlers – in part because here is a role that allows her to both fully embrace her superstar status as J. Lo, and still play a character where that status makes sense. She takes control of the movie, and doesn’t let it go.
Overall, Hustlers is a tremendously entertaining film – and while the film is more style than substance, it isn’t devoid of substance. It does have something to say about the financial crisis, and the desperation it left people in, and on the nature of female friendships. No, the film isn’t GoodFellas – but what movie is?

Monday, 16 September 2019

TIFF Recap

Nothing makes me feel older than TIFF every year – last year, I did four movies a day for three days, and it pretty much killed me – I was exhausted on the last day, and felt awful. This year, I flipped it – three movies a day for four days, and it worked wonderfully. I hit the wall right before my last film at the Festival – but still loved it. But it always reminds me that just 10 years ago, I was able to do to 4, sometimes even five films a day for a week or more with ease. It’s time to admit I’m getting older, and except my Festival limitations. I still love TIFF, so I’ll be back again next year.
As is my normal habit in my TIFF recap, I start with the worst film, end with by favorite, and then just kind of feel my way through the other 10 films. If you read my preview, you’ll notice three films flipped – one because they added a screening of a film I would have picked over Deerskin in the first place, and the other two because I correctly figured out after my first day that trying to stay in Toronto until midnight on my final day was a dumb idea – so unfortunately I missed Synonyms and The Painted Bird, but I got another one I didn’t think I could fit in. As always, I missed films I would have loved to see – notably Parasite, Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story among others, but they’ll be out this fall anyway, so it gives me something to look forward to.
After years of my first screening of the fest being the best movie (it’s where I saw Anomalisa and Manchester by the Sea for example), my luck has run out – no year worse than this year, where the worst film I saw was my first – Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. This Chinatown wannabe is basically a mess – trying to cram too many characters and too much plot into its 134-minute runtime. Norton’s attention grabbing performance as a P.I. with Tourette’s was a distraction more than anything else (he’s at his best when his Tourette’s is under control). To make matters worse, the usually great Dick Pope’s cinematography has a bright sheen to it that’s all wrong for a noir film. The film is never boring to be fair, and sometimes entertaining – but it’s a pretty major disappointment from Norton – someone I waited nearly 20 years for to follow-up his promising directorial debut – the sweetly funny Keeping the Faith.
A slightly better modern noir was Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake – his long awaited for follow-up to the prizewinning Black Coal, Thin Ice from 2014. I wasn’t as enthused by that film as others were, but I think it was better than this one – which starts out very promising in a story about a gangster who kills a cop – and then goes on the run to the crime riddled titled town – not to try and get away, but to find a way to get his estranged wife the reward money for turning him in, with the help of a prostitute. The film is at its best in its earlier scenes – which look amazing – but once the plot comes into focus, it loses something – partly because plot isn’t really Diao’s strong point. It comes together in the end – the climax is good – but I still think the ultra-stylish Diao needs a screenwriter who isn’t himself.
Still, that film works a lot better than Daniel Borgman’s Resin – which alongside Motherless Brooklyn is the only film I flat out didn’t like at TIFF this year. The film wouldn’t work on its own, but it works even less when compared to Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, to which is thematically similar. It is about a family of hermits, who live in isolated on a Danish island – which is isolated to begin with. Years before, they faked the death of their baby girl before Child Services could take her away from them. Now, she’s a young teenager, and starts to question the way they live. Everything comes to a head when she starts going to town, her very pregnant mother (who is so obese, she cannot leave her bed) is about to give birth, and the father’s mother shows up for the first time in years – and then the father basically turns into a serial killer. The film lacks any sort of psychological depth for any of its characters, and is sloppily plotted (the one major character from the small town – the woman who runs the bar, whose house the teenage girl keeps breaking into doesn’t do one thing that makes any logical sense), and goes very wrong in the end. It’s the type of film that makes you wonder why they programmed it to begin with – not because its horrible (it isn’t, it’s just not very good) – but because it’s hard to see how anyone could love it, and it’s not like anyone involved in the film would be a major draw.
A film that better integrates some horror elements into a film that really isn’t a horror film is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child – which isn’t the film his last film (the brilliant, incendiary Nocturama) – but is a fascinating film which combines horror and fantasy elements into a film about colonialism and cultural appropriation – flashing back and forth between 1960s Haiti – in a story of a man brought back to life to keep working, and a girls boarding school in modern day France – where his granddaughter attends, and joins a clique with four white girls. The film is haunting and strange – I’m not sure it ever really comes together in a convincing way, but its stuck with me much more than I thought it would. Unlike Resin, which I doubt if it will ever come to North American theatres outside of festivals, Zombi Child will likely be released at some point – and you should look for it.
A film that better combined a critique of colonialism and genre elements was the Brazilian film Bacurau from Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius director Kleber Mendonca Filho who co-directed with his regular production designer Juliano Dornelles. The film starts out as a portrait of an isolated Brazlian community, dealing with political corruption, and then turns into a kind of John Carpenter inspired version The Most Dangerous Game. The film is wildly entertaining, and also incredibly smart. It taps into the themes that Eli Roth thought he was tackling in the Hostel films – but in a way that actually makes sense, and gets those points across. A smart, entertaining, political genre film.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes tied with another film I saw at TIFF – Ladj Ly’s debut film Les Miserables – which takes place in the same area of Paris where Victor Hugo wrote his infamous novel, and is thematically similar in a modern setting. The film follows a trio of cops interacting with the largely black or immigrant community – and what happens when they go too far while fighting off a group of children. The film is far from perfect – a subplot involving a lion cub is rather silly, and the chaos that ends the film feels more like it was reverse engineered rather than naturally occurring. Still, the film is viscerally exciting, and realizes just how deep the tensions go here. An imperfect film – but a wonderful debut for Ly.
Another festival prizewinner – this time the Venice Festival’s Silver Lion for Best Director – was About Endlessness another one of Roy Andersson’s drole comedies about the misery of existence. This one isn’t as large scaled as his last film – A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence - in any way. For one, the 73-minute runtime seems like a joke itself for a film called About Endlessness, and for another, his regular set pieces aren’t as large scaled as the biggest ones there. Here, everything is much smaller, much more everyday about the state of the world. The film is perfect for a festival environment – especially if, like me, you see it at the end of the day where Andersson’s little vignette’s work wonderfully well. If you’ve seen anything else by Andersson, you already know if you’ll like this or not – for me, it’s one of my favorites of his – the small scale works best for his meticulous style.
In the vein of you already know if you’ll like it or based on the director’s style, there was also Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life his first real return to a more narrative filmmaking since 2005’s The New World, but probably most thematically linked to his last WWII film The Thin Red Line – as the film is about how war really is the ultimate degradation of humanity and nature. Here, he tells the story of an Austrian farmer, who refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler – and how his small community turns against him and his family, before he is finally brought into for trial. His stance doesn’t do anyone any good – he suffers, his family suffers, and no one outside his town even knows about it – but he cannot bring himself to do what he does not believe in. Malick uses his now trademark style, honed through To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, but attaches a more concrete narrative than any of those films had. For some, this will be a return to form – for someone like me, who liked those three films (as well as Voyage of Time, which I also saw at TIFF – and I’m not sure ever really came out) it is still his best since The Tree of Life. Some will complain that Malick doesn’t show the true evil of the Nazis – no death camps, etc. – or that he makes his film too beautiful. Those are complaints not shared by me (do you honestly believe Malick expects you not to know the true evil of the Nazis – and the beauty underlines his themes). It isn’t quite among Malick’s very best films – this isn’t as good as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World or The Tree of Life – but it’s close. I know it’s become fashionable to bash Malick – but you won’t find that coming from me. A masterful film.
Co-star Lucas Hedges referenced Malick when talking about the films of Trey Edward Shults – whose latest film Waves is his best yet. While I’m not entirely sold on Hedges’ point – I see where he’s coming from. Waves is basically split in two – the first half of the film is about the downfall of Tyler – played in a great performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. – a high school wrestler, whose life unravels when he suffers a wrestling ending shoulder injury, and finds out his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) is pregnant. The film is overwhelming stylistically – loud and chaotic, and brilliantly shot, edited and sound designed – all leading up to tragedy. The second half focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily (a wonderful Taylor Russell) – who struggles with what her brother did, what is doing to her family, and at the same time finds first love with Lucas Hedges, who gets her through this difficult time in her life. This half is also emotionally overwhelming – and also tragic – but in a different way. The film is about guilt and redemption – love and forgiveness. It represents a major step forward for Shults – whose Krishna and It Comes at Night – were already quite good. One of the year’s best.
I’m not sure Cory Finley’s sophomore film, following the wonderful Thoroughbreds, Bad Education is a step forward for him – it isn’t as stylistically daring, or challenging as that film. Still, when a film is this entertaining, sharply written and acted, it’s hard to complain. The film would make an excellent double bill with Alexander Payne’s Election. This film focuses on a school superintendent (Hugh Jackman, arguably better than he has ever been) and his assistant (Allison Janney, having a blast doing a Long Island accent) caught in the nation’s largest ever school board embezzling scandal in history – exposed by one enterprising high school reporter for the school paper. The film is wickedly funny – and with the college admission scandal ongoing, it has become more timely than ever. The whole cast is wonderful – none more so than Jackman, who plays off his image a little bit, and goes all out. This one doesn’t have distribution yet – but it will get it – so keep a look out, probably next year, for this audience pleaser.
In some ways, Scott Z. Burns’ The Report feels like a throwback to the would-be prestige dramas from last decade (remember Rendition? Lions for Lambs?) at the height of the Iraq war that audiences didn’t want to see then. There are a few differences though – for one The Report is much better than those films, and for another, the passage of time is part of the narrative. It is about Daniel Johns (a great Adam Driver) who worked for years for the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (aka torture) methods in the wake of 9/11- and finds almost nothing but pushback from the agency, and even the Obama White House, who wants to move on. This is a film about smart people doing their work – no personal life drama, etc. – just Driver and his team investigating, intercut with some flashbacks of what happened, and his meetings with Senator Dianne Feinstein (a good Annette Bening) and his explains with mounting anger what happened, why, and why none of it works or made any difference what so ever in the war on terror. The film may feel like a series of large data dumps – but Driver sells them all, and the film is more intense and anger inducing than it probably sounds. I don’t know if Americans want to see this any more than they wanted to see these things a decade ago – but they should.
Which brings us to the best film I saw at TIFF this year – the Safdie brothers anxiety inducing Uncut Gems – featuring the best ever Adam Sandler performance, and an almost overwhelming style that pushes forward with chaotic, propulsive energy, perhaps even more than their last film – the masterpiece Good Time. Here, Sandler plays a New York diamond dealer, deep in debt to everyone he knows, who over the course of a few days tries to dig himself out. It involves a massive Ethiopian black opal, the Celtics Kevin Garnett and his crew (including a wonderful LaKeith Stanfield), his wife (Idina Menzel), his mistress (Julia Fox), and various thugs, loan sharks, etc. – who are all tiring of his schemes. The film lets you knows exactly what it’s going to be in the opening moments – the chaotic sound design makes the film feel like a mixture of Cassavetes and Altman, with voices coming from all over the place, and the pulsating score rippling through your body. And each passing scene simply ups the ante more and more and more – the film felt like was trying to give me a heart attack, which is precisely what they are going for. It’s also a reminder that while Sandler often completely lacks ambition – making cheap, easy movies as an excuse to hang out with friends, or film in tropical locales for a few months – when he wants to me, he can be absolutely brilliant. This film will be divisive – it is so overwhelming stylistically that it will turn some people off – but for me, it confirmed the Safdies brilliance, and was another masterwork from the brothers.
And so that’s it for me for another TIFF. Every year, I wonder if I’ll go again – if it’s worth the money and the hassle – and every year, while I’m there, I enjoy every minute even as it leaves me exhausted. And every year, I decide, that yes, for at least one more year, I’ll be heading to TIFF again next year.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Classic Movie Review: Police Story (1985)

Police Story (1985)
Directed by: Jackie Chan.
Written by: Jackie Chan and Edward Tang.
Starring: Jackie Chan (Chan Ka Kui), Maggie Cheung (May), Brigitte Lin (Selina Fong), Kwok-Hung Lam (Supt. Raymond Li), Bill Tung (Inspector Bill Wong), Yuen Chor (Mr. Chu Tao), Charlie Cho (John Ko), Chi-Wing Lau (Cheung, the Lawyer), Hark-On Fung (Danny Koo), Hing-Yin Kam (Inspector Man), Mars (Kim), Tai-Bo (Lee / Snake Eyes), Ken Tong (Tom), Fat Wan (Jacknife / Mad Wing).
When Jackie Chan was at his best – and Police Story is arguably his very best (I say arguably, because I am hardly an expert on Chan) – he comes as close as anyone in film history in matching the physical prowess of Buster Keaton at the height of his own powers. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more adept at pulling off mind bending stunts like the ones Chan can pull off. The opening and closing sequences of Police Story are absolutely brilliant – the closing one in particular is the kind that makes you wonder how anyone survived all the insane stunts they not only attempt, but pull off. The end credits, as per usual for Chan, show a bunch of outtakes of the performers not quite pulling off what we just saw them pull off, which makes it all even more impressive. There’s a lot in Police Story that isn’t anywhere near that good – pretty much anything involving plot or characters – but when you can do what Chan and company do, who cares about small things like that.
The plot of Police Story is pure cop movie cliché. After that amazing opening sequence – where an entire small town built into the side of a mountain is shot up and destroyed (there is an amazing shot of a truck going through the town as it slides down the mountain), the plot really kicks in, and its essentially that Chan’s character has to keep Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin) alive long enough so she can testify against her gangster boyfriend, who is trying to have her killed. At first, she wants to escape – but when she realizes that her life in in danger, she comes around. The middle section of the film is more akin to farce than anything else – with smaller action sequences sprinkled in to keep those who just want to see Chan kick and punch people entertained. But there’s also screwball comedy sequences – some better than others – sprinkled in throughout the film, like when Chan tries to keep three phone calls going at the same time. There’s a courtroom sequence that may have been inspired by the verbal gymnastics of the Marx Brothers – that made me think of Johnny Cochran a decade later, as the lawyer talks in circles so much, he almost has you convinced, until you realize he hasn’t really said anything at all.
And then there is the shopping mall sequence that ends the film – and it really is one of the best sustained pieces of action filmmaking you will ever see, right up there with the opening of John Woo’s HardBoiled, and perhaps even more impressive, since it goes on longer, and it constantly seems like someone is about to die. Chan, as a director, gives himself of course many of the best moments – but he doesn’t shy away from letting others shine as well. Unlike the recent stories we have heard about some of the Fast & Furious action stars – none of whom can hold a candle to Chan at his peak – he isn’t afraid to get knocked down, or take some punches. He knows he’ll get the best of you in the end. I find I don’t want to say more about this sequence because it is so good, I just want you to see it for yourself, and be blown away.
And you should see it for yourself. Chan would, of course, go on to become a Hollywood movie star a decade or so after Police Story (1992’s Supercop is actually Police Story 3 and 1996’s First Strike is Police Story 4 – but you don’t really need to know that to watch either of those films). Many of his Hollywood films are slightly more whimsical than this – his moves more dance like than ever before, perhaps because he was aging. It’s also sad that Chan pretty much stopped directing when he came to Hollywood – he has 18 directing credits on IMDB – almost all of them before he came over here. Police Story then is an example of just what he could do both in front of and behind the camera – and is one of the best examples of what makes Jackie Chan such a special, rare talent.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Movie Review: It Chapter Two

It Chapter Two *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Andy Muschietti.
Written by: Gary Dauberman and Jason Fuchs based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Beverly Marsh), James McAvoy (Bill Denbrough), Bill Hader (Richie Tozier), Isaiah Mustafa (Mike Hanlon), Jay Ryan (Ben Hanscom), James Ransone (Eddie Kaspbrak), Andy Bean (Stanley Uris), Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise), Jaeden Martell (Young Bill), Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley), Jack Dylan Grazer (Young Eddie), Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie), Sophia Lillis (Young Beverly), Chosen Jacobs (Young Mike), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Young Ben), Teach Grant (Henry Bowers), Nicholas Hamilton (Young Henry), Xavier Dolan (Adrian Mellon), Taylor Frey (Don Hagarty), Molly Atkinson (Myra/Sonia Kaspbrak), Joan Gregson (Mrs. Kersh), Stephen Bogaert (Alvin Marsh), Luke Roessler (Dean), Stephen King (Shopkeeper), Peter Bogdanovich (Director), Will Beinbrink (Tom), Jess Weixler (Audra Phillips), Martha Girvin (Patty), Ryan Kiera Armstrong (Victoria).
I suspect I may be more forgiving for some of the problems in It: Chapter Two than others will be in large part because I think bringing Stephen King’s mammoth 1,100 book to the screen is such a large task that even when you have two movies, and nearly five hours, it’s still not enough time. If we’re ever going to get a truly definitive version of King’s It on screen, I suspect it will be in the form a TV miniseries that runs at least 10 hours. A lot of the issues were easier to paper over in the first film – when it’s just a story about children fighting off an evil presence, it is easier to tell that story in a way that makes sense, and makes for a satisfying movie. When the canvas expands, as it does in Chapter Two, to try and shoehorn everything that King was doing in the novel, the results become far messier. It gives the film a more episodic feel, and while it’s perhaps easy to pinpoint a few moments and scenes that could be cut to make a shorter, tighter film – I understand that the filmmakers were trying to capture everything King did, so I cut them a little slack.
The most understandable choice the filmmakers made – and this started with the last movie – is also the one that I think makes it impossible for the movies to have the same power as the novel – and that is the choice to basically straighten out the timeline, and tell the story of the Losers Club as kids in the first film, and the one with them as adults in the second. The book, of course, flash back and forth in time – so that as the adult Losers, now back in Derry, start to remember what happened to them as children, we find out what happened to them there as well – and then see corresponding events with them as adults. This makes the themes of childhood trauma, and its effects into adulthood, more palpable – and fully realized. The filmmakers try this a little in Chapter II – either giving us events we saw in the first film, or new ones from the childhood – but without it being the structure of the whole enterprise, that effect is just lost. Again, I’m not sure how they could do this in two movies, totaling five hours – so the decision is understandable – and still, it does mean that instead of it being a story of childhood trauma and its effects, it more a story of this group fighting an evil, child killing clown.
The filmmakers probably would have been better served had they realized it – and embraced it. The scenes that tend to drag a little in Chapter Two – are the ones where we get away from the Losers Club altogether. In the book, the murder of Adrian Mellon (here played by Xavier Dolan) is one of many instances that show the rot in Derry runs deep – even beyond Pennywise. Here, as the only example of it, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth as an extended sequence of gay bashing – once again, using gay pain to explain something awful in society. There’s also a couple of scenes in Chapter It showing Pennywise up to his old tricks of murdering children. Like the Adrian Mellon sequence, by itself, the sequences are well done (it is legitimately scary to see Pennywise emerge from the shadows under the bleachers) – but all the sequences seem to promise that the movie is going to be a wider reaching story than it actually delivers.
For the most part though, the parts of the movie that do focus on the adult Losers do work quite well – in part, because the roles are so well cast. No one is better than Bill Hader as the adult rich – a smart mouth as a kid, now a stand-up comedian, Hader brings some genuine laughs to the movie (the biggest one being when he dances like Pennywise) – but he also has the most emotional heavy lifting of any of the adults, and is more than up for it. I wish the film had a little bit more for Jessica Chastain as the adult Beverly to do – but she still plays the role as well as it can be played – putting on a brave face, even as her whole life is crumbling.
The middle act of the film does undeniably drag at some points. This is probably because the narrative demands means that the Losers have to be separated – they all need to find something to “sacrifice” to Pennywise, which means that they have to split up – and when they do, the film loses that connection between them all that is really the heart of the narrative to begin with. Several of these stand-alone sequences are stand-outs – none more than the Jessica Chastain one, that basically acted as the trailer for the film – but it certainly does drag more than a little.
And then it all comes together in the end. You can argue that the last sequence goes on too long – it does – yet it still works. The movie certainly does have too many jump scares, perhaps a little too much CGI Pennywise – but his every appearance also gives us a chance to see Bill Skarsgård go dementedly over-the-top in what is essentially a high wire act to determine if he can go too far (mileage may vary here, but for my money, no he can’t).
Perhaps I am too close to the book – King is one my favorite writers, and for my money, It is his masterpiece. The novel brings together everything that King does so well, and unlike some of his (and apparently Bill’s) novel, he doesn’t let you down in the end (yes, the child orgy was a mistake – but it’s only one). And in a way, what doesn’t what about It Chapter Two is the fact that the films ambitions – it wants to be more than the Losers fighting the demonic clown. But even with two movies, and five hours, there isn’t enough time to do what King did in the book – and if there was, the filmmakers don’t find it. I admire the attempt – and I will say that despite the fact that the film runs nearly three hours, I was never bored, I was involved the whole time, and entertained throughout. The film works – unlike so many attempts to translate King to the screen. It’s not a masterpiece like the book was – and Chapter Two isn’t nearly as good as the original movie was either. But it’s still very good.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Classic Movie Review: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Directed by: Paul Mazursky.
Written by: Paul Mazursky & Larry Tucker.
Starring: Natalie Wood (Carol), Robert Culp (Bob), Elliott Gould (Ted), Dyan Cannon (Alice).
There are films that are very much of their time and place – and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is one of those films. This was the 5thhighest grossing movie of that year – which is remarkable when you consider that nothing that isn’t part of a franchise can come close to that anymore. It is about two middle aged couples at the end of the swinging ‘60s, who may feel like they missed the sexual revolution that the previous decade brought on for the younger people. The film was known then – and remains now – as the wife swapping movie, which is odd considering that in the end (spoiler alert) the couples don’t actually swap wives, and even more odd considering the idea isn’t even verbalized until the last 15 minutes or so. There are a lot of things about the movie that mark it as a film from the late 1960s – but I will say, that the film is surprisingly kind of modern, even 50 years later, in its view of infidelity and sexual freedom. You couldn’t imagine a mainstream film today tackling this issue – and not many indies would either. It is a film that is all talk – and much of that talk sounds like it was from 50 years ago – but it is well acted and written Mazursky and his cast. It does feel its age – and not always easily – and the characters are all, in one way or another insufferable, in ways I’m not quite sure is intentional. But the next time you hear about naval gazing, bored, entitled Millennials, you may want to think about this film, and realized that Millennials grandparents were essentially the same.
The film begins with Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) at one of those New Age, hippie retreats – meant to get you in touch with your feelings, and positive ways to express those feelings. To live in honesty. They seem to be resistant at first, but over the course of the weekend (condensed to about 5 minutes) they are won over by the methods. When they return to their lives, Bob goes off to shoot his new documentary – and when he returns, admits that he slept with his young assistant. Carol, to the surprise of Bob – and perhaps even herself, doesn’t much care. It isn’t that she doesn’t love Bob – but that she understood why he did it. Eventually, she too, will have a lover – and Bob catches them when he comes home early. He cares a little more than she did – but they talk it out, and he finds he’s okay with it too. They share all of this with their best friends Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon) – who are shocked – shocked! – by this, but for different reasons. She is shocked that he cheated in the first place – he’s shocked that he was dumb enough to confess. They predict that it will all end disastrously – but, of course, are also intrigued in ways they don’t even admit to each other.
Most of the movie then is all talk – and very reliant on its actors to pull off. There is a reason why Gould and Cannon were nominated were Oscars for their performances, and Culp and Wood were not – and not just because they were in the Supporting categories instead of the leads. It’s because we see them process the changes in their friends – and what it means for them, and for their own marriage. They talk it through with each other. Cannon in particular is quite good, as this whole thing forces her to confront some issues she didn’t really want to think about – in conversations with Gould, or her therapist. This isn’t to say that Culp and Wood aren’t good – they are – but I’m not convinced their roles are as complex. Also, they are at times nearly insufferable with their navel gazing conversations. Gould and Cannon feel honest – like they are genuinely trying to figure out what to do next. Culp and Wood are trying to convince themselves they are okay with this – whether they are or not.
Some see the ending of the movie – where they don’t actually go through with the wife swap, or the orgy, as a cop out. I don’t. I think it makes sense for both of these couples, given where they are, to flirt with the idea – and then back off. Gould and Cannon aren’t there yet – they may never get there. And Culp and Wood may be okay with an open marriage – but it’s something else entirely when its your best friends. The very end of the movie is one of those weird things you could only see in the 1960s – and I cannot imagine worked well then, and sure doesn’t now – no matter how strange it is (it feels like Mazursky had no idea how to actually end this thing, and so here this weirdness).
Bob & Carol & Ted &Alice is not a great film. There’s a reason why, even if you know the film, it hasn’t stuck around in the public consciousness as much as say Mike Nichols The Graduate (1967) has. And there’s a reason why I don’t think it ranks all that highly on Mazursky’s filmography – which includes some much better films like Harry and Tonto (1974) – which won Art Carney an Oscar or An Unmarried Woman (1978), which was a much more mature film about middle aged sexuality and marriage. But it’s an interesting film – as a time capsule for its time and place, and to remember a time when a film like this could be in the top five in Box Office in America for the year. There is a superhero or live action animated lion to be seen here.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

My Mini TIFF Preview

This Thursday, the Toronto International Film Festival starts once again – and like every year, I will be attending. Gone are the days when I could spend the whole week watching 4 movies a day – I am too old, and I get too tired, and with the kids, I don’t want to leave them for that long. Last year, I did three days, four movies a day, and I was exhausted by Day 3. So this year, I’m going to do four days, three movies a day, and hopefully won’t be as tired. As I have the last few years, I will be attending late – Wednesday the 11th to Saturday the 15th – because I find everything so much calmer, the media has largely left, the celebrities have largely left, and I can just sit back and enjoy the movies. So what will I be seeing? With the caveat that I often end up switching my tickets at some point (I don’t think I will this year, but who knows?) these are the 12 films I will be seeing at this year’s festival – from my first screening to my last.
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton) – It is a little strange that it has taken Norton 19 years to follow-up his rather charming (if forgettable directorial debut – Keeping the Faith – but he returns with this noir set in 1950s New York, with Norton himself as a P.I. with Tourette’s. The trailer looks good, and Norton is a great actor, who I always thought should direct more. The reviews out of Telluride have been pretty solid.
Waves (Trey Edward Shults) – Trey Edward Shults first two films – Krishna and It Came at Night, were both excellent – the first a straight ahead family drama that played almost like a horror film, and the latter which just went all out into the horror. This films got raves out of Telluride, so perhaps this will vault Shults into a higher stratosphere in terms of profile, and has is certainly one of my most anticipated of the fest.
About Endlessness (Roy Andersson) – Leave it to Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson to make a films called About Endlessness but have it be just over 70 minutes long. This is likely more of the same from Andersson – his vignettes about the absurdity and pointlessness of life, which are often brilliant and thought provoking. Andersson is always worth a look.
Les Miserables (Ladj Ly) – Ly’s debut film won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where the reviews were overall very good. It is about race, class and policing in Paris, seems like a timely film that will likely cause a lot of debate and conversation when it opens in North America.
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello) – Bonello is a fascinating filmmaker – this is the follow-up to the brilliant, provocative Nocturama, one of 2016’s most controversial films. This one, describes as a kind of fantasy/horror/drama set in 1962 Haiti, goes back to the zombie film roots. Knowing Bonello, you know it won’t be a typical zombie film in anyway.
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux) – Dupieux is a very strange filmmaker – I haven’t seen too many of them, but they are all weird to say the least. When this one opened at Cannes, it got very good reviews – and features Oscar winner Jean Dujardian (The Artist) – as a man obsessed with a designer jacket, with violent results for some reason. This seems like a good, light way to end a festival day.
The Wild Goose Lake (Yi'nan Diao) – I liked (but didn’t love) Chinese director Yi’nan Diao’s last film – Black Coal, Thin Ice – but do think that the film looked amazing. He entered the big time this year with The Wild Goose Lake, which made the Official Competition Lineup at Cannes, where it got solid reviews – even if perhaps its still may be an example of style over substance.
A. Hidden Life (Terrence Malick) – I believe Malick is the only filmmaker whose films I have seen at previous TIFF’s – To the Wonder and Voyage of Time were films I saw in previous years. His latest, which is really his return to a more narrative style of filmmaking that he has increasingly moved away from, has divided critics since it played Cannes. Still, it’s Malick – you have to pay attention, and I did start to like his more recent move away from narrative in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song. Very interested to see what he’s done this time.
Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho) – This actually tied with Les Miserables for the Jury Prize at Cannes. I loved Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius, so I am interested in whatever he does – let alone a neo-Western, with elements of the Most Dangerous Game, and the interesting addition of his longtime collaborator Juliano Dornelles as a co-director.
Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie) – Out of all of the films I will be seeing, the Safdie brothers Uncut Gems is clearly my most highly anticipated – I loved their last time, Good Time (my #2 on my top 10 in 2017 – and spoiler alert – quite high on my decade in review list as well). This one is another New York set crime story, with Adam Sandler seemingly trying again, instead of just phoning it in. I cannot wait.
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid) – I liked Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s breakthrough film Policeman and really loved its follow-up The Kindergarten Teacher (last year’s American remake is good – the original is better) – and his latest. Synonyms, has received the best reviews of his career so far – so I’m more than willing to go on this ride.
The Painted Bird (Vaclav Marhoul) – I hesitated before getting my ticket to The Painted Bird – I actually picked something else, and then exchanged it for this – not because I didn’t want to see it, but because I wasn’t sure I wanted to end my festival with a three-hour, black and white Holocaust film – and then the reviews from Venice came in, and I figured I must.

Movie Review: Luce

Luce **** / *****
Directed by: Julius Onah.
Written by: J.C. Lee and Julius Onah based on the play by Lee.
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce Edgar), Naomi Watts (Amy Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Harriet Wilson), Tim Roth (Peter Edgar), Norbert Leo Butz (Dan Towson), Andrea Bang (Stephanie Kim), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Rosemary Wilson), Omar Shariff Brunson Jr. (Corey Johnson), Noah Gaynor (Kenny Orlicki), Astro (DeShaun Meeks), Christopher Mann (Coach Reeves).
Luce is a deliberate provocation to its audience – a film that wants you to question just about everything it shows you, and challenges you to figure out where you stand, and why – and perhaps confronting your own complicated feelings on race, class and #MeToo. The film has its roots on the stage – the original production was back in 2013 – and you can tell that fairly early on, as this is a movie made up mainly of two-hander scenes – scenes in which the character’s debate and verbally spar with each other. It’s the type of thing David Mamet used to write decades ago (not so much recently) – and provides no easy answers to its central questions.
The title character is 17-year-old Luce (a remarkable Kelvin Harrison Jr., outdoing his excellent work in It Comes at Night). He was a child solider in Africa, when he was adopted at the age of 7 by his do-gooder, white liberal parents – Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), and brought back to Virginia to be raised. A lot of trouble with Luce is alluded to – his nightmares, etc. – that have seemingly been worked through. When we meet Luce, he is pretty much perfect – the smiling, charming, straight-A student, and star athlete – future valedictorian, beloved by everyone at the school. He is so perfect in fact, that you start to wonder if he’s too perfect. Certainly his government/history teacher – Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins to suspect so.
The trouble starts with an essay and some fireworks. The assignment is to write an essay from the point-of-view of an historical figure, and Luce does just that – writing from the point-of-view of violent revolutionary Frantz Fanon all too convincingly, which worries Harriet given Luce’s early childhood. When she finds some illegal fireworks in his locker, she calls Amy in for a conference. And thus starts a film in which all the character’s dance around the truth, all of whom have secrets they are trying to keep, and will be exposed – or confessed – at some point. Things get more complicated when other students become involved – DeShaun (Astro), a teammate of Luce’s that Wilson gets thrown off the team, ruining his chance at a scholarship, and especially Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) – Luce’s ex-girlfriend, of whom wild rumors about a party have been flying around the school.
Harrison is great in the title role. He is perfect at playing this guy who seems so perfect, that you cannot help but wonder – at least a little – if perhaps it’s an act. Certainly, he says some things that can be taken in different ways – perhaps it’s a lighthearted comment, or maybe it’s a threat, who’s to say? There are only two moments in the film where Luce isn’t “on” – isn’t somehow putting on a performance for other people. The first is when he practices a speech about coming to America with no one around, and he starts to cry (it’s telling, that later when he gives this same speech to an audience, he doesn’t cry – he plays the same thing off as light hearted) – and the other is the last shot of the movie, which you can read in any way you want to. Harrison is matched by great performances by Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer. Watts in particular has a journey to go on in the film – she opens the movie at least on the surface with the perfect life, although as the film progresses, it becomes clear that she is somewhat lying to herself about that. She has convinced herself that everything is fine – that Luce is perfect and “better” and “healed” – but perhaps he isn’t. Her worldview starts to crumble as the film progresses – but she will go to great lengths to pretend it’s still going. For Spencer, this is perhaps the most complex role of her career. Harriet may well be right about Luce – and yet wrong about so much else, wrong in the way she goes about handling things and the decisions she makes. It’s a complex performance – and the best I’ve seen Spencer give in her career. Andrea Bang only has one key scene – with Watts – but it’s a stunner as well. You do wish that an actor as good as Tim Roth were given slightly more to do here – his role is underwritten, but he does whatever he can with the role anyway.
In the end, Luce doesn’t tell you what to think – doesn’t hold your handle, and reassure you of anything. It is a complex film about race and identity – one that doesn’t wrap everything up, and leaves you grappling with its questions. Yes, the film is deliberately provocative – it wants to shock, and it does. But the questions its asks need asking.

Movie Review: Ladyworld

Ladyworld *** ½ /*****
Directed by: Amanda Kramer.
Written by: Amanda Kramer and Benjamin Shearn.
Starring: Ariela Barer (Olivia), Annalise Basso (Piper), Ryan Simpkins (Dolly), Odessa Adlon (Blake), Maya Hawke (Romy), Tatsumi Romano (Amanda), Zora Casebere (Mallory), Atheena Frizzell (Eden), Noel David Taylor (The Man).  
Eight teenage girls are gathered for a birthday party at one of their homes when some sort of natural disaster – an earthquake likely – hits, and the girls become trapped in the home, with no power, no way to contact the outside world, and no way out. Co-writer/director Amanda Kramer uses this as the jumping off point for her debut film – which has been described by some as Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies, and while that’s not entirely accurate, it does give you an idea of what is going to happen in the film. The film is about that thin veneer that holds together society, and how quickly that disappears when there is no one around to enforce the rules. And there are definitely genre elements to the film, which grows increasingly disturbing as it moves along. But the film also shares a lot with something like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.
There are eight girls in total – and you kind of have to accept that they would all be at the same party, because logically speaking, they wouldn’t be – they certainly aren’t friends, and are radically different. Even if there are only eight of them – only a few of them will stand out to the audience. There is Dolly (Ryan Simpkins) – so called because although she’s a teenage, she acts like a small child – including carrying doll, who is dressed and made up just like her, everyone she goes. Olivia (Ariela Barer) is the most rational and mature one of the bunch – she is elected leader shortly after the eight find each other – and she tries, in vain, to hold things together. Piper (Annalise Basso) thought she should be the leader, and it isn’t long before she has convinced two other girls – Amanda and Mallory (Tatsumi Romano and Zora Casebere) to essentially become her stooges, and follow her down into the darkness (these two have no personalities of their own at any point – you don’t really even remember their names). Blake (Odessa Adlon) is kind of an independent free spirit – but she fades into the background pretty quickly. Romy (Maya Hawke) is a bit of a wild card – a loner by nature, and an eccentric one at that, you’re never quite sure what she’ll do. Then there is birthday girl Eden (Atheena Frizzell) – the birthday girl – who is around just long enough to tell everyone that she is sure she saw a man stalking around the house, and then mysteriously disappears.
Ladyworld is obviously not meant to be overly realistic – like I said, you never really believe that these eight girls would all be at the same party at the same time, and the film also never really explains why they don’t try harder to get free (dirt covers most of the windows – but not completely – there is a ray of light from the top of them – they really should be able to dig out). But then again, that’s not really the point. The film may resemble a metaphorical theater piece more than anything – but first time director Kramer really does lay on the stylistics. The film is well-shot – but she has put most of her efforts into the sound design – which is creepy in the extreme, and that’s before Piper and her minions begin their chants – which takes the creepiness factor up another level. Kramer does a good job at making the whole thing feel increasingly claustrophobic – as the girls become more and more frayed, the walls seemingly get tighter on them.
It is also a well-acted film – particularly by the four who get real roles to play – Barer as Olivia, who tries her best to maintain her sanity, Piper who has the personality of a cult leader, and knows exactly how to push everyone’s buttons, Hawke as the ever strange Romy- and especially Simpkins as Dolly. Her character isn’t as a simple as a naïve innocent corrupted and destroyed by the harsh real world – that what it is on the surface, but there’s more going on here.
The film all leads to its inevitable climax – but even there, the film doesn’t quite play out the way you expect it to. They will be either be saved – or they won’t – we know that from the start. In the end, it’s still an open question. The film shows a lot of promise for Kramer – who is certainly pushing herself with a limited budget, and finds a style all her own. She also has a way with actors – the tone of the movie is chilly, but the performances are not, and yet it works. It lays everything on just a bit too thick for my taste – but it’s still a bizarre, promising debut film.