April was a huge #52FilmsByWomen month for me, the biggest since I started doing that last year. And female directed films provide the best (Queen of Katwe, The Edge of Seventeen) and worst (Twilight, Gang of the Jotas) of the month. Outside of that there was a bunch of excellent genre releases that are heartily recommended.
- Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller – There is such a spark here from Greta Gerwig which is very refreshing if all you’ve seen her in lately is Noah Baumbach films. The film jumps straight into the plot, with her character wanting to become a single mum. The script excellently reflects a life of parenting and academia. Though there is a jarring leap forward where it becomes a different film. One I didn’t love for much of the second half. Best when it focuses in on Gerwig’s character, her struggles and interactions.
- The Last Airbender (2010), M. Night Shyamalan – Found there was definitely more to like here than not. Dig the fantastical worldbuilding and vibe. It looks great for the most part. The performances are pretty decent overall and I particularly love Dev Patel here. He’s totally hamming it up. The fight scenes are logical and easy to follow, which is rare for a fantasy film. Look it’s clunky as all get out and thematically schmaltzy. But I had fun and am a little devastated the huge sequel setup never came to be.
- Scream 2 (1997), Wes Craven – Opens with a brilliant super bloody and brutal sequence in a cinema. Even if the rest of the film never reaches those heights, this is still a Craven film well worth your time. It also has one of cinema’s most iconic final girls in Sydney. The acting is really solid, especially from Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell who conveys the trauma she’s going through really well. The script is funny and smart, managing to still create real tension despite the humour. Thankfully the meta engaging with the concept of a sequel stuff is nice and doesn’t grate. Great long sequences of characters being stalked and preyed upon.
- Barbershop (2002), Tim Story – Loved this film. Essentially plotless for the first half hour, but the riffing and setting up the vibe of the neighbourhood and the place the barbershop has in it is great. A place of community and learning. Neatly shot with some cool use of close-ups. The performances are excellent. Cedric the Entertainer, so often annoying, gives such a fun and deep turn. And Eve should be in everything.
- Green Lantern: First Flight (2009), Lauren Montgomery – Doesn’t fuck around. Has the ring within three minutes. Plays like an absurd cop film – Sinestro the crooked hardass and Hal the bewildered rookie. Pretty basic plot. But despite the general crappiness of the Green Lantern gimmick, the action is pretty solid. Though the end sequence is a bit of a mess.
- Almost Adults (2016), Sarah Rotella – Starts a little rough, the script especially and the acting is a touch patchy. But after a little while it finds its groove and tone. Pretty funny in a well observed early-20s kind of way. Also good on the process of coming out and how hard that is, even if it goes ‘smooth’. Pretty fun this film. Really good comedy. Winning performance by Elise Bauman.
- Witness (1985), Peter Weir – The Amish connection sounds daft on paper. But actually provides an interesting cultural clash, particularly in their lack of interest/desire to be involved in laws. Weir really directs the shit out of this in a visual sense. Has a great score too. Also this Harrison Ford may be the best Harrison Ford and the supports are all really excellent too. A cracking, simple crime film with some great texture overlaid from the Amish/cultural clash stuff. And whilst the love story is a little forced. It handles the ‘from two different worlds stuff well. A seriously great crime film.
- The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Kelly Fremon Craig – This film reminded me how great teen films can be. The fun voiceover and charismatic performances from Hailee Steinfeld (who is simply amazing here) and Woody Harrelson help to give the film a charming teen vibe. Fuckin funny. Nails the awkwardness and doubt of being a teenager. This is really good. A fuckin great script. Very, very funny. Awesome soundtrack that complements the film without being forced. So damn watchable too. I loved it.
- Tank Girl (1995), Rachel Talalay – Immediately sets up a very unique tone – cheeky voiceover, animated interludes and the like. Love the performances here. Lori Petty’s slightly off-kilter look and delivery. Malcolm McDowell doing hammy, OTT menacing better than basically anyone else. The sci-fi visuals have a low-budget charm and bring a light post-apocalyptic aesthetic to the screen. The buddy dynamic between the boisterous Petty and the geeky pragmatic Watts is fun. Trippy as fuck too.
- Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (2017), Sydney Freeland – A really fun mix. Two put upon female teens as the leads, surrounded by comedic parents, cops and teachers. Asleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are excellent as the train robbing sisters of the title. Playful turns, but ones that make their plight realistic. It’s a little light on plot and tension. But there is a unique and quirky, though not overdone style that makes this a great watch.
- Barbershop 2 (2004), Kevin Rodney Sullivan – It starts with some of the best opening credits I’ve seen in a long time. Overall it perhaps lacks some of the spirit of the original, hamstrung by a too similar plot. And the humour is not as fresh, feeling a touch forced. But it also has its own charms. There are some looser, sillier bits of humour that land. Plus the characters are great and the relationships develop from the first film.
- Queen of Katwe (2016), Mira Nair – The performances suck you in early. Oyewelo, N’Yongo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga are all excellent. As does the sense of place (Kampala Uganda). Film has all the sports film beats, but because it is an individual sport, they organically form a character study. Her self-doubt, her overconfidence. That up and down journey rings true. Also sketches out some nice gender, and especially class, issues. The film is happy to meander occasionally too. Not subservient to plot. I really dug this one.
- Namour (2016), Heidi Saman – A touch unfocused, most of it feels like set-up. But in a kind of nice way. A sketch if you will. Portrait of an Arab-American family, and by extension that segment of society. A complex, somewhat untrustworthy character at the centre of things which maintains interest, even when there are some noticeable story holes.
- Embrace (2016), Taryn Brumfitt – You can tell that Brumfitt is not a filmmaker by training. But she is fuckin inspirational which overcomes that. Quite confronting in its own way – laying bare how so many people think of themselves. She also speaks to a really great range of people. The film does a good job of giving those stories room to breathe too, not editorialising too much.
- Bridget Jones Diary (2001), Sharon Maguire – A really sharply written and funny script. Almost a touch heightened or surreal. Zellweger is perfect. Fully formed character. Film makes some good points on the societal expectations placed on women. Thankfully this is a film that never forgets to be fun. Some of the romance elements are a touch undercooked. But the characters and performances (including a great Hugh Grant one) carry that.
- Jason Bourne (2016) Paul Greengrass – Feel that I like this series less than most, but this film more than most. This has the clearest storytelling in a series that’s the perfect example of getting way overcomplicated. I’m a big Greengrass fan too. He is great at constructing these long, multifaceted chase sequences. A really nice piece of the characters arc brought to life, with the thematically resonant decisions he’s making. And Matt Damon is really good at drawing all that out.
- The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Tran Anh Hung – Delightfully shot with a smoothness to the visuals. Music plays a big part in the characters’ lives which is a point of difference. Quite gentle, at times cute storytelling. Sweet and true to life in its own way. Not all that much is the love story I was expecting. Notions of servitude and some very gentle touching on class issues more of a focus.
Not Worth Watching
- In a Valley of Violence (2016), Ti West – I’m a fan of both modern westerns and the films of Ti West I’ve seen, so this was a big disappointment. Starts pedestrian and really never elevates beyond that. The dialogue is bad, feeling like people are speaking as they do in 2017, while the stakes feel too low. The performances are also weak with only John Travolta really revelling. Ethan Hawke is ok but his character is averagely defined. Hollow. Feels like kids mucking around on some abandoned Western sets.
- Ratchet & Clank (2016), Jericca Cleland & Kevin Munroe – Maybe slightly less annoying than anticipated, but still pretty annoying. Looks ugly. Like a PlayStation game funnily enough. Quite charmless and there is nothing to the sci-fi elements aside from parroting much better sources. The characters grate badly too.
- Money Monster (2016), Jodie Foster – A disappointment. Clooney playing a bro-ey, no-substance host of a money show is a great fit. And there is some really nice patter with Julia Roberts. But the hostage situation on live TV thing feels a little contrived. And the ‘99%’ themes play tired. It’s not a total write-off. Jack O’Connell is really good, as he seems to be in everything. And when it trends a little absurd it works better. But the characters don’t stack up and the messaging becomes a little silly.
- I Spy (2002), Betty Thomas – There is decent chemistry between Eddy Murphy and Owen Wilson here, though neither of them are stretching themselves whatsoever. But the vibe of the whole thing is a little cheap and shoddy. Also goes some off-colour places with some jokes about mental illness, sexual assault etc. More dumb than mean spirited I guess.
- Red Riding Hood (2011), Catherine Hardwicke – Woah this is bad. Cheaparse lookin medieval sets. A weird sheen to everything. Gary Oldman delivers a mess of a performance. Truly craptastic allusions to whether torture is moral etc. Seyfried naturally has some spark and presence to her. But all that does is make everyone else look even more shit in comparison. The incorporation of the fairy tale it is named after is tame and adds nothing. There’s something that stops it from being totally awful. But not by much.
- Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke – As clunky as filmmaking gets. Voiceover exposition and Instagram teen emotion bullshit. Shoddily done. Ugly editing and shooting, plus a poor script. A couple of performances (Stewart and Kendrick) rise to the heights of being ok. But Robert Pattinson who is generally very good, plays this role terribly. The execution of the vampires and the level of connection in the main romance is utterly stupid. Really really bad.
- Gang of the Jotas (2012), Marjane Satrapi – Very low budget. Stilted to the point of being amateurish. Aiming for this madcap, fish outta water escalation vibe. With the mafia involved of course. But it’s just silly. Lacking setup or story or something. Script is horrid. Notion that these guys would go to any trouble to help this woman, is silly as presented by the script. An unwieldly attempt to combining serious drama and caper shenanigans.
If you only have time to watch one The Edge of Seventeen
Avoid at all costs Twilight
GLOW (2017) hit Netflix a few weeks ago so the gushing about how great it is has passed us by. But this hard-working (sort of) Dad only just finished and feels the need to chime in with some love for it.
GLOW focusses on Alison Brie’s down on her luck actor Ruth as she tries to make it in 1980s LA and ends up joining an upstart all female wrestling troupe. That’s what the show focusses on initially in any case. As the series progresses, more and more of the supporting cast (almost all women) are folded to the forefront of various storylines. Particularly Debbie, the star of the show and Ruth’s former best friend, played excellently by Betty Gilpin. I fell in love with this show basically from the garish neon credits onwards. The show slaps on a proud feminist badge early on which certainly didn’t hurt the appeal. The storytelling is a little slow to get going. But from episode five or so onwards, I was totally hooked. This point also coincides with where GLOW makes its unabashed, innocent love of professional wrestling very clear as Brie starts playing a staple Russian heel. The show explores how wrestling is a very simple, pure form of stripped-down storytelling, in both good and bad ways. The preparation of the show within a show breaks down the questions and process of a storytelling approach that is focussed on “stereotypes not backstory”.
As much as the show is an ensemble, there is no doubting that Alison Brie is the star here. My main familiarity with Brie is from her excellent work in Community (2009-2015), but she is showing a lot of range here. Her performance is winning and hilarious, whilst the writing of the character makes her feel real and deeply flawed. There’s a weight to what she is doing here without it ever feeling overwrought or heavy handed. One criticism of the show that I have heard is that too much emphasis is placed on Marc Maron’s character Sam and his issues. It’s a fair comment and that focus does take away somewhat from some of the awesome wrestling women. But it also provides variety to the storytelling as the women go about their training. In future seasons, when the show within the show is up and running, perhaps it won’t be necessary to have such a heavy focus on Sam.
The entire cast of female wrestlers are brilliant. Both in the writing and performance. Special mention of real-life pro-wrestler Awesome Kong who plays Tamme aka Welfare Queen in the show. In her wrestling days, Awesome Kong was a genuine game-changer in terms of what a women’s wrestler looked like and could do in the ring. Given in this season she shows that she can hold her own on the performance front, I’m hoping she’ll be at the centre of plenty of season 2 as there is (presumably) more and more wrestling action. It is so great to see such a wide variety of female bodies and characters onscreen and performing in an athletic manner. Thematically the show picks up on this late in the season with a focus on the connection between wrestling and the ownership of women’s bodies. The athleticism of wrestling is all their own, no matter their background or current situation.
Verdict: Once it gets going mid-season, GLOW is an unstoppable combination of things that don’t usually go together – a sincere & serious affection for the world of pro-wrestling, stunning performances, consistently funny writing, a huge range of excellent female characters and extended showbiz making-of plotting. It also leaves us just as the show is going into production, meaning there are almost limitless places that the show can take us in season 2 and beyond. There’s an exultant quality to the show that I definitely want more of. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter