Thursday, August 6, 2020

In She Dies Tomorrow, It's All in Your Head Until It's in Everybody Else's Head, Too

A+ poster design
(Amy Seimetz, 2020, rated R, USA, 85 minutes)

Writer-director Amy Seimetz's first feature in eight years has been described as a horror film, and although it looks and sounds like one, it plays like something else--an existential thriller or an experimental comedy, perhaps--but I'm not sure that it really matters. Once a film makes its way into the world, it's up to viewers to interpret it as they will, but I can see why the marketing suggests horror: horror sells. And if that encourages people to take a chance on this un-categorizable film, more's the better (some of them will surely be disappointed, but that's the risk filmmakers take when they color outside the lines).

It begins with a disorienting closeup of an anxious eye before Seimetz introduces cinematic doppelgänger Amy (Kate Lynn Sheil from her debut, Sun Don’t Shine). She's just bought a house somewhere in Southern California, and she should be happy, except something isn't quite right. That something is her premonition that she will die tomorrow. It isn't inconceivable. Any of us could. More so when a pandemic has the entire fucking globe in its grip. Back when she was shooting this self-financed feature, Seimetz couldn't have seen that coming, and yet the film reflects the very real fears with which millions of us have been grappling.  

So Amy walks around in a fugue state, playing Mozart's "Lacrimosa" over and over again, and having half-formed phone conversations. Her friend, Jane (the invaluable Jane Adams), arrives for a visit and finds Amy wearing a sequin-covered dress while trimming the hedges in her hilly backyard. It's pitch dark, so she can't possibly see what she's doing. Jane talks her down, but she can't understand what's going on with her friend, and she doesn't have much patience for the moping, the drinking (Amy is a recovering alcoholic), and the gibberish about leather jackets and death.

Patient Jane Adams infects doctor Josh Lucas
Seimetz's elliptical style, which includes intentionally abrupt transitions, ensures that none of this unfolds in a straightforward manner. That was also true of the clammy, noirish Sun Don’t Shine. There are cutaways to bright, pulsating lights and unidentifiable liquids under a microscope. Some of these things are explained, some are not. Either we're seeing things as Amy and Jane do, or the imagery represents the way they feel--or some combination of the two.

After Jane returns home, she becomes convinced that she will die tomorrow, a sign that this thing, this way of thinking, is a virus. By spending time with Amy, even while rejecting her ramblings, Jane has become infected, too.

She deals with it by deciding to attend the birthday party she had been thinking of skipping. She hops in her car, still clad in her pajamas, and heads over. She brings her death-talk to the party, which includes couple Tilly and Brian (Jennifer Kim and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) and her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, birthday girl Susan (Katie Aselton, having a ball). Susan is convinced that Jane is the most self-centered person she has ever met, but her complete lack of compassion for an obviously troubled individual indicates that she may not have met many people.

Tunde Adebimpe as seen by DP Jay Keitel
At first the couples think Jane is trying to be funny, but then they don't know what to think. She explains that she doesn't want to be alone if she's going to die tomorrow. After the party, the participants all come to the same exact realization: they're going to die tomorrow. Each one will proceed to deal with it in a different way. And this is the point at which the horror premise, which was already spiked with comedy, shifts into a different, more enigmatic mode.

All the while, Seimetz flashes back to events from Amy's past with Craig (Kentucker Audley) that help to explain how she became the carrier of this thing with which she has infected everyone else. As the night continues, other characters (played by Adam Wingard, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley, and James Benning) become ensnared in one way or another.  

If I didn't find She Dies Tomorrow frightening, that doesn't mean I don't think the film works--or that I don't like double negatives too much for my own good. Nor do I think it's wrong to classify it as horror. It may not have played that way for me, but it has for others, like Vulture's Bilge Ebiri, who has described it as "terrifying." Once I got over my surprise, I was able to more fully appreciate what Seimetz was trying to do. (For what it's worth, I also watched Natalie Erika James's Relic this week; for a more viscerally chilling experience, look no further). In the press notes, she explains that she was inspired by the way when you're feeling anxious, and you tell another person about it, you run the risk of making them anxious, too.

And that's what's stuck with me. Seimetz isn't exploring a virus that spreads through physical contact, as in David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, but through psychic contact. It's possible that Amy can see the future and that she's correctly predicted her imminent demise, but it's also possible that she's just paranoid. The open-ended ending suggests that the second option is just as bad--or just as fatal, at any rate--because you might be more likely to put yourself in harm's way if you're convinced you're going to die. Conversely, it suggests that there could be something calming in knowing when you're going to die instead of having death arrive when you least expect it. Having 24 hours or so to prepare for death may not sound like much of a deal, but compared to, say, 24 seconds, it's a pretty good one.

She Dies Tomorrow is currently playing at drive-in theaters. It opens on streaming platforms, including  iTunes and Google Play, on Fri, Aug 7. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Nothing Lasts Forever in Alan Moyle's Teen-Punk Fantasia Times Square

(Alan Moyle,* US, 1980, rated R, 111 mins) 

Times Square, Canadian filmmaker Alan Moyle's first American feature, opens to the lush, yet spooky strains of Roxy Music's "Same Old Scene," a sign that this won't be just another teensploitation film. Nothing cheap and tawdry, not with this band of British sophisticates leading the way. That's how 16-year-old Nicky (Robin Johnson) enters the picture, dragging her suitcase through the neon-saturated Times Square of yesteryear, passing mustached men smoking and making deals and sequin-covered club goers mingling outside a disco. "Nothing lasts forever," Bryan Ferry sings over anxious drums and searching saxophone, "of that I'm sure."

With her Brando cap, button-bedecked jacket, and electric guitar, it's clear Nicky wants to rock, and when she smashes a car headlight, it's clear she wants to make trouble. With her full lips and New Yawk accent, she plays like a cross between David Johansen and Joan Jett, who was just starting to make her mark as a solo artist (Johnson possibly took cues from Johansen when they recorded his song "Flowers in the City" for the soundtrack). When cops come to arrest her, Nicky unleashes a string of profanities.

Her opposite number, 13-year-old Pamela (Trini Alvarado, already a seasoned actress, unlike the untested Johnson), enters wearing a prim school uniform and a grimace as her father, David (Peter Coffield), a city commissioner, gives a speech about the evils of Times Square. Pamela is a closet rebel who tunes in regularly to listen to DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) who plays all the latest punk and art rock from England. It's not hard to see the appeal, since the Times Square soundtrack is simply one of the greatest soundtracks in the history of soundtracks, but more on that later.

In a letter she writes to Johnny, that he reads on the air, Pamela describes herself as a zombie. He encourages her to take a leap into the unknown. She meets Nicky when they end up sharing the same hospital room, since they're both seeking help for the seizures they've been experiencing (this plot point goes under-explored; it mostly exists to bring them together).

Pamela finds her rebellious roommate fascinating. Once they acclimate to each other, Nicky admits that she doesn't think she'll make it to 21. "That's why I gotta jam it all in now, y'know?" With the aid of a boombox and a Ramones cassette--"I wanna be sedated!"--she convinces Pamela to run away with her, so they steal an ambulance and end up at an abandoned train station overlooking the Hudson River. Considering their youth, this all unfolds more comfortably on screen than it would in real life.

Soon, they're stealing food, washing windshields, and even dancing for spare change. It doesn't seem too realistic that 13-year-old Pamela would get a job as a fully-clothed dancer at a Times Square strip club, but that's the sort of wish fulfillment-meets-gritty reality tone the film strikes. Writing about Times Square in 1981, Melbourne-based film critic Adrian Martin didn't find anything particularly punk or rebellious about it. As he notes in his review, "It is an antiseptic, middle class daydream." He's not completely wrong. It is a daydream, but why is that so bad? Two teenage girls aren't going to change the world, and they don't. What they change is themselves, and that can be pretty realistic--even if much of the rest of the film isn't.

On the one hand, the Times Square of 1979, when and where the film was shot, isn't cleaned up for the viewer's consumption, but Moyle isn't about to let these young ladies suffer the kind of indignities to which real runaways would likely be subjected. They're also presented as sexually ambiguous, which isn't so terrible, since they're 13 and 16, but it's not that simple. While they express no interest in men--or even boys, which the film completely, refreshingly ignores--and seem plenty interested in each other, nothing happens.

The lesbian subtext is impossible to miss, but it's just that: subtext. Because Moyle doesn't give either girl a male love interest, it's easy to imagine that one or both of them could be gay or bisexual. Nicky, especially, reads that way. It's also possible that they're just not interested in sex yet, and don't even know where they fall on the Kinsey scale. Why we expect underage movie characters to have all this stuff figured out when we don't--or shouldn't--expect the same from real-life kids is beyond me.

Furthermore, just when it seems as if Moyle is going to reveal that Pamela has a crush on Johnny or, worse yet, that Johnny is preparing to put the moves on her when he visits the station, he doesn't. Johnny seems to genuinely care about the girls, even if his character is otherwise a muddle, saved largely by Curry's larger-than-life charisma. I kept waiting for their hero to reveal feet of clay, but he's neither hero nor villain; he's mostly just a catalyst. He encourages them to rebel and capitalizes on their rebellion, but he also looks out for them in a way Pamela's judgmental father doesn't.

The main thing here is the unlikely friendship that develops between the girls. While that can include physical affection, particularly in a film that wasn't aimed at such a wide audience in such a homophobic time, it shouldn't have to. Unlike Martin, I believe it's rebellious that the teens aren't sex-crazed at all, which was the norm for films about teens-gone-wild, both then and now.

But that doesn't mean Times Square isn't romantic. Pamela writes poetry, and she encourages Nicky to write poetry, too. In Nicky's hands, they come out sounding like songs, and so she's soon singing at the same club where Pamela dances. When Pamela briefly joins her act, they dub themselves the Sleez Sisters, but just when it seems as if the movie is going to morph into another Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, it doesn't. Nicky is the true musician, not Pamela. If the soundtrack features big-name artists, like the Pretenders ("Talk of the Town") and Talking Heads ("Cross-eyed and Painless"), Johnson's contributions, like "Damn Dog," fit in surprisingly well.

In the film, the ladies' favorite song is Suzi Quatro's anti-romantic glam-rock raver "Rock Hard" ("She never takes a chance / She doesn't need romance / She never takes a chance / She never dates or dance / Her love is rock hard / Rock hard / She's rock hard"). Johnson's voice is very much in Suzi's take-no-prisoners vein, so it's too bad her music career didn't advance much beyond this film, whereas 70-year-old Suzi is still going strong.

While Pamela and Nicky are having their adventures, David is trying to track her down. He's doing a lousy job of it, because she's pretty easy to find, and when Johnny invites the two on his radio show, she's pretty easy to hear, since they sing a song about how "Your Daughter is One," i.e. everything her father--or at least straight society--condemns. Johnny continues to broadcast their exploits to the world, presenting them as a punk-rock Bonnie & Clyde, a development that predicts Christian Slater's rebel DJ in Moyle's Pump up the Volume, which would see release 10 years later., by which time alt-rock had overtaken punk rock as the dominant college-radio mode.

By the end, Nicky and Pamela have figured themselves out, and the conclusion suggests they're going to forge very different paths in life. It's a happy ending of a kind, just not the kind where they end up together or go on to become music superstars, but they're better off than where they began. As Bryan Ferry forewarned at the outset, "Nothing lasts forever."

It isn't the most realistic story, and I'm not so sure that was the intent, but the friendship is what endures, and it's one of the reasons why people keep coming back to the film. That and the amazing soundtrack, of course.

*Alan Moyle would hereafter spell his first name with a double "l."

Kino Lorber will be releasing a new 4K restoration of Times Square on Blu-ray later this year (date TBA). See this space for more information!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Suzi Q Recounts the Rise of Suzi Quatro from Suburban Detroit Kid to Glam-Rock Superstar

(Liam Firmager, Australia, 2019, 98 minutes)

There's something fitting about the fact that the definitive portrait of rocker Suzi Quatro hails from an Australian director, Liam Firmager, backed by an Australian film company, Screen Victoria.

It's not that Suzi didn't make a mark in the United States, but as her friend, Cherie Currie (the Runaways), notes, she isn't as well known among today's youth as she should be--and nor did she have as many hits in the US as she did in Europe and Australia. I'm skeptical that one documentary is going to do much to reverse that course, but that should never stop a director from making a film about a deserving artist. Plus, there are plenty of people my age--people old enough to remember Happy Days (1974-1984) as a first-run series--who haven't made her acquaintance yet. And they really should.

Like Iggy Pop, Suzi grew up in suburban Michigan, specifically Grosse Pointe, and she still has the accent to prove it (Detroit-born Alice Cooper appears in the film, but Pop doesn't). She credits her jazz-playing father for her love of music and her devout Catholic mother for her moral values. She saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show when she was five, and that was it: she knew she wanted to be a musician. And it's precisely because she identified with a man, rather than a woman, that she would go on to craft an androgynous, leather-clad, bass-playing persona that hadn't been seen before.

She started by forming an all-girl band, the Pleasure Seekers, with her sister, Patti, and three others when she was 14. Things moved quickly. Because Suzi was tiny, she performed on a riser, so all eyes were on her. The first time she let out a yell, the crowd went wild. There would be more yells to come; it's one of her defining skills. The band got so many bookings that her parents let her drop out of school to perform full time. It didn't hurt that her brother, Michael, was an established promoter, and that the group was able to turn their regional success into a record deal with Mercury.

As good as they were, though, the (overwhelmingly male) sound emerging from Detroit and Ann Arbor by the late-1960s was moving in an increasingly heavy direction, and their success was short-lived, so they reinvented themselves as Cradle and switched out Suzi with Patti, but lightning didn't strike twice until Michael invited producer Mickie Most (the Animals, Donovan), who was working with Jeff Beck at Motown Studios, to see the band play. Suzi knew it was her shot, so she sang one of her songs—and ended up with a solo deal.

Wisely, Firmager lets both Suzi and Patti tell their sides of the story. Cradle kept going for a couple of years, and Patti later joined Fanny, but none of her sisters would become as successful (her niece, Sherilyn Fenn, would come close when she landed a role on Twin Peaks). Though Suzi, alone on her own for the first time, was sad and lonely when she first arrived in London, the resentment lingered. She was on her way, and they weren't.

Once she formed a band and started opening for glam-rock acts like Slade and Sweet, the American got a toehold in a very British scene, even though she didn't share their sartorial flamboyance. If she hadn't have been able to keep up, audiences would've been quick to let her know, but Suzi had the voice, the chops, and the stage presence (those high-flying kicks!). She also had a terrible puffball perm, which goes unmentioned in the film, but she seems to have figured out quickly that she'd be better off without it.

Granted, she didn't have any hits, but that changed when she joined forces with Australian-born Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, aka Chinnichap (Chapman, who appears in the film, notes that Chinn was the business guy; he actually did most of the writing). They wrote 1973 single "Can the Can" to emphasize her bass-playing. For her signature look, she decided on a black leather outfit, like '68 Comeback Elvis, and then she was ready for Top of the Pops. The performance was a smash, the song was a hit, and she became a star. Had Suzi stayed in the States, it's hard to say what would have happened. Like Hendrix (in tandem with manager Chas Chandler), London provided the star-making machinery best suited to her gifts.

As adeptly as Firmager supports Suzi's on-camera narration with a well-edited selection of archival materials, I was moved more by the testimonies of the women who took inspiration from her work, particularly Debbie Harry (Blondie), Lita Ford and Joan Jett (the Runaways), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), and Kathy Valentine (the Go-Go's). Tina and Kathy say they didn't even recognize their potential as musicians until Suzi came along.

Nonetheless, the UK press turned on her once she got big, their infamous modus operandi. Because she worked with male musicians, songwriters, and producers, she was dismissed as a male creation as if she had no say in the way she dressed or the material she performed. She also disavows the term feminist, which is unfortunate, but she's hardly unique in that regard. Multi-hyphenate Dolly Parton never embraced it either, but that doesn't mean their achievements didn't open doors for other women. They clearly did.

Suzi also failed to make as much of an impact in her home country as she did elsewhere. It wasn't for lack of trying. She went on tour with Alice Cooper and made the requisite round of radio station appearances, but she didn't get airplay and she didn't sell records. All told, she's sold 55 million records, so there's no need to cry for Suzi Quatro, but most of those sales came from outside of the States. It's understandable that a woman who doesn't describe herself as a feminist wouldn't blame sexism, but I believe that's part of it. Debbie Harry and band mate Clem Burke claim that she was ahead of her time, which is more or less the same thing (Suzi's influence would lead Blondie to work with Mike Chapman on 1978's Parallel Lines).

Then, she lost her US deal, but again, it was hardly a tragedy, because she landed a three-year gig on Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero. It may not have been how she planned to conquer America, but it did the trick. She reunited with Chapman, and finally enjoyed some US chart success, though ironically, "Stumblin' In," a duet with Chris Norman, doesn't rock as hard as her previous singles. It's basically a power ballad, and there's no shame in that, but those sorts of things were a dime a dozen in the 1970s, while her signature hits weren't. Less surprisingly, it barely dented the UK charts.

Once again, though, her US success was short-lived. Despite their fractious relationship, Chinn and Chapman formed a label, Dreamland Records, signed Suzi as their first artist, released 1980's Rock Hard, placed the title track on the soundtrack to Allan Moyle's teen-punk fantasia Times Square, and…watched it wither on the American vine, due in part to distribution problems, and the label folded shortly afterward (on the plus side, Kino Lorber will be releasing a restored 4K version of Times Square later this year).

Joan Jett, meanwhile, would pick up where Quatro left off, and started to have the US hits she didn't. Her devotion to a similar leather-clad, bubble gum-punk aesthetic was so complete that she covered a song, the Arrows' immortal "I Love Rock 'n Roll," that had originally been produced by Quatro's mentor Mickie Most. As a fan of both women, I'm not about to take sides; the two freely admit that Suzi paved the way.

Firmager also looks at Suzi's life as a wife and mother, television guest star, musical theater performer, radio show host, poet, and novelist. For a woman who doesn't identify as feminist, it describes most everything she did. As times changed, she changed with them. Len wanted everything to stay the same, and their marriage came to an inevitable end (though Suzi would remarry, her second husband, Rainer, doesn't appear in the film).

If Suzi Q isn't about sisterhood in the colloquial sense, it's a film about sisterhood in the literal sense as she and her sisters continue to enjoy and endure a relationship marked by affection…and the kind of resentment that never really goes away. As she points out: one doesn't preclude the other.

All told, it's a good, solid documentary that lacks any shocking revelations or tear-stained redemption arcs, and that's kind of refreshing, really. Suzi Quatro's stock in trade was that she was an ordinary suburban kid who just wanted to rock, like millions of men before her--and millions of men and women since. If Firmager isn't able to accurately pinpoint the source of her hyper-relentless drive, beyond the fact that she didn't want to end up working in an automobile factory, maybe some things don't need to be explained, because talent, in and of itself, is never enough. Quatro did the right things at the right time with the right people--and lived to tell the tale.

Suzi Q premieres on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray on July 3. On July 1, Cherie Currie and Kathy Valentine will interview Suzi Quatro for a Q&A after the virtual preview screening. A portion of the proceeds will support the Recording Academy's MusiCares in their efforts to provide COVID relief funds for musicians in need. Click here for more information and tickets.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

As Two Women Battle It Out in Shirley, Josephine Decker Proves She Isn't Afraid of Virginia Woolf--or Shirley Jackson

Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson / Neon
(Josephine Decker, US, 2020, 106 minutes) 

"That story was the most remarkable story I'd ever read. I knew I was going to marry the woman who wrote it."
--Stanley Hyman, Shirley's husband, on "The Lottery"

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

As Elisabeth Moss plays her, Shirley Jackson was kind of an awful person.

Josephine Decker's quasi-fictional portrait of the writer begins as a young couple in the bloom of love prepares to meet Shirley (Moss made to look older, much like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and her husband, professor and literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Decker's sun-blasted opening recalls the first sentence of Jackson's 1948 New Yorker story, "The Lottery," which ends as vividly as it begins: "The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green." From that bright beginning, Jackson plunges into darker territory, inspiring nightmarish entertainments about seemingly pleasant communities from Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man to Ari Aster's Midsommar.

The Nemsers (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) / Neon
On the trip to North Bennington, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young, terrific) reads the story, and longs for Shirley to like her. At their first meeting, she shares her enthusiasm with the author, but Shirley couldn't be bothered. These fawning young women, her words and attitude suggest, are all the same.

Fred (Logan Lerman, whose casting seems particularly apt in light of his naïve college student in Philip Roth adaptation Indignation) has traveled to Vermont to teach, while Rose plans to audit classes, a sign that she wants to broaden her mind, but not to become something more than a helpmate.

If his wife is initially dismissive of the pretty young woman, Stanley takes a shine to her, and asks if she'd like to help out around the house in exchange for room and board as Shirley is subject to "moods." As it turns out, Shirley hasn't left the house in two months. Instead of expressing gratitude for Rose's assistance, Shirley needles her at every turn. It doesn't help that she can tell Rose is pregnant, even though she hasn't begun to show.

Shirley is hardly idle. She's just begun work on a novel inspired by the case of a missing young woman (presumably 1951's Hangsaman, though Sarah Gubbins' script doesn't say). Stanley doubts she has the stamina to finish anything longer than a short story, but she won't be deterred.

"Can I trust you?," asks Shirley / Neon
With the men teaching at Bennington College (Fred serves as Stanley's assistant), the women circle each other warily. Despite Shirley's hostility, Rose doesn't crumple. If anything, she starts to see Shirley as more of a challenge than an obstacle. Soon she isn't just taking care of her, but running errands and doing research.

In the course of her combing through archival records, Rose finds out that the missing woman was pregnant. As in Decker's enigmatic 2013 feature debut, Butter on the Latch, she blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and it isn't always clear what Shirley is actually experiencing, what's she's imagining, and what her novel's protagonist might have experienced.

It's tempting to assume that she's suffering from depression or that she might have lost a child--or both--hence the preoccupation with pregnancy and the resentment of the young, healthy, and outwardly happy Rose, except by the end, it's clear that Decker had different intentions in mind (though not mentioned in the film, Shirley and Stanley had four kids).

If Decker's first two features, including 2014's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, ended in murder, Shirley ends with a departure that could be seen as a murder of a kind. Once Rose crosses over from housekeeper to collaborator, her pristine façade becomes disheveled. Her hair becomes looser, her face shinier, her outfits less put-together--her perfectly-applied lipstick disappears. She also develops an odd relationship with food, just as the real-life Shirley struggled with her weight, including an addiction to diet pills.

Stanley, whose attentions to Rose have an uncomfortably sexual cast, becomes jealous that she knows more about Shirley's project than he does. The relationship recalls 2018's Madeline’s Madeline in which a charismatic director (Molly Parker) gets to know an actor (Helene Howard) in a way her mother (Miranda July) doesn't. In Decker’s third and finest film, July gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman who feels like a third wheel as an outsider swoops in and steals her identity, leaving her unmoored. And that’s Rose to Stanley: the person who has taken his place as his wife's companion and confidant, except July's Regina was sympathetic in ways that the controlling, womanizing Stanley isn't.

As Rose becomes more like Shirley, Fred becomes more like Stanley. Neither of these things is necessarily a positive, because Stanley is a lousy husband and Shirley is a nasty piece of work. Decker finds a way to tie all these threads together that stands in opposition to her first two features, because it isn't a tragedy. Nor is it as celebratory as Madeline's Madeline, which ends in a burst of cathartic, Beau Travail-like exuberance. In this case, things are simply put right. If it all makes sense once you realize her endgame, I still felt unsatisfied, because it's a sleight-of-hand story. What you think you're seeing, what you think is happening is more internal than external.

The real Shirley  / Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos
Furthermore, Moss gives it her all, as she always does, but she can't quite get to the heart of her character. We're told what makes her tick, but I never really felt it. There's something both admirable and frustrating in the way Decker's women are never especially heroic or even all that nice. That doesn't mean they're bad, and there's no reason they should be likable, but she's worked too hard to turn us against Shirley. If Gubbins' writing had the wit and snap of Edward Albee or Harold Pinter, she and Stanley might make for perversely enjoyable company, but they're more of a drag than intended, despite a few good lines, like Stanley's take on Fred, "Terrifically competent? There's no excuse for that!" To his mind, it's better to be an utter failure.

It's to the credit of Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) that she provides a consistently compelling focal point, because Rose changes with every scene to the extent that she's a completely different person by the conclusion.

As for Shirley Jackson, she was only 48 when she died in 1965 after years of declining health (she published her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in 1962). If Josephine Decker had stuck to the facts of her life rather than adapting a work of fiction, Susan Scarf Merrell's 2014 Shirley: A Novel, her fourth feature might have been a far bleaker affair. As it stands, Shirley fails to fully capture Jackson's brilliance--or even Moss's--even as it attempts to emulate the style of one of her famously spooky stories, but if it inspires greater interest in the writer and the filmmaker, I'd call that a win.


Support two great local film organizations and stream Shirley by way of Northwest Film Forum at this link or SIFF at this one for only $5.99. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Beanie Feldstein Learns How to Build a Girl in This "True-ish" Tale from the Music-Rag Trade

John (Alfie Allen) and Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) / IFC
(Coky Giedroyć, UK, 2019, 104 minutes)

"A 10-year-old could be a rock critic."
--Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein)

Johanna Morrigan, the 14-year-old at the center of Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical 2014 novel How to Build a Girl is bookish, desperate to lose her virginity, and in her own words, "fat." I appreciate the fact that, despite a large vocabulary, she never uses synonyms for fat, like heavy or big-boned. No, she describes herself as fat, but refreshingly, she doesn't hate herself or her body. Nor does she express any desire to be thin.

In Moran's book and Coky Giedroyć's film, both of which take place in 1990, she wants boys to like her, to have a purpose in life, and to help provide for her council-estate family (Giedroyć, sister of The Great British Baking Show's Mel Giedroyć, is best known for her work on BBC America's The Hour). Considering that Moran's fictionalization of her adventures in the music-rag trade is a thoroughly British affair, the casting of American actress Beanie Feldstein as Johanna is an odd choice, not least because the rest of the cast is British, but after her winning turns as the best friends in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, her casting makes sense--even if she's 10 years older than the 16-year-old she plays. And if her accent isn't perfect, it's good enough, which means she's well on her way to joining the Gwyneth Paltrow-Renée Zellweger Club that spawned Shakespeare in Love, Sliding Doors, and several Bridget Jones films.

John isn't sure what to make of the teenage journalist / IFC
Johanna lives with her parents, four brothers, and a border collie--her best friend--in Wolverhampton in the Midlands (the same region where Shane Meadows sets all of his films).

Her mullet'd father, Pat (Paddy Considine, who knows a thing or two about the Midlands), and older brother, Krissy (Laurie Kynaston), are well versed in pop music, whereas she knows very little. Her heroes include authors, artists, actresses, philosophers, and psychoanalysts. Not a pop star among them. In the film, she imagines that their portraits, played by everyone from Michael Sheen (Freud) to Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), can speak to her.

When Johanna wins a poetry contest, she gets to appear on a local chat show (Chris O'Dowd plays the host), where her stage fright leads to an ill-advised Scooby-Doo impression. The next day, kids make fun of her--even more than usual--and authorities put the kibosh on Pat's unlicensed border collie-breeding business. What's a girl to do, except to reinvent herself? She gets her chance when she enters a music writer contest, but even the all-male staffers at London's D&ME, a Melody Maker-like music weekly, make fun of her. They found her review, of the Annie soundtrack, well written, but so uncool they thought she was doing a bit, but she was just being herself.

Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor) once wrote a song about her brother Alfie

So, she decides to revamp her image. Considering that she knows as much about fashion as she does pop music, she ends up looking like a refugee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show with her flame-red hair, fishnet tights, and waiter's jacket. In the book, Johanna dyes her hair black, but she does note a fondness for redheads, like Little Orphan Annie. To go along with the new look, she adopts the pen name Dolly Wilde (Moran's script fails to explain that Dolly was Oscar Wilde's rebellious niece, though the inclusion of Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" on the soundtrack surreptitiously nods to that fact).

Then, Johanna launches her career with a review of a Manic Street Preachers gig. There are more reviews to come as she finds herself living a life much like Cameron Crowe's alter ego in Almost Famous…except she's a girl, she still lives at home, and she writes for a regional publication. Just as William's mother supported his music-journalist dreams in Almost Famous, albeit with Britpop standing in for classic rock, Johanna's parents do the same, which also brings Stephen Merchant's Fighting With My Family to mind, since he captured a similarly non-judgmental, working-class milieu.

Nowadays, a music writer probably couldn't do much to pull their family out of debt, but Johanna helps hers to get back on their feet, since Angie (Sarah Solemani) is stuck at home with twins--the results of an unplanned pregnancy--and Pat, who once dreamed of pop stardom, is on disability.

Johanna and her all-male, music weekly colleagues / IFC
For her first feature, Johanna travels to Dublin to interview a balladeer, John Kite (Alfie Allen, Lily Allen's brother and an Emmy nominee for Game of Thrones), who finds her utterly charming. To her credit, she doesn't smoke or drink. To his credit, he doesn't insist, and though she invites him up to her hotel room, they don't sleep together. She falls in love with him, which seems like a terrible idea, but an understandable one, considering that most men have ignored her up until now. Unfortunately, her editor hates the story, which reads like a mash note, and her career appears to be over as soon as it began, so she reinvents herself yet again, this time as a mean girl. To wit, "It's a truth, universally acknowledged, that Paul Simon looks like a toe someone drew a face on."

Once she segues to the Dark Side, she drinks, smokes, and sleeps around, but that's par for the rock and roll course. More critically, she insults her family and betrays a subject's confidence. If her rise was compelling, her fall feels overly-familiar, though Johanna never goes as far as Elisabeth Moss's rock star character in Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell. Still, she crashes hard, and she has to struggle mightily to free herself from the wreckage--in a way that recalls Alcoholics Anonymous's Steps 9 and 10: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all" and "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." By the end, she's still 16, fat, and single, but she's found her purpose in life. And it isn't writing snarky reviews for a music weekly, a lesson that takes decades for some people to learn. If I found the ending a little too good to be true, I can't say I wasn't moved.

How to Build a Girl is available from cable and digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Comcast, and DirecTV.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Every Man Should Be an Author of His Own History" vs. True History of the Kelly Gang

Ma (Essie Davis) and son (Orlando Schwerdt) Kelly
(Justin Kurzel, Australia, 2020, 124 mins)

Justin Kurzel's grimy, punk-rock take on the life of Australian outlaw Edward "Ned" Kelly, which follows previous versions starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, picks up where Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale left off. While Kent set her brutal, bruising revenge tale in 1820s Australia, Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin's Creed) shifts 40 years ahead, but the Irish characters still have the chips stacked up against them and the British have all the power.

Kurzel begins his loose adaptation of Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel with Ned as a 12-year-old. It's 1867, and our feisty anti-hero (played by the very good Orlando Schwerdt), grandson of Irish immigrants brought to Australia by force, lives in the middle of nowhere--the Colony of Victoria--with scrappy siblings, a tough mama, and a pop who likes to wear frocks. Kurzel has as much sympathy for John "Red" Kelly as his wife, Ellen (Essie Davis, star of Kent's The Babadook), which is to say: none at all, but it sets up the idea that Ned is--or will be--the "true" man of the family.

When a wealthy neighbor takes a shine to the kid and offers to pay for him to attend boarding school, Ellen puts her foot down, telling her, "You're trying to bleed our culture out like you did the black fella before us." She adds, "Only the Lord should take my children from me--not no Englishman." Clearly, she views boarding schools the same way Native Americans did in the States in the 19th and 20th centuries. And with good reason.

"Every man should be an author of his own history." / IFC
After Ned's father takes a powder, various men come to call, including the oily Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and bushranger Harry Power (a scruffy Russell Crowe relishing a juicy role). When Ned asks Harry why he's writing his memoirs, he explains that his story is the one thing even the most impoverished man can call his own. "Don't leave it for the English to tell it. They'll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds." (Ain't that the truth.) Harry introduces Ned to a life of violence with a side of alcohol and profanity. At first, he comes across as a big, burly teddy bear of a man, especially when he teaches Ned's family a jolly anti-police song about "cunts" and "cunt-stables," but he's a vile creature who procures goods through cold-blooded murder. It's the first sign that this won't be a story about good vs. evil, but about evil vs. more evil.

Just as O’Neill once imprisoned his father--for a crime Ned committed--he locks away the son, too. By the time he gets out, Ned (now played by George MacKay) is no longer a boy. He's a bare-knuckle boxing, mullet-headed adult who returns to find that his mother has taken up with a younger man (New Zealand folk singer Marlon Williams). Cue up the Freudian frustration, which subsides when Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, returning to Australia after his memorably unhinged turn in Fury Road) introduces him to hooker with a heart of gold Mary (Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie). Like Ellen and Harry, Ned distrusts the British, and fully expects Fitzpatrick to betray him--and that's exactly what happens.

Getting the band, er gang, (back) together. / IFC
The betrayal spurs Ned to form a gang and hit the road. Along the way, he asks his brother, Dan (Nick Cave's son, Earl), why he likes to fight in frocks, much like their late father. "Men are most afraid of what they don't understand," Dan explains, adding, "Nothing scares a man like crazy." I'm sure it was unintentional on Kurzel's part, but it's worth noting that Earl's mother, Susie Cave, is a dress designer. Less intentional, however, is the fact that Nick and his father, Colin Cave, have been famously obsessed with--and creatively inspired by--Ned Kelly and his exploits. Just see John Hillcoat's Nick Cave-scripted western The Proposition for proof (seriously, do see it, it's a magnificent piece of work).

If the subjugation of the Irish by the British is one theme of Kurzel's film, the other is this: What makes a man? Ned is physically tough, but he's sexually inexperienced, possibly bisexual, and loath to take another man's life. In 2020, this wouldn't disqualify him from manhood, but in 1880, Shaun Grant's script argues, he doesn't quite measure up. That changes once he gets a taste for killing. Now he's an outlaw, and it will only be a matter of time before the cops catch up to him. This isn't a spoiler. Not just because it happened in real life, but because it's as inevitable as the death spirals depicted in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two possible influences (Nick Cave makes a welcome cameo appearance in the latter).

The film's final act revolves around Ned and his gang of frock-sporting, cop-hating, shamrock-worshipping "Sons of Sieve." For protection, they wear scrap-metal armor like rinky-dink Lost in Space robots. And this is the point at which the film goes off the rails, possibly because Kurzel takes so long to get to it that it feels anticlimactic no matter how many strobe light and other effects he throws at the screen. The time we spend getting to know the relatively innocent, pre-outlaw Ned proves more compelling in comparison.

Ned's pal and possibly lover (Sean Keenan) at center. / IFC
By the end, Ned has earned his mother's respect. He's a man. And all he has to show for it is a death sentence. The tragedy isn't just that it's a Pyrrhic victory, but that it fails to stir the soul the way Kurzel and Grant surely intended. I don't believe it's McKay's fault as much as their rather single-minded, charmless conception of the character. MacKay, who proved a more engaging lead in Mathew Warchus's Pride and Sam Mendes' 1917, gives it his all, but once Ned turns to savagery, he comes across as more petulant brat than righteous antihero, even if he never had a chance and even if he had brutal men like O’Neill and Power as mentors.

For what it's worth, MacKay is better in every way than the inexplicably-cast Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's misbegotten 1970 biopic, which jettisons Ned's childhood in favor of a rustic Paint Your Wagon-style musical (even Jagger's singing doesn't measure up; folk isn't exactly his forte). I haven't seen the 2003 Gregor Jordan film with Ledger, which also drew from a work of fiction, but it didn't meet with an especially enthusiastic response. Further, not one of these gents looks anything like the real Ned Kelly.

Since Kurzel's film has been making the rounds, critics have complained that it's a distorted version of actual events, but the joke is on anyone who would take the title literally. First, the film is adapted from a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. Second, it opens with a title card proclaiming "Nothing you're about to see is true." Third, the disclaimer after the end credits clearly states, "True History of the Kelly Gang is a work of fiction." It only makes sense to judge it on those terms. As such, it doesn't quite work, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth making or that it isn't worth seeing.

For all its faults, it's no small feat that the film looks good (it was shot by In Fabric's inventive Ari Wegner), it sounds good (Kurzel's brother, Jed, provided the spare, moody score), and Essie Davis offers her usual excellent value, though her performance as Ellen Kelly won't make anyone forget the fabulous Miss Fisher or the prodigiously stressed mother she played in The Babadook. But it does mean you're better off reading Peter Carey's novel, a rip-roaring work of historical fiction that truly does its namesake proud.

Rent True History of the Kelly Gang from Amazon Prime or Apple TV.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Home Is Where the Horror is in La Casa Lobo

THE WOLF HOUSE / La Casa Lobo 
(Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña, Chile, 2018, 73 minutes)

La Casa Lobo, aka The Wolf House, is one trippy film. Though classified as horror, it isn't scary in the conventional sense. Instead, it's more like the fairy tale surrealism of Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers, though Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña took inspiration from real events. Their feature film debut is weird and creepy, to be sure, but it's more like a subversive political allegory in the form of a twisted domestic drama. In other words, horror, because what's scarier than families and politics?

It begins with a film within a film about the Colony, aka Colonia Dignidad, a Pinochet-era German commune in Chile. The Spanish-speaking narrator (voiced by Rainer Krause), a wolf, explains that they made the film to prove to the outside world that there's nothing dangerous about the Colony. After all, it revolves around the production of honey. The inhabitants are just simple farm people, and there's nothing sinister going on here. No sir, nope. (In actuality, Colony members tortured and killed political dissidents.)

León and Cociña, who shot the film in a variety of art gallery and museum spaces--Santiago, Hamburg, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires--then shift from the documentary-style prologue to an animated sequence featuring a Little Red Riding Hood-like Maria (voiced by Amalia Cassai) who escapes from the Colony to avoid punishment for lettings three pigs go free, but she's just jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because the single-sequence-shot film she enters is as much a propaganda piece as the prologue.

While fleeing through the woods, she comes across an abandoned house in a clearing. Because we see things through her eyes, we don't see her at first. Then, the animated painting she inhabits segues from black and white to color and from two dimensions to the three dimensions of stop-motion papier-maché puppetry. Every transformation is accompanied by the sounds of rustling paper, stretched fabric, and a tinkly, music box-like score.

In the house, Maria finds two pigs. She promises to keep them safe from the wolf outside the door. The house and its inhabitants are constantly changing. Maria melts into a chair and re-materializes as a movable mural. The pigs alternate between papier-maché creatures and murals. León and Cociña add real furnishings to these dioramas, blurring the lines between animation and live action. To pass the time, Maria plays games and sews clothes. She encourages the pigs to become humanoid, and so they do. She names them Pedro and Ana. When she reads Pedro a story about a dog and a house, which parallels her own escape from the Colony, the story comes to life.

But then, something happens and the children are injured. She feeds Pedro honey to restore him to health. Though he improves, he doesn't revert to his brunet form, but rather a blond version more closely resembling his Germanic "mother." She also transforms Ana into something more Germanic. The formerly silent children (both voiced by Cassai) also begin to talk, but they just parrot things Maria wants them to say, though they speak in Spanish, while she continues to speak in German.

Just as Maria recreated a version of the Colony in the house, the children end up turning the tables and making her their captive. She left the Colony precisely to escape the fate in which she has found herself. Out of desperation, she calls out to the wolf to save her. The ending, which returns us to the film within a film, is meant to be happy, because we're told that it is, but the narrator was never reliable. If it sounds like I've given too much away, I haven't. La Casa Lobo is the kind of film that needs to be experienced, because it's unlikely you've ever seen anything like it before.

La Casa Lobo was set to open at Northwest Film Forum March 27, but was postponed due to the quarantine. It will now screen virtually May 15-29. Link to come! I also hope to discuss it at this year's Crypticon, which takes place Sept 18-20, as part of a panel on Spanish-language horror.