20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

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The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.

 

 

 

 

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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He was vulnerable and weak.  It was all I ever wanted and now I had no desire for it. In 1976 San Francisco, a precocious 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) embarks on an enthusiastic sexual odyssey, beginning with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) current lover the handsome Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). He’s a feckless sort who enjoys their affair with a recklessness to match the girl’s while her distant mother and goofy younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) remain somewhat ignorant. The far from pretty Minnie has sex with whomever she chooses to sate her desires, including her BFF Kimmie (Madeleine Winters) who has a penchant for giving blowjobs to black men. When her mother finds her tape recorded diaries she goes underground with cool girl druggie Tabatha (Margarita Levieva) who presents her with a situation that’s too far out even for her and she goes home to face the music …  Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s somewhat autobiographical novel is full of problems, many of which are resolved through the sheer brio and bravery in Minnie’s voice.  Despite my misgivings – which lasted for, oh, maybe the first hour? More? This is ultimately an artistic success. My misgivings have to do with the depiction of a child having a full-on sexual affair with a man twice her age who happens to be her mother’s boyfriend (feel free to contribute your own Woody/Soon-Yi reference but at least we are spared the full-frontal genital photographs of her daughter that greeted Mia Farrow). When he takes her virginity we share the bloodletting but that’s the last suggestion of physical discomfort in the whole sordid tale – a rather unlikely outcome in this scenario. As her story (complete with effects, animations and voiceover) progresses it’s clear that she is the one in charge and finally the most mature person in this massively dysfunctional and promiscuous tribe, documenting her experiences through her chosen artform of cartooning and tape recordings – which out her to her betrayed mother. Gifting this intelligent girl with so much agency is an achievement in itself and perhaps in the context of the times it’s a safer move than it would be in a contemporary story.  There is a point at which you surmise that all the hearts and flowers animations are there to distract from the horrors  – Minnie is so hot to trot she asks, Does everyone think about sex as much as I do? She’s a pederast’s wet dream. This is a film which isn’t afraid to confront the audience. When her stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) returns for a visit with the girls there’s a flashback to a time when he asked their mother (it’s unclear as to who the younger daughter’s father might be) if she didn’t think Minnie’s intense need for physical contact wasn’t sexual.  It’s he who thinks something is awry in this screwed up shacked up situation. This is a comedy drama which never strays from its serious subject matter despite the graphic novel form in which it is presented, reminding us of Ghost World. Minnie’s artistic heroine Aline Kominsky appears in cartoon form and writes her a letter of encouragement. However it is a relentlessly adult story and a cautionary one about growing up much, much too soon in an out of control family where sex is permanently on the menu and the mother admits to her own teenage horniness. Their relationship  is clearly abnormal but the film sidesteps this problem by presenting Monroe not so much as the erotic devil but rather a harmless moron who takes what he can get when it’s presented to him. Minnie doesn’t care, she just wants sex. This is never less than disturbing but it is also a necessary corrective to the male patriarchal perspective about female experience. What’s the point of living if nobody loves you?

 

Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Calendar Girls (2003)

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It’s not just jam and Jerusalem you know. Annie (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) are the two bored laggards at their Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute. When Annie’s husband dies young from leukaemia they come up with a plan to raise money for a relatives’ seating area in the hospital – but last year’s WI calendar only raised a few hundred quid so inspired by Chris’ son’s porn mag collection they devise a calendar with a difference. It’s a raving success. But Chris’s son goes off the rails, Annie is inundated with mail from her fellow bereaved and a trip to the Jay Leno show in LA brings out the tensions between the two. This real-life inspirational story of middle-class middle-aged countrywomen could have been truly mawkish but the interpretation by Tim Firth and Juliet Towhidi covers timidity, adultery, WI politics and bake-off rivalry amid the joking and stripping. Mirren and Walters are both specific and broad when it’s required. There are great character roles particularly for Penelope Wilton, but also Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Geraldine James with Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton and Philip Glenister bringing up the shapely rear. There’s a great moment when the band Anthrax introduce themselves to the infamous ladies. Directed by Nigel Cole.

Prevenge (2016)

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Children these days are so spoiled, like, Mummy get me the new Playstation, Mummy kill that man. Screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe makes her directing debut in this low-budget horror thriller about a widowed seven-month pregnant woman who takes directions from her highly vocal foetus and goes on a killing spree avenging her late husband whose climbing buddies (male and female) cut the cord to save their lives on an expedition gone wrong. Interspersed with her horribly awkward midwifery appointments there are gory murders, some funny sight gags (getting stuck in a dog flap) and the big joke is about the invisibility of a pregnant woman in the world, even when murdering all before her. Her job interview with yet another guilty party exposes the prejudice towards pregnant workers.  Shot in a sporadically inventive way by Ryan Eddleston (underpass = birth canal, etc.), there are problems in the writing and exposition and in some ways this doesn’t really hit the extremes you might expect despite the violence. The twist ending materialises when the eventual arrival of the totalitarian newborn doesn’t exactly quell the maternal rage. For fans of the genre, there is the bonus of a Seventies-style score by Toydrum.   I’m not grieving I’m gestating! The expectant mother of all slashers.

The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

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The odd pairing of Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing probably killed off this picture, which in turn put the final nail in the coffin of RKO Studios which Rogers had helped make millions in the Thirties. A neat idea isn’t quite tonally right and Channing’s drag queen-type weirdness – a voice that doesn’t quite fit that long face – doesn’t help. Rogers is  Rose Gilray, the eponymous saleslady, recovering from a NYC corset business that goes bust (ahem), she takes up the opportunity to repay her debt to steel manufacturer Jim Carter (David Brian) by bringing barbed wire cross country under cover of a stash of undies. However en route to Texas at a cattlemen’s gathering in Kansas City she encounters cattle baron Joel Kingdom (James Arness) who is constitutionally opposed to putting up fences but he likes her a deal. There’s some fun as traveling companion singer Molly Wade (Channing) crushes on rough rider Clint Eastwood. She’s lost her own job since wearing a corset on stage.  Everywhere they go they meet Charles Masters (Barry Nelson) driving one of those new-fangled mechanical horses. He likes Rose too.  The ladies wind up in prison when Kingdom makes his case against Carter – who likes Rose a lot. A good spin on feminism that just lost a lot of fizz somewhere between the idea and the cutting room with some bad rear projection thrown in for good measure. Written by Stephen Longstreet and Devery Freeman, directed by Arthur Lubin.