Tag Archives: female directors

Berlinale 2021: The Scary of Sixty-First

Worst movie EVER. Not to brag, but there are 2485 reviews on this site, and this one is the worst by a LARGE margin.

Noelle (Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) are best friends, supposedly, who have just moved into a shared apartment in Manhattan. Not only do they move in immediately, they use the furnishings left behind by a previous unknown tenant. I’m developing sympathy scabies just thinking about the used bedding situation, which is reason enough to have given them nightmares on their first night, but this is a horror movie, not a hygiene movie.

The next day a young woman (Dasha Nekrasova) wrestles her way into the apartment, revealing to Noelle that it used to belong to Jeffrey Epstein. Together they deep dive into the conspiracies surrounding his pedophilia, arrest, and “suicide.” Noelle, clearly an impressionable young woman, is immediately 100% on board. They imagine that the apartment was used for orgies, rapes, human trafficking, the whole lot. Addie, meanwhile, seems to have been possessed by the spirit of a small child. She sucks her thumb while masturbating to images of Prince Andrew (who is alleged to a close friend of Epstein’s, and/or a pedophile himself), and by ‘masturbating to,’ I of course mean rubbing magazine images of his face against her crotch and inserting commemorative items from his marriage to Fergie into her various orifices, while squishing oranges between her toes. None of this seems pleasurable, in case you were wondering.

The acting in this movie is very, very, exceptionally, terribly bad. I realize no one with an actual career or future in the movie business would ever, in their right minds, consent to be in such a film, but even considering that it’s total amateur hour, it’s still unbelievably bad, across the board. In fact, the only thing worse than the acting is the “writing” which I’m confident was simply copied and pasted from the dregs of Reddit. Dekrasova and Quinn share writing credit and it’s mystifying that anyone would put their names on this thing. Even the sweaty Reddit trolls hide behind anonymity.

Dekrasova is also the director responsible for this mess, and it’s impossible to tell if she’s got any talent because she hasn’t got any taste. I’m mostly afraid to ask how this thing got financed because I have a feeling I know exactly how, and I’m deeply uncomfortable in having been involved in this even tangentially. Did these girls pick this topic because it was the only way they’d ever get significant screen time and they were willing to sell their souls for it…or worse, do they actually believe this stuff and are willing to serve as mouthpieces?

Whatever the answer, I’m not sure how this was chosen to screen at the Berlin Film Festival. Film Festivals absolutely have a duty to push the boundaries of the art form and challenge us to step outside of our cinematic comfort zones, but this movie isn’t that. It’s just a piece of trash that’s in very poor taste. After all, Epstein was a real man, a real pedophile, with real victims, and this film only serves to trivialize it in the most disturbing and disappointing way.

Kid 90

Soleil Moon Frye starred on an 80s sitcom called Punky Brewster when she was just 7 years old. When the show ended, she’d had a strange and abbreviated childhood. Only a wild and weird adolescence could possibly follow, but this one she would spend behind a camera rather than in front of it.

She and her friends, all of them young Hollywood royalty, had the money and access to do whatever they pleased. It was the 90s; the internet wasn’t a worry yet, going viral meant something else entirely, they could do what they wanted with no consequences. And they were young: they hadn’t learned yet to be jaded or guarded or filtered. Among friends, they let it all hang out, and it didn’t matter that one of them constantly hauled around a camcorder because behind it was Soleil’s friendly face. Thirty years have gone by, and Frye is only now taking this footage out of the vault to share with us. She’s created a living portrait of a lot of famous faces, but also of a time and place that no longer exists.

Frye’s famous friends include Stephen Dorff, David Arquette, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jonathan Brandis, Charlie Sheen, Balthazar Getty, Jenny Lewis, Brian Austin Green, and briefer appearances by Robin Thicke, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey Lawrence, Mark Wahlberg, Sara Gilbert, Corey Feldman, Mark McGrath, Kevin Connelly, and way more besides. Hard-hitting topics covered include Brian Austin Green’s misguided rap album, Soleil Moon Frye’s breast reduction, a live Bronco chase watch party, and the meteoric rise of House of Pain. And more seriously, suicide, a subject that comes up much more often than average within Frye’s set.

Soleil Moon Frye, who is the documentary’s subject as well as its director, constantly challenges the notion of memory – does she remember these heady days correctly? The same as everyone else? Does it even matter? It’s an act of remembering and remembrance – sometimes wistful, sometimes painful, sometimes playful, sometimes tinged with regret. Fry had hundreds of hours of footage but crafts something that is very watchable, and that serves a greater narrative. It’s fun to see some famous faces de-aged, it’s fun that so many of her famous friends were musicians who contribute to the soundtrack. But this, for a young woman who didn’t have a normal high school experience, is her yearbook. Many of the faces she’s lost touch with over the years, others she’s grieved and lost. But these images live on, telling a story with one common theme: we were here.

Kid 90 will stream on Hulu on March 12 2021; the Punky Brewster reboot is already available on Peacock.

Moxie

I feel old, I feel embarrassed, and I feel inspired. In that order.

To the young women of today, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t get the work done. I’m sorry there’s still work for you to do. I’m sorry we didn’t break the patriarchy but got broken by it, bit by bit.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are introverts. They’re good students, quiet kids, girls who don’t make waves. But on the first day of school, Vivian is inspired by the new girl in class. Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) challenges English teacher Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) on his syllabus of all white men. Lucy is interrupted by star quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who, being a white male himself, sees nothing wrong with maintaining the status quo, and belittling her simply for having an opinion different from his. Based solely on this, he starts a campaign of harassment against her, because females who speak their minds need to be put in their place. Vivian, who witnesses much of this, is quietly outraged, but it’s not until the football pep rally (when the whole school worships Mitchell jointly, despite the fact that the football team literally never wins), when the boys’ annual ranking of the girls in their class blows up everyone’s phone and suddenly a switch is tripped in Vivian’s brain. Taking a cue from her mother’s (Amy Poehler) old days of piss, vinegar, and protest, Vivian secretly starts up a zine called Moxie that ends up uniting and igniting the girls in their school (and a few of the more worthy boys). They’re mad and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Amy Poehler, fierce comedian, directs Moxie and shows some of her own. There are few people who can be this earnest and this funny at the same time, but she’s one of them. Although this film is about Generation Z discovering feminism on their own terms, it’s also a love letter to Poehler’s generation, and perhaps to all the women who have come before, women who failed to solve sexism but played a part in moving the needle. It’s also a call-out to adults who value obedience over truth and justice; Marcia Gay Harden plays the school principal who would rather look the other way than be responsible to resolving the actual issues presenting in her school. Madeleine Albright (and Taylor Swift) once said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” and I think it’s important to remember that today, womanhood and its consequences starts earlier and earlier. The patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself.

This movie is about a movement, but it’s also about friendship. These girls, who have been taught to see each other as rivals, realize they have a cause in common. They’re outgrowing the simplicity of childhood friendship and developing empathy and understanding. Moxie brims with hope and optimism. These young people aren’t waiting to inherit the Earth, they’re not afraid to bring change now.

Amy Poehler’s schtick is something like ‘sincere dork’, and there are plenty of those vibes in Moxie. She’s outfitted the film with a genuinely wonderful cast, including Robinson, Tsai, Pascual-Peña, Nico Hiraga, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Josie Totah, Sabrina Haskett, Josephine Langford, and Emily Hopper, who can carry the film’s uplifting message while still seeming like ordinary high school students. Streaming on Netflix just ahead of International Women’s Day, Moxie is the feel-good film of the month.

Berlinale 2021: Language Lessons

Hello from the Berlin International Film Festival, streaming live from my bedroom for the first time ever. I’ve got a full slate of great movies ahead of me this week, or they better be after the very first one set the bar extremely high.

Adam’s husband Will gifts him with Spanish lessons. Two years worth of Spanish lessons! Hope you like them, Adam, because this is quite a commitment. Adam (Mark Duplass) is still getting used to the lavish lifestyle Will’s success affords them, and the time and freedom to pursue such projects at leisure. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is the Spanish teacher, beaming in from Costa Rica. Over the next two years, they’ll come to know each other very well through the miracle of conversation. Adam’s Spanish grammar may leave something to be desired but when you spend dedicated time in simple conversation with another human being, over time a relationship is cultivated almost as if by magic. Bonding over their own personal tragedies, the two are perhaps a little surprised by the friendship that seems to grow organically between them. They’ve never been in the same country let alone the same room, but their bond feels genuine and strong. Is it real, can it be trusted?

Natalie Morales directs the story she and Duplass wrote for themselves. It’s an interesting exploration of human attachment and what it means to connect authentically. We experience their relationship solely through the split screen of their online connection. I worried this conceit may wear thin over the course of a feature-length film, but these two share such compelling chemistry, and go to such lengths to entertain and stimulate each other, I found myself not minding it at all.

Perhaps most amazingly, this spontaneous friendship is allowed to remain platonic throughout the film. Adam and Cariño have shared pain and grief in their backgrounds, and the fact that they can find a way to reach out despite it is a tenuous little miracle it feels a privilege to witness. Trust is of course one of the most universal human hardships, and it feels elemental to watch it be birthed and nurtured on screen. Adam and Cariño are an endearing but flawed pair; their simple humanity is what’s touching. Language Lessons is disarming in the most delightful way.

Test Pattern

Renesha’s just had a good first day at a new job and is looking forward to having a good second day, so she’s a little hesitant to go out and join her friend at their favourite place for a drink, but she vows to her boyfriend that it’ll just be a quick one, and she’ll be back home at a decent hour. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) invites Evan (Will Brill) along of course, but drinks with the girls isn’t his thing, so he stays home and she goes out, and doesn’t return home that night at all. When she turns up the next morning, she’s been raped. Plied with free alcohol the night before, a man takes her back to his place, not just against her will, but when she’s so inebriated she no longer has any will at all.

The next day, Renesha and Evan will negotiate the difficult intersection of race and gender at the heart of the justice system and health care. But we’re not just talking institutional injustice and inequality; her private life is also unraveling. Director Shatara Michelle Ford examines this topic from every angle and none of them are flattering. The film doesn’t fall into the easy trap of victimhood, it’s much more complicated, intimate, and heartbreaking than that. Ranesha’s trauma is relived at every turn, and Hall’s performance is so nuanced we can see her being crushed in slow-motion.

You might mistake this for a small film but it packs a hell of a punch. Ford’s observations are as meticulous as they are tragic. Renesha suffers through so much: guilt, shame, embarrassment, resentment, self-recrimination, anger, even doubt, and that’s before uncaring institutions start revictimizing her. Sexual assault is obviously a sensitive topic but also a necessary one. Ford treats it with respect and specificity, but the film’s greatest achievement is also its most devastating: naked realism.

Test Pattern is available through virtual cinemas, including Toronto’s Revue Cinema and Vancouver’s The Cinematheque.

Flora & Ulysses

Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a little girl who wants to believe the world is filled with wonder and magic, but experience has taught her to embrace cynicism instead. She may hope for the best but she prepares for the worst, reading disaster preparedness books alongside the comic books written by her father. Incandesto and his super hero friends are so familiar to her she can practically see them but her father George (Ben Schwartz) has had no luck selling them, and has recently left the family, bereft. Mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) isn’t doing so hot either. A romance writer, Phyllis has been in a bit of a slump lately, and her new project isn’t very inspired either.

But don’t worry, folks, this isn’t some sad sack story, this is a super hero origin story, and the super hero is a squirrel named Ulysses. Ulysses gets sucked into a robot vacuum and once resuscitated, he’s got super powers! He’s super strong, and super fast, and super troublesome when Flora brings him into the house. He also writes poetry, but it’s unclear whether that’s actually a super power. Anyway, any squirrel in the house is likely to wreak havoc, but Ulysses is capable of so much destruction! All accidental, of course, but ask mom if she cares. She does not! But in the course of things, mean Miller (Danny Pudi) at animal control gets whiff of a potentially rabid squirrel and he’s on the case, pursuing the Buckman family, the boy next door, William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is temporarily hysterically blind, and their super squirrel Ulysses, stopping at nothing to euthanize super Ulysses, willing even to tranquilize humans in his quest to cage a furry little super hero.

Matilda Lawler is an insanely cute kid and a very capable actor. Much of the film’s charm emanates directly from her. Ben Schwartz harnesses a lot of his oddity and delivers straight up goofball as the affable, supportive dad. Their family adventure makes for excellent family viewing, and there’s no denying the soft, endearing fuzziness of Ulysses the poetry writing super squirrel. Director Lena Khan does an excellent job of translating the hijinks onto the big screen but keeping it grounded first and foremost in family values. The characters may be offbeat but the message is hopeful, the story is bright, and the squirrel is hard to resist. Flora & Ulysses has the makings of an excellent family movie night.

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Bachelorette

You know when you’re on a deep dive into Netflix’s back catalogue and you come across a movie that’s packed full of A-listers that you’ve somehow never heard of before? There’s always a reason.

Bachelorette is a deeply offensive and rarely funny movie that probably meant to be Deep Impact to Bridesmaids’ Armageddon, but wasn’t. It stars Rebel Wilson as bride-to-be Becky and Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and Isla Fisher as her horrible best friends. This trio are quite cruel to Becky, to her face and behind her back. They discuss amongst themselves how impossible it is that their fat friend is the first to be married, and to a good catch at that – rich, handsome, and totally in love with her. They’re jealous, they’re mean, and they’re determined to fuck up her wedding.

On the eve of the wedding, Becky heads to bed while her “friends” get drunk and do coke and fail to find a single ounce of happiness for the bride. In a fit of particular cruelty, Regan (Dunst) and Katie (Fisher) decide to try on Becky’s dress, without permission, and at the same time. The dress does as most would do when taxed with two wearers: it rips down the middle. The rest of the evening is spent in a “hilarious” race to somehow fix the dress before the morning wedding. They’ll get more drunk and do more drugs, and cross paths with the bachelor party on more than one occasion. The dress will be dragged along the sidewalk, get tossed in the trash, and be besmirched by several bodily fluids. And through it all, none of these women ever feels bad or learns a lesson. They’re disgusting human beings but they never face a consequence and they never get called out. I’m half afraid the script doesn’t even realize that they’re pathetic, ugly people.

Bridesmaids was crude and edgy, serving up women behaving badly with style though not always class. It got away with it because underpinning the gross gags and lewd humour was an essential sweetness and an elemental bond that made its hot mess relatable, and grounded. This movie is anarchic but tonally confused, and its characters hideously irredeemable. Even ringing its theme for all it was worth, the film failed to squeeze out even a drop of entertainment. There’s a reason I’d never heard of this movie – I just wish that had stayed the case.

Music

You may already know about this movie even if you haven’t seen it. Sia, the popular singer-songwriter with the oversized wigs, is its director and co-writer, but more importantly, is the woman who made a movie about a young woman on the autism spectrum without casting or seemingly consulting anyone on the spectrum. And when she was called out about it, she got kind of defensive. Understandable, maybe, but not a great look. She has since half-apologized, the very definition of too little, too late.

While I definitely believe that inclusion is good and right, and representation important, I decided to see if I could set the controversy aside and enjoy the movie anyway. The short answer is NO. The long answer is:

Music is not about a young woman on the spectrum named Music. Music (Maddie Ziegler) lives with grandma Millie (Mary Kay Place), who has carefully constructed a safe space in which Music can exist. Music is barely verbal, but she likes to go for walks and visit the library, and she’s never without her headphones. But then Millie suffers a deadly stroke and Music’s sister Zu (Kate Hudson) has to step up and take custody, which is a real head scratcher since Zu is an addict and a drug dealer recently released from prison and currently on parole. How she gets custody is beyond me. She can barely care for herself, she’s 40 but hardly an adult. Caring for a special needs sister seems wildly beyond her, which is probably why things get so wildly out of control. Anyway, this movie is not about Music, it’s about Zu. Music is merely used as a prop to help Zu achieve her goals. She’s a plot device on Zu’s road to redemption.

While this is hardly Hollywood’s first ‘marginalized person as a plot device’ narrative, it is a particularly offensive portrayal by Maddie Ziegler, who, by her own admission only prepared for the role by watching Youtube videos of kids on the spectrum having meltdowns. Ziegler’s performance is without depth or nuance. It’s one-dimensional, insensitive, and doesn’t begin to describe a person as a whole. But director Sia doesn’t understand this, and the script, co-written by Sia and children’s author Dallas Clayton, isn’t interested in fully-realized characters anyway. Music remains opaque and unknowable, Zu is hardly treated to anything resembling an arc or development, and other characters aren’t just basic but sometimes downright offensively stereotypical. It’s surprising that Sia was able to get the likes of Hector Elizondo, Mary Kay Place, Ben Schwartz, and Leslie Odom Jr. to sign on, but then again, none of them would have seen Ziegler’s patronizing performance until everyone was already on set and the ink on contracts was good and dry. But the whole notion that Zu can achieve some sort of absolution merely by learning to love her “challenging” sister is gross. Music doesn’t exist to make Zu look good. She shouldn’t be used as a way to illustrate someone else’s good vibes and positive intentions. She’s not an instrument or a stop along her big sister’s victory tour; her depiction as such is cruel and irresponsible. Why does a movie named after her fail to see Music as a person?

This patronizing and poorly judged filmed is frequently interrupted by an entire album’s worth of Sia songs – performed by Ziegler, Hudson, and Odom Jr. – and their accompanying music videos, which masquerade as insight into Music’s interior life but are really just an excuse to trade on the director’s only real talent. If only she had merely put out 10 videos instead. The musical interludes are of course pastel pieces of choreography heaven, but they not only have little if anything to do with the film itself, they also get really old really fast. Sia lacks the skill to connect these interjections to the larger story and the videos feel shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t want them. And though Maddie Ziegler’s other Sia collaborations (on her videos for Chandelier, Elastic Heart, and Big Girls Cry) are borderline genius, these are of course tainted by Ziegler’s self-evidently problematic aping of disability.

The film’s ignorant and infantilizing portrayal of autism is disastrous, so it might be a good time to yet again point out that actually involving people on the spectrum in this film’s conception, casting, development, and shooting would have resulted in something more authentic and representative. I know it’s tempting, in today’s cancel-prone culture, to dismiss or boycott this film, but I think that we can still learn valuable lessons from bad art. And Music is very, very bad. It’s so bad that it should serve as a new benchmark for productions going forward. It’ll be harder for mistakes like this to be made in the future. That’s not so much a silver lining as a tin foil lining, paltry perhaps, meager consolation, but it’s important to remember that a movie like this doesn’t just do a disservice to a marginalized community, it sets us all back, our understanding and our empathy and our ability to build a more inclusive society. Music isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom, and the only way we can be part of the cure is to talk about the way forward.

Sundance 2021: Mayday

After a terrible encounter with her boss inspires her to put her head in an oven, Ana finds herself on a mysterious island of girls – but this is no Themyscira.

On this island, Ana (Grace Van Patten) joins Marsha’s (Mia Goth) army of girls where war is constantly being waged against men. Along with Bea (Havana Rose Liu), Gert (Soko), and June (Juliette Lewis), they lure what appear to be WWII-era planes of soldiers with mayday calls of distress. Planes that answer the call and steer toward the island are mysteriously wrecked, and any men who survive and wash ashore are taken out by the girls, who’ve been training as snipers.

If the island is meant to be some sort of limbo for suicides, it’s populated by women who’ve been done wrong by men and are out for revenge. There is strength in numbers and strength in taking one’s power back, but while the island’s unique mission is exhilarating at first, Ana comes to realize she’s not entirely the killer Marsha wants her to be. Leaving won’t be so easy, though. Even if there’s a way to leave, Marsha isn’t keen to lose her newest recruit.

I love the vision and I love the attempt but I didn’t love the movie. The island is a great premise for exploring feminism and suicide but it doesn’t know how to create tension or sufficient reason to keep watching. Director Karen Cinorre is clearly very talented at putting together snappy, stylish visuals and has a knack for emotional dexterity, but Mayday needs a better grounding, better world building, better character development. Without those things, the film lacks dramatic propulsion and a good idea just never really becomes a good movie, but Grace Van Patten makes a strong case for future roles and Cinorre is a director to look out for.

Sundance 2021: The World to Come

Picture it: mid-19th century American East Coast frontier. Life is hard; it’s round the clock, back breaking work just to stay alive. It’s dirty, full of drudgery, isolating, dark, and monotonous.

Dyer (Casey Affleck) is a poor farmer who will toil his whole life away and never have anything to show for it. His wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston) works just as hard at even more menial tasks. Their relationship is predicated on hard work and common sense. Their life is colourless, hard-scrabble, and bereft after the loss of their only child. When another couple appears in the “neighbourhood” (which is to say, another isolated cabin miles and miles away), their dreary lives are cheered just a little bit by the ability to see another face once in a while. Abigail becomes particular friends with the wife, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), though Tallie’s husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) is a real stick in the mud, another burden to be borne, but worth the price of seeing Tallie.

If Dyer notices that Abigail and Tallie are growing closer by the day, he’s hardly the type to say anything, but Finney is much more jealous, and perhaps this isn’t the first time his wife has wandered over to someone else’s homestead. Abigail and Tallie relieve their loneliness and ignite something in each other’s company. Their relationship turns intimate, and physical, a balm on their otherwise psychologically taxing existence.

The World To Come is based on Jim Shepard’s lyrical story of the same name, which is fine for a piece of literature but translated less well on screen. Katherine Waterston provides a poetic voice-over that grows tiresome very quickly, not to mention suspicious. Dyer, who eats potatoes for every meal of every day of his sad little life, hardly seems the type to have said that “contentment is a friend who rarely visits” although the sentiment, at least, rings true, the biggest excitement in his life provided by a molasses enema when he gets the flu.

Waterston and Kirby are wonderful together, and the setting is absolute perfection. The sense of longing and emptiness are well conveyed, and Waterston does a fine job embodying both Abigail’s stoic reticence and the private, flowery language of her journal. The World to Come has plenty of isolated aspects to admire but they amounted to a boring film and a frigid love story that I didn’t need to see (again: this is hardly the first of its kind). Mona Fastvold is an excellent director who picked a crummy script and failed to breathe enough life into the story to justify it or indeed to hold any emotional heft. This one left me cold.

 The World To Come will be released via video on demand on March 2, 2021.