Thursday, July 11, 2019

Blood Rites

Movies: Midsommar

There is so much I want to say about Ari Aster's sophomore film Midsommar, but I'll just start by saying that the director's follow-up to last summer's gut-wrenching horror film Hereditary proves that Aster is not a one-hit wonder and is indeed a masterful filmmaker and storyteller who understands that grief and loss are just as scary as ghosts and cults.

I'll do a quick spoiler-free review first, followed by a more in-depth review after a warning so that folks who want to go in with a relatively blank slate will be able to do so.

Midsommar opens in winter. Dani (Florence Pugh in a phenomenal performance) is a college student with a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, appropriately groan-inducing in the shitty boyfriend role), who is planning to break up with her. But before he pulls the plug, Dani receives some devastating news which makes it nearly impossible for Christian to dump her, so the two continue on in the most depressing relationship of all time.

Flash forward to summer. Dani finds out that Christian is planning on taking a multi-week trip to Sweden to witness a once in a lifetime midsummer celebration (literally once in a lifetime, as the celebration only takes place every 90 years) taking place at the ancestral commune of his grad school friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Along for the trip is anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, aka Chidi from The Good Place) and annoying horndog Mark (Will Poulter). Upset that Christian failed to inform her about this trip, Dani invites herself along and no one is reasonably able to say no, given that she is still reeling from her loss.

The trips seems to start out well. Pelle's home is idyllic, with fresh-faced Swedes wearing all white and offering booze (and drugs, among the younger set), fresh fruit, and smiles to the Americans. Because they're in a northern part of Sweden, the sun basically doesn't set and the days are bright and hot.

While everyone seems welcoming and kind, there are small things that unsettle Dani and, eventually, other outsiders including two young adults from London whom Pelle's brother, Ingmar, invited. While Josh is fascinated by the culture and customs, Mark is chasing Swedish pussy, and Pelle is loving being home, Dani and Christian's relationship begins to unravel, especially after some of the rituals during the nine-day celebration begin to get, well, bloody.

I'll stop there and point out, as a warning to sensitive viewers, the violence in Midsommar is limited to a few key scenes...oh, but those scenes. They are NOT for the faint of heart. Read my spoiler review below if you want to hear the (literally) gory details. That said, Midsommar is not "scary" in the way Hereditary was or the way typical horror films generally are. There aren't jump scares. There isn't anything supernatural. The movie is long (2 hours and 20 minutes) so the horror is more of the unsettling, slow burn variety. If you could handle Get Out, you can probably handle Midsommar.

And it's completely worth it. While Midsommar is ostensibly about a cult whose rituals go too far, it's really about grief and how loss can completely gut us and leave us feeling unmoored. It's also about what makes a family. Is it blood? Or is it, as Pelle puts it in one scene where he has a private moment with Dani, about feeling "held". For all the strange and violent rites the Harga (the name of the people/commune in the film) indulge in, they also seem to understand the importance of supporting their fellow commune members and feeling/releasing emotions.  Perhaps what would be a trip to hell for one person is a homecoming for another.

Grade: A

***

Spoiler-filled review! Ye be warned!



Just as in Hereditary, Ari Aster weaves unimaginable grief into the tapestry of this film. Where Annie Graham loses her mother and then, in a grotesque freak accident, her daughter in Hereditary, Dani loses her entire family--mom, dad, and sister--in one fell swoop after her bipolar sister commits suicide (and brings her parents along) by allowing carbon monoxide from the family's cars to flood their house at night.

[It's important to note that Midsommar could be viewed as abelist not only because of its portrayal of a bipolar person as someone unstable to the point of committing murder-suicide, but also because of a disabled character who is considered a prophet by the commune. However, the latter is no accident and Aster has said as much. Here's an article with more info. I didn't find the abelism worth throwing the whole movie out, but others may feel differently.]

Dani's agonizing screams of grief as Christian holds and rocks her parallel the heartbreaking scene of Annie (played by the wonderful Toni Collette) moaning and rocking on the floor while her husband holds her after she discovers that her daughter has been decapitated. Aster has a flair for both gruesome death scenes and capturing what the depths of grief actually look like.

Additionally, Aster understands how acute grief transforms into a throbbing, numbing depression. 6 months after losing her family, Dani is--to put it mildly--not well. That Christian would plan a month-long trip without telling her says all we need to know about this asshole. To be fair, neither one of them seems happy in the relationship, but rather than ending things and helping Dani find additional support systems, as a decent person would do, he stays with her and resents her and takes her for granted at every turn.

Dani's depression is contrasted against the backdrop of never-ending sunshine of Sweden. Halsingland is gorgeous: tall grass, colorful flowers, asymmetrical buildings, and beautiful (if bizarre) artwork adorn the commune. There has been much discussion of the runes that Aster plants all over the film like tiny Easter eggs. Surely a place so beautiful filled with people so generous and kind couldn't be a haven for ritualized violence....could it? LOL OF COURSE IT IS.

I'll come right out and get to the "scene" in question. Pelle informs his friends that they will be witnessing a very special ritual--an attestupa--as part of the midsummer celebration. When he says this, booksmart Josh (William Jackson Harper is extremely good in this role, by the way) has a knowing look on his face, while Dani and Christian beg for more details (Pelle says "you really have to see it for yourself"). As soon as two elderly people are seated at the head of the table for the meal that commences the ritual, I knew what the fuck was up, even if our characters were slow on the uptake. Haven't these people seen the movie North before? Sure enough, after the meal, the elders are taken up to a high cliff, where they cut their hands and wipe their blood on some runes...and then throw themselves to their death. This scene is filmed in stomach-churning detail, with crushed skulls, legs pointing in the wrong direction, and loose eyeballs. While Dani and Christian are quietly horrified (horndog Mark misses the spectacle since he was taking a nap), Connie and Simon, a couple from London, are disgusted and outraged, screaming "what the fuck is wrong with you people". They are inconsolable even after the matriarch of the commune explains that the Harga see life as a cycle and ritual suicide as a gift a person can give to the community.

Unsurprisingly, witnessing two violent suicides is not conducive to Dani's healing. She plans to leave, but before she can, she overhears Connie freaking out upon finding out that Simon left for the train station without her. "He wouldn't do that!" she cries. "He wouldn't leave without telling me anything!". Hmm...indeed. And it's not long before Connie is "driven to the train station" (wink wink, Connie and Simon don't actually leave the commune, wink wink) herself. So, due to fear and also due to the fact that the Harga increase their efforts to befriend her, Dani stays.

What's interesting about Midsommar is just how much of a sneakily feminist film it is. While the women of the commune do stereotypical "women's work" such as cooking, they also appear to have a lot of power--especially over the rituals (ok, ok, human sacrifices). The women of the commune are also very supportive of one another, sharing in one another's grief and joy. When Dani participates in a Maypole dance where she is crowned May Queen, the other young women embrace her as family. And Dani, who has lost her family of birth, can't resist the gentle, insistent pull of the Harga to bring her in as "new blood".

Speaking of blood, while all this May Queen stuff is going on, Christian is drugged and all but forced into a mating ritual with a young woman, Maja, from the commune. The Harga see it as an opportunity to get new blood into the gene pool of the commune. Christian is a means to an end--surrounded by naked women (including Maja's mom--awkward) who grunt and groan along with Maja until they tell Christian to finish and unceremoniously push him off the girl once his manly duty is done. Unfortunately for Christian, Dani spies on him during this ceremony, which finally breaks any ties or good will left between them.

Poor Christian. After he discovers the dead bodies of Josh (killed for his greedy attempt to photograph a sacred book he was explicitly told not to), Mark (killed for being an idiot who literally pisses on the ashes of the commune's dead), and Simon (killed for trying to get out), he is poisoned with a paralyzing solution and wheeled out for the final, and most important ritual: the sacrificing of nine humans--four "new bloods" (Josh, Mark, Connie, and Simon), four Harga (the two elders plus two volunteers) and one additional person to be chosen by...dun dun!...the May Queen herself. And let's just say that Dani isn't ready to forgive and forget. She is, however, ready to see any remaining ties to her previous life literally burn to the fucking ground. Christian is sewn into a bear's skin and placed in a barn with the other sacrifices, both living and dead, and burned alive, as Dani looks on with an expression of, not glee exactly, but of righteousness. She has found her new home.

End of movie. Oh man, and I didn't even get to Reuben, the prophet with a deformed face who is the product of intentional inbreeding! Aster said in an interview that Reuben is a symbol of "things happening in Sweden right now that are echoes of the things that happened in the second World War" (I'm guessing he's talking about eugenics and white supremacy. Sweden isn't notable for its diversity). I'm not sure I fully buy this--Reuben is so poorly sketched out that he seems more of a red herring designed to spook people in the trailer than anything else. But Midsommar is a layered movie, so I'm not unwilling to believe that he served a greater purpose. It's also not lost on me that all three characters of color (Josh, Connie, and Simon) end up dead. I *do not* believe this was an accident. I think it was an intentional choice on Aster's part to show that while the commune may be welcoming to outsiders, it's only going to accept "pure blood" (i.e. whiiiite people) into its fold.

Midsommar was, to me, just such a pleasure to experience. In addition to the wonderful performances, beautiful cinematography, and spooky suspense, it just has so much to say about grief, family, cultural relativism, gender politics, and more. Some reviews have called it slow and derivative, but I never wanted it to end and I haven't seen a movie do exactly what Aster does in this one. It is definitely inspired by other films (The Wicker Man, The Shining, even a little The Silence of the Lambs is thrown in there), but I found it to be original, masterful, and satisfying.

Grade: A


Sunday, July 7, 2019

One Minute Reviews

Movies: misc

Although I haven't seen much in the theatre this past month, I've been watching up a storm of movies on streaming. In fact, I've reached a critical mass where I can't realistically give all of them their own, individual review. Instead, I have endeavored here to review them all--in three sentences or less--in one go. Enjoy!

***

Under the Silver Lake

Imagine if David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Rian Johnson's Brick had a baby and that baby grew up to not be as good as either one of them. That's David Robert Mitchell's stylish, yet pointless neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. On the plus side: the soundtrack is awesome, and Andrew Garfield is a snack and a half.

Grade: C+




















***

Kaboom

In Gregg Araki's film Kaboom, bisexual college students hump like bunnies and also discover that a cult is trying to blow up the earth. Although it certainly has its moments, and it's pretty fun at times, the ending just falls completely apart.

Grade: B





















***

The Oath

What starts as a dark comedy about a family at political odds with one another coming together for the Thanksgiving from hell ends up a movie where a government official makes a joke about the family's elderly father being raped in prison and also threatening to kill the family's children. So, uh, All Cops Are Bastards: The Movie. Definitely not for everyone, but I actually liked it a lot.

Grade: B+




















***

Spy

I watched this Melissa McCarthy comedy on a transatlantic flight and was not disappointed. The movie, directed by Paul Feig, is funny, entertaining, and light. It also boasts performances from folks like Jason Stratham, Jude Law, and Rose Byrne who are game to be as ridiculous and silly as McCarthy.

Grade: B+




















***

Double Lover

This French erotic thriller is about a young woman who falls in love with her psychoanalyst, only to find out he has a twin brother--also a psychoanalyst--and fall in love with the twin too. This film features pegging, cunnilingus during menstruation, and a side plot about someone cannibalizing their own twin while in the womb. Did I mention it's French?

Grade: C+




















***


Cam


Madeline Brewer plays a camgirl in the surprisingly not very sexy Netflix original, Cam. Her character, Alice, is locked out of her own webcam account and discovers an imposter who looks just like her, taking all her clients away. Spooky and entertaining, despite an unsatisfactory ending.

Grade: B




















***

Revenge

This French (what is with the French!?) rape and revenge film is a cut above other rape and revenge films in that it doesn't linger on the rape, but it sure as hell lingers on the revenge. Jen is raped by her boyfriend's asshole friend and then the bf attempts to kill her to cover the crime. He fails, and she comes back to murder them all (including the other friend who watched the rape and didn't stop it).

Grade: A-




















***

Prevenge

This British dark comedy finds Ruth carrying a murderous fetus who talks to her and compels her to kill a group of seemingly unrelated strangers. Turns out, they were all involved with (spoiler spoiler spoiler) her husband's death. Points for hilarity and total absurdity, although not really all that memorable or substantial in the end.

Grade: B-






Tuesday, June 11, 2019

When a Man Negs a Woman

Movies: The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg's coming-of-age drama The Souvenir is a strange, quiet movie. I saw the preview some months ago and was intrigued even though I couldn't figure out what the movie was supposed to be about other than a tumultuous relationship between a young man and woman.

And it is about that, albeit with a twist (which will be revealed below, so spoiler alert). But it is also about a young woman, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne--Tilda Swinton's daughter), who is emerging from a cocoon of privilege and severe naivete´ and blossoming into an artist.

The time period of The Souvenir is the early 1980s in England. Julie is in film school and being supported by her rich parents (real-life mom Tilda Swinton plays Julie's mom). She meets Anthony (Tom Burke) at a party and the two start meeting regularly for lunch and champagne. Anthony is the ultimate rich, arrogant preppie. He wears Tucker Carlson bowties and slyly undermines Julie's ambitions and opinions. But he hides a pretty intense secret of his own.



During a dinner at home with a pair of mutual friends, when Anthony is in another room, Julie's friend casually calls Anthony a "habitual heroin user" as he is puzzling out how Julie and Anthony know each other. Julie is struck silent, and this revelation informs the rest of the events of the movie, especially when Julie comes home to find all of her jewelry and film equipment missing and Anthony claiming that they were robbed. Her willingness to believe him is both cringeworthy and understandable. A 24 year old girl in love is going to hard-pressed to believe that not only would her boyfriend steal all her shit to feed his drug habit, but that he would do so and then lie so blatantly to her, as if she's that stupid. It's almost less insulting to her intelligence to believe him.

And so The Souvenir goes. Anthony acts like an ass while denying his drug problem, then can't hide it, then disappears, then reappears claiming he is fine, then relapses. All while Julie is puzzling out film school and what filmmaking means to her.

Words I could use to describe this film are "frustrating", "insufferable", "pretentious", "repetitive", and "boring". But despite its difficulties and almost stubborn unwillingness to be a likable or accessible film, I admired it because it was honest about how relationships really work. It's also honest about the human ability to lie to ourselves and others. Julie isn't foolish and she isn't weak, she's simply inexperienced. And because of that inexperience, she lets herself be influenced by a man who is arrogant and attractive in his arrogance. I have been Julie. I have been a young woman who is attracted to art, beauty, and arrogant men. Haven't we all been Julie, to some degree or another?

The inevitable conclusion of The Souvenir is almost annoying in it's clean resolution. Julie is free of Anthony and able to fully pursue her work, all the more wise for having had a borderline emotionally abusive relationship. And while that is what I wanted for her character, it's too neat a resolution for all the messiness and pent-up emotions that came before it. The Souvenir might be the most British film I've ever watched: despite everything--the drugs, the stealing, the sex, the fights--there is never truly an explosion of emotions. Maybe that's one benefit American have over the English: we're willing to scream and cry when it is warranted.

The Souvenir is like a museum: beautiful, curated, clean, elegant, and ultimately cold and frictionless. It's an imperfect, yet poignant film that feels like it only scratches the surface of a more interesting film lying underneath.

Grade: C

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Bitch is Back

Movies: Rocketman

When I first saw the preview for Rocketman, I thought "well, this movie is going to be embarrassing." Biopics, especially musical biopics, seem to be a devilishly difficult genre of film to get right. They either lionize the subject of the film too much and/or white wash the person's more nasty parts, or they try to cram too much of the person's life into two hours and thus feel like a Wikipedia article adapted into a movie. I'm not sure why I was so skeptical of Rocketman at first--maybe just the title alone made me groan a bit.

Well, I was wrong. Rocketman, which blends the genres of biopic and musical pretty seamlessly, was a delight and a joy to watch. While not perfect, it goes right more often than it goes wrong and actually got me close to tears in the final scenes.

Rocketman traces the rise of a shy, musically-inclined boy named Reginald Dwight as he blossoms into the campy, glam-y butterfly we now know as Sir Elton John. Beginning at a critical point in John's life--when he entered rehab in the late 80s--the film uses a recovery meeting as the frame for John telling his own story (through song and dance!) up until that point. I loved that the film doesn't use John's songs in chronological order, but rather by how well they tell the story of the artist's life. For example, the 1990s song "I Want Love" is used to show how various members of John's family were deeply repressed and unhappy: John's father was distant and disdainful of his son's "softer" traits. His mother was more interested in fashion magazine and martinis than in raising her son. Only John's grandmother seemed to understand his unusual gift of being able to memorize music by ear and play it perfectly on the piano.

And so shy, soft Reggie Dwight grows into shy, soft early-20s Reggie Dwight who decides he wants to play rock and roll and changes his name to Elton John. Taron Egerton, the rising star from the Kingsman movie, plays John and captures the musician's deep hunger to be loved and to be seen and accepted for who he really is. And it's that vulnerability that both helps John--especially in his longtime partnership and friendship with lyrics writer Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell)--and hurts him.



After Taupin and John, working under the management of Ray Williams, hit it big in the United States, John meets John Reid (played by Robb Stark Richard Madden, with a domineering intensity that is as scary as it is sexy), a music manager who eyes John like a cat eying a mouse. The two have immediate chemistry and begin a relationship, which you can tell from the get-go is not going to be good for the barely out of the closet (and apparently a virgin when he met John Reid) Elton John. Indeed, Reid convinces John to break his contract with Ray Williams and work under the management of Reid instead, which allows Reid more control over John's work (which is shooting off like, well, a rocket) AND personal life (increasingly filled with drugs, partying, and insane material wealth). The underlying message of the film is that John just wanted to be loved, but was taken advantage of by a manipulative (and, the movie suggests, physically violent) man and this lead to John's descent into drugs and "fucking half of LA", as he tells his mother at a very uncomfortable dinner.

The musical sequences that tell Elton John's story are dazzling, outrageous, and fun--and deeply moving at times. During a scene at the Troubador nightclub in Los Angeles, the audience actually lifts off the ground as John plays an exuberant rendition of "Crocodile Rock". During the height of John and Reid's relationship, Egerton and Madden sing a slick, campy rendition of "Honky Cat" that is one of the gayest things I've ever seen (that's a high compliment, btw). During John's "rock bottom" scene, he literally dives into a pile of humans and bodysurfs along a slithering mass of sexy flesh while singing "Bennie and Jets".

I've seen some reviews that ask the question "Is Rocketman queer enough?" Apparently, the film's one sex scene is a big deal (they do it face to face --I guess straight people think gay men only fuck doggy style??), especially compared to the PG-13 Bohemian Rhapsody. But some reviews have suggested that Rocketman takes the route of painting Elton John as a flamboyant, strange artist who just happens to be queer instead of revealing how queerness itself informed John's art. I don't really see a difference in Rocketman. Personally, I thought the film hit the sweet spot of reminding the audience that Elton John is gay and that is a huge part of his identity, art, and choices he made in life, but not focusing *entirely* on his queerness and sex life. In any case, between the hot/scary chemistry between Egerton and Madden, the over-the-top costumes, and the orgasmic bliss of the eye-popping musical numbers, Rocketman is gay as hell. And I love gay as hell movies.

Though Rocketman has a few cheesy scenes, I still found myself deeply moved. Maybe I just saw the movie on the right day at the right time, but even the scene where John's younger self asks grown-up John "when will you hug me?", echoing an earlier scene where young Reggie Dwight asks his neglectful father the same question, only to be told "don't be soft", threatened to make me cry (I rarely cry during movies, so even getting close to crying means the movie gave me FEELS). There was something so earnest, so humane, and so willing to be vulnerable about the film that you can't help but feel your heartstrings getting tugged. And I left the theatre with a sense of joy and happiness that I haven't felt after watching a movie in a long time.

So, long story short, go see Rocketman. It's fun, dazzling, sexy, and warmhearted--much like the artist himself.

Grade: A-

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Super Bad Broads

Movies: Booksmart

Olivia Wilde's (yes, actress Olivia Wilde directs this film) Booksmart is doomed to be compared to 2007's Superbad. To be fair, the films share some pretty substantial similarities: both films depict two ride-or-die buds trying to make it to a big party during their senior year of high school; both films have a scene of a drunk person vomiting on/near their make-out partner; both films feature a high school party broken up by the cops; and both films share a sibling: Beanie Feldstein, who plays control-freak valedictorian Molly in Booksmart is Jonah Hill's younger sister.

But Booksmart has new life breathed into it. It is woker, gayer, and Gen-Zer-er than its predecessor. Gone is the homosexual panic and casual misogyny of Jonah Hill's Seth and Michael Cera's Evan and replacing it is a queer female main character (Kaitlyn Dever's Amy) who, by the way, is spending a gap year in Africa helping women make tampons, and a plus-size (which is never remarked on) female main character (Feldstein's Molly) who is bossy, whip-smart, and has a framed photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her bedroom.

But perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of Booksmart is the crucial scene on which the entire plot hinges: Molly is in a gender neutral bathroom listening to a couple fellow students right outside the stalls discuss how she is annoying and condescending. She comes out of the bathroom to confront them, rubbing her acceptance to Yale in their faces, assuming they--who have partied and goofed around the last four years--are far less successful than she. As it turns out, they too are accepted into Ivy League schools (except for the dude who got recruited to code for Google and was offered a six-figure salary right out of high school). Molly is, as the kids say, shook. She realizes in that moment how foolish she and Amy have been: they avoided partying and studied hard, assuming that because they are disciplined, they will come out much further ahead than their classmates. But, as one of Molly's tormenters says to her with a sneer, "Oh, we care about school. We don't just care about school."



This scene, which upends a huge high school movie trope that pits nerds against cool kids, is pretty great. It's rare to see a smart girl realize that maybe she actually doesn't know everything and has room to improve. Of course, instead of internalizing this information and using it to fuel empathy for others and herself, Molly's solution is to convince her more introverted buddy to party their fucking asses off on the last day of school so that they can say that, yes, the *technically* both partied AND studied in high school. Technically. Additionally, Molly wants Amy to hook up with Ryan, a skater girl whom Amy has a crush on. And Molly just might have a crush of her own, which she is too proud to reveal.

The movie mostly focuses on Amy and Molly's attempts to make it to a party thrown by Nick, a hot popular dude and the class vice president (of course, Molly is the class president). But since the two girls never socialized with any of their peers, they don't know the address and have to endure two additional parties in their quest to find Nick's party.

At heart, Booksmart, like Superbad, is about friendship. The relationship between Amy and Molly is not so different from Seth and Evan's. Amy is the more passive friend (like Evan) and Molly is the bossier, more aggressive one (like Seth). As a former (still??) bossy girl who borderline bullied some of my friends growing up, I felt a kinship to Molly. You rarely see a character like her--and even more rarely are you encouraged to empathize with a character like her. But her story arc is so real. Behind her driven, ambitious nature is a real fear of her peers and of not being good enough. So when her "thing" (being smart and successful) is basically revealed to be everyone's thing since many of her "slacker" peers turn out to also be successful and smart, her mind is blown and her armor has to come off if she wants to grow as a person.

Booksmart is wickedly hilarious and features some truly weird scenes (inadvertent drug ingestion leads to an animated hallucination scene) and lots of cameos from funny folks such as Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte. The best part is the all the different "types" of high school kids--the gay, flamboyant theatre people, the rich weirdos, the cool teacher, the stoners--all get mixed together into a really nice soup of humanity at the various parties. Rivals and allies change throughout the evening, so that even though there is plenty of conflict, it never feels like a tired "nerds vs. jocks" cliche.

Grade: A-

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Scent of a Woman

Movies: Her Smell

Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell goes from zero to one hundred in the first act and never takes its foot off the gas pedal. It's an intense, nervy film that follows the downfall of a riot grrrl rock goddess in the vein of Courtney Love and her climb back to redemption.

Elisabeth Moss, in a vanity-free and nakedly vulnerable performance, plays Becky Something, front woman to a 90s riot grrrl style punk band Something She. Becky's atrocious behavior--canceling tours, getting blackout drunk backstage--has reduced the once enormously popular band to playing clubs when they used to sell out theaters. Despite Becky's narcissistic behavior, bandmates Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) and Marielle Hell (Agnyess Deyn) have stuck by her side even though their manager, Howard (Eric Stoltz), is about to walk away after Becky's antics have nearly bankrupted his company.

Unwillingly along for the ride into Becky's descent into hell is her ex-husband, Dirtbag Dan (Dan Stevens) who is essentially raising his and Becky's young daughter, Tama, by himself. Becky's mom, Ania (Virginia Madsen,) also makes appearances, saddened--though not shocked--at her once sweet daughter's self-destruction.

Perry stages the 2 hour and 14 minute film over five scenes of about 25 minutes each, giving the film a very theatrical feel. It's effective--you get to know the characters right away and see what they're all about. Becky is the epicenter of a shitstorm of diva behavior and abuse, Marielle is the more enabling band member, and Ali is the band member who most aggressively pushes back (only to get dragged back in). The majority of the people in Becky's life are also financially dependent on her in some way or another which prevents many of them from writing Becky off and walking out of her life. They also, against all good sense, love her.

Her Smell (a title which I actually like, although critics have indicated they think it...stinks) is a story about addiction and how an addict--especially one with money and power, in Becky's case--can be a black hole to those around her, sucking up time, money, energy, emotions, and resources.

Her Smell, it must be said, shows how addiction affects rich, attractive, white people. Even after the worst of it, Becky still has a home, has access to her daughter, has friends who come to forgive her, and avoids prison (though she does not avoid lawsuits). Her Smell is *incredibly* white. All the main characters are white, with a bodyguard and a shaman (yup) as the only characters of color. While this might make a certain sense given the genre of music and time period, it was very notable. I mean, hell, the main character's name is fucking Becky. It's for sure a film about white privilege whether the director intended it to be or not.

It is nice to see a movie starring nearly all women that really isn't about femininity. Certainly, a viewer could read "mean girl" behavior into it, or see Becky as a "bad mother", but the film doesn't really make Becky's femaleness the center of things, but rather her addiction and her narcissism. It's refreshing to see a woman behave badly and not be killed or punished for it (but again, this is a white, attractive woman, so she already has a better shot than most). There's something thrilling and voyeuristic about the film, which also feels like a low-key horror movie with an unnerving soundtrack and a volatile main character.

I enjoyed Her Smell. It's not a great movie, but it definitely gets under your skin. Moss does a stunning job playing a woman you can't fucking stand but somehow still care about. And although her redemption does come off as a bit tidy, there's still enough uncertainty at the end of whether she'll be able to stay clean and keep her promises--or relapse into a monster once again--to leave the audience feel shaken.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Woman's Liberation

Movies: A Fantastic Woman

I recently had the honor of co-hosting a screening and discussion of Sebastian Lelio's 2017 film A Fantastic Woman at my job. This is the third film of Lelio's I've seen (he also directed Gloria Bell and Disobedience) and he is fast becoming a favorite director of mine.

*plot points are spoiled in this review*

A Fantastic Woman is about Marina, a trans woman with an older partner, Orlando. On the night of Marina's birthday, Orlando gifts her with two tickets to an exotic vacation. It's clear that they love each other very much and are serious about their relationship (they recently moved in together to Orlando's apartment). But later that night, Orlando wakes up feeling sick. He falls down the stairs as they head to the car. Although they make it to the hospital, Orlando passes away from a brain aneurysm.

From this point on, the film is about how Marina navigates instance after instance of transphobia--from the cops who suggest that the bruises Orlando sustained after falling down the stairs might actually be from Marina abusing him, to Orlando's ex-wife who forbids Marina from attending the wake and funeral--all while Marina is grieving and trying to find closure in her partner's death.

Although A Fantastic Woman is a wonderful, beautiful, deeply felt portrayal of a trans woman (played by a trans actress, Daniela Vega), it's not always easy to watch. Marina is misgendered, deadnamed, called a "perversion", forced to strip for an (unnecessary) physical examination, and even assaulted (though not beaten or raped, thank god). Some critics have suggested that the barrage of transphobia Marina faces is excessive, a kind of "tragedy porn" for the audience. But I felt that it was an unflinchingly real portrayal of what many trans people have to deal with in daily life.

Through it all, Marina never loses her nerve and the more she is insulted or told to go away, the more she rebels. She also has people on her side--her sister, her boss, her singing instructor, and her memories of Orlando.

In the discussion following the screening, we had a great discussion about the film, facilitated by three people with academic knowledge and/or personal experience in trans issues and their perspectives added to my appreciation of A Fantastic Woman. One facilitator pointed out the numerous instances when the director chose to focus on Marina's body when it may have not been necessary to do so and asked what the point of that was. There is an especially aggravating scene where Marina is forced to comply with a physical examination as part of an investigation about the bruises on Orlando's body. The camera stays on Marina's bare upper-body, as if to make the audience complicit in objectifying her and staring at her. I didn't get the sense that the director was trying to be exploitative in these scenes, but it most definitely felt uncomfortable.

Even if Lelio had blindspots in making this movie, overall I think it is an important film. For one, he actually cast a trans woman to play a trans woman (unlike many other movies about trans people where they often cast cis people to play a trans character). Secondly, Marina is a three-dimensional character. She is talented, in love, angry, grieving, scared...she is a human being trying to retain dignity while those around her treat her with contempt. Finally, A Fantastic Woman is not a cute after school special about "tolerance"--it faces transphobia full on, but never crumbles beneath the weight of hatred and ignorance. It has a happy ending for Marina and is a film that is full of hope, even in shitty circumstances.

Grade: A