Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am Not an Easy Man, or: Is a French Tootsie a Toot Suite?

Okay, it’s still January for a few more hours. But would anyone really object to wrapping up this month a little bit early? It’s already been a tough year, and it’s likely to remain challenging.

In the spirit of getting on with 2021 (and sparing us yet another uplifting film that merely makes us roll our eyes with disdain), we’re kicking off Feminist February now. Delightfully, we have the potential to get 5 films in during one of our favorite months of the Collab. Will this week’s pick bring in the month with a bang or a whimper?

The Film:

I Am Not an Easy Man

The Premise:

After waking up in an alternate reality, a chauvinist must contend with a matriarchal world in which women hold the power and influence.

The Ramble:

Absolutely epitomizing the word “sleaze,” Damien is a man thoroughly sexist and gross in every context. His most recent professional triumph is a proposal for an app that keeps data on a person’s sex life from year to year…and by “person” I mean “heterosexual man.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Damien’s behavior towards his female colleagues can only be described as harassment.

A man (Damien) leans against a display in a book shop, flirting with a smiling blonde woman.

Damien uses his free time to check out literally every woman he encounters and try to pick up every one he finds attractive. At a book signing for his old friend Christophe, Damien meets new assistant Alexandra. She is less than impressed with Damien’s slick moves, promising that the only way they would ever get together would be in another world. Hmmmm…prophetic.

Catching up with Christophe on the way home, Damien gets so distracted harassing women on the street that he walks face first into a street sign. After sustaining a nasty head bump, Damien wakes up to find female paramedics helping him, along with a concerned Christophe.

In the world Damien now lives, the order of the day is toxic matriarchy rather than patriarchy. Roles are reversed, so that Damien sports a much more revealing wardrobe and is constantly checked out by women on the street and at his female-dominated workplace.

It’s not long before Damien learns of the firm’s upcoming Vulvometer app, a spin on his brilliant(?) idea. Disgusted by the app, enraged that his idea has been stolen, and talked down to or harassed by virtually every woman at work, Damien has a meltdown that results in his firing.

A man (Damien) sits on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on his head, brushing his teeth and petting a cat sitting next to him.

After talking to a psychiatrist who dismisses Damien’s concerns that there’s something wrong, there’s nothing to do but try to score with all of the sexually liberated women in this new reality. However, this proves more difficult than anticipated, as the first woman he goes out with takes him to a male strip club and is horrified by Damien’s unwaxed chest.

Leaning on Christophe, now a struggling father trying to nurture his family, Damien shares his worries now that he’s unemployed. Luckily, Christophe has a connection; while he’s on parental leave, his writer boss is in need of an assistant. The writer? Alexandra, obviously.

Alexandra ticks off all of the boxes usually reserved for the male genius: self-absorbed, balancing a rotating string of men, constantly showing off her abs. In between constantly harassing her new assistant, Alexandra learns of Damien’s supposed delusions. Intrigued by the idea of a patriarchal society, she decides to get close to him…all in the name of gathering information for her new book.

A woman (Alexandra) sits up in bed, shirt open. A man (Damien) sleeps, his head resting in her lap.

Meanwhile, Damien gets involved with the men’s rights group, Tits for Tat. Advocating for greater opportunities and representation for men, the group shows up at female-focused events wearing fake breasts to…make some kind of point, apparently.

On top of this, Damien must contend with his parents, who wonder when he will stop being a pathetic single cat man. Everywhere he turns, there are images of men being sexualized. To make matters worse, Damien has a huge falling out with Christophe, who learns that his wife has cheated.

As Damien gets closer to Alexandra, she begins to develop genuine feelings for him. However, she is a woman of many secrets and dysfunctional patterns of behavior. Is love enough to change the heart of a female chauvinist?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Conceptually, I like this quite a lot. However, the execution leaves something to be desired. Tonally, this is a very odd film. It’s billed as a sort of romantic comedy, though I don’t think Damien and Alexandra are exactly #CoupleGoals in any reality. On the other hand, this is a satirical social commentary, and the ending is downright chilling, to be honest.

I think where things break down a bit is the film’s understanding of feminism and gender, both of which lack nuance. Our story is meant to teach Damien a lesson about his bad behavior, but I don’t think it does a whole lot to actually represent feminist values. After all, the point of feminism is not for women to switch places with men and inherit patriarchal systems of oppression. Nor is it to imply that there is one correct way to be a woman, man, or non-binary individual. I know this, darling Christa knows this, our film knows this. But does every viewer? Surely I need not remind you that there are actual men’s rights groups in this reality that genuinely believe they are being oppressed.

Depending on the gender binary too much creates a lot of problems in our film. There are times when the tone misses the mark, seeming to ridicule effeminate men–as if that’s not something that already happens quite a lot. Overall, there’s not a lot of imagination put into LGBTQ existence in this matriarchal world. Additionally, characters of color are noticeably absent. This may be for the best, truth told–the one scene that addresses the concept of Muslim veiled men is downright cringey.

I did laugh at some of the absurd role reversals, especially getting a kick out of Damien’s ludicrous chest hair. And, intentional or not, I found the unplugged version of “You’re the One That I Want” that played at a club hysterical.

Ultimately, I find this film’s literal role reversal less than true to the spirit of feminism. IMHO, Tootsie did it better.

Would my blog wife approve of this one’s form in its layers of shapewear or leave before it even wakes up? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am Woman, or: You Were Nicer Before All the Coke

“Watch a series of uplifting, musically-oriented films to start the new year on a positive note,” we said (without intending to pun). “That will surely make us feel better about an already worrying year.” How little we know ourselves.

Conclusively, very few of our picks this month have actually made us feel better about the world we live in. We’re dark souls here, what can I say? Can one of our final films of January buck the trend and lift our spirits with a true story of success?

The Film:

I Am Woman

The Premise:

The story of Helen Reddy, singer/songwriter of “I Am Woman” fame, chronicles her challenges breaking into the music industry as a divorced single mother facing sexist and dismissive execs.

The Ramble:

In 1960s, a young Helen Reddy arrives in NYC from Australia. Jazzed about a promised recording contract after winning a contest, she’s brought her daughter Traci along for an opportunity that could launch her singing career.

Naturally, the studio has its bases covered in legal terms so that, while Helen did win the contest, in no way is she guaranteed any sort of contract or time in front of a mic. What’s more, she must suffer through an endless number of questions about how she managed to make such a long journey by plane all on her lonesome, with nary a single man to help her lift heavy suitcases or prevent her from getting lost with his impeccable sense of direction.

Frustrated and disappointed, Helen must nevertheless make money ASAP to support herself and her daughter. The sole bright spot in all this is making the acquaintance of journalist Lillian Roxon, who becomes her bff and primary source of encouragement. Matching Helen’s love of music, Lillian’s goal is to create an extensive encyclopedia of rock ‘n roll.

It’s not long before Helen starts to meet new friends because of the well-connected Lillian. During a party in honor of Helen’s birthday, she fatefully meets manager Jeff Wald. After dating for a short time, Jeff asks Helen for permission to be her manager. Since Los Angeles is the place to be, that’s where the couple will move, along with Traci. Sadly, this will mean leaving behind bestie Lillian, a person who has always believed in Helen.

However, the mere act of being in LA doesn’t yield the insta-success the couple anticipates. Jeff finally lands a small-time management job, but Helen has absolutely no gigs whatsoever. Jeff’s understanding that unemployed Helen’s role is to clean the house and make sure there’s always a full pint of milk in the fridge causes tension and would very likely have resulted in a scene where Jeff is floating in a pool of milk Sunset Boulevard-style if I had scripted this film.

Meanwhile, Lillian is living her best life, covering marches commemorating the suffrage movement, Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for President, and the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Time is ticking on the bill, which must pass in 38 states by 1979 to be adopted. For some incomprehensible reason, this gives the film an excuse to namedrop Phyllis Schlafly 8,000 times–and I have yet to stream Mrs. America and witness what is undoubtedly another brilliant turn from Cate Blanchett because my brain shortcircuits with rage any time I have to think about that woman.

Finally fed up with playing the role of housewife, Helen demands Jeff put pressure on studio exec Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock (Chris Parnell). After Jeff ties up the phone line for hours on Helen’s insistence, Dr. Spaceman finally agrees to let her record a single. Though initially nervous, Helen records a cover of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar that makes the charts. On a side note, it’s truly bizarre to think that, at the time, Jesus Christ Superstar was a trendy new musical people clamored to see. I suppose in 2070 or thereabouts, people will probably feel the same way about Hamilton, puzzling over how it ever seemed fresh or original enough to pay thousands of dollars for a ticket. Except for, reliably, worryingly intense theatre fans, who will enjoy working obscure references to it into everyday conversation.

At the same time, Traci is growing up and resenting taking kung fu classes instead of ballet. Concerned for her daughter, Helen despairingly realizes that all songs being released focus on how dreadful it is to be a woman, and/or how the love and approval of a man can turn around the most wretched female existence. Helen is inspired to write her famed feminist ballad, “I Am Woman,” which is instantly dismissed as “angry” and “man-hating.”

However, Jeff believes in the song and is convinced Helen can win over women listeners, who will call in and request the track on the radio. The strategy works, and Helen becomes a sensation. Leaping to stardom, Helen has a number one hit, gets her own show, and wins a Grammy. With her newfound success, Helen and Jeff have a baby and buy a swanky house. Cautious with money, Helen pays with everything using cash. Simultaneously, Jeff has picked up a cocaine habit, so you know things are never going to go wrong on that front.

As Helen rides the waves of fame, she forgets her old friends, refusing to return Lillian’s calls. It doesn’t help that, after a scathing review of Linda McCartney’s show, Jeff warns Helen that Lillian will do anything for a story. Yep, I’m sure your husband, out of his mind on coke, is full of sound advice. Shortly after a major fight with Lillian, Helen receives terrible news that leaves her wracked with guilt.

Like any episode of Behind the Music worth its salt, Helen’s star rises as her home life falls apart. Despite their partnership, Jeff feels emasculated by the perception that Helen is the breadwinner of the family. During coke-fueled benders, he spends more and more money and fights with his wife a lot. Meanwhile, Helen resents the lack of creative freedom the studio will grant and regrets being unable to spend more time with her children.

How much can Helen endure before her marriage fails…and she becomes fed up with the music industry altogether?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The oft-repeated refrain of the Blog Collab has become “Why make a 2-hour film when you have 90 minutes’ worth of plot (or less)?” And it applies here. This film did not need to be 2 hours. However, largely because I enjoyed the dynamic between Helen and Lillian so much, I’m willing to be fairly generous with this review. Btw, Lillian is played wonderfully by the extremely underrated Danielle Macdonald. The friendship between these characters is instantly believable, and the film setting up their relationship as one of the most profound and powerful of Helen’s life is a choice I support.

Still, once Helen and Jeff head off to LA, their marriage becomes a major focus of the story. And it’s kind of boring, honestly? The tale of Helen’s rise to fame feels the same as so many other stars of the ’60s and ’70s: a series of failures finally yields a lucky break, but sudden fame is so overwhelming that someone develops a coke habit and close relationships fall apart. Even though it pisses me off when biopics tell a story with a sense of inevitability that this extraordinary human was destined for greatness, it’s what I have come to expect from films based on a music star’s life. The way Helen Reddy’s story is told here, she’s more or less a stubborn person who really enjoyed singing…and I fail to believe that’s all there is to her.

That leads me to another frustration with the film: what is the point? Despite the marketing for this film, there’s minimal exploration of the feminist themes in Reddy’s now iconic anthem. I think that both Helen and Jeff were still living when this film was made, so it’s possible the filmmakers were playing it safe or needed approval to tell the story. Neither comes off looking thoroughly evil despite quite a lot of macho posturing from Jeff. The story recognizes he’s an addict, which I both appreciate and find frustrating (though, as is often the case, he’s a much nicer person before constantly snorting coke). When you watch a music biopic, you go in just wanting to hate the sleazy manager. It never feels that Helen is fighting against the odds, whether because of a difficult marriage, industry sexism, or personal struggles–and this is the only thing I want from a biopic! I crave drama.

Would my blog wife stand by this one or throw it all away for a line of coke? Find out in her review!

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Shit, Actually by Lindy West

Despite being a librarian, I have been extremely inconsistent about posting book reviews (though, note to basically everyone:  I don’t spend all [or any part] of my day reading at work).  Lately, this has been a result of my concentration being absolutely shot to bits for months.  Can’t imagine why.  There really hasn’t been much happening in the world, right?

So I was stoked when I started listening to Lindy West’s Shit, Actually (narrated/performed/never sure what the appropriate word choice is by the author).  Shout-out to M, a former colleague who recommended this book and knows me suspiciously well despite my attempts to compartmentalize work/home life.

Cover of the book Shit, Actually

I could not stop once I pressed play, and I consumed it all within 3 days.  Most of the time, quippy books that comment on pop culture annoy the bejeezus out of me; however, with West’s sarcastic perspective that never gives a free pass to misogyny, racism, capitalism, or imperialism, I legitimately laughed out loud on several occasions.  Not one to miss an opportunity for tongue-in-cheek humor, West even dedicates the book to Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive and uses 1 to 10 DVDS of The Fugitive as a rating scale throughout.

But let’s back up a minute.  Author Lindy West, best known for her political/activist writing and her memoir Shrill [also an excellent TV series starring Aidy Bryant], wrote a now iconic criticism of Love, Actually several years ago.  Naturally, this is a chapter of the book (with some edits), and this alone would be enough for my stamp of approval.  Whether you love or hate it, close to 20 years have passed since the film was released…and there’s so much of it that really doesn’t hold up, beginning with the fact that it opens by talking about what a great place airports are (this has bothered me forever, TBH).

Though West’s commentary on the puzzling disdain for Muggle technology in Harry Potter, observations on Terminator 2’s odd choice to create a robot with realistic genitals and an Austrian accent, and problematic enjoyment of Rush Hour are entertaining, the sections that zero-in on films or characters she despises are my favorite.

Some of the stand-out chapters focus on The Notebook, Top Gun, Twilight, and Garden State, all of which are dripping with disdain.  For me, the chapter on The Notebook is extremely cathartic because, even as a teen, I haaaaaaaaaaaated that movie and its shitty story line.  It’s even more aggravating to despise something that is so ubiquitous because you are stuck between being a complete asshole but honest and lying while seeming like a normal person who just happens to be repressing a significant amount of rage (which will never be a problem for you later in life).  And, truly, I’m not shitting all over the romantic drama genre; I honestly don’t need to  because, inevitably, the things that women enjoy will be looked down on as lesser forms of art or entertainment either way.  (Nor am I claiming to have better taste than other people, especially since I genuinely liked the classics of cinema Get Over It and Mr. Deeds around this time.)  But, as West notes about Love, Actually, this is a movie made for women by men, and that I do very much resent.  Favorite line of the chapter:  “So instead of talking to her or being normal, he just breathes heavily behind a bush and then goes home and has cry sex with a war widow whom he’s too broken to love.”

Of all of the offenses of Hollywood filmmaking, West has the least time for toxic masculinity.  This is one reason I appreciate her review of Top Gun so much, another film I loathe (though I’m tempted to give it another try based on this book, as I failed to appreciate its famed homoerotic undertones because I spent the entirety of its runtime despising Maverick).  While any opinions I have expressed about this film have been along the lines of “What a bro movie for bro-y bros” and “Ugh, fucking Maverick,” West coherently dissects the problems of toxic masculinity and American exceptionalism on display in this film (and gets to the heart of why I was always rooting for Ice Man).  In some of my favorite thoughts of the book, West ponders, “How is Ice Man the villain of this movie?  Because he likes safety?  This is how America became a hotspot of a global pandemic, because my generation was raised to believe not just that safety is for dweebs, but that it’s evil.  Maverick is a full psycho, and would definitely be at the Reopen America protests—because he wants the right to get his b-hole waxed, even if he isn’t actually going to go get his b-hole waxed, and even though he knows that many thousands more marginalized and high-risk people will die.”

One slightly more serious element of the book I enjoy is its approach to Rush Hour.  Its director, Brett Ratner, is one of many creeps whose disturbing sexually abusive behavior came to light during the Me Too movement.  So how does West reconcile her feelings of disgust with her enjoyment of the film—and how can other viewers do the same?  Some of West’s thoughts include donating money to organizations that support survivors of sexual harassment and assault if renting or buying the film, and remembering the many other talented people who worked on the movie who did not abuse their position of power to harass or assault people. Or, if it makes you feel gross, just skip it. You don’t need permission to do this, of course.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there are still a couple of issues.  I personally wanted Lindy West to take on Star Wars, though simultaneously I don’t want her to be murdered by the interwebz.  Luckily, we have Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus’ podcast Newcomers for that, which is quite entertaining, if not as sharp as West’s writing.

Additionally, I know the numerical ratings are not the point at all, and a great deal of their purpose is merely to reinforce that the enjoyment of a film is deeply subjective.  Nevertheless, I find the rating system confusing.  Rush Hour gets a higher rating than Terminator 2?  Um, ok.

So what is ultimately my subjective rating of this book based on an arbitrary ranking system?

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Prom, or: The Theater, the Theater

Sequins and elaborate dance numbers have a special place in the Collab; partly as musicals feel written exclusively to lift our spirits (and ours alone), but largely because we are here for any and everything over-the-top. This week’s pick has plenty of sparkle and choreography for days–does it offer the degree of delight we anticipate from a Broadway adaptation?

The Film:

The Prom

The Premise:

After learning of an Indiana teen whose prom is cancelled after she asks another girl to the dance, several Broadway performers team up to save the day and demonstrate their selflessness as activists.

The Ramble:

In small-town Indiana, the local PTA stirs up controversy by cancelling the year’s prom–a move widely regarded as all high schooler Emma’s fault. You see, Emma is the only out lesbian at her school. When she decided she’d like to invite another young woman to the dance as her date, PTA crusader Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) lost her damn mind. Rather than refuse Emma’s request and allow a same-sex couple at the prom, the PTA responds by cancelling the dance altogether (largely to avoid being sued in a clear-cut case of discrimination).

A teen, Emma, stands smiling in a hotel lobby. The principal, Tom Hawkins, stands next to her in solidarity.

Meanwhile, Broadway stars Dee Dee and Barry are having an even more difficult time (apparently). As it turns out, their egos may be a teensy bit inflated and it’s possible they demonstrate more than one trait of a narcissistic personality disorder…which becomes painfully clear when yet another production (Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, which, for the record, I would see) is cancelled on opening night because of its unlikeable stars.

As Dee Dee and Barry catch up with perpetual chorus girl Angie and bartender between gigs (and former sitcom star) Trent, they decide their best shot to make a comeback is through celebrity activism. Learning of Emma’s cause, they tag along with Trent’s non-union tour of Godspell, conveniently traveling right through the heart of Indiana. Or whichever region of Indiana it’s meant to be.

Along a brightly lit Broadway street at night, four performers link arms and sing. Three of them are wearing sequined outfits, and one is wearing a red bartender's jacket.

Before we move on, I feel it’s important to recognize that these characters are played by Meryl Streep (brilliant, obv), Andrew Rannells (exuding Broadway energy), Nicole Kidman (looking very much the part of dancer but in a role whose purpose I don’t fully understand), and…James Corden. (Keegan-Michael Key is in this too, but we haven’t gotten to him yet.) There are a lot of problems with this film that have nothing to do with James Corden. I can’t blame him for everything. However, I do believe it’s impossible to fully enjoy this film at all if you (a) think James Corden was horribly miscast and playing an uncomfortable stereotype, (b) find James Corden smug and irritating regardless of his role, or (c) all of the above. We will revisit this later (believe we will revisit this), but I think you really need to envision these actors to better appreciate the experience of watching this film. And the extent to which it attempts to ride on their coattails.

Returning to our regularly scheduled recap: our 4 Broadway performers make a grand entrance at a PTA meeting in an attempt to teach the small-minded folks of a backwards Indiana town the error of their ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t have the intended effect. However, on the front of small personal victories, Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key, no longer dressed as a dapper yet sinister nutcracker), lifelong Broadway fan, secretly thrills at meeting Dee Dee IRL.

The character of Trent, a man wearing a Juilliard t-shirt stands in a mall, holding out his hands in shock. Behind him, several back-up dancers look on with similarly horrified expressions.

While our team of 4 is determined to make Emma’s plight into a cause, Emma herself is less enthused about being in the spotlight. After the prom is back on, she is relieved that the fight is over. Meanwhile, Barry and the others are pleased to focus on important matters like Emma’s outfit for the dance. Though her date backs out, not yet ready to make their relationship public, Emma is nevertheless excited to celebrate with her newfound friends.

As Dee Dee learns more about Emma’s story, including being kicked out by her parents after coming out as a lesbian, she also learns about Tom’s reverence for the theater. Dee Dee is herself a small-town girl still recovering from a nasty divorce. Barry shares a difficult Midwestern past too, hailing from Ohio, where he was rejected by his parents after coming out as gay.

A teenager in a softly lit room sits on her bed, playing a guitar. Her head is haloed by a rainbow decoration on her wall.

Just when things seem to be wrapping up nicely (and early!), the PTA pulls a total dick move and holds two proms: one that is “inclusive” for Emma to attend, and a real one for everyone else. Apparently the entire town gaslights Emma and doesn’t tell her the location of the real prom, leaving her all alone at the dance. With more loose threads to tie than ever before, can Barry find peace, Dee Dee and Tom happiness, an entire small town acceptance, and Emma her own form of expression to speak her truth? Phew.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Ugh, I find James Corden so smug and irritating. And not in the period drama “I can’t stand him but secretly fantasize about him emerging from a pond in a white shirt” way. I just don’t like him, his sense of humor, or the attention-seeking vibes that ooze from him at all times (though I’ve gotten quite a lot of enjoyment from “Carpool Karaoke”). He’s gotten a lot of criticism for his role in The Prom, though I’ve got to question many of the parties involved who decided to cast him too. It’s disappointing to see a straight man play a total stereotype of a gay character in a movie about fairness for the LGBTQ community. I would have killed to see Titus Burgess in this role.

Beyond Corden, there are several other major problems I can’t overlook. First, there are really two different tones the film strives for, and they are essentially incompatible. The film wants to be a satirical take down of celebrity activists who are completely out of touch with reality. At the same time, it tries to teach (an incredibly heavy-handed) lesson about acceptance. These two conflicting goals constantly undercut each other by trying to poke fun at our characters while simultaneously humanizing them. I quite like the old “Hollywood winkingly underscores its own hypocrisy” theme, but it was insufferable here. Another person I would have liked to see involved with this project? Rachel Bloom. Some of Meryl Streep’s lines already felt right out of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

My other issue here is the number of characters, and it’s never really clear who is the star. I think(?) the star is supposed to be Emma, but she’s a less interesting character than any of the members of our Broadway troupe. But even among these characters, the focus is constantly shifting, attempting to give each a satisfying backstory that will bring them to life. The result is that most of them feel like sketches, and we don’t get to see any of the supposed growth they experience.

Finally, the film’s insistence on wrapping things up so tidily and sweetly grates on my nerves. I do support the film’s message, even if it’s approximately as subtle as gay fetus holiday classic A New York Christmas Wedding (RIP, Azrael Gabison). And I think it’s important to make films about LGBTQ characters that aren’t a total downer. But I can’t wholly enjoy an ending that sweeps everything under the rug so that all of the characters can have a fun musical number at the end. It’s all very cute, but it feels empty when seriously the only thing a bunch of homophobic teens needed to change their mind was a song about loving your neighbor. FFS, even Mrs. Greene is smiling at the end and throwing hugs around after she spent the entire film bullying, harassing, and discriminating against a teenager.

What I find most frustrating is seeing the potential of this film, but then watching as it ultimately falls flat.

However, I will give this film major points for my new favorite mantra, “picture a Xanax in your hand” (though it’s really a Broadway lyricist who deserves credit there). And the costumes and choreography are as stunning as you’d expect to see in a Broadway production. As an added bonus, perhaps this will be the first film that some people associate with Indiana, aka land of Mike Pence, from now on. It gives me perhaps a problematic level of enjoyment to think about how much that would pain him.

I could see how this could scratch the Broadway itch for people missing live theater at the moment; on the other hand, I could see how another type of theater fan would regret that they didn’t simply watch 42nd Street on Great Performances (again).

Would my blog wife attend the dance with this one or immediately shut it down? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Blinded by the Light, or: Born in Thatcher’s UK

If you’ve been following news from the US in particular, but also worldwide developments in the Covid-19 pandemic as a whole, 2021 doesn’t seem off to a promising start. Unless, of course, you focus your attention on our plans for the Blog Collab. What started out as an attempt to cheer ourselves up with inspiring films has morphed into a sort of music appreciation/coming-of-age theme that we never knew we needed. Not all of our plans have worked out on the Collab, but I feel a round of applause is in order for the parts of our brain that anticipated this unintended theme was just the ticket.

Jumping back from the ’90s Midlands last week to Thatcher’s 1980s Britain (blegh), the events unfolding in this film don’t necessarily represent an improvement over the 2020s. But our film for the week does consider immigrant experiences, pursuing personal dreams, and the power of music to uplift (or at least spur on impressively choreographed dance scenes).

The Film:

Blinded by the Light

The Premise:

A British-Pakistani teen in 1980s England falls in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen while struggling to balance his family’s expectations with his dreams of becoming a writer.

The Ramble:

Growing up in 1980s Luton, British-Pakistani teen Javed’s feelings about his hometown largely comprise the urge to get away as soon as possible. Bullied and harassed by skinheads in training, resistant to his family’s ambitions, and somewhat of a loner at school, Javed takes comfort only in writing, whether journal entries, poetry, or lyrics for his bff Matt’s band.

A teen boy looks unenthusiastically at a small cake his mother is presenting to him for his birthday. His father and younger sister stand on the sides, smiling expectantly.

Javed shares opinions on few issues with his father, who pressures him to stay focused on school rather than going to parties or dating. The family agrees that Javed should attend university; however, while dad Malik insists on his son pursuing a lucrative field like economics, Javed secretly enrolls in English A levels.

During the school day, Javed receives encouragement from his teacher, crushes on political activist Eliza, and longs to be part of one of the “tribes” of students. He doesn’t realize that a small gesture from Sikh student Roops will change his life: a loan of a Bruce Springsteen cassette.

Two teen boys have an intense conversation while standing outside of the front of a school building.

Javed immediately relates to the Boss’s songs of rejection, loneliness, rebellion, and the pain of being an outsider. Emboldened by Springsteen’s lyrics, Javed decides the only way to make things happen is by pursuing them, no matter what his family says. Secretly, Javed starts on the path of writing as a career, beginning with the school paper.

Just as Javed is ready to dream big and risk it all for his future, his father Malik loses his job at the local Vauxhall factory, where he has worked loyally for nearly 20 years. Under more pressure than ever to support the family financially, Javed instead focuses on the music of Bruce, writing poetry, and getting an article published in the school paper. His goal is to attend the University of Manchester, and his new pals Roops and Eliza are there to support him.

A teen boy in a denim jacket dances with a teen girl in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor market.

But while Javed is finding his voice as a writer, Malik reminds his son to stay on track to make a decent living. What’s more, Javed’s devotion to Bruce is causing tension between him and Matt, who considers the Boss too American and essentially dad rock. And let’s not overlook the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bullies in Luton, newly invigorated by an upcoming National Front march in town.

As always seems to be the case, everything of note seems to be happening on one dramatic day: the National Front march, the wedding of Javed’s older sister, and a chance to buy tickets for a Springsteen concert at Wembley Stadium. Where will Javed’s priorities lie when he has to choose between supporting his family and following his own dreams?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really wanted to give this a 4 because it’s such a feel-good film, and our lead, Viveik Kalra, is so cute. His performance as Javed is so charming that I was always rooting for him, even when his character was making irritating decisions.

I’m also such a sucker for a heartwarming coming-of-age story, especially when it comes with a healthy disdain for Thatcherism and white supremacy. And I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I could still enjoy the themes relating to music and identity that his work represented here.

However, I found our film a bit too lengthy (nearly 2 hours) and overly devoted to a familiar structure for coming-of-age films.

I did appreciate the hell out of the commentary on immigrant experiences in the 1980s and today. Films that look back with a heavy dose of nostalgia often rub me the wrong way, but this one counterbalanced those feelings by recognizing the socioeconomic and racial tensions still haunting the UK today (and, cough, the US).

But the film’s decision to tell instead of show really annoyed me on a personal level. First, it means that the dramatic moments fell a bit flat in terms of their emotional impact. I will admit that, increasingly, my heart seems to be made of stone–though having Javed make a speech all about how he has developed a more nuanced approach to chasing his dreams while appreciating his family lacked the emotional punch needed. We didn’t actually see him go through this progression onscreen. The plot elements needed to be woven together better so that the action of the film led to this moment, rather than feeling like merely a series of events.

Another disappointment is the development of the supporting characters. I really enjoyed Javed’s relationships with his friends and younger sister, but they (like everyone else in the film) were more or less props for his story. And there was a disagreement between Javed and Matt that I didn’t fully understand–especially when it was ultimately Matt who should have apologized IMHO (though the opposite happened). I did find the romp through town that Javed enjoyed with Roops and Eliza absolutely delightful, though.

At the very least, I’m glad this film put Viveik Kalra on my radar, and I’ll be happy to see him onscreen again. I wouldn’t say no to more of those highly choreographed dance routines either.

Would my blog wife join in with this one’s all-denim dance numbers or fast-forward through the rest of the tracks? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

How to Build a Girl, or: High as a Kite

CW: self-harm

As it’s difficult to predict how 2021 will unfold (except that it will likely be challenging), it feels especially critical (or at least achievable) to determine how we’ll start off the new year here on the Blog Collab. Gritty drama? Experimental arthouse? Dark horror? Even shark films don’t feel appropriate right now, so we’re diving into waters we’ve really only dipped a toe into before: uplifting, feel-good pieces. We’re aiming for films as predictable as TV Christmas movies and as cozy as a weighted blanket.

Can we handle this long term–or at least for a month? We’ll ease into things this week with a coming of age comedy based on a Caitlin Moran novel (not that Moran herself is getting an open-ended seal of approval for all things). With our fave Beanie Feldstein starring, can our pick possibly be less than charming?

The Film:

How to Build a Girl

The Premise:

An awkward teen lands a job as a music critic for a trendy magazine, navigating the differences between career success and personal fulfillment.

The Ramble:

Johanna Morrigan, a teen growing up on a council estate in 1990s Wolverhampton, dreams of having the type of dramatic transformation and brilliant adventures of her heroes–figures like the Brontë sisters, Sigmund Freud, Cleopatra, Sylvia Plath, and Karl Marx. The trouble is, she’s exactly the kind of awkward straight-A student whose successes merely provide fodder for local bullies; in other words, she is unwittingly the vision of a 1990s heroine.

A dark-haired teen girl with glasses sits in a quiet library, looking with boredom out the window.

Though her family is full of too many siblings, a depressed mother, and a father still operating under the belief that he can make it as a pop star, Johanna’s best friend is her brother, Krissi, who is a gay Marxist armed with much cooler musical taste than anyone else around. One evening, preparing for the family viewing of Top of the Pops, Johanna’s life is set to change when her poem lands her a spot on a Midlands news program–though not in the ways she expects. An aspiring writer, her…er, quirky(?) performance on the show makes her even more of a target of ridicule, sending her to a decided low point.

In a darkened living room, a teen girl holds her younger baby brother, sitting on the floor next to her teen brother. In the corner, her father is seated at a drum set.

Luckily, Krissi is endlessly encouraging, urging Johanna to enter a competition to write for trendy music mag D&ME. Decidedly out of the loop on cool new music, Johanna opts to write with a sense of fun about “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” which earns her a surprise interview in London. However, all of the pre-hipster ironic assholes at the magazine think Johanna’s entry was a joke, and they send her packing back home with only a free t-shirt to show for it. Unwilling to accept this, Johanna reminds the writers that the piece was strong, and she can learn all the rest about music trends on the job.

As luck would have it, one of the writers is less than enthusiastic about reviewing a gig in Birmingham, so Johanna goes along instead. Or, rather, Johanna’s alter ego Dolly Wilde arrives. After the publication of her article, Johanna is an overnight sensation (at least locally) with access to unreleased singles, swag, and the power to make or break a musical act. She may even finally help her dad’s music career take off, though he’s done himself no favors by calling his band Mayonnaise.

A teen girl with long, curly red hair and a top hat takes notes in a club as she looks with intensity at the musical act performing.

Inspired by her own success, Johanna plucks up the courage to ask for an interview assignment, landing a chance to chat with rising star John Kite. An earnest lover of music and pensive reflection among narcissists and posers, Johanna winds up totally smitten with Kite…and it shows in her work. D&ME refuses to publish her fangirl piece. In order to be taken seriously again, a fellow writer gives Johanna advice she takes to heart: unleash your inner bitch.

At a small table in a bar, a teen girl with long red hair sits across from a blonde man with a velvet coat. She has a cassette recorder and a soda on the table, while he has an ashtray and remnants of alcohol in a glass.

As it turns out, this has been the key to music criticism all along. Not only is Johanna earning more money than ever before, but she’s also enjoying power at last, as her word becomes gold. But, as always, there’s a price with all of this, and that price is being an insufferable little punk. As the family depends more and more on the work of Dolly Wilde, Johanna delights in rubbing their noses in her success. She talks back to teachers, leaves school, smokes and drinks to excess, and boasts about her sexual exploits to her brother (though has no time to hear about his romantic progress).

It all reaches a tipping point when Johanna wins Arsehole of the Year at a music industry awards night but is rejected by John Kite when she confesses her feelings to him. In a race to rock-bottom, Johanna strikes back at Kite by publishing a nasty article about him, then proceeds to alienate everyone remotely still on her side. Is it too late for Johanna to make amends with all of those she has wronged?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Look, there are no surprises here. This is a coming of age story tinged with sweetness and positivity, so it’s rather predictable. That being said, I enjoyed the film and its message in favor of awkward enthusiasm over aloof coolness. Beanie Feldstein hits all of the right notes here, even if there are times when her accent is a little inconsistent.

Throughout the film, there are a lot of elements that are fun but could have been pushed further to make things more interesting. First, Johanna is the only character who really gets any sort of development at all. I really liked the dynamic between her character and Krissi’s, but he ends up being quite one-dimensional. And it’s disappointing how often Johanna fails to be there for her brother, whose experiences as a gay teen on a 1990s council estate can’t have been easy…though this plot point is glossed over.

Additionally, the concept of Johanna seeking advice from her historical and fictional idols has potential, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough to feel necessary. All we get is a selection of celebrity cameos–none of which I’m mad about, but which do nothing particularly interesting for the story. They merely underscore the extent to which we’re meant to believe that this film and its protagonist are extremely quirky.

This leads me to my final issue with the film: the handling of Johanna’s self-harm scene and its aftermath. The film’s tone in these scenes is truly bizarre, and the writing is so loose that I’m not sure if it’s being played for laughs or just poorly developed. Either way, it isn’t well done and seems remarkably casual.

What I do appreciate about the film (and the novel) is its ability to negotiate the nuances of feminism (even if its real-life writer doesn’t always do this particularly well). Johanna is funny and fierce as she navigates the very male-oriented world of music criticism at a young age. To her credit, she begins to piece things together, realizing that being a trailblazing woman amongst men isn’t enough to make her actions feminist; she says and does a lot of problematic things for the benefit of her own career (and the male gaze). It’s not automatically a feminist quality to be outspoken, especially if your words are viciously attacking others simply because you can.

Would my blog wife tear this film a new one or fangirl about it all day long? Read her review to find out!