Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Care a Lot, or: Don’t Vape and Drive

Though I’m as eager as the next person to say goodbye to February this year (the cold, the snow, the continuation of a global pandemic), I’m a bit sad to bring Feminist February to a close. It’s been an especially great one on the Collab, as we’ve been focused on women who, like us, seem to have a bit of a sardonic perspective on humanity. Though not to the point that we would knowingly steal from people while over-medicating them to death, like a certain protagonist of this week’s film. Probably?

The Film:

I Care a Lot

The Premise:

A woman who makes a living as a shady legal guardian for vulnerable older people meets her match when she attempts to scam a woman with mafia connections.

The Ramble:

Marla Grayson is living her best life–if your definition of a good life is racking up cash through a guardian scheme, using mostly legal channels to gain control over the lives and assets of suitably wealthy retirees. Once she has power over their lives, Marla uses her connections with questionably ethical people in the medical and retirement fields to keep her clients too hopped up on unnecessary prescriptions to protest too much. Operating from the premises that there’s no such thing as a good person and working hard is for suckers, Marla is comfortably amoral–if not downright immoral.

Marla, with a blonde bob and red dress, faces a wall lined with the pictures of those for whom she is a legal guardian.

Though Marla spends a decent amount of time fending off the outraged relatives of those she cares for both in and outside of the courtroom, she’s too pragmatic to feel even the slightest twinge of conscience. When she learns of a “cherry,” a well-off elderly person with no family to intervene, Marla is all too eager to scoop up a new person to represent.

At first, Marla and her live-in girlfriend and business partner Fran, seem to have struck gold. However, things start looking a bit too good to be true when Marla uncovers a stash of seemingly stolen diamonds in her new client Jennifer’s security deposit box. And it might be a little worrying that a taxi arrives at Jennifer’s home, now essentially one of Marla and Fran’s homes as they prepare it for sale. Considering that Jennifer has had no way to contact the outside world since the confiscation of her cell phone, it’s not a major surprise to us that there are some very shady dealings going on…and Marla may finally be in over her head.

Jennifer, a dazed older woman, walks along the hallway of an assisted living facility, flanked by Fran, employees of the facility, and Marla in a crisp yellow pantsuit.

As it turns out, Jennifer is not at all the person she seems to be; in fact, she has powerful connections to the Russian mafia. Her son Roman is quite angry about the fate that has befallen his mother and is willing to do what it takes to see her far away from Marla’s care.

Initially, Roman is prepared to take the fairly mild approach of hiring a lawyer to pay off Marla. Predictably, she is after more cash than she’s offered, opting to let things escalate. And escalate they do.

Roman stands in a dark parking garage, silencing the man he speaks with. Behind him, a large SUV is parked, and a man dressed in black holds a box.

After Marla makes her battle of wills with Jennifer personal, Roman cranks the dial past 10, leading to a shootout at the assisted living facility where his mother is imprisoned. When Jennifer’s doctor turns up dead, it’s enough for former cop Fran to sincerely worry their own lives may be at risk. Just as Marla is all set to carry out a rather cunning plan to lay low with her girlfriend and their secret stash of diamonds, Roman outmaneuvers her. It’s going to be difficult for Marla to walk away from this one unscathed–will her life prove that cockroaches can indeed survive anything?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

In my opinion, this film doesn’t quite live up to its potential. However, I’m willing to give it a lot of credit for maintaining my interest throughout its 2-hour runtime–and for Rosamund Pike’s performance. The casting is very well done here; Peter Dinklage and Dianne Wiest (who I could have stood to see in many more scenes, frankly) are wonderful, but RP does the most work carrying this film. The film is visually stunning too, sort of vibrant ’60s candy colors that contrast so greatly with the grimy, disturbing impulses of its characters.

Tonally, the film doesn’t always get things right. There are times when lines of dialogue feel like they’re pulled from an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver; we are very clearly supposed to learn something based in reality that should shock and outrage us. And there seem to be 2 contradictory story lines driving the plot forward: one in which Marla is pulling off a disturbing con, and another in which she’s fighting for her life against an equally amoral opponent. There are times when Marla is facing off with Roman that I want her to succeed and can’t help admiring her survival instinct (though some of the scenarios she survived did take me out of the story).

I do like the commentary on feminism we get here. Marla probably considers herself a feminist; she objects to the everyday sexism she encounters in her life and work. However, she perfectly embodies why representation in business isn’t enough to build a more equitable world that is empowering for women; Marla is in this for herself and herself alone. She’s willing to exploit others for her own ends–in fact, she’s pretty pleased with herself whenever she tricks someone else. Decidedly not feminism.

From what I’ve heard about the film so far, the ending is very divisive. I have to say I agree that it is somewhat disappointing. First, the resolution of things between Marla and Roman is unsatisfying and too convenient to be believed. And the final scene of the film doesn’t strike me as clever, especially not to the degree that it’s meant to be. I hoped for a darker, less moralizing conclusion to the film; this one is too heavy-handed.

On a side note, know what I find absolutely fascinating and am positive will be the subject of a dissertation if it hasn’t been already? The representation of vaping in film (as Marla does this constantly), which always seems to be the marker of a reprehensible character and looks so uncool on camera, in contrast to smoking (at the very least if you’re a glamorous film noir femme fatale).

Would my blog wife trust this one with a stash of stolen diamonds or leave it high and dry with too many prescription meds in the bloodstream? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Rafiki, or: Something Real

CW: violence against women

This week’s film was the first from Kenya to feature at the Cannes Film Fest in 2018. I certainly hope not the last, but I can’t say I’ve noticed film festivals significantly diversifying since then. Because, in addition to #OscarsSoWhite, #FilmDirectorsSoWhite, #ProducersSoWhite, and #MediaSoWhiteEurocentric. It’s honestly at times a challenge to find films directed by women, let alone women of color to highlight on the Blog Collab. Can we please fund many more films created by women of color? Come on–we are currently slated to get more Transformers movies, but we can’t see even one more picture made by a Kenyan woman premiere at a film festival?*

*Though note that this film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu, is supposedly involved with an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed, and I could not be more excited.

The Film:

Rafiki

The Premise:

Teen girls in Nairobi face rejection and disdain as they fall in love despite the rivalry between their families in a local election.

The Ramble:

Just as tomboy Kena prepares to finish high school, her family implodes, making them the subject of unfavorable gossip and uncomfortable scrutiny. Following her parents’ divorce, Kena’s mother devotes her time to religion, while her father, John, remarries and is expecting a son with his wife. To further complicate matters, John lets gossip make its way to Kena rather than telling her anything directly. His reputation isn’t as stellar as it could be, especially considering John has decided to run against the incumbent in a local election.

Kena, a young Black woman, sits alone at a table near an outdoor food kiosk.

Though Kena is usually content to chill with her small (and quite homophobic) group of guy friends, someone else has been catching her eye of late. The mysterious person in question is Ziki, the daughter of John’s political rival. Ziki seems different from Kena in every possible way: her colorful, feminine style, more affluent background, and comfort with being the center of attention. However, the two share an attraction and a rebellious dream of pursuing lives that are entirely their own.

Kena stands on a rooftop next to Ziki, a woman with hair wrapped in bright colors, looking out at the cityscape of Nairobi.

Even as Kena and Ziki spend time together, they are under the watchful eye of town gossip Mama Atim, who owns the food kiosk Kena favors. As it becomes clear that the two will need to meet in secret, they carve out spaces that are hidden from anyone who may recognize them. Kena shares her dreams of being a nurse, though she has the grades to become a doctor; Ziki reveals that it’s her goal to travel as much as possible. While they don’t know what the future holds, they agree to make something real of it.

Standing close to each other with glow-in-the-dark paint smeared on their faces, Kena and Ziki stare at each other with intensity.

Despite all of the sneaking around at all hours of the night, gossip still makes its way to Kena’s dad, John. What’s more is the local pastor uses his sermons to rail against same-sex marriage. Ziki attempts to hold Kena’s hand during the service, causing their first fight. Though the two make up, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide their feelings. After an angry mob, led by none other than Mama Atim, finds Kena and Ziki together, the couple faces a brutal attack. John seems to be the only parent willing to stand by his daughter, while Ziki’s parents are determined to send her away to London.

Among so much resistance from their families and community, can the love between Kena and Ziki stay alive?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

*Spoilers below*

This is a simple story beautifully told. The colors are vividly expressive, reflecting the sweet but intense romance between our two leads. I appreciate that Kena and Ziki have endearing personalities and aspirations outside of their relationship; one of the most frustrating patterns for me in a romance-driven plot is a bland character who is merely a canvas to project desires onto.

Actually, the characters as a whole are written with the nuance to seem real and for us to understand, even if we don’t always sympathize. Mama Atim, the town gossip, is extremely overbearing and frustrating, though there are elements of her character I quite like. In the end, she’s homophobic to the point of refusing treatment from Kena, now a doctor. However, at the same time, she inscrutably reveals to Kena when Ziki is back in town–and I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. Could there be a grain of compassion in this action or is Mama Atim merely unable to resist gloating over a juicy piece of gossip?

Speaking of Mama Atim, who reflects a pattern of many of the women in our film, I do wish Kena had a single female ally. It’s incredibly touching to see John stand with his daughter at the risk of his political career. And there’s a beautiful moment between Kena and the gay character her friends constantly harass. Most of the women in our story lack the power and authority to stand with LGBTQ members of the community, instead keeping their heads down and maintaining the status quo. Ultimately, acceptance (or lack of acceptance) hinges largely on the reactions of Kena and Ziki’s fathers.

While quite a few heartbreaking and harrowing events unfold, it’s a relief that one of the film’s messages is hope. Director Wanuri Kahiu’s story mirrors the reality of homophobia and religious bigotry in the present yet imagines the possibility of open-mindedness and acceptance for the characters we grow to love in a short time.

Would my blog wife vote for this one or openly tear down all of its campaign posters? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Vigilante, or: Happy Valentine’s Day(?)

CW: domestic violence, child abuse and death

It didn’t occur to me until sitting down to watch this week’s film that we’d post reviews for it on Valentine’s Day. I can’t say this news affects me much since V-Day has always struck me as a rather nonsense holiday (sorry, St. Valentine). However, it’s perhaps a bit too on the nose for the Blog Collab that our film to mark the holiday of love involves very dark themes of domestic violence, revenge, and toxic relationships.

The Film:

A Vigilante

The Premise:

A woman seeks justice for victims of abuse by taking matters into her own hands…while holding onto her own personal vendetta.

The Ramble:

After receiving a message from a married woman living with an abusive husband and fearful for her children, punching bag heavy hitter Sadie gets ready to take action. Applying color contacts, donning a wig, and watching a speedy liquid latex tutorial, she’s certainly got things checked off when it comes to covering her tracks.

When Sadie arrives at the home of the caller (at a time when the kids won’t be around), things take a violent turn pretty quickly. Using her fists to persuade the husband to leave and never return, she first forces him to sign the house over to his wife and transfer all of his money to her bank account. Should he ever return, Sadie assures him she’s very prepared to send him to an early grave.

Sadie, a woman dressed in dark clothes and wearing a frizzy wig, stands in a kitchen, facing a woman who is sitting on a counter.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a woman who takes on these kinds of endeavors is holding onto some dark secrets of her own. Though Sadie is meticulous about keeping things free of evidence and ready for a quick departure if needed, the scars on her back make it obvious there’s physical and emotional trauma in her past. She keeps a map of a wilderness area with her, marking off locations slowly but surely. When particular sounds begin to play on her phone, Sadie has a meltdown, soothed only by a coloring page that includes the letter C, tracing its pattern repeatedly.

Sadie looks into a mirror, smudging her dark makeup in streaks along her face with bandaged hands.

Ultimately, though, very little can distract Sadie from her mission to help those experiencing abuse. Sadie attends a support group for women who have left violent situations–is this for her own benefit or to connect with people she can help? Though she seems to have a soft spot for children, Sadie intervenes to help a young boy and his brother, yet leaves them to get further support from child services (which feels like a good call and the only choice that makes sense, honestly).

In an empty classroom, a group of women sit in a circle as part of a meeting for survivors of domestic violence.

If you’re guessing that all of these clues add up to an incredibly sad story for Sadie, you’re not wrong. Sadie’s ex was the sort of bonechilling doomsday prepper/wilderness survivalist dreaming of living off the grid who probably would’ve stormed the Capitol in January given the chance. When he finally sees a way to realize his dreams of shitting in the woods and filtering water through a cheesecloth with Sadie and their son, Sadie realizes she needs to get away now or she never will. Unfortunately, she makes a tragic error, and awful trash human attacks Sadie and kills their son. With her ex missing but not declared dead, Sadie gets very little money to survive on as she cannot claim any of the sizeable life insurance policy.

Soon after a woman from group therapy worries that Sadie is throwing her life away, Sadie finally manages to track down her ex. Or, rather, her ex tracks her down just before she does. Clearly Sadie won’t go down without a fight–but will this be her last one?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I oscillated between 3.5 and 4 for this one. First, credit where credit’s due: Olivia Wilde absolutely carries this film uphill in the snow, both ways. There’s a lot going for the film beyond her performance, but so much hangs on her ability to switch between intense emotions and to let those come through in her eyes and facial expressions. On a shallow note, she has some truly excellent wigs.

What’s more is the power of the themes addressed in the film and a semi-realistic approach to the toll that abuse and Sadie’s vigilante lifestyle take on her physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It’s a relief, honestly, to see someone who has made vengeance their mission have human feelings and reactions rather than sort of flip a switch to become an emotionless sociopath (sorry, sociopaths–I know this word gets tossed around unfairly whenever someone means heartless or evil).

However, there were a few things that did take me out of the film a bit. Structurally, there are some issues here. Even though it helped to build tension, the late reveal of Sadie’s past (around halfway through the film) made the story feel a bit disjointed and a little difficult to follow the timeline. Our understanding of why Sadie is helping survivors of abuse changes, as well as the financial motivation she has to track down her husband. I think a narrative that wove Sadie’s past with her present more effectively would have made things more impactful.

And here’s my typical problem with revenge films that A Vigilante falls into in some moments: there is a point in the film where the protagonist has to fulfill their mission of vengeance of the story will not be satisfying. It’s difficult to reconcile that with the idea that revenge is a destructive, all-consuming force, so that theme doesn’t come across quite as powerfully as it should. And the last act of the film was satisfying, but I also felt conflicted about the amount of violence Sadie suffered onscreen at the hands of her husband. Up to this point of the film, the abusive acts happened offscreen, and it felt somewhat voyeuristic to watch these happen. There’s an upsetting part of my brain that wonders if there’s someone jacking off to these scenes or using them to support some twisted conclusion that domestic violence isn’t really a problem because survivors could always just kill their abuser–problem solved.

At this point, I’m not willing to give humanity a whole lot of credit.

Would my blog wife back this one up in a fight or make sure it wound up on the side of the road in a less than alive condition? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Judy & Punch, or: You Say Petrifying Forest Like It’s a Bad Thing

CW: abuse, infant death, animal death

You know, I’ve been worrying for some time that consuming dark, dismal films and TV could be a surefire way to feel even more miserable about our current world situation. There are quite a lot of days when the last thing I need is to see if it’s possible to expand the depression-sized pocket of my brain with an extra dose of bleakness.

However, this line of thinking has fundamentally failed to take into account the way I relate to the world. Sometimes (often), the only way I process darkness is to see it reflected in the media I consume. And while there is a fine line to walk here, the darkness can be a reminder that others see and experience similar fears and frustrations…and use that to make films about puppets, vengeance, and forest witches.

The Film:

Judy & Punch

The Premise:

A puppeteer seeks vengeance against her husband, an abusive man who leaves her for dead after the demise of their baby.

The Ramble:

In the village of Seaside (notably not by the sea), Judy is married to Punch, who declares himself the greatest puppeteer of all time. Once a week, the couple puts on a marionette show at a rather rowdy pub, hoping to catch the eye of a London talent scout one day.

Just like the real Punch & Judy show of old, the puppet show is violent in nature, handling themes of abuse in a hilarious(?) slapstick manner. However, the show is in good company, as its excitement finds a rival only in the periodic stoning to death of witches and heretics who have committed such reprehensible crimes as looking at the moon for a suspiciously long time. Stoning Day is essentially a public holiday, during which all of the villagers gather in their finest clothes (admittedly not all that fine) and unironically vie for the honor of casting the first stone.

At the top of a marionette theater on stage, a man (Punch) and woman (Judy) smile at each other after a successful show.

Despite the violence that permeates her world and the absence of much compassion for others, Judy does her best to care for her baby daughter, aging servants, and townsfolk in need. No one makes this particularly easy, as Punch is a violent drunk who routinely promises he’ll go sober, and even the well-meaning policeman cautions Judy against entertaining the local children with magic tricks lest she be mistaken for a witch.

Now Punch is the kind of self-serving male “genius” who chalks up all of his drunken brawls and frat bro behavior to being a tortured artist. He can’t possibly be expected to have patience with his ailing servants, take care of his daughter for even an hour, or cut back on the violence in the show–not when everything he does is a matter of the creative spirit moving him.

A blonde woman (Judy) stands in a crowd of people in period costume, holding a rock in one hand and a baby with her other arm.

Even with all of these drawbacks to life in the village with Punch, it beats the alternative of fleeing to the mysterious forest on the edge of town. At least, it does until Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby for a short time. Predictably, Punch drinks to the point of passing out and reminds us all of the Parenting 101 lesson that you should never run while holding a baby.

After Judy returns and demands to know what happened, Punch callously tells her they should simply move on with their lives. When Judy has, I don’t know, a human reaction to the death of her child, Punch beats her to the point of believing she’s dead, burying her body in the creepy woods of doom.

From here on out, Punch proves he is full of nothing if not schemes. Framing his elderly servants for Judy’s murder, Punch reports his wife and child missing to the authorities. Though the local police officer argues for a thorough investigation that weighs all of the evidence, other leaders in the village dismiss this concept as radical, opting for a swift public hanging. You know, to make sure people don’t get bored.

Meanwhile, Judy’s dead body is decomposing in the forest…or is it? Obviously not. Several children who are part of a group of heretics living in the woods find Judy, delivering her to Dr. Goodtime, a woman who was barred from practicing medicine in the village. The doctor revives Judy, who remembers with a scream of rage all of the ways she has been wronged.

In a heavily wooded forest, a group primarily made up of women gathers around the body of an unconscious woman whose face is covered in blood.

While Judy adjusts to life in the forest and her new adopted family, it is her anger that fuels her. Dr. Goodtime warns Judy that she will eventually have to choose either to stay with the nomadic heretics or allow vengeance to consume her…and you can guess how well that goes over.

As the date of the execution draws nearer, Punch grows increasingly paranoid even as he is determined to revitalize the puppet show that owed much of its success to Judy’s organization and skill with the marionette. Can Judy help her former servants escape a death sentence, make Punch suffer for his crimes, and hold onto her newfound sense of belonging?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

My first 4 star review of 2021 reminds us to lean into the darkness. As my incredible blog wife and I discussed in detail, upbeat, feel-good pieces aren’t the kind of antidote we need in troubling times. Finding a film that reflects a bitter view of reality brings us the comfort of connecting with a kindred spirit.

I won’t say this film is free of problems. For a film that’s driven by Judy’s quest for revenge, Punch gets a lot of screen time. In some ways, his constant presence makes us really root for his comeuppance; at other points, it feels like the amount of attention he gets reinforces the problematic dynamic between the characters. Punch gets to dominate the screen and take away time that could have been more interestingly spent exploring Judy’s character or the lifestyle and dynamics of the group of heretics.

Additionally, there are some things that are wrapped up a bit too neatly. Judy gives an impassioned speech at the end of the story that seems to radically change how the villagers perceive outsiders. Not buying it. And speaking of groups on the fringes of society, it’s a bit convenient that we hear about the challenges of the heretics’ nomadic lifestyle with perhaps 20 minutes left of the film…and manage to get a satisfying conclusion to this dilemma.

But as a whole, this was exactly the kind of film I needed at the moment. You absolutely must enjoy dark humor to appreciate this one, though it is much more of a comedy than anything else (despite the dark premise). It feels a bit like a mashup of a less violent/sweary Quentin Tarantino and Sweeney Todd with an intentionally feminist bent, more self-awareness about the nature of violence, and a huge dose of unexpected humor. There are a lot of revenge films I don’t find particularly satisfying, but I was invested in this one and absolutely dying to see a horrible fate befall Punch.

Unsurprisingly, when women have a pagan-inspired bonfire in the woods (that has nothing to do with the Klan), I’m here for it.

Would my blog wife run off to join a band of forest-dwelling witches and heretics or–silly question. But find out her thoughts on the film in her review!