Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Summer of Soul, or: Are You Ready?

Unintentionally, my picks this month have featured a subtheme of music and its power in political activism. They also connect Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of The Roots, as Lin-Manuel and his father are interviewed here (and Black Thought had a brief cameo in tick, tick…BOOM!). This week, however, our story isn’t inspired by a true story…it is a true story. Time for a documentary, the ideal film to bring up at cocktail parties and book clubs.

The Film:

Summer of Soul

Director:

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The Premise:

This documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a huge celebration of Black music and identity that was largely erased from history.

The Ramble:

When the Harlem Cultural Festival was held during the summer of 1969, it was the event for the Black community of New York City. A celebration of Black music and culture at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at a crossroads, the event was ultimately overshadowed by Woodstock. Largely forgotten until the making of this documentary, archival footage and contemporary interviews recreate the festival and underscore its significance.

Starting off with an incredible lineup from Stevie Wonder to Mavis Staples, the 5th Dimension to Nina Simone, the festival wasn’t only an opportunity to hear a young Gladys Knight’s soulful sounds (though how amazing, right?). The massive gathering also represented an opportunity for the Black community of Harlem to come together and heal in light of trauma related to the Vietnam War and political assassinations of the decade, include the fairly recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the wake of grief, it was a time when the Civil Rights movement seemed to be splintering, and the fundamental split between violence and non-violence only deepened. There was a sense that revolution was coming, and a reevaluation of Blackness was on the horizon. Some speculated that the ultimate purpose of the festival was to ease tensions and prevent a riot.

Tony Lawrence was the organizer and host of the festival, described as a hustler and schmoozer in the best sense. Through his influence, some of the biggest acts of the time performed at the festival, and the mayor of NYC at the time, John Lindsay, made an appearance.

In addition to the performances, there are some excellent interviews, including from artists and attendees. The commentary from the Fifth Dimension is particularly moving, as Marilyn McCoo explains it was meaningful for the group to perform as their music was often not considered “Black enough.” Mavis Staples’ perspective on her father’s Blues stylings and her own due with her hero Mahalia Jackson at the festival make for fascinating stories as well.

The documentary is great about interweaving cultural, artistic, and historical elements together to enhance our understanding of the festival. The crossover between Latin and African music, and Afro-Caribbean influences get attention and analysis. At the same time, we dive into perspectives on the moon landing, the heroin epidemic, and struggles for liberation in African nations at the time.

Because the festival was largely forgotten until this documentary was made, the film is both an artistic work and act of historical and cultural preservation.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Hmmmm, I’ve never felt more like I’ve written a book report on the blog than with this review. I find it much more difficult to review a documentary than other films, especially one about a time in history where I have a significant number of gaps in knowledge. There were a lot of performers I didn’t recognize at all, not aided by the fact that many have fallen into relative obscurity. Truthfully, I’m not into religion in the least, but I do love the gospel sound, and I did appreciate the songs in that vein.

What’s most impressive to me about this film is that it does a great deal to recreate the experience of being there at the festival in real time. Beyond that, it also contextualizes things so we can appreciate not only what the festival meant at the time, but the broader significance it holds. One criticism to this approach is that we really just skim the surface on certain themes and events, as the film runs slightly under 2 hours.

Would my blog wife squeeze her way to the front row or be okay with this one getting rained out? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Secret Life of Bees, or: Practice What You Peach

You know, bees on film don’t necessarily have a lot of positive associations for me. Candyman, My Girl, Bee Movie, The Wicker Man (the Nic Cage remake, of course): bees bring about nothing good in these films. Can this week’s pick save the bees, or at least their image in popular media? Either way, Feminist February, featuring films directed by Black women, rolls on!

The Film:

The Secret Life of Bees

Director:

Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Premise:

After running away from home, teenage Lily and her housekeeper find shelter at an apiary owned and operated by Black women in 1960s South Carolina.

The Ramble:

Tragedy strikes Lily Owens’ life at just the age of 4 when her mother dies as a result of an accidental shooting. After leaving behind her abusive husband, Lily’s mother Deborah returns for one day…either to collect her things or her daughter. Lily’s belief that she can live with her mother is quickly dashed when, witnessing a struggle between her parents, she accidentally fires the shot that kills Deborah.

Years later, as a teenager on her father’s peach orchard in South Carolina, Lily’s most earnest wish is to learn more about the person her mother was. Aaaand guess which topic is the very one that T. Ray has absolutely no interest in discussing? Relying on just a few hidden treasures from her mother’s past to imagine what her life was like, Lily holds on to the belief that her mother was returning for her daughter.

Though largely oblivious to the sociopolitical happenings around her, even Lily learns about the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as she watches the news with housekeeper Rosaleen. While she is fairly skeptical that the law will result in real change, Rosaleen, tired of enduring racist insults and attacks, stands up to a group of white men who harass her. When she refuses to apologize for her actions, Rosaleen is assaulted and arrested. After T. Ray makes the casual remark that one of the more vengeful men may ultimately kill Rosaleen, Lily fears for her friend’s life.

For Lily, the last straw is really when T. Ray claims decisively that Deborah never loved her daughter and merely returned to the family home to reclaim her belongings. In response, Lily busts Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two run away, with Lily’s agenda to learn about her mother always on the backburner. Stumbling upon a shop in a small town, Lily recognizes the label on a jar of honey featuring the Black Madonna and decides to seek answers there.

The apiary is owned by the Boatwrights, a family of 3 Black sisters: August, June, and May. Lily is reasonably good at lying on the spot and claims her parents are dead; though August sees through the lie, she offers the two travelers a place to stay in exchange for help with the bees.

As Lily learns more about beekeeping, she gets to know the sisters better: maternal leader August, impatient activist June, and sweet but depressed May. Lily also meets family friend and employee Zach, a young man who dreams of being a lawyer who she’s definitely crushing on.

The amount of time Lily spends with Zach does not go unnoticed by the local racists & segregationists, and things take a turn for the horrific pretty quickly. How will Lily and her newfound family endure the terror they face?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

First, the cast is absolutely the element that stood out to me before watching, and that’s even more true after. Our leading ladies Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo are great, particularly given some of the character development limitations. Because the film centers on Lily’s experiences, we don’t always see these characters brought to life as vividly as I’d like. Queen Latifah is charismatic AF in everything she does, but I don’t know if I could tell you much about her character August here except…she’s maternal? Perhaps to a degree that creeps into problematic territory?

On a related note, having Lily’s perspective drive the plot forward is frustrating. I don’t discount the psychological pain she experiences throughout her traumatic childhood. However, focusing on this pain in the narrative fails to give the racist trauma of Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters the consideration it needs. Lily seems pretty fucking selfish when she puts Black friends and family in dangerous situations multiple times because she hasn’t at all considered the impact. This isn’t really ever addressed, so the film glosses over the terror and violence while allowing Lily to obliviously hold on to her privilege.

I do give a lot of credit for the house and set design; it’s done beautifully and feels every bit the safe haven it’s meant to be. The issue with it being such an idyllic home does reflect a major issue I have with the film: as much as I want this vision of life in the ’60s South to be true, I don’t believe it. We get so close to addressing some of the heavy themes brought up in the story but then immediately back away. The story is so determined to be a happy one that it makes some of the major plot elements ring false.

Though this analysis has largely been negative (what else would you expect, regular reader[s] of the blog?), this is by no means a bad film. It’s entertaining and sweet, and refreshing to see a story involving a family of Black women building a home and business against the odds. It’s just a shame that these are supporting characters in yet another white girl’s coming-of-age story. Because Hollywood.

Would my blog wife risk a multitude of bee stings for this one or make it kneel in a pile of grits all night? Read her review to find out!

""
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Carnival of Souls, or: Ghosted

Watch Catherine Deneuve delightfully sing and dance in a French New Wave classic, they said. Finally cross off a classic sitting on the watchlist for years. Too bad UK/French relations are at an all-time low when it comes to streaming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for a reasonable rental fee. However, our misfortune turned around when we opted for another classic of 1960s cinema this week on the Collab, and it’s the best kind: a cult classic.

The Film:

Carnival of Souls

The Premise:

Following a tragic car accident and her subsequent move to Utah, a young woman is haunted by a ghostly carnival figure connected to an abandoned pavilion on the outskirts of town.

The Ramble:

When a random 1960s dude challenges you and your crew to an impromptu car race, what’s a self-respecting woman to do but press her elegant stiletto heel to the pedal? As it turns out, this is a fateful decision–the driver turns out to be rather nasty, bumping our ladies from a bridge into the depths of a river below. One of the passengers, Mary, is the only survivor as her two friends die in the accident. As is to be expected, the two men in the other car blatantly lie about the events and walk away scot-free. A search team attempts to retrieve the remains of the wreck, but odds seem low as the muddy waters leave only the classic hook on a rope technique available. This feels so old-fashioned, but I’m honestly not sure our search and rescue technology has advanced significantly in the intervening years.

A woman looks distressed as she is wrapped in a blanket, looking at the river she was rescued from. A group of men stand behind her, impassive.

Though Mary seems understandably in shock, she is determined to carry on with her pre-crash plans to relocate to Utah for a job as a church organist. Upon leaving the institution where she learned to play the organ, she bluntly tells those wishing her well that she appreciates the sentiment but she’s never coming back. What’s more, despite the expectation that music should be her passion, it’s just a job to her. As a person with an abiding yet unfulfilled desire to disrupt polite social conventions, this speaks to me on a fundamental level. I have an extreme amount of love and admiration for our girl Mary.

Unfortunately, Mary’s expectation that she can start over with a clean slate is doomed from the start as she begins seeing the chillingly pale face of a man virtually everywhere. As she drives into town, she notices a grand empty pavilion that has seen better days…just before its closure, as a carnival.

Mary will be living in a house overseen by Mrs. Thomas, which is home to only one other lodger, John…who we will certainly spend some time on later. When the pastor welcomes Mary to town and to her new role within the church, she dodges the offer of a reception by asking if it’s absolutely necessary. No, Mary. It’s never necessary. As the pastor shows her around town, Mary asks about going into the abandoned pavilion. The pastor declines as the building has been closed off to the public for so-called health and safety reasons.

A man and woman sit on a sofa, drinking cups of coffee. The man leans forward slightly, smiling, while the woman leans away.

Shortly after, Mary get to know her neighbor across the hall, John, better. When she opens the door in a towel, expecting Mrs. Thomas, she changes into a robe…with John creeping on her. Initially rejecting John’s advances, Mary reconsiders after another disturbing encounter with the ghostly pale man. When John brings her coffee in the morning, Mary learns that he may have a problem with alcohol, but this doesn’t prevent him from considering himself a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man.

Mary’s plans to acquire a new (gently used) wardrobe are disrupted when, upon leaving a dressing room, she suddenly hears nothing and seems to be invisible to those around her. Understandably upset, Mary has a bit of a breakdown and encounters a doctor, who advises her that hysteria solves nothing. Solid advice right from a groundbreaking medical research study of the 1960s. The doctor is surprisingly helpful beyond this, attempting to dissect the reasons for Mary’s visions. Channeling David Rose to explain that she doesn’t want to be close to people, Mary is relatable indeed.

A man sits at a desk in his office, looking expectantly at a woman sitting in a chair nearby. She looks down towards the ground, her expression pained.

Finally unable to resists the allure of the pavilion, Mary explores the structure at last, finding her life becoming increasingly surreal. Falling into a trance-like state while playing the organ, Mary begins playing music deemed terribly offensive by the pastor, who fires her on the spot. Meeting up with John, Mary is distant and miserable but afraid to be alone with her visions, real or imagined. After John gets fed up with Mary’s neuroses and she spends the night rearranging the furniture, Mrs. Thomas contacts the doctor. However, Mary is disinclined to seek help; rather, she’s utterly determined to leave town. But as unfortunate circumstances arise at her every attempt to escape, it seems Mary may be inexorably guided back to the pavilion. What horrors await her there?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Achieving cult classic status, our film is an impressive achievement, and its influence is massive. Many of the techniques and themes feel quite contemporary. There are a lot of moments where this feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, and I do not at all object to this. Things are legendarily low budget for this film, so we are relying heavily on empty spaces, close-ups, and quiet moments of dread (as well as dramatic organ music) to create a highly atmospheric tale. One scene where Mary’s doctor turns around to reveal himself as the ghost man is not the most surprising for its existence in so many subsequent films, but no less effective. Perhaps due to the low budget and lack of prestige, I can see how this film was easily overshadowed by Hitchcock in its time. We’ve got many of the same elements that make for a suspenseful watch, and star Candace Hilligoss looks so much like a Hitchcock leading lady.

Personally, I find the complexity of the film’s themes and thoughtfulness of its messages most compelling. There are a number of ways to interpret director Herk Harvey’s film. First, it’s an effective exploration of post-modern existential dread and isolation. Mary both seeks out and fears being alone–when she’s around other people, Mary is limited by their expectations and assumptions. As something of an outsider, she experiences a great deal of anxiety to essentially conform or die. At the same time, there are a lot of instances in which being around people is the only thing between Mary and truly terrifying thoughts and experiences, and this tension is highly effective in creating suspense. There are more specific anxieties to unpack as well, including those around mental illness, gender roles, and workplace expectations. I find Mary’s relationship to the supposedly passion-driven field of music refreshingly honest–if a bit depressing that it’s been so long that we’ve been telling ourselves the lie that work is a thing we should love.

I will say there were some limitations that prevented me from bumping up this rating a bit higher. First, there are times when the low budget does become noticeable…particularly in the acting department. Mary’s wide-eyed stares of horror carry a huge amount of the film, but some of the performances are less than convincing (except my love for the director as lead creepy ghoul will never die). I also hoped some of the elements and themes would be fleshed out a bit more and create more cohesion–there is a sense that the production ran out of money and rushed to the dramatic twist ending at a certain point. And the amount of screen time John gets is effective, but I still wish he had been written off earlier or met with a more gruesome ending. The men who do awful things in the film walk away largely unscathed–which I do feel makes a surprisingly forward-thinking feminist argument…but is still frustrating.

On a side note, I thought it was quite progressive that Mary shopped for secondhand clothes–I can think of virtually no other films where characters thrift shop for clothes unless it’s to make a point about how cool and quirky they are.

Overall, even though I love to be a contrarian, I can’t argue there’s a very good reason this film has a reputation as a well-loved cult classic.

Would my blog wife follow this one to a creepy abandoned pavilion or drive off without looking back? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or: Lord Help the Mister Who Comes Between Me and My Sister

It is Halloween Month(!), so the time feels right for an adaptation of a classic by master of horror Shirley Jackson. Brilliantly creating an atmosphere of dread, especially in her haunted old mansions, will this film uphold her high standards or will we have to say sorry to Ms. Jackson after this week?

The Film:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The Premise:

The sudden arrival of their cousin disrupts the isolated lives of sisters shunned from a small town after a tragic evening several years prior.

The Ramble:

In the 1960s, sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle Julian in the family estate, where (surprise, surprise) they have always lived. The wealthiest family in the area, whose mansion stands subtly looking down on the entire town, the Blackwoods’ popularity reached an all-time low six years ago when several family members were poisoned.

2 young women sit across from a middle-aged man in an elaborate dining room

Though Uncle Julian survived, he was confined to a wheelchair following the poisonings and became disconnected from reality through his obsession with the events that happened that evening. While Constance was accused but acquitted of murder, the townspeople remain deeply suspicious of the Blackwoods, contributing to her terror of leaving the estate. Merricat is the only member of the family who ventures into town, collecting library books and groceries for the remaining Blackwoods. When she goes out, Merricat is followed by wary glances and nasty children’s rhymes about the night of the murders.

a young woman walks down a neighborhood street, hands full with a brown bag and books

Though isolated, Merricat is content with Constance for her best and only friend. She reveals how far she will take things to keep the band together when she breaks up Constance and her fireman boyfriend. With an ever-increasing feeling that a big change is coming, Merricat performs protective rituals including burying objects belonging to her late father.

When cousin Charles arrives unannounced, it appears Merricat’s predictions of a change on the horizon have come to fruition. Though Constance and Julian welcome the opportunity to speak with a non-Merricat family member, Merricat remains apprehensive. (Plus the cat is getting bad vibes from Charles here; never a good sign.)

After Charles discovers Merricat’s penchant for burying valuables belonging to her father, he becomes upset with the wasteful practice. When Merricat directly asks Charles to leave, he refuses–and, in fact, deliberately antagonizes her. Add to this the weird cousin love vibes between Charles and Constance, and Merricat is feeling downright threatened. As their feud escalates, it seems increasingly likely yet another Blackwood will end up dead.

a man and woman stand holding hands as a girl looks on from the doorway

Just as Merricat and Charles get into a dramatic physical altercation, a lit pipe sets the house ablaze. While many of the townsfolk gather to witness the blaze, Uncle Julian refuses to leave, and Charles desperately attempts to salvage valuables from the home.

How will the sisters, having endured so much, battle fire, disreputable relations, and an angry mob?

The Rating (with spoilers):

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m going to be that amateur film critic and start out by saying the book is infinitely better. Shirley Jackson’s novel is genuinely creepy, suspenseful, and surprising. This film adaptation lacks the subtlety and ambience that makes the novel so successful. I have a difficult time believing that anyone who watches this will be shocked by the revelation that Merricat has secrets to hide about the poisonings because she acts like such a creep throughout the entire film.

Add to this the elements of the film that are unintentionally hilarious, and the tone feels quite uneven. I love Crispin Glover, but his turn as Uncle Julian is not convincing, and some of his lines–“We all deserve to die, don’t we?” especially stands out–brought on laughter when they should have been eerie. Julian mistaking Charles for the murdered Blackwood patriarch is also much funnier than it’s supposed to be.

The themes here are extremely Shirley Jackson, with no one being especially likeable. The Blackwoods are incredibly elitist, and there’s no love lost between the sisters and their parents. Charles has the power to be an ally to his family, but in the end is as manipulative as Merricat suspects him to be. I don’t even know where to begin with the townsfolk, whose cruelty and hypocrisy are unmatched and unwarranted–especially considering they know so little of the truth behind the Blackwood murders.

However, I remember Merricat being a more sympathetic character in the novel as we get more insight into how her mind works (though she is, as in the film, an unreliable narrator). This could be down to my having read the book in my teens or early 20s, and therefore possessing a considerably greater amount of patience for a moody teen. Who knows? It could be a perfect time to revisit the book and find out.

Would my swingin’ ’60s blog wife stay in this castle or sling angry taunts in its general direction? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Valley of the Dolls, or: Don’t Take the Red Pill

In a world of outsiders desperately trying to be insiders, the tensions are high, the sparkles are everywhere, and the bobbed hair flips out on the ends in perfectly groomed waves. It’s show business in the 1960s, and it takes a dedicated woman to succeed…but no one is ever too far from failure in…the Valley of the Dolls.

The Film:

Valley of the Dolls

Premise:

Three modern women of the ’60s experience the glamorous life of the theater in their own ways, yet all share shocking encounters with drugs, alcohol, and sex.

The Ramble:

Anne Welles is a modern girl who goes to the big, bad city to work for a theatrical lawyer who represents actors, agents, directors, and the like. After overcoming the hurdle of being too good-looking to work for him [insert eye roll here], Anne manages to convince the lawyer to give her a chance.

She fails in her first assignment to get diva Helen Lawson to sign her contract; Helen is far too busy getting new talent Neely O’Hara fired. Neely promptly quits when she is cut from the show, but is picked up for a telethon and then becomes a success on the night club circuit.

A woman performs in front of a group of women answering calls as part of a telethon for cystic fibrosis.

Anne, meanwhile, is determined to leave this dreadful business behind her…until she meets mega hottie Lyon Burke. Hot in a 1960s businessman kind of way I guess? It isn’t long before a dramatic towel drop scene happens between them, though Anne doesn’t think Lyon will prove to be the marrying type.

A man and woman face each other on a dark street.

Jennifer North is another young woman who dreams of the spotlight, but fears she has nothing but her looks. When she meets heartthrob night club singer Tony Polar, it’s not long before they’re married. However, Tony’s protective sister Miriam has reservations…as she’s keeping a dark secret about his health.

A blonde woman in a low-necked top holds a corded phone to her ear in a small bedroom.

As Neely’s star rises, she and longtime boyfriend Mel marry. Neely’s schedule is demanding–when she’s not onstage, she’s rehearsing or exercising endlessly. To deal with her stress, Neely begins taking “dolls,” aka prescription drugs that she takes waaaaaaay more often than recommended on the label.

Anne gets her own taste of fame when an ad exec notices her as an ordinary girl (lololololol) who he wants for a major upcoming campaign. After splitting with Lyon, who bizarrely wants to settle down and roast chestnuts over an open fire for the rest of their days, Anne ends up with the exec and with some recognition as the face of the campaign.

A woman with an elaborate up-do powders her face while looking into a compact mirror, with funky multi-colored lights around her.

While Neely is winning awards and having affairs, Jennifer receives bad news about her husband’s health, and Anne is hooking up with Lyon again. Tony ends up in a sanitarium, which Jennifer worries she won’t be able to afford. She begins performing burlesque and appears in some naughty French films to pay the bills.

To the surprise of no one, Neely’s first marriage ends in divorce. She remarries but is more dependent on drugs and alcohol than ever. This proves devastating to her career, not to mention her health when she, too, is committed to the sanitarium for rehab.

A woman with messy hair sits at a bar with a drink and cigarette, while a man leans creepily towards her.

Jennifer, meanwhile, is tired of making dirty films and tries to get the money she’s owed and leave the industry. In the end, a diagnosis finishes her career and wraps up her story quite tragically.

After Neely’s release, Anne realizes what a trainwreck she is and demands Lyon stop representing her as an agent. The inevitable affair between Neely and Lyon drives Anne to abuse prescription pills too.

Perhaps the only one left who’s willing to stand up to Neely is absolute legend Helen Lawson, who is none too pleased about her comeback. Neely is horrible to her and admittedly Helen says some petty things about Neely’s serious addiction problems, but I will always love the bitchy older woman. Team Helen all the way.

Will the dolls win out in the end?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

For a melodrama that has become something of a cult classic, there’s nothing especially interesting or scandalous about this. I do love the 1960s aesthetic and have a love/hate relationship with all of the unnecessary musical numbers.

This film also does a terrible job at establishing relationships. Our three main ladies are supposed to be friends, but there are maybe two scenes where they actually interacted in a friendly way? And I can’t think of any scenes where they were in the same room together. I was hoping we’d at least get a nice scene where they all get brunch or something.

I suppose to some degree it’s a sign of the times, but the f word gets thrown around pretty casually and it’s rather jarring. The f word that’s sometimes used to refer to gay men; THAT f word. I was hoping for our liberated ladies to be a bit more progressive…and a bit more liberated, for that matter. This film does NOT know what to do with a career woman.

The most interesting character to me is Helen Lawson, honestly. She gives off a bit of a Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard vibe, but sadly enjoys much less screen time. Honestly, so much of what this film aims for is done so much better in Sunset Blvd, which really is a shocking and intriguing movie.

A middle-aged woman with a '60s hairstyle sits in front of a mirror, holding a cigarette.
What a queen.

Perhaps the most striking element of this film is Sharon Tate’s performance, which is impossible to disconnect from her death two years after the film’s release. She’s so lovely and full of life here that it hurts, and approaches the role with a vulnerability that gives an otherwise flat character depth. It makes me sad that she’s known more widely for her murder rather than her talent as an actor, as her film career was cut short so early.

Would my lovely blog wife keep the booze and pills flowing or immediately throw them in an outdoor swimming pool? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Hairspray, or: Climb the Whole Tree

I don’t know about you, but I could certainly use something cotton candy light and sweet at the moment. In messages with my darling blog wife, we lamented that, as winter is long past, it’s no longer socially acceptable to blame all of our woes on symptoms of SAD. I choose to now blame a lack of empowering films in my life…to be remedied shortly by this week’s pick.

The Film:

Hairspray (2007)

The Premise:

A fat teen in 1960s Baltimore dreams only of dancing on a local TV show…until she becomes involved in the fight for integration.

The Ramble:

Tracy Turnblad is an energetic, upbeat teen in 1960s Baltimore who loves nothing more than dancing. Her classmates and even her mother put Tracy down for her weight, but she is unfazed; she embraces her fatness and describes herself as “big, blonde, and beautiful.”

With her bff Penny, Tracy watches the Corny Collins Show, the local cable dance show, religiously. Tracy dreams of the day she will be noticed by the show and by heartthrob lead dancer Link Larkin.

A fat girl dances and sings down the hallway of a high school as others look on.

Tracy’s mother Edna means well but struggles with her body image and hopes above all to shield her daughter from heartbreak. When Tracy gets the opportunity to audition for her favorite show, Edna is less than supportive–good thing papa Wilbur and Penny have got her back.

Under several laundry lines, a middle-aged couple dance together on a rooftop.

No surprises here: Tracy makes it onto the show and is an immediate success. Fans of the show love Tracy’s energy and sweet dance moves. Not so much a fan? Undisputed queen of the show Amber, whose mother works for the network and makes sure her daughter gets more than her share of airtime. Amber and her mother’s panic cranks up to full-on emergency when Tracy seems to be a real contender for the title of Miss Teen Hairspray.

In school, Amber does everything she can to send Tracy to detention. Boyfriend Link does not approve of Amber’s mean-spiritedness but worries about putting his place on the show in jeopardy. Good thing Tracy’s banishment to detention means an introduction to Seaweed and his little sister. The children of legendary Motormouth Maybelle, the two show Tracy how to leave white girl dancing behind and embrace black dance moves. Unfortunately, black dancers can only strut their stuff one day a week as the network’s execs far from progressive.

A black woman with blonde hair and a leopard-print dress dances and sings while others dance in the background.

Meanwhile, sparks fly at Seaweed and Penny’s first meeting, much to the dismay of Penny’s conservative (i.e. racist, religious, repressed) mother. As Tracy and Penny spend more time with Maybelle, they become more aware of the racial injustice all around them in Baltimore. When the show’s producers eliminate “Negro Day,” the one day when black dancers are allowed to perform on the show, Tracy joins the local civil rights movement and marches for integration. Link’s hesitation divides the couple and further complications develop when Tracy goes on the run after being accused of assaulting a police officer.

A black teen smiles, standing with an arm around his younger sister

Will Tracy, Seaweed, and their friends ever dance on the show again?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The 1988 film was basically a dance revue with a loose plot tying things together, so it translates to a Broadway musical (and film) quite naturally. You could not dream of a better cast (though this is largely true of the 1988 version too). Queen Latifah and Christopher Walken are my personal faves here, but Nikki Blonsky really steps up to the lead role despite not being a household name. It makes me sad I haven’t seen her in a whole lot of roles since. My only complaint is that I really wish Edna had been played by an actual drag queen or anyone even remotely connected to the LGBT community, though John Travolta does make for a surprisingly good Edna.

Because our film clocks in at close to 2 hours, it does have the opportunity to explore some of the original film’s themes more fully. Edna has a lot more depth here, and seeing her on a journey with body positivity is quite lovely. The relationship between Edna and Wilbur is wonderful, and I adore their duet.

We get a better picture of 1960s segregation and the emotional toll it takes on the characters of color too. Queen Latifah’s number “I Know Where I’ve Been” is moving and seemingly made for her voice (and is there a greater moment in cinema history than her singing about different kinds of pie in “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful”?). I also really appreciate the film’s wisdom about the importance of integration on TV; though dismissed as light entertainment, TV reached so many audiences and had the potential to send a powerful message about civil rights by integrating.

Would my blog wife dance all night with this one or step on its toes? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Feminist February: The Love Witch

Horror is this blog collab’s bread and butter, but as Christa and I have lamented, horror can be a terribly misogynistic genre.  How refreshing, then, to watch a female-centric horror about witches that has a lot to say about women and power just in time for the 2nd week of our 2nd Feminist February.  Complete with a lovely ’60s aesthetic, medieval pageantry, and harp accompaniment!

The Film:

The Love Witch

The Premise:

A young witch uses magic and sex appeal to find love and happiness in 1960s California.

The Uncondensed Version:

Elaine is a young woman on the way to start over in small-town California after husband Jerry’s mysterious death.  After his death, Elaine was reborn as a witch in a strange occult ritual (at least that’s what I gather).  Now that she has the power of love and sex magic at her disposal, she’s determined to find a man who won’t disappoint her like Jerry.

Once she settles into the new place, she befriends a neighbor, Trish, who takes her to a Victorian tea room.  It’s really bizarre and comes complete with a woman constantly playing the harp, and everything decorated with delicate cream and pastel pinks.  I’ve just really never been a pastel pink kind of girl.

In an elegantly decorated tea room, a woman in a large pink hat sits across from another woman at a table.
Clearly I just haven’t found the right pastel pink floppy hat.

Elaine tells Trish of her sordid past, which has taught her to give men everything they want in order for women to get what they want in turn.  Magic is simply a way to use your will to get what you want, and Elaine seems to have special magic staring powers to influence men.  As Trish (fairly) puts it, it sounds like Elaine has been brainwashed by the patriarchy.

Shortly after, Elaine uses her magic stare to invite herself back to a university professor’s cottage in the woods.  That, and a love potion laced with hallucinogenic herbs.  After sleeping with Elaine, the prof (Wayne) becomes incredibly emotional and obsessed with her, claiming he’s unable to live without her.  As it turns out, not an exaggeration—he dies very soon after, leaving Elaine with a body to bury and evidence to burn.

A woman stands over a cauldron, candles and pentacles covering the space around the cauldron.
It either needs more salt or more hallucinogenic herbs…

Rumors start flying around town around witch murders, casting doubt on the entire witch community.  It should be added that witchcraft is treated as just another religion in this film, with practices that look strange to the outside observer but no less valid than mainstream religions.  This begins to shift as the bodies pile up (spoiler?).

Determined to bounce back, Elaine sets her sights on Trish’s husband when he’s conveniently left alone for the weekend.  Let’s just say this doesn’t end well at all for him.

Meanwhile, the police are investigating Wayne’s suspicious disappearance and all signs point towards Elaine.  Luckily, Elaine still has that magic eye trick up her sleeve, and manages to get a horseback riding date (not a euphemism) with a detective (Griff) instead of a murder charge.  While out together, the pair encounter a group of witches having some sort of medieval pageant, including fake sword fights and songs about unicorns and goblets of joy.  Pretty cringe-y, TBH.  There, Elaine and Griff are bound together in a fake marriage ceremony, finally fulfilling Elaine’s happily ever after fantasy.  At least for the moment…  Believe me when I say the ending gets appropriately dark and gory.

A man and woman stand together in a marriage ceremony, with all members of the wedding party dressed in medieval style.
I personally prefer to see more unicorns in weddings.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The aesthetic is beautiful, and of course I’m all about feminism in films.  One of the biggest challenges in dissecting this one, however, is that none of the characters are particularly likeable.  It’s never overly clear to me whether Elaine believes her own nonsense re: men or, like magic, she’s using these lies to get what she wants.  She’s not as straightforwardly feminist as I expected, caught between wanting to assert her independence and hoping to live out her princess fantasies.  I was really hoping she would have a better relationship with Trish because I’m all about that female solidarity.

Compounding the problem of unlikeable characters is that of one-dimensional acting, which I think is supposed to be part of the tribute to ‘60s films…but sometimes I can’t actually tell either way.

The dialogue gets a bit preachy at times, hitting you over the head with its meaning.  Elaine gets some classic lines (“According to experts, men are fragile and can be crushed if you assert yourself”) along with some truly horrible lines (“I’m the love witch; I’m your ultimate fantasy”).

However, it’s nice to see a film address the complexity of feminist issues surrounding female sexuality in a world where “virgin slut” is an actual insult that can be hurled at women with no one blinking an eye.   I admit I’m still puzzling about this movie, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Would my blog wife marry this one in a fake a ceremony with this one while surrounded by witches or slip it one too many hallucinogenic herbs?  Find out in her review here!