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!