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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Black Bear, or: Tree You Later

Current events remind me that, though the undercurrent of the Blog Collab is typically feminist rage, it can always intensify. In light of an expected but no less horrific Supreme Court decision in the States, it feels like a good time to let anger take the spotlight in our film choices this month, then toast marshmallows over the flaming trash pile that is the future of a progressive society.

The Film:

Black Bear

Director:

Lawrence Michael Levine

The Premise:

As a film director seeks inspiration for a new film while staying in a secluded cabin, her hosts begin to suspect she may be playing an elaborate mind game.

The Ramble:

Following an acting career, Allison is now an indie film writer & director whose movies receive critical acclaim and not much else. Struggling with writer’s block and seeking inspiration for her next project, Allison retreats to a secluded cabin. Allison and her host Gabe seem mutually attracted to each other, which wouldn’t be a problem except for Gabe’s pregnant partner, Blair.

A woman carrying a shoulder bag walks along a wooded path with a man who is carrying her suitcase.

It really doesn’t take much scratching at the surface to realize Gabe and Blair are experiencing relationship problems, getting into minor disagreements about everything from why the couple left Brooklyn to how long the family’s home in the woods has been for sale. A major source of tension is Gabe’s musical career, which he insists is thriving despite evidence to the contrary.

A woman in a bright red swimsuit sits on a gray dock, holding her legs and looking out across the water.

Perceptive Blair has trouble understanding Allison’s intentions, sensing many of her comments are intended to prompt a reaction from the couple. Allison claims she has deliberately avoided learning to cook so she could never be a housewife, that her mother died of a stroke in front of the entire family, and that feminism is fucked up. The feminism argument is another sore spot for the couple, as Gabe insists he doesn’t subscribe to traditional gender roles yet maintains a belief that women in the 1700s were happier than their contemporary counterparts.

In a softly lit cabin room, a man presses his forehead to a blond woman's as he caresses her neck.

When the disagreement evolves into a major fight, Gabe apologizes and makes up with Blair. However, it’s less than charming when he sneaks off to creep on Allison and inevitably hook up with her. When Blair interrupts things, another fight with Gabe causes bleeding, a troubling sign still relatively early into the pregnancy. Allison, in a panic, begins driving Gabe and Blair to the hospital but swerves and hits a tree.

And that’s just part one, y’all.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Aubrey Plaza is deservedly recognized by the Collab as a deity, and she just keeps getting better as she continues to seek out rather strange, dark roles. The range from coolly calculating to emotionally vulnerable trainwreck is completely believable and by far my favorite element of this film.

Beyond that, I’m admittedly a bit out of patience for overly meta commentaries on film-making that are not quite clever enough to pay off. Allison’s trajectory is fun to watch in the beginning, but the abrupt shift in part two means there’s never really the satisfying conclusion we’re working towards in part one. I can appreciate that there’s a purpose in creating two jarringly different parts of the story, but I don’t find it as effective a technique as I would have liked.

Spoiler-y thoughts: there are some compelling moments between Allison and Gabe in part two as they enact a sort of tortured Liz Taylor/Richard Burton relationship that creates some extremely uncomfortable moments on set. It gets old, though, especially as Gabe is horrendous and terribly manipulative. I actually found the interactions with the crew and the commentary on their rather invisible role in the industry to be the more interesting piece in part two, but we don’t explore this a whole lot.

I’m sure it has a lot to do with the current nightmarish global sociopolitical landscape, but I largely wanted the simple comfort of Aubrey Plaza just mentally and emotionally fucking with people and displaying obvious joy while doing so. This sadly was not the main artistic priority of the film.

Would my blog wife scheme to make this one doubt its sanity or down a bottle of vodka with it? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Stylist, or: I’m Hair for You

Naturally, a fairly broad film category this month has us veering into horror territory. And while it’s true some prestige horror has gotten critical recognition in the past few years, don’t worry: all titles currently featured on the Collab were not and never will be award contenders.

The Film:

The Stylist

Director:

Jill Gevargizian

The Premise:

A lonely hairstylist befriends a client who is oblivious to her secret life…murdering people with hair scissors.

The Ramble:

Claire is the kind of hairstylist who gets you a glass of wine as she touches up your roots. Clearly I was not been going to the right hairdressers when that was a thing I did. Then again, Claire is the kind of stylist who may or may not scalp you, and I’ve done well from that perspective. I have a 0 tally for number of times scalped by a hairdresser.

A hairstylist cuts a woman's hair in a darkly lit salon.

As the stylist learns more about her client who travels for work, is having an affair, and seems dissatisfied with her life, Claire’s composure starts to slip. Ultimately, she makes a wig of her client’s hair by legitimately scalping her after she’s passed out from drugged wine. Claire seems eager to try on someone else’s life by wearing the wig yet is disturbed and conflicted about what she’s done. Her creepy basement reveals that Claire has a rather robust collection of scalp wigs.

A woman in a yellow-lit basement tries on a wig, which is actually a scalp.

Though Claire has her regular clients and routine visits to a local coffee shop where the barista knows her by name, it’s apparent quite early that she leads an extremely lonely life with no one really knowing her. Claire seems extremely repressed yet fixated on the marital statuses of those around her. She never does hair for weddings, but ultimately agrees to help Olivia, a regular client in need of a stylist for the big day.

A woman sitting in a booth at a bar smiles at another woman.

As the wedding day rapidly approaches, Claire becomes closer with Olivia, even considering her a friend. However, as Claire doesn’t seem to know what a healthy friendship entails, she becomes obsessed with Olivia, in almost equal parts falling in love with her client and falling in love with her life.

Though in some ways Claire wants to give up her murderous tendencies, it doesn’t take much to revive her urge to kill. When she hits a rough patch with her new bff, what will Claire do to make sure the wedding is perfect?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

It seems the question this film asks is whether your social anxiety would ever drive you to kill…and the answer is a resounding yes. The film does a great job in depicting the depths of Claire’s loneliness, though as a result she seems almost more pitiable than terrifying. We don’t know much about her besides how alone she is as a person, and that doesn’t give us enough of a glimpse into her mind to understand her behavior. I appreciate the ways Claire wants to literally try on someone else’s life…but not enough that it makes murder seem like the logical next step.

The film does well in establishing the relationship between Claire and Olivia, leading up to the absolutely excellent final scene. And I’ll give this credit for being visually beautiful–not always what I’d expect from horror. However, the slow burn just becomes slow at times, and it’s not always clear where the film is going. There aren’t quite enough of the blanks filled in to make this as effective a horror as it could be.

Would my blog wife happily take care of this one’s split ends or give it much more of a trim than expected? Read her review to find out!

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!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Cuties, or: Dance Mignonnes

It’s true that the Blog Collab doesn’t shy away from controversy–and this week’s film is at the center of one of the internet’s most intense debates right now. In response to Cuties, people have called for a boycott of Netflix and even leveled death threats at the film’s director. Netflix certainly handled the marketing of this film incredibly badly…but what about the movie’s content itself? Let’s unpack it, shall we?

The Film:

Cuties (Mignonnes)

The Premise:

As she becomes part of a competitive dance team, preteen Amy’s religious upbringing increasingly clashes with the provocative moves and attitudes of her new friends.

The Ramble:

Having just moved to a new apartment in Paris, 11-year-old Amy and her younger brother are eager to stake a claim on their own rooms. However, these plans are thwarted when their mother makes it clear that one of the rooms is strictly off-limits. What could that possibly be about?

A preteen girl looks longingly down from one side of a wrought iron fence.

Part of a Senegalese immigrant family, Amy dresses modestly and attends a weekly religious service at a local mosque. The services are quiet and emphasize women remaining obedient servants of God and, ultimately, their husbands.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Cuties, a group of girls who dress in revealing clothing, rebel against teachers, and practice extremely suggestive dance routines. To lonely Amy, the Cuties have carved out their own freedom, and befriending one of the girls who lives in her building opens up a wholly different way of existing in the world.

Two girls sit side by side in the drum of a clothes dryer.

Practicing dance routines in secret, wearing her little brother’s t-shirts as crop tops, and posting selfies from a stolen phone, Amy begins trying on an identity far removed from that of well-behaved, obedient immigrant daughter. When she learns of her father’s plans to bring a second wife with him from Senegal and witnesses her mother’s devastated response, Amy is increasingly eager to embrace her new persona.

After girl group leader Angelica has a falling out with one of the girls, Amy sees her opportunity to become a permanent part of the Cuties. Absorbing sexually explicit music videos in secret, Amy takes the girls’ choreography and pushes it to an even greater extreme with dance moves that are pretty damn disturbing. Of course, the girls are keen to adopt changes to their routine to make them stand out in an upcoming competition.

In a school restroom, four girls crowd around a phone one is holding, while another girl stands slightly apart from the group.

As Amy attempts to balance her commitment to the dance team with the demands of preparing for her father’s wedding, responsibilities begin to fall through the cracks. Enraging both her overbearing aunt and the Cuties team, Amy skips out on helping her aunt only to miss the girls’ competition tryout. Can Amy ever do enough to earn her spot back on the dance crew…and is that really what she wants?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Ignore the boycotts and general outrage about this film–those are largely down to Netflix’s own marketing and promotion. The film itself and the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, don’t deserve to be the targets of anger (and even death threats) when it comments on the hypersexualization of children rather than glorifying it. It does feel worth examining that this story–told by a Black woman and immigrant–is the subject of so much vitriol when exploitative shows like Dance Moms have aired for years with no one batting an eye.

I will say this film isn’t free of its own problems. There are scenes that don’t seem necessary, especially as there are many, many shots of the girls performing extremely sexual dance moves. A lot of these scenes don’t successfully balance commentary with the feeling of exploitation, and it’s pretty disturbing to watch them. I think Doucouré could have found a creative approach to commenting on the sexualization of young girls in a way that didn’t involve so many problematic scenes.

However, it’s a shame (if not a surprise) that internet outrage has overshadowed the film’s nuanced approaches to girlhood, immigrant experiences, and identity.

Would my unproblematically cute blog wife join this one’s dance crew without hesitation or take up a nice jump rope hobby instead? Read her review to find out!