Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Miss Juneteenth, or: Queen Me

Sad as I am to bring this year’s Feminist February to a close, I’m so pleased with the films we’ve experienced on the Collab. I truly hope to see continued changes in the (lack of) diversity behind the camera in filmmaking not only because movies directed by women of color have been some of my favorites, but also because greater inclusion & representation should be a goal in and of itself. We watched films by Black women directors this month, though rest assured: we will continue to highlight diverse directors and filmmakers throughout the Collab.

The Film:

Miss Juneteenth

Director:

Channing Godfrey Peoples

The Premise:

A single mother and former winner of the Miss Juneteenth crown pushes her daughter to follow in her footsteps, like it or not.

The Ramble:

Though hardly meeting the criteria for overly competitive stage mom, this year’s Miss Juneteenth pageant is certainly bringing out the worst of these tendencies in single mother Turquoise Jones. Crowned Miss Juneteenth as a teen, Turq is determined that her daughter Kai will follow in her footsteps. The competition secures the winner an opportunity for greatness, including a full scholarship to the HBCU (Historically Black College & University) of her choice…chances that Turq missed out on.

Carrying around a massive chip on her shoulder after being unable to attend a 4-year college when she became pregnant with Kai, Turq holds things together working multiple part-time jobs as the de facto manager of a bar and a beautician at a funeral home. Unable to move on from the past in more ways than one, Turq is in an on-again/off-again relationship with Kai’s father Ronnie, possessor of good looks but poor decision-making skills (whose character is a much nicer person in Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas!).

Because she feels constantly judged for her failure to measure up as a former Miss Juneteenth, Turq cares a great deal about what other think. Unfortunately, her obsession with appearances and rehashing the past make it impossible to recognize the self-assured person her daughter has become…one who is much more interested in dance than a pageant competition.

As Turq works and attempts to get Ronnie to pay up his share for the expenses of the pageant, she balances the perspectives of her alcoholic mother, the funeral home director who wants to provide for her, and the proud but aging owner of the bar wearied by years of fighting as a Black business owner.

While bills pile up and Kai predictably shows no interest in jumping through the competition hoops, it feels the world is conspiring against Turq’s plans. Can Turq reframe the past in time to realize what it means for her daughter’s future?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The relationship between Turq and Kai is well written and the performances are strong, capturing the power and nuance of their mother/daughter bond. Though Turq comes across as fiercely determined to outside observers, Kai knows well the insecurity at her core. It’s actually really beautiful that Kai can understand her mother so clearly despite the amount of time it takes Turq to recognize her daughter’s own identity and dreams.

Set in the context of a Miss Juneteenth pageant, the story challenges some of the rather problematic ways this type of beauty contest presents barriers to young Black women even as it proclaims to lift them up. Internalized beauty standards that connect to whiteness (which Kai memorably breaks towards the end of the film) are challenged, as well as a very narrow definition of what it means to be considered great. With the setting around Juneteenth, we as an audience are reminded that survival despite the odds against Black Americans and those formerly enslaved is itself a remarkable accomplishment.

In addition to Turq and Kai, our story is about a Black community in Texas, the multiplicity of identities represented as part of it, and broader connections to Black identity and culture. The relationship between Turq and Wayman, the owner/manager of the bar, is understated but so important as she carves out a space for herself. It’s by building upon Wayman’s legacy that Turq is able to accomplish what she’s wanted for such a long time.

The story feels strongly connected to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, also about a woman deciding for herself who she will be and on what terms. I love the ending so much, and it seems fitting for both Turq and Kai. Miss Juneteenth provides the perfect note to wrap up Feminist February 2022.

Would my blog wife crown this one the winner or eliminate it from competition before the first round? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Zola, or: It’s a Long Story (But Full of Suspense)

Based on a viral Twitter thread about a woman’s mostly true story of a weekend in Tampa gone awry, this week’s pick continues the monthly focus on films directed by Black women. This one did get quite a bit of hype leading up to its release–does it live up to its reputation?

The Film:

Zola

Director:

Janicza Bravo

The Premise:

After joining a weekend road trip to earn some extra money, waitress and part-time stripper Zola recounts how it all went wrong because of a backstabbing witch named Stefani.

The Ramble:

By day, savvy Zola is a waitress charming customers while ignoring the problematic and overtly racist things they say. When she waits on Stefani, a young woman who is over-the-top yet fascinating, Zola doesn’t realize this chance encounter will lead to a weekend on the books as one of the wildest she’s experienced.

Bonding over their disdain for fake people (later confirmed as a giant red flag) and their part-time work dancing in strip clubs, the two swap numbers and begin messaging each other non-stop. Based on her initial connection with Stefani, Zola joins her on a road trip to Tampa only days later despite rather hazy details surrounding the event. As an aside, the film incorporates texting & using social media on phones in rather interesting ways that go beyond the standard *box with notification appears onscreen.* The weekend should be an easy way to make some quick money dancing…keyword being “should.”

Along for the ride are Stefani’s boyfriend and her supposed roommate, a man who is initially friendly yet gives off sketchy vibes from miles away. The group stays in a rather seedy motel during their first night in Tampa. Or, rather, Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek will stay in the motel while the others head to a strip club. Derrek seems concerned about Stefani, waiting anxiously in the motel until meeting up with a local man who promises to show him around Tampa.

At the strip club, where tips are okay but nowhere close to the quick, easy cash Stefani promised, Zola becomes increasingly suspicious about all of her acquaintances’ motives. Learning that Stefani’s roommate X is her pimp isn’t a complete shock to Zola, but realizing that he expects Zola to do sex work that evening does catch her off-guard.

Concerned for Stefani’s well-being, and a bit morbidly curious to see how things will unfold, Zola stays around as clients from the now shut down site Backpage arrive for sex. When Zola learns that X has set a rate of $150 per transaction, which Stefani won’t even see, she insists on increasing the rate. Not necessarily to help either X or Stefani, but on the principle that sex work should be worth more.

Having streamlined Stefani’s sex work, X insists that Zola stay around and continue to make money for him. Derrek, on the other hand, is distraught. Posting Stefani’s Backpage details on Facebook in an attempt to “save” her, Derrek finds himself very much on X’s bad side.

As Zola and Stefani are sent into increasingly disturbing and dangerous scenarios in service of X’s bank account, it’s not such a much a question of what will happen, but how dramatic it’s going to get.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The chaos of the characters, their questionable choices, and the wild circumstances they’re thrown into all make for an attention-grabbing series of twists and turns. Some of the ways we examine sex trafficking and victimization are particularly fascinating. Stefani is both victim and victimizer, and her behavior as a woman who is trapped in a pattern of abuse doesn’t necessarily make her likeable. On top of this, there are so many racist encounters Zola experiences that remind us of the problematic racial dynamics between Stefani and Zola–after all, a white woman intentionally misleading a Black woman into a dangerous situation.

Taylour Paige and Riley Keough deserve the most credit for their roles in this film, depicting characters who simultaneously feel exaggerated and real. All of our leads are great, honestly, and I really appreciate the Greg Hirsch vibes Nicholas Braun is channeling for the sort of well-meaning but clueless Derrek.

If there’s a drawback here, it’s the scaled-back commentary from Zola. Her voice coming through in sarcastic commentary (much like that of the Twitter thread) provide the best humor of the film, and I wish we’d gotten more of it. Likely to let the suspense of some of the more tense moments land, the opportunity for comedy is dialed back. We do contend with some serious issues like sex trafficking and some of the extremely unglamorous elements of performing sex work, though in a more matter-of-fact than judgmental way.

I admittedly mostly follow award nominations so I can complain about them, so I’ll continue that trend. This should have gotten at least a best director nod for taking risks and telling a unique story well. There are a lot of clever scenes and camera angles focused on mirrors, image, and deception that look great on camera while underlining these themes throughout the story. I’m particularly aggravated when contrasting this film with recent releases I found boring AF like Belfast and Nightmare Alley that largely played it safe and got quite a lot of Oscar love regardless. *eyeroll*

Would my blog wife join this one for the ride or take the wheel and leave it to hitchhike back home? Read her review (at her new site) to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., or: He Bought a Jeep

Is there anything trendier at the moment than a ’90s throwback? (Maybe early ’00s.) If the Collab is known for one thing, it’s having a finger on the pulse of all that is trendy, so of course this month won’t go by without a peek back into the ’90s as we focus on films directed by Black women.

A note about the I.R.T. for those of us not in ’90s New York: I.R.T. was the Interborough Rapid Transit, one of the former operators of what would become the NYC Subway. Despite the title, there aren’t many scenes on the subway, so this may not be the film for you if you’re only in it for the trains.

The Film:

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.

Director:

Leslie Harris

The Premise:

A confident Brooklyn teenager with big plans to graduate high school early and become a doctor finds her future disrupted by an unexpected pregnancy.

The Ramble:

A proud ’90s Brooklyn girl, 17-year-old Chantel Mitchell knows all too well what people think of her and her neighborhood. Determined to tell her own story, Chantel breaks the fourth wall frequently to offer her own teenage perspective on her life and future.

Breaking stereotypes, Chantel is loud and bold while earning good grades and planning to graduate from high school early to pursue college and medical school. Her teachers are probably relieved, in all honesty, as Chantel is constantly getting in trouble for talking back and challenging the curriculum’s failure to adequately address slavery and racism. She has decided she won’t be stuck in her job at the corner store forever or end up like her parents, stressed and struggling to make a living.

In many ways, the future feels like a long way off for Chantel, and nothing will stop her from chilling with her friends and dancing with all of the cute guys at parties. So though she’s a smart & precocious young woman, Chantel is a teenager who acts impulsively and without all of the facts. In a commentary on the lack of sex education in the States (which has not significantly improved), Chantel and her friends believe a number of complete myths, such as having sex standing up makes it impossible to get pregnant.

It’s in this context that Chantel ditches her not-quite-boyfriend Gerard and takes an interest in self-assured Ty, who has a Jeep, aka a way for Chantel to avoid remaining another girl on the IRT. When Chantel has unprotected sex with Ty, it’s not long before she realizes she’s pregnant. In denial and anxious about her future, Chantel decides to keep things a secret and not make a choice about her pregnancy.

However, surely keeping her pregnancy hidden will only be possible for a rather limited amount of time?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Director Leslie Harris’ vision was to film the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman at a time when this type of narrative received so little attention or acclaim. Based on the lack of funding for any future Harris ventures, it seems little has changed in filmmaking. In addition to the director’s vision, I love the ’90s fashions and the bold, unapologetic tone of Chantel’s character.

What makes this film feel uneven at times is the tension between two approaches here: that of celebrating Chantel’s coming-of-age and portraying her life realistically. I appreciate the film’s hopeful tone, which embraces Chantel’s tough persona and recognizes her as a determined yet flawed teenager. It’s refreshing to see her self-assuredness onscreen, including when she claps back with facts about the problematic whitewashing of history.

The tone shifts quite significantly when Chantel realizes she’s pregnant and tries to hide from this reality. Structural problems surrounding the lack of education and resources for sexual health have a real impact on Chantel’s life. The pregnancy morphs from scary to absolutely horrifying when she goes into labor prematurely and frantically searches for answers much too late. Shifting from Chantel’s confidence to horror to hope makes the last third in particular feel jarring.

Harris’ commitment to telling a realistic story that breaks down stereotypes and celebrates the everyday lives and survival of Black characters seems to be a major reason her film didn’t gain much traction despite recognition at Sundance. It’s frustrating that she’s been unable to make a film since, as my sense from Just Another Girl is that Harris has significantly more creative storytelling up her sleeve.

Would my blog wife cruise around the city with this one in the passenger seat or make it take the train? 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

Jean of the Joneses, or: Bury Your Secrets

February brings the opportunity to observe multiple celebrations on the Collab: Black History Month & Feminist February! Rather than choose one, we’ve opted to embrace both of these elements in this month’s theme, which will highlight Black women filmmakers. Kicking off the month is a film by a multi-talented writer & director who I presume is going to have the descriptor “Oscar-winning” in front of her name someday. Hmmmm…if the Oscars can get its shit together.

The Film:

Jean of the Joneses

Director:

Stella Meghie

The Premise:

When her long-absent grandfather dies, Jean begins to uncover secrets that threaten to disrupt the already dysfunctional Jones family.

The Ramble:

Despite showing great promise as a young writer upon the publication of her first novel, Jean Jones’ life has been rather meandering since. After her live-in boyfriend suggests they take a break, Jean has no choice but to plead with the women of her Jamaican-American family to take pity on her.

At the same time, Jones family life is about to implode as the bunch gathers for dinner at grandma’s, only to be interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man, who promptly dies. Jean seems to be the only member of the family willing to help the man, taking an ambulance trip with his body and fatefully meeting paramedic Roy. Surprisingly (but also not at all), the man turns out to be absentee patriarch of the family and Jean’s grandfather, Gordan.

It should be noted that everyone in Jean’s family has opinions, and they’re usually quite critical. While Jean is shocked over her grandfather’s sudden reappearance and death, her grandmother Daphne is merely annoyed he inconvenienced her by dying on her doorstep.

Meanwhile, Jean learns that her favorite aunt Anne is pregnant with a doctor’s child. Because Anne knows the doctor doesn’t care about her or the news at all, she decides to have an abortion. Though in need of some emotional support, Anne has not the patience for Jean’s messy lifestyle, sending her to stay with her frequently difficult and cutting mother.

While rotating between her relative’s homes, Jean learns more and more family secrets, including where her grandfather has been for the past 20+ years, how many new undisclosed family members she has(!), and exactly who knew which secrets & for how long. Oh, the scandal, dished out with appropriate levels of bitterness and sarcasm! Jean is harboring secrets of her own as she stalks her ex and pursues an on-again/off-again casual fling with Roy.

Appropriately, things all come to the surface at Gordan’s funeral service. After so much strain, will the family bond survive?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The characters and their relationships are at the core of this story, and they keep things compelling. I think the subtle approach works very well here–despite all of the shocking revelations, the Jones women by and large have realistic reactions rather than melodramatic soap opera-style stares. Their love language is definitely sarcasm, and the ways this is both frustrating and endearing to Jean comes across well.

Possibly because I’m tired of living in pandemic-induced limbo, there are times when watching Jean’s indecisiveness is frustrating. She’s (probably eternally) relatable as a 20-something character trying to get her shit together and failing miserably…and the film is necessarily a story of her growth. Even so, I really wanted her to give up on her ex way earlier and stop being so rude to Roy. She also reveals someone else’s secret to the family in a fashion that I find pretty sketchy, and this is just glossed over.

One other criticism: there’s a lot of family and personal drama happening here, which makes some of the elements of the plot feel rushed or not fully explored. In particular, I don’t really understand the choices Anne makes, though her relationship with Jean is one of the most heartfelt of the film. Roy doesn’t always feel like a necessary character, to be honest, but he’s so charming that I won’t complain too much.

Overall, this is an insightful look at family grief and dysfunction that feels real yet hopeful.

Would my blog wife give this one a nice burial in a mahogany casket or let it rot away in a cardboard box? Find out in her review!

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!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

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

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

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

The Film:

I Am Not an Easy Man

The Premise:

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

The Ramble:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

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

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

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

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

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

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