Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Scarlet Street, or: Lack of Perspective

True confession:  I picked this week’s film and couldn’t remember why until I looked up old movie reviews (besides the obvious point in its favor as a film noir).  Our film this week was banned in several US cities for its questionable moral message, and one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to feature a serious crime going unpunished (er, spoiler?).  I’ve also finally accepted that I’m never actually going to watch Metropolis, and a Fritz Lang noir must be the next best thing, right?

The Film:

Scarlet Street

The Premise:

A fairly white bread man  with artistic aspirations becomes obsessed with a mysterious young woman whose main interests are money and looking aloof.

The Uncondensed Version:

Note:  One thing you just have to live with in this film is the lead’s name, Chris Cross, which works on a symbolic level but also might make you giggle every time you are reminded that this is his full name.

Chris Cross is a good little worker bee—he’s just been recognized for 25 years of loyal service by his boss, cares for his wife Adele, and looks upon his boss’s affair with vague disapproval.  On the other hand, Chris dreams of being recognized as an artist, freedom from his loveless marriage, and the admiration of a young woman that comes so easily to his employer.  The answer to his problems seems to come via a chance encounter with a young woman named Kitty.

a woman descending outdoor steps wears a poncho over her dress as a man with a fedora holds out a hand to her
Perhaps the only American in front of a camera to make the poncho look effortlessly classy (and easy to use).

As Chris emerges from the subway following a sort of a work bros dinner party, he sees a violent altercation between a man and woman.  He rushes towards the scene and sort of taps him with an umbrella, which somehow knocks the man flat.  Chris then rushes to alert the police, but returns to find the other man has vanished.  Kitty, the young woman, tells the officer the man was a stranger who demanded her money and ran away.

Chris has more than a casual interest in Kitty and takes her out for a drink before bidding her good night.  Alcohol decidedly does not strip away their inhibitions, as everything they reveal to each other is a complete crock.  Chris claims to be a successful artist who goes around selling $50,000 paintings and buying works by Cezanne to hang on his wall.  Kitty, on the other hand, is very concerned about finding Johnny, though she later insists he’s no one.  According to Kitty, she’s an actress…but it’s heavily implied she’s a sex worker.

Soon after, we learn Johnny is none other than the scumbag who beat her up at the beginning of the film, and is sort of her boyfriend and pimp.  Seeing the potential for a scam, Johnny persuades Kitty to get more and more money from Chris, and she even manages to have a fab studio/apartment set up where she can live.  In reality, the oodles of money Chris is shelling out is stolen from his wife and workplace.  Surely no one will notice significant amounts of money missing.

a woman looks on as a man wearing an apron chops food for dinner
Chris does get points for excellent apron…but that’s about it.

Kitty is vaguely uncomfortable with asking for all of this money, but is very devoted to her horrible boyfriend and their schemes to get rich and settle down.  When Johnny gets the idea to sell the valuable paintings, Kitty objects but ultimately goes along with it.  Unsurprisingly, Johnny’s first attempts to sell work by a “famous” artist no one has heard of doesn’t go well…until a collector likes the paintings and recognizes their potential.

a man sits next to a woman on a bed, who is holding a glass of alcohol in her hand
Alcohol is the only thing pictured here you really need, Kitty.

When pressed to identify the artist, Johnny points out Kitty.  This complicates their scheming as Kitty must now explain where Chris’s paintings have been disappearing and why Johnny is perpetually hanging around her.  Chris doesn’t like Johnny to begin with (as virtually no living human being could) and becomes increasingly jealous and suspicious of his relationship with Kitty.  Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore his doubts and is convinced she’ll marry him if he can find a way out of his marriage with Adele.

Things finally seem to be going Chris’s way when a mysterious stranger from Adele’s past offers a clear path to ending the marriage and living happily ever after with Kitty.  …Unless, of course, the truth comes out…

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This isn’t quite up there with my noir favorites (Laura, Out of the Past, Sunset Boulevard, Notorious), but Christ, it’s close.  There’s not a single likeable character to be found, all morality is skewed, and the ending is pitch black.

The atmosphere is tense AF, the dialogue is so spot-on (Chris has this brilliant line about how he never could manage perspective that is too fucking real), and the acting is quite subtle considering the high melodrama involved in the plot.

My biggest complaint is that Kitty isn’t quite as cool as I wanted her to be–I found myself wishing she had more agency.  All of her decisions revolved around Johnny even though he was a despicable human being.  It’s frustrating to watch a very street-smart female character make awful choices while remaining blind to reality.

However, we do get perhaps the most progressive film noir scene ever when Chris paints Kitty’s toenails (though, of course, this is also a symbol of her power over him and his emasculation).


Did my blog wife find this one mysteriously alluring or express as much disdain as Kitty’s resting bitch face?  Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Meet John Doe, or: I Protest!

This week’s film wraps up the pseudo-Christmas theme of the month and another year(?!!??!) of the Blog Collab.  If I had realized that, I might have picked something more in line with horror and/or film noir since those are the essential genres of this blog…though we still get a touch of horror from this week’s frequently too real selection.

The Film:

Meet John Doe

The Premise:

A newspaper columnist and an unemployed all-American type unintentionally kick off a political movement with the publication of a fake suicide letter.

The Uncondensed Version:

Newspaper columnist Ann is out of work and desperate to hold onto the salary that supports her mother and younger sisters.  Since she’s lost her job but still needs to write one final column, she writes an imaginary suicide note from a man protesting the state of civilization.  Fair enough, honestly.

A woman stands in front of an office door with a blank expression.
The face you make when you can’t say what you’re really thinking to a manager.

This John Doe will jump off a building on Christmas Eve to make his statement—a statement that apparently resonates with many Americans who see the letter in print.  With her job back, weekly column reinstated in the form of letters from John Doe, and a story quickly becoming headline news, Ann is determined to keep a good thing going.  She schemes with the newspaper execs to find a real John Doe to draw even more public attention.

This, of course, is Gary Cooper, who used to play baseball but is now homeless.  At first, John merely needs to pretend he’s the man behind the letters, but soon the paper and the people ask more and more of him.  As his friend the Colonel warns him, “when you become a guy with a bank account, they’ve got you.”

A man with a baseball glove crouches in a decorated room.
Movies are the only times when you should listen to the conspiracy theorist.

John gains an ever-increasing following that starts a political movement.  He refuses to identify with either major political party, so John Doe Clubs sprout up all across the country.  Buttons and signs with John’s face and inspirational messages about being a good neighbor are suddenly everywhere…which means someone will inevitably try to capitalize on the situation.  Obviously things fall apart when wealthy political wannabes get involved…which is just way too real even 70+ years later.  Damn it, Frank Capra.  Too on the nose.

Oh, also there’s a romantic subplot because it’s Frank Capra.

A man and woman sit somberly next to each other in the booth of a diner.
Yay for…on-screen relationships with zero chemistry?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is a Frank Capra film, so there’s a strong optimism underlying the story along with an idealization of the all-American underdog, and a commitment to doing right even when everyone else thinks you’re wrong.  Many of the themes and story elements present in other Capra movies are here too, but they come across as a bit rehashed and less defined.  This feels like watching the 10th or so Woody Allen movie about infidelity and failed relationships–Jesus fucking Christ, dude, we get it.  There were also a shitload of baseball references I didn’t understand.

IDK if it was a good decision to watch this around Christmas because It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my absolute favorites.  I inevitably compared Gary Cooper to Jimmy Stewart, and I just don’t think he has the natural charm and squeeze-ability of J-Stew.  Gary Cooper feels more tough and reserved like later Jimmy Stewart, but I find earlier Jimmy more fun and sweet to watch.  It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—Barbara Stanwyck is great in this.  This just doesn’t grip me like some of Capra’s other work.  It’s very possible that I’ve become too cynical to enjoy things anyway.

Would Christa stand up to the Man with this one or take the $50 and run?  Read her review here to find out!

a man and woman sit opposite each other in the booth of a diner
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Blue Jay, or: The Snow Turned into Rain

Frankly, the only connection to Christmas in this week’s film is that it’s the closest thing you’ll get to a movie adaptation of “Same Old Lang Syne,” the only Christmas song bleak enough for me to enjoy.  Chance meetings in grocery stores, lost love, and cringeworthy dancing abound.  (Speaking of songs being made into movies…I swear “Sk8er Boi” was supposed to be a feature-length movie at some point.  Just so you’re aware, Hollywood, I’d still watch that movie.)

The Film:

Blue Jay

The Uncondensed Version:

Both Amanda and Jim return to visit their small hometown for their own reasons—one is a more uplifting reason than the other’s.  While running an errand to the grocery store, they bump into each other down the salad dressing aisle (not a euphemism).

a woman in the dressing aisle of a grocery store looks over to a man
Hello…is it Greek you’re looking for?

Amanda is in town to visit her pregnant sister, while both seem to know Jim’s reasons for visiting but avoid stating explicitly what it is.  The two are friendly but awkward, as they were apparently the couple in high school that everyone thought would live happily ever after.  They are just about to go their separate ways when Jim asks her to get coffee and catch up.

Since high school, our couple’s paths have diverged completely—Jim works on houses, while Amanda is a wife and stepmother, running an animal shelter.  Jim is very emotional, having just lost his mother and sorting through her house.

Since both of our leads are willing to linger, they decide to go around the world—meaning creating their own 6-pack of beer from around the world at the local convenience store.  The owner recognizes them, so they lie about still being together, which earns them free beers!  Not a bad gig, honestly.

As the beers start flowing, Amanda and Jim get real and move past the pleasant small talk.  Amanda worries about Jim, who lost his job after snapping and beating up his uncle.  He lives in Tucson but appears to be drifting in virtually every sense of the word.  Meanwhile, Amanda is on antidepressants and dreads having to take care of her significantly older husband in a few short years.

a man and woman sit on opposite sides of a bed talking

Amanda and Jim make their way to his mother’s house, where they discover a treasure trove of romance novels, poor Jim’s high school wardrobe and diary, and some rather embarrassing tapes they recorded together.  One tape imagines their 40th anniversary together, which they decide to jokingly reenact.  This proves (1) as teenagers they had no concept of time (they’d be nearly 60 at the youngest, yet no talk of retirement.  Maybe they knew even then the horrifyingly real possibility of never being able to afford retirement) and, (2) ice cream soup brings people together.

This is followed by embarrassing dancing and drinking in the bed of a pick-up truck.  You know regretful choices are going to happen, and the two share a moment that unravels everything, turning a sweet day together somewhat sour.  Details of their split finally emerge, and both express some of the bitterness they’ve held on to over the years.  Can Amanda and Jim salvage this experience and keep a fond memory?

a man puts his arm around a woman as they lie in the flatbed of a pick-up truck
IDK, but that looks really uncomfortable, honestly.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is a very quiet, reflective, “thinking” movie, if you like.  The plot is scant, but the characters and dialogue carry the film.

I would say 4 based on enjoyment, but I had to knock off at least 1/2 of a star based on Jim’s reaction to something Amanda did 20 years ago.  It’s completely about him and shows no emotional growth.  That’s the nice thing about this film—it does allow both characters to revisit the past and grow up, moving on properly after bottling feelings about their relationship for so long.  I think that’s a bit of a weakness too, as it does at times seem our characters haven’t matured emotionally beyond high school.  But that’s true of most people, isn’t it (sort of joking/sort of not)?

Amanda’s brief but resonant discussion of depression is some of the film’s best dialogue…but I’ll be honest, the dialogue is virtually flawless.  All of it is a high point here.

Maybe Jim’s reaction at the end will piss you off less than it did me because this really is a very moving, contemplative look at the past and seeking closure.

What did my blog wife think?  Would she revisit this one or break its heart and never look back?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, or: The Star Trek of Christmas Movies

To continue the subgenre of, er, classic(?) film, and without further ado…Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The Film:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

The Premise:

Martians kidnap Santa!  Because…their children need to enjoy childhood more?

The Uncondensed Version:

The Martians are facing a real but probably not instantly resolved problem—their children spend too much time watching TV and not enough time enjoying childhood.  These Earth TV programs are corrupting the youth, turning their minds to mush…you’ve heard it before.  This is in a society in which it’s considered totally appropriate to use sleep spray to send children to sleep (that’s a euphemism for chloroform, isn’t it?!?!?!).  Martians seem to be extremely open to the power of persuasion, so when they hear a news program suggesting Mars needs its own Santa, they decide to kidnap Santa.  Obviously.

two boys in matching blue costumes and helmets stand while a man dressed identically sits in the background
Why spend time with your Martian children when you can just kidnap an elderly man to make toys for them instead?

Throwing a wrench in this ingenious plan are (1) logic and (2) Voldar.  Logical gaps come in the form of the Martians turning on their radar shields only AFTER being detected, as well as kidnapping 2 Earth children…so they won’t tell the authorities and so no one will suspect Martians kidnapped Santa Claus.  WHAT.

Voldar is definitely the main antagonist here and honestly a bit of a hero.  He tells the children to their faces their theories are stupid, and is against the whole concept of children having fun, playing, enjoying life, etc.

a man with a moustache wears a helmet with a metal attachment
Exemplifying that the mustachioed character is always evil.

Although the children escape to warn Santa (even braving a fierce polar bear and, inexplicably, a robot Voldar tries to program to destroy them), it’s too late.  The Martians use their freeze rays to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars.  This, of course, begs the question of why the fuck you even need Santa when you have freeze rays.

close-up of a person in a polar bear costume

Once aboard the ship, Santa comforts the children with a mix of dad jokes and rather sinister laughter.  What will happen next???  You know.  Believe me, you already know.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

This one regularly makes worst movie lists…with good reason.  It’s like watching one of the cheesier episodes of Star Trek:  TOS (like that one where the costume designer wrapped a dog in a shaggy rug and called it an alien)–complete with horrible special effects, cheesy fight scenes, awful one-liners, a lead male putting odd emphasis on the word “sabotage,” and a simplistic message about morality that hits you over the head with a mallet.  Also like some of the worst Star Trek eps, this is bearable for only about half of its run time.  The first half is admittedly entertaining in an utterly cheesy, campy, and cringe-worthy kind of way.

It does get darker than I expected, as Voldar tries to throw Santa and the children out of the airlock.  Maybe this is just who I am, but I was totally rooting for the villain here.  The children are ANNOYING, and Santa’s blind faith in humanity is grating.  Was also hoping for some kind of horrible Santa vs. aliens fight scene.

Was my blog wife on board the UFO for this one, or was she tempted to throw it out of the airlock?  Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Sunset Boulevard, or: Christmas Party for Two

We’re kicking off what was intended as a month of Christmas-themed classics with…Sunset Boulevard.  HEY—a Christmas party happens in the course of this film PLUS there are so many horrible financial decisions that it’s basically the story of my Christmas every year.

The Film:

Sunset Boulevard

The Premise:

Please tell me you know this.  Lie if you have to.

The Uncondensed Version:

I’ll try to keep the summary short since this is possibly THE movie classic and I really feel you need to watch this if you haven’t.  It’s so good, and Gloria Swanson’s performance makes life worth living.  This is that film about an aging star deluding herself, grooming and controlling a much younger man, and uttering that line about being ready for her close-up.

It can’t be spoiler-y to reveal our protagonist Joe’s death—for one thing, this film is 60+ years old, and for the other, the narrator tells us within 5 minutes of the beginning that the body floating in the pool is his own.

As a result, the mystery here is not who was murdered, but how, why, and by whom.  Rather interestingly, the way Joe frames his story, he offers the facts to those who want the truth.  …So that may not be a hell of a lot of people in these post-truth times (to get just a teensy bit topical).

Flashback to 6 months earlier, when Joe was a broke, unsuccessful screenwriter trying to scrape together $300 to save his car from being repossessed.  His last effort to make money honestly is pitching an original story about a baseball player who must throw the World Series, which is flat-out refused to his face by a woman named Betty, who will be important later.

a man stands in front of a large Spanish-style mansion
“I remember Manderley…”  Oops–wrong film.

As Joe leaves, he runs into his creditors and loses them by parking in an empty garage that appears to be part of an abandoned estate.  However, as Joe quickly learns, this creepy old house belongs to none other than former silent movie star Norma Desmond.  Like Miss Havisham, Norma lives in the past and, since she never appears to leave the house, she is both literally and figuratively detached from reality.  God, but she’s a fucking brilliant badass and quite honestly my personal hero.  In Norma Desmond’s words, “I AM big—it’s the pictures that got small.”

The first meeting is incredibly surreal as Norma believes Joe is there to bring a monkey-sized coffin for her dead monkey (not a euphemism).  Things deteriorate when she discovers Joe is a screenwriter and gets the question all Hollywood types must dread:  Can you read my screenplay?

an elegantly dressed woman looks angrily down at a man sitting in front of a typewriter
How can you possibly find the nude scenes for the aspiring screenwriter gratuitous?

Norma’s screenplay is a retelling of the story of Salome, starring its writer in her comeback role (“I hate the word; it’s a return”).

Joe agrees to this, but is immediately incredibly weirded out when Max, Norma’s all-purpose maid, chauffeur, butler, and provider of organ music, moves all of Joe’s belongings into the house overnight.  Their relationship gets more uncomfortable for Joe as Norma pretty much Pygmalions him with a new wardrobe, gold-plated watches and cigarettes, and moves him to the room where her husband used to sleep.  Norma is becoming dependent on Joe to the point of obsession, but Joe continues to hold her at arm’s length with a mixture of pity and disdain.  But not enough disdain to refuse the rent-free stay in her mansion or the many gifts she bestows on him, of course.

The tension amps up when Joe runs into Betty again and Norma fears losing both her return to the big screen as well as her man (admittedly something of a wet blanket).  All of this leads to a spectacular mess that is just so goddamn fun to watch fall apart and full of opportunities for Gloria Swanson to flash some major crazy eyes (and do her best Charlie Chaplin impression for some reason), which is of course swept along by sudden, dramatic music in true ‘50s noir style.

a woman dressed as Charlie Chaplin holds up a cane while a man with a duster looks on in the background

I’d be happy doing Noir 2.0 for this month—fuck, I love film noir.

The Rating:

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s a reason this is a classic.  This is a perfect movie AND a brilliant film noir with a career-defining performance from Gloria Swanson.  I don’t like William Holden at all, but that never detracts from this film in the least.  In fact, I reluctantly admit this was a good role for him as it requires a balance between being a total sleaze vs sticking to his principles, which creates some of the film’s carefully crafted dramatic tension.

That being said, Gloria Swanson is clearly the star here, and pulls off completely delusional yet sympathetic and arguably somewhat heroic.  She is the underdog here, and I think it’s impossible not to root for her return to the screen.  Hollywood has taken her youth and talent to leave her wasting away in her mansion/prison.

Serious question:  are there any other films dealing with ageism in Hollywood or ageism at all?  Advantageous, as reviewed for the collab, comes to mind, but that’s the only other movie I can think of.  I’m glad we see older ladies on the screen like heroes Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, but Sunset Boulevard’s interest in Hollywood ageism still holds up.

The role reversal in this film is great too; it feels much like the inverse of Rebecca or My Fair Lady but with a much more tragic twist, esp. re: women holding the power in a romantic relationship.  I imagine this story wasn’t intended to question gender roles at the time given its ending, but it leaves things just ambiguous enough for viewers to draw their own conclusions.  Was it wrong for Norma to take advantage of Joe’s situation, or were they both disenfranchised by the Hollywood movie machine?  Watch this film and write 500 words in response.

Did Christa think this made a big return or did it fail to make a comeback?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Grand Piano, or: Not the Nicki Minaj Song Actually (Or Is It?)

Please don’t tell this week’s film it was second choice.  I think it already knows, though—a thriller about a piano concert isn’t really anyone’s first choice, is it?

The Film:

Grand Piano

The Premise:

See above.

The Uncondensed Version:

In the concert event of the classical music scene, Tom Selznick (aka Elijah Wood) is making a dramatic comeback after his breakdown 5 years ago.  Since he froze up onstage while attempting to play his mentor’s impossibly composition, Tom’s gone nowhere near a piano, much less played a sold-out concert in NYC.  Additional point of interest:  Tom’s mentor, Patrick, died a year ago, with his fortune mysteriously disappearing shortly thereafter.  This has all the makings of an Agatha Christie—all we’re missing is a mustachioed Belgian appearing out of nowhere to make wry observations.

a man in a suit and bow tie walks backstage at a theater

Understandably, Tom is so so goddamn nervous about his return to the stage and feels unworthy of using Patrick’s piano and fears a repeat of his breakdown 5 years ago.  Luckily, Tom has his world-famous actress wife, Emma, and his bff Wayne (played by Branson from Downton Abbey whose name I’m too lazy to look up) to believe in him.  By all accounts, this evening should be a glowing return to the classical music world for Tom.

But that would make for a very short film.  Shortly after Tom begins to play, he notices annotations on his sheet music—annotations demanding he play flawlessly or else…he’ll DIE, along with Emma.  This mystery person, played by John Cusack, has planned things out very well, planting an usher to carry out some unsavory tasks, leaving an earpiece for Tom to find so they can communicate, and relying on the spectacle of the stage to help him get away with it all.

a man dressed in black gestures to another man across a theater's light rigging system
I’m not going to even comment on this fight scene.

Ultimately, John Cusack (I can’t remember the character’s name, if it’s even provided beyond “Mysterious Sniper Who Takes Music Appreciation a Bit Too Seriously”) expects Tom to play the impossible piece without missing a single note.  For someone who doesn’t seem to be musical, he has a lot to say about musicians who aren’t also composers…?  He claims to want the most perfect concert experience ever and to go down in history, even going as far to give this big pretentious speech about how this has nothing to do with money…and then it turns out to be about money.  Because of course it fucking does.

Sorry this is really spoilery, but I need to share the absurdity of the premise (which is already pretty over-the-top to begin with).  What is all of this about?  A key that will be released from WITHIN the piano which will unlock the safe deposit box where Patrick’s fortune is hidden.  And, of course, how is this key released?  By playing his composition without a single error.  Obviously.

Tom is actually pretty smart about the whole thing, playing it much cooler than I probably would have.  He’s quite good at calling bluffs…well…some of them.  There are a couple that don’t end particularly well for Wayne and his date.  He also overcomes the obstacle of not having the sheet music to the piece in a pretty clever way.  I will leave you in suspense about whether this is enough for Tom to outsmart John Cusack.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I will say this:  you do get to hear some very nice piano playing in this film.

IDK, I think because the premise seemed straight-up out of Agatha Christie, I was really disappointed Patrick didn’t fake his own death and then just sort of fuck with Tom.  If I had a protégé, that’s probably what I’d ultimately do.

a Roman-style bust looks towards a large mansion
Alternative plot twist that would’ve been acceptable:  angry bust is haunted and behind all of the shenanigans.

Also like an Agatha Christie novel, I didn’t like any of the characters in this, but this wasn’t for any real reason.  I was hoping Tom would be a bit morally ambiguous like every Christie character ever so there might be tension created about whether or not he should get out of this situation alive.  But that never happened—he remained bland as ever yet uncommonly lucky.  I ended up really resenting both him and Emma for seeming so effortlessly successful, yet doing very little to earn the money, fame, respect, etc.  Tom also seemed to have very little motivation to return to the stage, and even the sniper had a rather boring motive, i.e. money.  I just feel if you’re going to do something so out of sync with social norms, it’s rather odd to care so much about a pretty ordinary thing, aka money.

There are some truly suspenseful moments, like when we see the inner workings of the piano as Tom plays, but overall the entire movie is held back by a silly premise.  Plus the opportunity for the line “Play it again, Tom,” is missed.

However, on the bright side, Nicki Minaj’s “Grand Piano” is now stuck in my head for the rest of eternity.  And probably yours too.  You’re welcome.

Did this one play Christa’s heart like a grand piano or did she say “Play on” (or, like Nicki, all of the above)?  Find out by reading her review here!

two women sit next to each other in a bookshop
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Appropriate Behavior, or: I’ve Been a Bad Small Business Owner

Christa’s pick this week as we continue to Blog Free or Die Hard!  As a bonus, I was able to stream through library platforms and thus feel like an ambassador for library services/avoid paying for things.

The Film:

Appropriate Behavior

The Premise:

A young Persian American woman deals with the aftermath of a breakup and loss of her job while keeping that she’s bisexual a secret from her family.

The Uncondensed Version:

Shirin is having a pretty rough time.  Having just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine, she has to find a new apartment in Brooklyn on short notice, get a job, and keep her bisexuality hidden from her Persian family.

a woman stands in a dimly lit doorway wearing a t-shirt that reads "A century of women on top: Smith College centennial: 1875-1975"
This is actually a still from much later in the film, but I needed to make sure that shirt appeared somewhere in this post.

Luckily, her bff Crystal is there for her, putting up with her nonsense, listening, and calling out some of Shirin’s delusions, like the claim that she and Maxine were an “it” couple.  It’s through Crystal’s bff magic that Shirin finds one of the most hipster-y new jobs ever as a film teacher for 5-year-olds.  Pete from 30 Rock has a small role as her new boss!

Shirin seems to have a good relationship with her family, but she can’t help resenting the pressure they put on her to achieve more, and of course covering up her sexuality creates a lot of tension (she even tries to explain away the bed she shared with Maxine using Beaches).  Making matters worse, her brother seems desperate to fill the role of perfect Iranian firstborn as a doctor engaged to another seemingly perfect doctor.

a middle-aged man and woman look off-camera as a younger woman looks at them in concern
Right, that classic Beaches excuse…

For most of the film, we alternate between flashbacks of the relationship and its dissolution versus Shirin’s attempts to get over it in the present.  All of this is done with a great deal of dry, witty humor, self-absorption, and a few moments of real emotional depth.  One of my favorite moments is Shirin and Maxine fighting over who should keep the strap-on penis.  But then again, their roleplay in happier times where Maxine pretends to be a tax auditor is great too (and gives us the, ahem, sexy[?] line “I didn’t keep any of my receipts…I’ve been a bad small business owner”).

As Shirin reflects on her failed relationship, she thinks about their good times.  The two met at a party, where Shirin was a bit on the tipsy side and spoke very bluntly about her interest in Maxine.  Maxine is very smart and quite hipster-y, into LOTR but turning up her nose at Sex & the City.  But that’s not the problem with their relationship—Maxine resents all of the lies to Shirin’s parents, whereas Shirin feels judged by Maxine for not being out to her parents.

a woman in a party hat accepts a plastic bottle from a woman wearing glasses
True love = sharing clear liquor from a water bottle.

After the break-up, Shirin tries online dating, meets a woman at an LGBT rights discussion club, dates a series of hipster dudes, and has a threesome with a couple (both of whom have their own latex outfit)—all failed attempts to forget Maxine.

In her family and romantic relationships, career, and personal growth, Shirin seems to be stalled.  Will she learn from her past and those around her or continue to wallow?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The dialogue and the characters are brilliantly developed in this one.  Impressively, Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed, and starred in this film.  I absolutely adore her character, even though she’s painfully selfish, horrible at decisions, and lacking self-awareness (or at least honesty with herself).  She’s very witty and frequently uses sarcasm to cut others down when she’s feeling insecure.  IDK if I’m saying this because I was just watching Parks and Rec, but I’d say she’s got a bit of an April Ludgate vibe.

Did I want a bit more structure and positive signs of change for Shirin?  Initially, yes.  But I really grew to appreciate this film as both a realistic study of relationships with family, romantic partners, and the self, as well as a story about healing and how difficult it is to make necessary changes.  The script asks as many questions as it answers, offering hope without complete satisfaction or resolution.  It allows Shirin to grow without becoming a completely new character with a sudden sunny disposition (oops, spoiler I guess).

I feel I’ve underrepresented how great the dialogue is in this post and I haven’t made a list in forfuckingever, so in no particular order, 5 brilliant pieces of Shirin’s dialogue from this film:

  1. “I’m dead inside. Can you tell just by looking at me?”
  2. “I’m going to lie here and try to forget how it felt to be loved. Could you turn off the light?”
  3. “I’m looking for the grown-up underwear of a woman in charge of her sexuality and not afraid of change.”
  4. “What happened to you at Wesleyan to make you this way?”
  5. “You have the sex appeal of a ferret.”

Did Christa settle down and make up Beaches excuses with this one or slowly grow to hate everything she loved about it?  Read her review here to find out!

a boy tells another boy in school uniform, "In this world, you're either a wolf or a sheep"
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Excuse My French, or: Children Don’t Make Sense

This week’s film takes us to Egypt, and that universally terrifying place:  a boys’ middle school.  The horror!

The Film:  Excuse My French

The Uncondensed Version:

As our film opens, Hany is the only child in a wealthy Egyptian family.  He attends private school, where he excels academically and is quite popular.  Hany’s family is Christian, and he enjoys attending church.  He is something of an Anglophile, supporting Manchester United and imagining himself the Egyptian Harry Potter.  All seems to be well in Hany’s life until his father suddenly dies, leaving Hany and his cellist mother with very little income.

a boy dressed as Harry Potter with the caption "he's the Egyptian version of Harry Potter"
Can we get an Egyptian version of Harry Potter, though?  I think it would be pretty stellar.

Since the family can no longer afford Hany’s expensive private school, he will attend the local public school for boys, whose students are almost all Muslim.  His mother gives him 2 instructions:  1.  Don’t make friends, and 2.  Don’t talk about religion.

Hany is off to an unfortunate start, sticking out like a sore thumb when he corrects the English teacher’s grammar and points out “Hasta la vista, baby,” is not English, nor is it a line from a classic novel.

The structure of this film is a bit loose, but revolves mostly around Hany’s efforts to fit in with the other students while hiding his identity as a religious minority.  He manages to make a friend in Mo’men, though he makes a decided enemy in the form of Aly, bully and overall unpleasant character.  He is thrilled when his crush, science teacher Nelly, encourages him to develop and present a scientific project to the school.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, not a single student is impressed by such nerdy feats of engineering.

a group of boys in a schoolyard roughhouse
[Insert requisite scene introducing the shocking nightmare that is public school]
Hany is able to fly under the radar for a long time despite skipping out on afternoon prayer and hearing from Mo’men that he can tell a Christian from a mile away.  Of course it’s not until Hany gains power and popularity that things start to unravel.  Hany is named class president despite never running for the position–this school does not do elections the same way my school did.

To fit in better, Hany begins participating in prayer at school, and even enters a religious chanting competition.

two schoolboys stand side by side
I’d also like to see an Egyptian version of Boy Meets World b/c the actor playing Hany looks so much like young Ben Savage.

The situation begins to deteriorate when Hany overhears some older boys planning to follow and grope Nelly.  Typical boy, Hany advises her to dress more modestly rather than reporting the boys to the principal (RAGE).  After the incident, the boys are expelled, but the trouble is only beginning.  Kids are getting beaten up left and right, and I lost track a bit of who and why.

Shortly after, Hany’s identity as a Christian is revealed, he begins taking judo, and he deliberately antagonizes Aly.  Why and what does he hope to accomplish?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really looked forward to seeing a perspective on being a religious minority that is the majority for the US, but I felt a lot of the emphasis was on the behavior of the boys as little creeps rather than as Muslims/Christians.

Also not quite as uplifting as expected?  This isn’t really a heartwarming story of acceptance and religious tolerance–Hany’s classmates never try to be particularly welcoming to him.  However, Hany is a little asshole for so much of the movie, and deliberately bringing in sandwiches to eat during Ramadan is a pretty fucked up thing to do.  I hoped there would be quite  lot of time dedicated to Hany’s relationship with his mother as well.  Though they get along well, there seems to be a lack of emotional depth in their relationship.

Overall, I think watching this film proves irrefutably that I don’t understand children.

Would Christa share a Riesen with this one or abandon it after discovering its true nature?  Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

No Men Beyond This Point, or: No One Wants a Picture of a Man Hanging Over the Fireplace

This week’s film is a perfect example of humor that may be less than amusing after tomorrow’s election.  And another reason we deserve a simultaneously laughing and crying emoji for the world we live in.  Until then, we do what we want.  That’s right–it’s another free-for-all month.

The Film:

No Men Beyond This Point

The Premise:

This mockumentary-style film examines gender roles in an alternate history where men are no longer needed for reproduction.

The Uncondensed Version:

As the story unfolds, we follow Andrew and the women he works for.  The last man ever born, he is a second-class citizen and is relieved he is employable as essentially a mother for several families.  One of the women comments she acknowledges that convention cautions against having a man around to negatively impact her children, but she chooses to rise above this generalization.  At the same time, his maternal role is much better paid and more appreciated than women doing this work.  Glass ceiling/escalator again, eh?

To understand how this state of affairs came about, we learn about events around the 1950s, when a record number of women reported virgin births.  One of my favorite things about these sections is they are frequently narrated by a men’s history expert, who is, of course, a woman.  The social commentary is strong with this one.

A woman is interviewed in an empty lecture hall. She is identified as Ajala Bhatt, Professor of Men's History at Oxford University.

A former academic is interviewed and gives the expert opinion that there was only one explanation—all of these women were lying.  Later, tests are developed to support the stories these women tell, but initially they are shamed.

As time passes, the number of virgin births means both a dramatic increase in the female population and the undeniable fact that men and sex are no longer needed for reproduction.  Social progress is rapid–the first female president is elected, men are sent to live in separate sanctuaries, and all women’s menstrual cycles are synchronized, necessitating a monthly holiday.  Men, of course, are extremely resistant to the changes and hold a few whiny protests to demonstrate their displeasure.

Men chant angrily at a demonstration, holding a banner that reads "Male Liberation Organization."

There are down sides to this–the government stops pursuing the space program (which was played for humor, but still felt like a bit of a stretch), and women are discouraged from forming romantic relationships.  While there are still some women having sex, the stereotype of women not having a sex drive is reinforced in this version of the future.  Sadly, this man-free future is not the utopia I need it to be.

Returning to Andrew’s story line, we find one of his employers, Iris, expressing interest in him as a man.  She has painted just a few detailed portraits of him and is constantly watching .  Iris tries to brush off her work as not a big deal, claiming “no one wants a picture of a man hanging over the fireplace.”  Lines like that make this film.

A woman wearing a shirt with paint streaks stands in a studio in front of several portraits of a man.

When Iris and Andrew pursue a sexual relationship, they are shunned and Andrew sent to a sanctuary for men.  As one woman puts it, “Of course, there are still women who are attracted to men and don’t want them to perish, but they are a small part of the population.”  Coincidentally, women who don’t want men to perish make up a small part of my friend group as well.

Will Iris and Andrew shake up the new status quo, or is their relationship doomed to fail?  Maybe a bit of both?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The premise is stellar, but the execution is a bit lacking IMHO.  I’m just not overly taken with mockumentaries as a whole and wanted more time for character development and for the stories to weave together more smoothly.  The dialogue is excellent, though, and so sharp.

I will say this: I really feel like watching Pleasantville now.  But maybe an alternate version where all the men get chased out of town at the end.

Would Christa want this film to perish or would she allow it to live its final days in a peaceful sanctuary?  Read her review here to find out here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, or: I Left and Entered This World Covered in Blood

Appropriately, we’re wrapping up more-or-less sophisticated scary month on Halloween with an extremely atmospheric haunted house story.  The title is truly excellent and the actress from my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre stars.  Sometimes I feel the filmmakers have bugged my brain.

The Film:

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

The Uncondensed Version:

Beginning with a suitably creepy narration, this film is atmospheric AF—no one really owns a house where a death happened; they’re just borrowing it from its ghosts.

Lilly is a nurse who tells us she is 28 but will never be 29.  She is a hospice nurse working for a new patient, Iris Blum.  Blum is a writer of classic horror novels in the style of Shirley Jackson.  Lilly has never read any of these, finding even a few pages much too scary for her tastes.

A woman reads a book in a minimalist but pleasingly decorated room.
I have nothing to add except this shot is beautiful and I would live in this house, ghost or no.

It’s honestly kind of a miracle Lilly has made it to 28 as a functioning adult as she seems to be afraid of virtually everything.  She’s really creeped out spending the first night alone with Ms. Blum and calls a friend for comfort.  I’m not sure when this is set, but the tv has an antenna, and the only phone option is a landline, which rather ominously flies out of her hand while she’s speaking.  There are also some mysterious thumps coming from upstairs.

When Ms. Blum wakes up in the middle of the night, Lilly puts her back to bed.  Confused, Ms. Blum refers to her as Polly, which Lilly shrugs off…until it happens again and again.  Who the actual fuck is Polly? she wonders, but probably with nicer, Midwestern language.

Two women wearing sweaters sit on a bed, staring at each other.
Poker faces.

Lilly doesn’t expect Ms. Blum to live for long, but 11 months later, she’s still going strong.  The estate agent checks in to make sure all is well, and Lilly asks if the wall that has mysteriously sprouted mold could be fixed.  He’s not sure the estate will approve the expense, but he does helpfully explain the mystery of Polly, a character from Blum’s novel The Lady in the Walls.

The novel is notable for its lack of horrific ending—to stay true to the premise of Polly telling her story to the narrator, we never know exactly what happens to Polly.  However, it is hinted that she met a rather grisly end before staying even one night in the house with her husband in the 1800s.  Polly tells us she left the world the same way she entered it:  wearing nothing but blood (that line, man).

A woman in period clothing wears a dark-colored hat and looks worriedly out as she stands in a doorframe.
See also:  wearing a hat (sorry/not sorry–too much 30 Rock).

As Lilly learns more about Polly’s fate, she also begins seeing things to upset the pristine world she has created.  Dedicated to cleanliness, she almost always wears white, but marks begin to spread on her clothes and body like spots of mold.  Following the mold leads her to a box of letters that reveal a haunting truth.

Lilly does finally get a glimpse of Polly…but really wishes she hadn’t.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Atmosphere, people.  The filmmakers crush the hell out of the atmosphere on this one.  Coincidentally, I discovered the writer/director is none other than the son of Anthony Perkins, and he has the damning first name Osgood.  All coming together now, isn’t it?

But anyway, atmosphere check.  Creepiness check.  Gorgeous cinematography check.  However, what annoys me here is complete lack of explanation.  Any time it seems we’ll dive deeper into character motivations and backstories, we jump back out of the water immediately (to take the diving metaphor further than strictly necessary).  I know that’s the goddamn point of this ghost story—we are, after all, only borrowing the story.   But I still wanted to understand the characters much better than I did because I can sense they would have had fascinating backstories.

I saw a review about this film that said something about this being the most faithful adaptation of a Shirley Jackson novel without actually being based on a Shirley Jackson movie.  I could see that, especially considering Lilly’s voice as a narrator, and the masterful creation of suspense.  Very little happened, but I found myself holding my breath through most of the film.  All I know is I’m seriously ready for the film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, ok?  Listening, Osgood Perkins?

Is Christa the Pretty Impressed Thing That Lives in the House or the Pretty Nonplussed?  Find out in her review here!