Category: Female Filmmakers

Movie Review: Chanthaly (2013)


Seen: On my laptop with a downloaded HD file, a perk from the Nong Hak indigogo campaign.

Diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition in her childhood, 22-year-old Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) does not leave her house much. Her mother died in childbirth, and her doting father (Douangmany Soliphanh) raised her as best he could, but she has always felt the absence of a mother in her life. As an adult she lives quietly, running a small laundry service from their home with the help of her cousin, and playing with her adorable dog Moo. She starts experiencing visual and aural disturbances that might be her dead mother’s ghost, or might be a hallucinatory side-effect of her heart medication. Chanthaly becomes convinced her mother is trying to reach her, trying to tell her the truth about her death, and she gradually comes to distrust and resent her well-meaning but overprotective father.

I was initially interested in Chanthaly because of the story behind its making: director Mattie Do is both the first female filmmaker andfirst  horror filmmaker working in Laos, whose nascent film industry is small and limited. To make this movie she basically got together a small group of friends (plus her adorable dog, Mango) and set everything up at her house and just… made a movie. Which is pretty amazing. The film screened at some festivals but does not currently have any home release, so I was happy for the opportunity to receive a digital copy as a perk of Do’s fundraising campaign for her next project, Nong Hak.

Set entirely within the protagonist’s house, Chanthaly is a compelling, emotionally complex drama that employs horror tropes to emphasize the experiences of a troubled young woman. I’ll admit I was disappointed there wasn’t more actual horror–I was expecting something much scarier, I guess–but that’s just about the only criticism I have. The film plays out as a tense but evenly-paced drama as we watch the title character go about her day, confined to her house, interacting with few others save for family members and her neighbor, convinced her dead mother is trying to communicate with her, yearning for a more active life but also scared to move beyond her familiar surroundings. She is in many ways a product of a patriarchal society, with her illness acting as a metaphor for the quiet, weak role often assigned to women. The moments of horror are quick and sudden, mostly in the form of ghostly apparitions Chanthaly sees briefly in the dark. The story plays out gradually, allowing the viewer to become fully invested in the lead character’s situation and in the mystery of her visions. She believes so strongly that she’s somehow found a connection to her mother–the strong female role model she needs–that we too want to believe that it’s real, and not drug-induced hallucinations.

What really sold me on Chanthaly is the third act, when an unexpected twist completely changes the nature of the tale, but maintains the themes of love and loss. Here, the filmmakers expand upon the vague ancestral-ghost mythology that many cultures subscribe to, introducing a world where spirits reside in intensely bright versions of real homes, can implant memories into the living, and may even kill to maintain a veneer of happiness in the afterlife. The truth about Chanthaly’s ghostly visions is more complex than it seems, and indeed it is never fully explained, so that viewers may come to their own conclusions about our heroine’s troublesome visitor. It’s a fascinating prospect, and turns an already-interesting drama into a thought-provoking spiritual horror. Ultimately I was the most impressed with how moved I was by this film, likely because it reminded me of real loss, of real death, and though the film operates on a paranormal plane its handling of character and suffering felt utterly connected to actual experience.


Pair This Movie With: The use of interiors and general themes reminded me of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, which is totally scary and would make a very cool double feature.

Movie Review: Queen Christina (1933)

queen christinas

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge. Recommended by Andreas.

Inspired by the actual historical figure of Queen Christina, colorful and controversial queen of Sweden from 1633-1654, Queen Christina begins with the title character’s assumption of her throne at the age of 6, after her father is killed in battle during the Thirty Years’ War. She grows up a serious, studious woman (Greta Garbo) who feels more comfortable in men’s clothes and devotes her rare solitary hours to reading classic literature and plays. She dedicates herself fully to being a good ruler, though after years of war over religion in Europe she questions the benefits of it versus the cost. She hopes to see her country move past violent conflict and instead establish itself as a new cultural center. She is eventually pressured into marrying, which she has no plans to do, but accepts visits from various European envoys who hope to convince her to make an alliance. During a casual horseback ride before a snowstorm she is held up at a mountain inn where the Spanish ambassador, Antonio (John Gilbert), also stops, and after mistaking her for a man the two strike up an easy friendship, which leads to a passionate affair when he realizes she is actually a smoking hot babe.

Let me first say that since seeing this movie I’ve been wikipediaing the real Christina and she was a pretty fascinating, unconventional lady, and I’m into that. The movie fictionalizes and adjusts various aspects of her life, but does get some things right, and regardless of fact it’s a really excellent film. The settings and costumes are lavish, the supporting cast is good, the story moves along steadily, there’s a bit of political satire and a lot of sexual undertones, and even a pretty clear lesbian relationship (based on history). But of course it’s really all about the star. Garbo stomps around boldly, looking striking in fancy men’s clothing and cropped hair, confidently making proclamations about the future of her country and generally being a complete and utter badass. She’s just so kingly, so larger than life, and yet still real and complicated and funny. She’s an enormous presence, and the film is entirely about her.

At least halfway into the story, if not more, John Gilbert’s character is introduced, and their romance is pretty sexy (seriously, they have sex for like three days straight after knowing each other for a few hours, and it’s like, damn, medieval rich people could do it). But it’s not really the focus, it’s more an instigation for her to question her own life and experiences. She’s been ruler of Sweden almost her entire life, been at war her entire life, been at the mercy of her courtiers and advisers and military commanders, been restricted to her castle. Meeting the poetic Antonio opens up the world to her, both emotionally and mentally, as she realizes how dissatisfied she is with her life as queen. She wants to see the world, meet different kinds of people, and generally do things for herself instead of for her country. The real Queen Christina felt similarly–though her choices and options were also affected by her conversion to Catholicism–but she is often considered selfish and frivolous by people today. I liked that the film made her so sympathetic, and her actions understandable. My favorite thing, and this is a spoiler, is how the ultimate resolution sees her basically turning into a seafaring solo adventurer! Like, she’s just a woman without a man and without a country but with a shit ton of confidence and some wanderlust. Can I get that sequel?

Basically this movie is fantastic.


Pair This Movie With: I actually still haven’t seen it but a coworker who loves this movie recommended Elizabeth as a pairing, she said they just go together really well as depictions of badass independent queens.

Movie Review: Starstruck (1982)


Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, borrowed from my friend Ben.

New wave beats and a failing family pub, elaborate pool parties and DIY sequined hot pants: Starstruck takes the excesses of the 80s entertainment industry and clashes them with a working class family struggling to stay afloat financially and emotionally, all set to a truly rockin’ soundtrack. Jackie Mullins (Jo Kennedy) works as a waitress by day but dreams of becoming a hit singer, which her fourteen-year-old cousin and manager/songwriter Angus (Ross O’Donovan) tirelessly encourages. Together they connive to land a spot on their favorite music tv show, hosted by the dashing Terry Lambert (John O’May), but all their hard work may be for nothing when Jackie’s new handlers insist on changing her look, her sound, and her band. She must find a way to kickstart her career, keep her friends, and help her family, all while staying true to her own wacky self.

I feel like the older I get the more I realize that 80s movies are really the only place I want to be. This goes double for horror films and films focusing on women and alternative subcultures. As you might have guessed, Starstruck is one of the latter. Its story is familiar- talented underdogs trying to make it big as musicians is a plot we’ve seen time and time again- and so its success really rides on other factors. Light in tone but throwing in a few elements of drama to make sure you’re really rooting for these characters, it’s a candy-colored rock musical with a low-budget air that soars on the likability of its actors and the super-catchiness of its soundtrack. (I have seriously been singing “Temper, Temper” all weekend.) The script is funny and a little kooky, throwing together low-brow humor with a bit of industry satire. The wild costumes and attitudes sported by our musical protagonists suggest a cool, fun, street-smart, gives-no-shit type of youth that I wish I was when I was a teenager.

I love the relationship between Jackie and Angus, who have a mix of sibling affection, professional teamwork, and age-difference frustrations. They’re both super cute individually, and the effect is multiplied when they’re together. Jo Kennedy has this awesomely bizarre stage presence, jerking around wildly with wide-eyed facial expressions, while remaining powerful and sexy. At first I thought the adorable Angus was meant to be read as gay- he’s shown as uninterested in sports and unpopular in school because of his fashion choices, and he seems to be holding up Jackie’s stage persona as a kind of role model or icon for himself. The film ends with him making out with a hot female stranger sooo my initial assumptions were kind of counteracted, but I definitely think it’s still a relevant deduction. Interestingly, there is a notable gay character in the film, the popular tv host Terry, and he’s not presented as a stereotype or villain, just a guy. He even gets in a great homoerotic dance number that pokes fun at limited perceptions of masculinity.

I love the characters, script, and music, but visually and aurally, Starstruck is already everything I could want. Big hair, big costumes, neon lights, so much taffeta, quick-cut music video editing, synthesizers, tight-rope walking, robotic choreography (with a bit of Busby Berkeley thrown in), cute boys, bedrooms plastered with magazine clippings and band posters, a van with a recliner on its roof. And if that doesn’t sound like a perfect movie already, there’s also a psychic grandma. And you know I love grandmas.

I’m gonna go watch it again.


Pair This Movie With: A fun counterpart is definitely Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s feature debut from the same year. It portrays a similar underground music culture full of surface-cool young people, but unlike in Starstruck, its protagonist isn’t talented. She’s just a hanger-on. And everyone is a lot meaner in general because it’s set in New York.

Movie Review: Ravenous (1999)


Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

After a display of cowardice that accidentally lands him a promotion and a medal during the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is assigned to an isolated military outpost in the rugged mountains of northern California. His fellow soldiers are all outcasts- inept, drunk, and/or wild- so he resigns himself to a quiet life of seclusion while he continues to process his battlefield trauma. One night, a half-crazed man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) wanders into their fort with a story of his traveling party stranded in the mountains at the mercy of a cannibalistic colonel. Boyd and his commanding officer, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), lead a small party to the cave where Colqhoun says he and the others were forced to eat fallen men to stay alive during a prolonged storm. But upon their arrival, they realize that nothing is what it seems, and in a fight for survival Boyd must question his own sanity.

I first heard about this movie several months ago, when director Antonia Bird passed away from cancer and a lot of film writers were coming out to talk about it. Still passionately endeavoring to watch tons of horror films, I held Ravenous as a priority, especially as it’s one of the few I knew of directed by a woman. Turns out it’s also one of the most impeccable horror-thrillers I’ve seen. It’s the kind of film best watched without knowing too much about it, I think, so you might be best served to go watch it right now before reading ahead, I may get a little spoilery.

It starts out as a sort of wartime-tragedy-by-way-of-black-comedy, with Boyd suffering from memories of his experiences sneaking over enemy lines by playing dead and then being buried in a heap of his fallen comrades, their blood literally dripping into his mouth. His introduction to Fort Spencer is a comical turn, as he silently meets a host of misfits- including Cutest Man™ Jeremy Davies as a shy vicar, David Arquette stretching his acting range as a dude who’s always high, Neal McDonough as a violent loner, and Joseph Runningfox and Sheila Tousey as Native American siblings who act as guides. Their exile is reminiscent of the premise of Father Ted, and seems ripe for semi-depressing humorous hijinks. However, the sudden appearance of Robert Carlyle’s character results in numerous twists and turns, including an unexpected mythological element as well as a heavy dose of mind-fuckery. The tension builds so perfectly and the gore levels rise exponentially, all while maintaining a note of dark humor, it’s just superb.

Bloody and brutal in many ways, Ravenous is captivating for its bizarre plot twists and scene-stealing performance from Carlyle, who seems to delight in his own mischievousness. One of the greatest successes of the film is its final twist, which forces Boyd to question his sanity and memory, while also facing his own growing bloodlust. It is structured in such a way that the audience is unsure whether the earlier events of the story were real, or if Boyd is some kind of maniacal unreliable narrator. The visual aesthetic is a study in contrasts- warm red blood against cold white snow, piles of food against Boyd’s gaunt, starved face, an untameable mountain wilderness against man’s attempt to establish markers of Western civilization. The food imagery is of course plentiful, with Boyd flashing back to his commanding officer’s blood dripping into his mouth every time he sees a steak. Bird does not hold back on the violence, displaying mutilated skeletons, gooey innards, bones shooting out of shins, and a totally intense climactic battle. Through it all we hear the remarkable score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, which blends multiple moods and genres, shifting from old-timey Southern banjos and Native American chanting to distorted guitars and orchestral interludes. It lends the film a timeless aspect despite its clear 1840s trappings, and helps set the eerie tone.

Basically everything about this movie is good, from the gripping performances, unpredictable script, gross-out gore, historic references, and beautiful wintry mountain settings. I was really proud of myself for eating dinner during this movie and not losing my appetite. But then perhaps I have a bit of the old cannibal drive in me. Uh oh.


Pair This Movie With: Nineteenth-century cannibals lost in the mountains? Naturally I thought of Trey Parker’s feature debut, Cannibal! The Musical, which would make for a nice light follow-up after you’re stomach’s been churned around during Ravenous.

Movie Review: Belle (2014)


Seen: At the AMC/Loews at Boston Common.

Born out of wedlock in the 1760s to a black slave mother and a wealthy white ship captain, young Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) did not have a simple life to look forward to. When her mother died, her father (Matthew Goode) claimed her as his own and left her with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a highly influential judge in Britain, and his wife (Emily Watson). She was raised alongside their other ward, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), another niece around the same age. By the time they are teenagers, the cousins are as close as sisters, but each finds herself in an uncertain position- one social, one economic.

Though treated by her family as an equal, Dido is not permitted to sit at the main table when guests are dining (though she does join afterwards for conversation) due to her racial and ancestral difference. She does, however, receive a substantial inheritance from her deceased father, leaving her financially independent. Elizabeth’s appearance allows her more social freedom than Dido, but she has been cast off by her father and his new wife, and must endeavor to find a wealthy husband in order to achieve any kind of upward mobility. While they navigate the choppy waters of eighteenth-century aristocracy, Dido also becomes involved in a major case Lord Mansfield is presiding over, concerning a trader who drowned his slaves for insurance money. Moving past her own initial judgments due to his lower class status, she finds herself growing more and more attracted to a young abolitionist fighting in the case, John Davinier (Sam Reid), and secretly helps him by gaining information from Lord Mansfield.

As with many historical figures and events, I first learned of Dido Elizabeth Belle through art. I’d seen the painting of her and Elizabeth Murray in my art history books, a rare example of a Western eighteenth-century painting that depicts a person of color with dignity and equality. It’s a cheerful composition, and always made me smile, but I never looked much further than it for Dido’s story. Screenwriter Misan Sagay was also moved by the painting, and inspired to tell not just of Dido’s experiences, but a larger tale encompassing the period’s complex intersections of race, class, politics, and gender, accompanied by beautiful dresses and elaborate set decorations. And I’m really glad her film was made. It isn’t completely accurate to the real Dido’s biography, but Sagay intentionally structured the story to fit into a kind of Jane Austen-esque romance, thus opening it up to a broader audience than a straight-up historical film might have invited. It’s a smart move, and the script manages to weave together these seemingly disparate plotlines into a fairly cohesive narrative, ably showing how these issues are always interconnected anyway.

On paper Belle sounds a little over-complicated, but it is anchored by a gripping performance from star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who effortlessly communicates all the torment, rage, intelligence, pride, and playfulness wrapped up in the character. She is at times shy and romantic, at others bold and outspoken, ultimately a wonderfully multi-layered woman who fights to create a safe space for herself in uncertain surroundings. Mbatha-Raw is supported by a number of excellent British actors, including Tom Wilkinson as the conflicted Lord Mansfield (who in reality had presided over the landmark Somerset case years before), Miranda Richardson as the snooty Lady Ashford, Penelope Wilton as the candid spinster Lady Mary, and Sam Reid as the adorable optimist John Davinier (whom I’m guessing was somewhat inspired by abolitionist Granville Sharpe). I loved the pointed interactions of these different characters, many of whom maintain a blend of privilege as well as discrimination. Davinier is a white man, using his privilege to argue against the slave trade, but his lower economic status as the son of a rural vicar limits his social mobility and career prospects. Elizabeth is a white woman raised in wealth and status, but her lack of title and personal funds leaves her desperate for a husband who can support her (as she is not allowed to work or own property). Dido is of course held back in many ways by her race and unwed mother, but she enjoys wealth and status all the same due to her father’s support and family prominence.

I loved Belle, all around. Aside from its narrative complexities, it is beautifully shot, retaining all the grand mansion settings, fussy interiors, intricate gowns, and overwrought hairstyles we’ve come to expect from a good British period piece but also expressing the singular experiences of its title character through the careful positioning of the camera. There are many small, intimate moments that speak volumes- notably an interaction between Dido and a black female servant, who helps her with her wildly curly hair, so different than the thick blonde locks of Elizabeth. I thought the friendship between Dido and Elizabeth was interesting- truly they felt themselves sisters, but at times their racial and economic differences caused rifts in their relationship. I kind of wanted more of it, actually, though I recognize it’s not the focus of the film. No one thing is really the focus, except Dido herself, which is why Belle works so well. It does not set out to be any one thing, or tell any one message, but instead shares the fascinating experiences- some real, some fictionalized- of a truly exceptional woman who finds herself in uncommon circumstances.


Pair This Movie With: I went home and watched Mansfield Park, encouraged by the Jane Austen-y feel and the heroine’s similar class predicament as being sort of in-between in her status. If you’d prefer another British period romance that acknowledges issues of race, there’s Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights.