Tag: crime

Monstrous Females Double Feature: Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012)

Ah, October, a month when talking obsessively about slashers, vampires, haunted houses, killer aliens, werewolves, and dismemberment is generally socially condoned. I have been enormously enjoying my own spooky season, an extension of my personal exploration of horror over the past year. Though I’ve seen many new-to-me horror films recently (most of which I write a little about on my letterboxd), it has been especially heartening to check out a few titles written and/or directed by women, which aren’t exactly common. Two of my favorites so far are the lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-puberty drama Ginger Snaps, written by Karen Walton, and the body-mod gorefest American Mary, written and directed by the Soska Sisters. As a nice bonus, both happen to star Katharine Isabelle.

Ginger Snaps

Seen: On our projector set-up on blu-ray (borrowed from my friend Ben).

Morbid sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are inseparable, determined to make it through high school together or possibly die trying, staging elaborate photographs of each others’ deaths as a creative coping mechanism. When the slightly older Ginger gets her period for the first time and is bit by a mysterious wolf-like creature on the same night, Brigitte becomes convinced that she’s turning into a werewolf, even though some of the signs are weirdly similar to puberty. Ginger drifts apart from her sister, suddenly interested in sex and drugs and parties, but her sister can see her rapidly losing control of herself both mentally and physically. Brigitte teams up with a local weed dealer who saw the original wolf and is inclined to believe in what’s happening, but they may not find a cure before Ginger fully wolfs out at the next full moon.

When I first heard the premise of Ginger Snaps I thought it would push the link between the “curse” of menstruation and the “curse” of werewolfism more. Like, get it? Women are MONSTERS when they’re surfing the crimson wave, can we talk about it? Women being emotional, uncontrollable monsters? Eh? But it turns out Ginger Snaps is really mostly about sisterhood and girlhood and growing up and hormones and turning into a werewolf obviously. It is primarily a well-paced supernatural drama, hinging on the mousy Brigitte as she works to save Ginger, a sister she is equally scared of and scared for. Emily Perkins is great in the role, affecting a telltale teenage shoulder hunch and an expression equal parts nervous and tenacious. Katharine Isabelle perfectly balances budding sexuality and over-confidence with an underlying vulnerability and eventual realization that she has lost control of everything she knew.

This movie combines all the confusion and excitement and terror of teenagedom–including fights with parents, personality changes, raging hormones and puberty, the perils of high school socialization, romantic melodrama–while simultaneously remaining a straight-up werewolf movie. I loved the theme of sisterhood and coming-of-age worked so believably into this darkly comic horror. Director John Fawcett’s insistence on practical effects works to everyone’s favor, and the story is original, unpredictable, and honestly quite touching. This is exactly the kind of feminist, femalecentric horror movie I wanted.

4.5/5

american mary

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed through netflix.

My next foray into women-made horror was American Mary, written and directed by celebrated filmmaker twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. Katharine Isabelle stars again, this time as Mary, a medical student with financial troubles. Unable to make her loan or bill payments, she answers a craigslist ad looking for beautiful women to work at a strip club/bar. After the owner ropes her into an impromptu emergency surgery, she is unexpectedly hired by one of the club’s dancers, Beatress, to perform a body modification surgery on a woman who has been changing her appearance to resemble a Barbie-type doll. Mary is at first unsettled by the procedure, but soon finds herself a go-to surgeon for others in the body-modification community. When a party with her medical professors goes horribly wrong, she uses her newfound skills to enact revenge.

Without knowing too much about it, I imagined this film as a gory, seedy medical thriller with lots of gross operations and maybe body horror. In reality, it’s more a thoughtful take on the rape-revenge subgenre set within a unique subculture. While Mary’s rape is shown in awful, disgusting detail (the one scene I had to look away from during the whole movie), the rest of the story is more about the psychological aftermath than the “revenge” portion usually the focus of other movies with this theme. The body-mod stuff isn’t part of the horror, in face the film mostly offers a sympathetic and compassionate look at that community. The essential horror of the film lies in the lengths Mary finds herself going to as she tries to cope with this terrible experience, as she recognizes her own personality and moral code changing radically. Katharine Isabelle again puts in a memorable performance, at times betraying an uncertainty beneath a hardened, businesslike exterior. Her transformation from confident medical student to somewhat sadistic underground surgeon is a compelling one, and she completely sells it.

The main issue many viewers seem to have had with American Mary is the ending, and I definitely would consider that the film’s weak point. The climax is a bloody, murdery mess that suddenly introduces a new character who was barely mentioned halfway through, and it’s just not satisfying. I think the Soskas were trying to work in a commentary about male possessiveness of their female partners and the general idea that men often think they have control over women’s bodies, which is a very fair point and totally appropriate to raise in a film about body modification surgery. But the way it is introduced and haphazardly worked into the narrative does not fit, and instead a barely-there subplot jarringly becomes the deciding factor in Mary’s story in the last five minutes of the movie. Which is too bad, because up until that point I was very involved with her tale, and hoped for a more fitting conclusion.

4/5

Movie Review: Bound (1996)

bound.1996

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

Trying their soon-to-be-totally-famous hands at the sexy noir thriller genre, Andy and Lana Wachowski made their directorial debut with Bound in 1996. Gina Gershon stars as Corky, a hardened ex-con recently released from prison, trying to keep her head down as she does some home improvement for an unseen employer. The apartment she’s working on happens to be adjacent to that of mob lackey Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his girlfriend, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Feeling an instant mutual attraction, the women soon begin a steamy affair, though Corky doesn’t think it’s anything lasting. Wanting to get away from her abusive criminal boyfriend, Violet enlists Corky in a scheme to steal millions in cash from him without spilling any blood. Their plan works at first, but over the course of one very intense evening it devolves into a homicidal mess that tests their newfound bond, and reveals Caesar’s true nature.

Situated primarily within the two neighboring apartments, Bound is a taut, serious bottle thriller, equally frank in its depictions of sex and violence. Contorting the typical straight man-woman-man love triangle by centering on two lesbians and one clueless heterosexual male, the story is compelling for its characters’ relationships as well as its sympathetic handling of queer themes. These ladies like to get naked together but they also like to get shit done, especially if that shit involves fucking over mobster assholes. Tilly and Gershon play their roles well, with the former blending vulnerability with iron resolution, and the latter affecting a convincing swagger to hide Corky’s deeper anxieties. Their own twisted morality shines like a beacon of truth amidst the brutality of their surroundings, the seemingly interchangeable male faces who work for the mob.

What is most impressive about this film is the use of space. 90% of the story takes place within these two apartments, one furnished and fancy, the other stripped-down and barren. Violet and Corky move quietly between these two disparate worlds, while the camera moves brazenly throughout each room, itself communicating action, tension, and fear. I could definitely see where some of The Matrix‘s distinctive visual style came from, as the Wachowskis’ camera creates a slick and thrilling atmosphere out of limited characters and settings. Because the film really distinguishes itself in its second half, when Violet and Corky’s plan is being carried out for better or worse effect, I felt the earlier portion of the film was weaker. There’s a little too much set-up, when this probably could have worked as a one-night story with a few flashbacks or something. It’s a really engaging film with some fun twists on the genre, but I probably would have liked it even better if the pacing or structure were handled differently.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A classic film noir about screwing over a woman’s significant other for his money would suffice, something like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Movie Review: Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

uptown saturday nightSeen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s hard drive.

Wanting a night away from their super hot wives for some reason, blue-collar workers Steve Jackson (Sidney Poitier) and Wardell Franklin (Bill Cosby) decide to sneak out to a fancy, secret nightclub/casino. Unfortunately for them, the place is held up and their possessions are stolen, with Steve waking up the next morning to realize his purloined wallet held a winning lottery ticket. He and Wardell skulk around Chicago trying to find the robbers, falling into a dangerous criminal turf war in the process. Through lies, scams, and a lot of luck, the guys manage to locate the wallet, but getting it back is a whole other gamble. Shoot-outs, car chases, a lot of injuries follow.

Sidney Poitier’s third directorial feature, Uptown Saturday Night is the kind of silly 1970s farces that showcases a ton of the era’s talent while offering up some surprising action sequences. It’s a decidedly goofy movie, replete with Poitier’s dumbed-down expressions and Cosby’s fast-talking bullshit. Also: Cosby’s beard, my goodness! The cast is superb, featuring a baby-faced Richard Pryor, Brando-parodying Harry Belafonte, gospel-preaching Flip Wilson, and marvelously chiseled Calvin Lockhart. My favorite, though, was Roscoe Lee Browne as a two-faced politician, switching pictured of Nixon and Malcom X on his wall depending who came calling, and his adorable, energetic wife Peggy played by Paula Kelly. The film is mostly light-hearted, but there’s some interesting satire thrown in there regarding black identity in the 1970s.

The setting and time period are also part of its charm, with wonderfully loud fashions, a good soundtrack, and some playful blaxploitation nods. The main thing that frustrated me was the casual sexism exhibited by every male character, which no one ever calls them on. The whole set-up of Steve and Wardell being dissatisfied with their really attentive, attractive wives and needing an escape from their home lives or whatever is just boring and stupid. It made the protagonists immediately unappealing to me, and I kind of hoped it would end with their wives getting the lottery money and skipping town. I really enjoyed the film otherwise, just wish most dude-fronted comedy didn’t also have to shit on women.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well I know there’s a pseudo-sequel called Let’s Do It Again with the same writer/director and some of the same castmembers.

Movie Review: The Loved Ones (2009)

the loved ones
Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’ harddrive.

Lately whenever Miles and I sit down to watch something I’m immediately like “Let’s watch a horror movie!” because, well, it’s just how I feel, you know? The other night he obliged me with The Loved Ones, an Australian slasher he’d seen at SXSW a few years ago. It covers a decidedly sordid day in the life of teenage metal head Brent (Xavier Samuel), who is still reeling from a car accident that killed his father but left him unscathed. He struggles to emotionally communicate with his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) as they’re both getting ready for the big school dance that night. Shy outcast Lola (Robin McLeavy) is dismayed to find out Brent is going with Holly, and concocts a plan to secure his attentions for the evening, in extremely violent fashion. Meanwhile, Brent’s somewhat dorky friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) takes out gorgeous goth Mia (Jessica McNamee), whose brother went missing around the same time as Brent’s accident.

Structurally, The Loved Ones follows the well-worn format of “start small, get progressively more and more fucked up, and give no evidence of how far you will go” to great effect. It works as both a compelling teen drama and a supremely intense thriller, with ample amounts of gore and enough family dysfunction to fuel several soap operas. The performances are excellent, with Robin McLeavy offering an exceptionally devious and crazed turn as the almost-sympathetic but enormously sadistic Lola. Xavier Samuel is also memorable in his believably traumatic experience, essentially operating as a male version of the Final Girl and really making you feel his pain. The whole film is a wry reversal of the common male/female slasher tropes, with Lola serving as a kind of teenage Norman Bates (complete with an Elektra Cmplex). Not everything is so derivative, just toying with these recognizable images in clever ways. I’d say it’s its own kind of fucked up by the end, and writer/director Sean Byrne definitely makes it his own while working within the conventions of the genre.

While the characters and the central narrative definitely held my rapt attention, the b-plot of Jamie and Mia was noticeably weaker, and out of place when set against the main story. I thought the characters were cute and the way Mia fit in to the overarching plot was interesting and relevant, but the many cutaway scenes of their date were just kind of off-putting. I understand the inclination to offer a lighter side story that juxtaposes with the extremely dark happenings of the protagonists, but the two don’t quite mesh. If Byrne had more closely worked in their story to the main one, I think it would have given the film as a whole a better flow. Anyway, it’s generally a minor concern because the rest of this movie is pretty damned rad. AND I would like to note that though a lot of it is watching a teenage boy get hella tortured in really gory ways, I only turned my eyes away like twice because I am getting SO GOOD at horror movies. One day I’ll be a pro and movie gore won’t make me faint in movie theaters anymore because lol that’s happened to me multiple times.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Something about a lonely young woman, romantic longing, and knifey bodily assault combined makes me think of May, which is an amazing movie.

Movie Review: L.A. Confidential (1997)

la-confidentual
Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’ harddrive.

We’ve had this on our to-watch list for a while but every time it came up we either weren’t in the mood or didn’t have the time for it. But now the time has come, and I’ve seen L.A. Confidential. Yep. Based on James Ellroy’s novel, the film follows three very different police officers hanging around 1950’s Los Angeles. The murder of a corrupt detective and a sex worker during a diner robbery launches a multifaceted investigation that eventually uncovers a number of seedy underbellies- drugs, homicide, prostitution, blackmail, etc. Three officers- the naive but opportunistic Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the brutish but sentimental Bud White (Russell Crowe), and the smarmy but mildly ethical Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey)- open their own separate cases that unexpectedly come together in violent, tragic ways.

Sooooo. This movie is kind of a big deal, I was aware of that, and while I didn’t know many details about it I guess I had high expectations just because it’s so famous and respected and awarded. I did like it, but I didn’t love it, and I guess I’ll have to explain myself here. The thing about L.A. Confidential, for me, is that it feels too familiar, too derivative. It’s pulling from these film noir classics and positioning itself as a stylish period piece updating the genre for a 90’s audience, and there’s value in that, but the path is well-trod and the movie didn’t bring anything especially novel to the proceedings. I thought the cast was great, the costumes were gorgeous, the script was good, and the setting was compelling, but the story itself is jumbled and the mystery isn’t very compelling. Certain aspects of the film were fascinating to me- the ultra-secret sex club with women made to look like famous stars, the Latina woman who lies to the cops so that her rapists will be punished, the obsession with image and celebrity prevalent in the police department- but as a whole it didn’t quite do it for me.

It’s still a pretty cool movie, mostly for the great cast. Kevin Spacey is the easy standout, all greasy self-obsession and twisted moral compass and pal’ing around with an even slimier Danny DeVito, but he’s also the one with the least amount of screen time. Guy Pearce is looking SHARP in his spectacles even if everyone keeps making him take them off (which is SO dumb, how the hell is he supposed to do detective work and, like, SHOOT?) and I liked how his character starts off all high-and-mighty but finds himself betraying his own conscience to uncover some darkness within himself. Of the three leads, Russell Crowe is the weakest, but that’s partially because his character is so boring and cookie-cutter. Like a dumb guy with a savior complex because his mom was abused, and that’s his entire personality. Ok. We spent the whole movie imagining he was a literal bear and it made him much more interesting. And funny. James Cromwell is good but he could not keep his accent down, like it oscillated between super-Irish to nonspecific American in different scenes and it was way distracting. Kim Basinger, so dominant on almost all the poster art, is a secondary character, but since she’s basically the only woman with more than one line of dialogue I guess they wanted to promote that anyone in the movie was female. She’s good though, shifting between hard-edged sex worker and kind-hearted romantic, and really pulling off the Veronica Lake look.

Anyway, this movie is ok but I’m not going to pretend like I found it special or even particularly memorable. It’s very well-made and oozes confidence, but it’s too reminiscent of other films for me to be wowed by it.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Obviously Chinatown. I mean, this movie definitely wanted to be the next Chinatown, right?