Monday, August 17, 2009

Westward the Women (1951)

“Only two things in this world that scares me,” confesses Robert Taylor at the start of Westward the Women, “and a good woman is both of them!” As the veteran wagon guide Buck, he will have to confront both of his worst fears in a big way when he is hired by California territory settler Roy Whitman to lead 140 women from Chicago half-way across the country to his settlement, where a community of men are waiting eagerly for wives. This initial impetus for the story seemingly objectifies women to a social commodity — the men need wives to have children, and Whitman’s town relies on this cycle of life in order to prosper. But it is exactly this objectification that the narrative continually rejects and fights against throughout the movie. Much to Buck’s chagrin, his female “passengers” repeatedly transgress stringent gender binding, embracing this westward expansion as both a social and personal journey as well. For this band of women, Manifest Destiny is more than a geographical crusade — it’s about redefining oneself outside the strictures of society.

Read my full review of Westward the Women here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Arizona (1940)

“Put that money on the table or get ready to feel lead!” orders Phoebe Titus as she holds a shotgun on two lackeys who robbed her the night before. Although played by Jean Arthur (who was known for playing bold, independent female characters that could be both tough and romantic at the same time), this certainly isn’t the same actress we’re familiar with from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, History Is Made at Night or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Gone is the coiffed, good-humored sophisticate that was so endeared by audiences — that Jean Arthur has been replaced by one who’s face is covered in dirt and is clad in jeans, vest and cowboy hat (which is more in tune with Arthur’s performance as Calamity Jane four years earlier in The Plainsman). With the whole saloon at her knees, Phoebe gets her money back with the assistance of newly arrived Peter Muncie, but she could care less that he’s played by the soft-cheeked matinee idol-in-training William Holden. No — her eyes are on retribution and nothing else. “Timmons, take that whip and give Longstreet five of the best lashes you got in you,”she tells the crooks. “Longstreet, you do the same to him. And if either of you eases up, I’ll make it twenty.” Money in hand, Phoebe listens as the whip cracks off-screen. “Harder! That’s more like it.”

Read my full review of Arizona here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

The Gun Woman (1918)

When we first meet Texas Guinan in The Gun Woman – a character nameless except for the moniker “The Tigress” – she is outside of her saloon at night, lingering half in the shadows, lighting her cigarette. Pre-Dietrich and pre-Noir, Guinan has femme fatale written over every inch of her body — yet this was made in 1918, and it is a Western. The cinematic predecessors that influenced film noir (namely German Expressionist and American hardboiled literature, both of the 1920s) were years away from being developed. Yet there she is, a deadly, dangerous woman, lurking in the darkest corners of the Old West – our lady Tex, “The Gun Woman” herself.

Read my full review of The Gun Woman here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

49-17 (1917)

In the introduction to his essential and illuminating study The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors, film historian Anthony Slide remarks that during the early days of cinema, “not only were women making films, but contemporary observers were making little of the fact. It was taken for granted that women might direct as often and as well as their male counterparts, and there was no reason to belabor this truth.” In the intervening decades, much of the legacy of women directors in the silent era has been lost or forgotten — films no longer exist and filmmakers’ lives and careers are ambiguous at best. How to reverse this process with so little evidence, and so few films? The release of Ruth Ann Baldwin’s 49-17 on DVD, her second feature film as director from 1917 – and the first known Western to be directed by a woman – was certainly a big step forward towards documenting this history and making it available to the public.

Read my full review of 49-17 here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Women of the West

Contrary to how it is generally perceived, “The Western” is in no means an exclusively masculine genre. The West wasn’t founded solely by frontiersmen, cattle ranchers and John Ford, and cowboys weren’t the only ones with six-shooters hanging at their side, warming their bellies with whiskey, running the bad boys out of town on their horses, or corralling the livestock as part of a hard day’s work. Women were alongside them, and in some cases in front of them, every step of the way...

Co-written by Jenny Jediny and myself.

Read the full essay at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Rambo (2008)

The entries in the Rambo series, whether affectionately or derisively, are often referred to not by their original titles, but by the abbreviation “Rambo” plus whatever number film in the cycle they are referring to. Technically, this is only accurate for Rambo III. And while calling the fourth film simply Rambo might make this all the more confusing, the decision is ultimately quite significant. It heralds a new era for the Rambo franchise—a new generation of fans, a new film industry, a new cultural and political climate, and ultimately a new action hero. This is now sixteen years after the release of First Blood, and much more blood has been drawn since then, and many more wrongs committed. To stick by that original title would be to indicate that Rambo hasn’t moved beyond that initial film. But, as evinced by the other entries in the cycle, he clearly has, and throughout Rambo he will continue to change even more because, if anything, this latest film is all about movement, both as an aesthetic choice and narrative motif.

Read my full review of Rambo here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Rambo III (1988)

Rambo III is a mess—an irreconcilable mélange of the awesome and the absurd, the ridiculous and the serious. Obstructing the narrative is a slew of contradictions and irregularities that break up what is otherwise a reworking of its predecessor, Rambo: First Blood Part II. But for something that tries to follow so closely the path set out by the previous two films, it is a surprisingly distinct entry in the series. I say “surprisingly” not because the other films are so cookie-cutter – in fact, if anything can be said for the Rambo cycle, it is that each entry has its own individual feel and conception of the titular character – but because Rambo emerges as a different entity seemingly against the intentions of filmmakers. Rambo III is an unwieldy beast that offers no easy, clear-cut analysis or summation, and for this the film is at once a headache and a delight, and ultimately an enigma.

Read my full review of Rambo III here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

At the very start of The Ballad of Little Jo, Josephine Monaghan finds herself caught in the dichotomous, reactionary web of nineteenth century American morality. Pregnant out of wedlock, her family takes possession of her child and sends her packing. On the road, a traveling salesman picks her up, seemingly engaging her as his assistant only to pawn her off to a couple of violent cowboys who chase her deep into the woods. Escaping, she flees to a local shop but finds hostility instead of sanctuary. Good girls would never get themselves in such a fix, it seems. When Josephine holds a pair of men’s trousers up in front of the mirror, the female shopkeeper warns, “Its against the law to dress improper to your sex.” Rejecting society’s label of “whore” because she wasn’t their idea of a “saint,” Josephine’s only recourse is the ultimate transgression: to cross the gender divide itself, from “Josephine” to “Jo.”

Read my full review of The Ballad of Little Jo here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Dazzle (2009)

Watching Dazzle, I couldn’t help but thinking of the song “At the Window of Vulnerability.” Most of the (in)action occur by a window; not only does it look out over an Amsterdam street and a river, it also acts as a screen through which a young woman (Georgina Verbaan) projects her own anxiety and guilt. We never see her engage in the world around her, which seems to be one of her biggest problems. Throughout the film, she talks on the phone to a complete stranger (Rutger Hauer), retelling to him the various events she has seen through the window, such as a junkie masturbating in the street or a mouse that commits suicide by leaping into the river. She sees desperation, but is not moved to enact any change herself; contrarily, the open spectacle of need inflicts upon her a great guilt, which she feels is unwarranted. Unable to cope, she reaches out to the stranger on the phone, a doctor in Buenos Aires, who is confronting his own doubts about his profession and his life...

Read my full review of Dazzle here at The L Magazine.

FILM IST. a girl and a gun (2009)

In the grand tradition of epic poetry, FILM IST. a girl and a gun fuses found footage from cinema’s past and ancient Greek text, by the likes of Sappho, Hesiod and Plato, into 24 frames-per-second of kinetic ecstasy. Combing the vaults of international film archives and the Kinsey Institute, Austrian artist Gustav Deutsch returns to Tribeca with the third installment in his Film ist (“Film is…”) series, bringing to light some of the most entrancing and indelible images of early cinema that you’ve never seen. The spectacles range from purple-tinted bodybuilders to Annie Oakley, nudist athletes to stop-motion flowers that blossom before the camera’s eye, stag film models to gun-toting women. Using the Greek writings as intertitles, Deutsch orchestrates the images into a five-act structure: Genesis, Paradeisos, Eros, Thanatos and Symposion. Within this framework, seemingly disparate images collide, creating a new cinematic world of gods and goddesses...

Read my full review of FILM IST. a girl and a gun here at The L Magazine.

World Nomads: Haiti at The French Institute

It is only fitting that the French Institute would choose to open its World Nomads: Haiti film series with Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist (2004), a documentary about Jean Dominique, who (among other things) happened to found Haiti's first Cine Club at the French Institute in Port-au-Prince in 1961. Co-curated by Demme with filmmaker David Belle (founder of Ciné Institute, Haiti's film school) and the French Institute's Marie Losier, the series — along with its companion Haitian Documentary Series at The Maysels Institute — makes available a national cinema that has received far too little exposure, either in theaters or on DVD.

Read my full coverage of World Nomads: Haiti here at The L Magazine.

Departures (2008)

On the one hand, it's obvious why Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It's overflowing with a familiar cloyingness that won't alienate audiences, and yet there's ample "foreign-ness" to make it appealingly exotic. Recently laid-off Tokyo cellist Masahiro Motoki returns to his hometown with his wife (J-pop superstar Ryoko Hirosue) and secretly begins work as a mortician. Ashamed, he keeps it a secret from her — and, expectedly, she and the town find out and ostracize him.

But then there's the influence of Juzo Itami's uncouth, bodily humor, which exerts itself in Depatures through Motoki's boss, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki of Itami's Tampopo and The Funeral. Whether slobbering over fried chicken, making off-color jokes about rotting corpses or using Motoki as a "human model" for the ritualistic preparation of the body (which includes stuffing gauze in unwanted areas), Yamazaki brings a much-needed inappropriateness to the film. His zest for pervy unpretentiousness does not go unappreciated.

Originally published in The L Magazine.

The Outfit (1973)

Robert Duvall plays Parker (here called Macklin) with an understated hardboiled demeanor. No cracking wise here — Duvall understands that he is playing a businessman whose cool head and emotionless disconnect isn't a sign of sociopathy but of his integrity. After foiling a hitman's attempt on his life, Macklin discovers that an organization known as The Outfit is after him for knocking over one of their banks. No beating around the bush, he goes straight to the man responsible for placing the hit, Menner (Tim Carey, with his characteristic élan), robbing him of all his poker winnings and demanding $250,000 for the inconvenience of almost being killed.

Read my full review of The Outfit here at The L Magazine.

The Housemaid (1960)

Filming the story almost entirely in a cluttered, half-finished home, Kim Ki-young makes full use of narrow corridors and glass-paneled sliding doors to emphasize the sense of global paranoia that runs rampant throughout The Housemaid. Filming through chairs, banisters and windows, he turns the home into an inescapable prison of unrepressed passions. Once the skeletons come out of the closet with a vengeance in the film's second half, it is as though the outside world ceases to exist. This pulp-chamber drama reminds of something that Gil Brewer might have penned for that publisher of lurid poetics Gold Medal. In fact, both Brewer's 13 French Street (1951) and The Housemaid both share a common nightmare of corruption of the middle class home and the perversion of its moral system.

Read my full review of The Housemaid here at The L Magazine.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

If 10 Rillington Place weren't based on real events, it would take the warped mind of Jim Thompson to imagine such paranoid, psychosis-driven characters as the soft-spoken serial killer John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough) and his dim-witted, unknowing cohort Timothy John Evans (John Hurt). Christie is a closet deviant who lures desperate women to his home under false pretenses of being a doctor. The illiterate Evans moves his wife and child into the apartment above Christie because it's all he can afford. His life is nothing but two rooms the color of rotting mouse fur, filled with furniture his wife neglected to pay, and a child on the way that he can't afford. Unfortunate circumstances have thrown the group together, and while Christie's phony doctoring seemingly offers Evans and his wife a way out of this purgatorial existence, it's only the beginning of a descent into murder, madness, and the overbearing weight of guilt that's enough to bury any man alive and make them wish for the gallows...

Read my full review of 10 Rillington Place here at The L Magazine.

The GoodTimesKid (2005) and Mantrap (1926)

From Benten comes The GoodTimesKid (2005), the second feature from Azazel Jacobs (whose latest film, Momma's Man, was one of the best films of 2008, and is available on DVD from Kino). With the exception of a brief prologue, the film unfolds throughout the course of a single day as the unspoken ennui and anxiety of a trio of alienated misfits manifest themselves through spontaneous relationships and mad dashes for wild, illogical dreams...

Also, just out from Sunrise Silents is a never-before-available silent film, Mantrap (1926), starring that iconic flapper of the silver screen Clara Bow (who was only twenty-one at the time of the film's release). And while her role as the titular "It" girl from It (1927) certainly defined a bobbed-hair zeitgeist, it has also come to be the sole definer of her career (outside of the cartoon she inspired, Betty Boop). Mantrap's arrival on DVD is a welcome reminder of the flirtatious charm and uninhibited sexuality that were the key ingredients of Bow's comedic style...

Read my full review of The GoodTimesKid and Mantrap here at The L Magazine.