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As a parent, I get subjected to my fair share of kids’ movies. Luckily, my kids have always enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki films (man, did I get weird looks when I left a copy of Spirited Away as the film they could watch on on overnight babysitting excursion). Miyazaki does some amazing work, so it’s a pleasure for me to watch as well as the children. So when Ponyo came out, I was thrilled to death because it managed to combine Miyazaki with one of my favorite childhood stories: The Little Mermaid. Given, this one doesn’t have the original ending (which, by the way, was the first version I read as a little kid – gorgeous illustrated book with a seafoam depiction has remained with me). I love this rendition of the tale – it’s flat-out charming. As more time and viewings elapsed, I found myself laughing more and more at the way that parenthood is presented in this film. Or rather, how it’s presented when a parent is actually around.
You see, the parents in Ponyo suck.
Don’t look so surprised, kid.
This isn’t a new theme for Miyazaki, who often centers his stories around young, independent girls questing on their own. The downside of this is that we get children that are left to figure out concepts beyond their social-emotional mindset without guidance. What we do get to see of their parents isn’t exactly positive. In Spirited Away, we have a set of parents lacking common sense whose actions manage to land their daughter in a contract of servitude. Castle in the Sky presents a mother with adult sons entirely too dependent upon her and are socially stunted as a result. Howl’s Moving Castle features a mother that sells out her daughter as part of a duplicitous governmental plan to obtain an unwilling wizard for a war effort. I could keep going, but we’ll stop there. Point is, parents are dangerous when they actually take a minute to be in the picture.
In Ponyo, though, we get to see a lot more of the parents, though they operate in a fashion that does not connect them totally to their children. Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, is first met while hard at work creating life in the ocean; his children, meanwhile, are inside of a submarine, by themselves with not much else to do but swim around in their protective bubble. Apparently, it’s a huge shock when Ponyo gets bored and runs off, as Fujimoto’s main line in the film is, “Respect your father!” Ponyo’s mother, Granmamare (which, I have to interrupt to add this – was it just me, or was Cate Blanchett whipping out her best Galadriel voice?), is not present in her children’s lives; she must be summoned, with Fujimoto remarking, “It’s been a long time” when she finally shows up. What’s Granmamere’s reponse? “Look at my ocean!” There’s no immediate asking of her children’s well-being or expression of happiness to see her partner. When Fujimoto explains the situation with their child using magic to turn human and place the planet out of balance, she reponds, “Ponyo? What a lovely name.” Fujimoto seems to grasp that the situation is grave, conceding that Ponyo is “too powerful” yet is too young to understand that her love for Sōsuke could end their world. I suppose we should give thanks for this small blessing, because Granmamare offers this solution: “Why don’t get let Ponyo become human for good? We must test the boy.” Think about that: Granmamare’s unhesitant solution is to let her child undergo a test that could result in her child’s death. There’s a time and a place to let your kid make her own choices, but really, this felt entirely too young. Granmamare is willing to let her daughter be turned into seafoam if it fails. It’s not like Ponyo has lived a full life – she’s a little kid. This is a bit too far into calm territory. There’s a line between letting your kid make decisions on her own and just not giving a shit. Granmamare, who is not very present to begin with, falls firmly into the latter category.
“Hey, honey, the kids are doing great…”
Sōsuke doesn’t fare much better; in fact, his parental experience parallels Ponyo’s in many ways, yet deviates from Ponyo’s experience in terms of unrealistic responsibilities and expectations imposed on him by the adults. His dad, Kōichi, is largely absent from his life in the same vein that Ponyo’s mother is absent; at one point, Lisa uses the term “abandon” to describe his actions of constantly working. His mother, Lisa, is best described as unobservant – she lets her five-year-old son play unsupervised by a cliff on the ocean, and focuses more on her job as a caretaker at a senior living facility than getting her son to school. Throw in that she places her son in danger to drive home in a wicked flood (and that she can’t seem to drive to save her life), and Lisa’s downright reckless. On top of this dynamic, Kōichi attempts to draft Sōsuke into telling Lisa about his extra run at work, to which Sōsuke replies, “No, you should tell her.” Sōsuke then has to pep talk his mother when she’s upset that her husband is not coming home. Later on, Lisa decides to check up on the seniors after the flood… and leaves her five-year-old as the man of the house while she goes off on her adventure. When the scared child tells his mother, “We can wake up Ponyo and take her with us. I want to go with you,” Lisa replies, “Our house is a beacon in the storm. Our light can be seen by the town and the ships and every place else that’s dark…. So I’m going to leave you here in charge. You’ll do the right thing… You have to be the man of the house tonight.You’re only five but you’re very smart. Sometimes we take a leap. Be brave.” That’s a lot to thrust onto a kid that’s barely learned to read.
The end result is that while Ponyo and Sōsuke come out stronger, they really don’t get much adult auidance, which decreases their ability to be children as opposed to small adults. Ponyo is told that she has to abandon magic for Sōsuke, while Sōsuke is asked if he could love Ponyo even if she wasn’t magic. Those are tall orders for kids that are fucking five; when I was five, I would have agreed to a lifetime of bologna and Sprite for lunch if you had asked me. That these massive, life-altering decisions are asked of these two very young children seems unfair, and it’s even worse that the parents are so blase about it. Come on, I know adults that are stuck in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development (let alone those that have made it to the critical thinking threshold that many don’t reach) that don’t quite grasp some of the concepts these two are dealing with, yet here we are. At the end of the film, we’re left with a little girl that does not know how to get along without magic – which she’s used throughout the entire film – and a little boy who is basically engaged and running the show solo at home. Why the hell aren’t these kids out having fun? Shouldn’t they be allowed to be, oh, I don’t know, children? In fact, Fujimoto goes so far as to shake Sōsuke’s hand and tells him to take care of his daughter. Let me reiterate: these kids are five. They need a little more help growing up. You can’t just give them twenty bucks and a picnic basket and wish them luck for the rest of their lives. We may as well slap these two with a mortgage and a 401k while we’re at it.
Lisa tells Granmamare upon departure, “I’ll take care of her.” While this line is moving to me as a mother (because really, who wants to think that someone else is going to be raising your children and that you’ll never see them again?), it also makes me chuckle. Lisa wouldn’t even take care of her own kid – what makes Granmamare think that she would actually take care of hers? And while we’re at it, that adds a whole new level of squick to the story – those two are going to grow up together… in the same house… same age… kind of like siblings. If you can push all of that out of your head, you’ll have a great time. However, once you see it… the movie takes on a life of its own.
I didn’t know what to expect when I rented Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love: Juvenile A. This is the same man that brought us both Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris (its own post another day), which is a delightful exercise in what-the-fuck-did-I-just-watch. I’m used to gore from this director; I’m also used to a type of dark fairy tale coming from him. He chose to go just as surreal with this one, but managed to provide a departure: the story of two young men navigating the prison system, with strong hints of attraction and love amidst a backdrop of spiritual journey. The effect was profoundly moving, due in equal parts to the performances of Ryuhei Matsuda and Masanobu Ando as well as the deft direction of Takashi Miike. So, as the day ends in “y”, I’m going to throw an interpretation out there that is going to seem weird: I think that the characters Ariyoshi Jun (Matsuda) and Kazuki Shiro (Ando) were actually representations of the same person undergoing a type of vision quest to forge a stronger, more spiritual being in childhood.
This was incredibly moving.
Bear with me for a moment while I piece this one together, as it’s not linear. The story starts with a notion of time, which is significant because it sets the stage for the jumps back and forth from childhood to adulthood. The film starts out in the segment “The Tropics,” with its bold red background. This is where my Spidey sense started to tingle – red figures into the Tibetan Book of the Dead as both the symbol of feeling as well as wisdom. The boy is asked what kind of man he wants to be; he is told to meet someone on the beach at sunset in order to undergo a ritual to make him into a strong man (hi there, water as the symbolism of rebirth). We’re then introduced to a tattooed man in a red, ripped ceremonial skirt, and then are immediately presented with the explanation by the old man that the boy will encounter the man’s “manhood forced to your throat” as the explanation that this is how men are born. A little rapey, but let’s bypass that for a second. From here, we jump ahead to prison, with the death of Kazuki supposedly at the hands of Ariyoshi. From here, we piece together Ariyoshi and Kazuki’s love story as the murder mystery unfolds; interspersed throughout are the pieces of their spiritual journey – one a staunch believer in science (hello there, rocket ship) while the other believes in heaven and salvation (greetings, pyramid). Still with me? Good. We’re about to go a little bonkers.
Here’s where I think they’re the same person: Ariyoshi and Kazuki have an inexplicable bond that boarders on intense love, and both compliment each other in such a fashion that their extremes make for two halves of the same whole. Starting first with the crimes: Ariyoshi killed his rapist, then proceeded to mutilate the body beyond all recognition for hours on end; Kazuki, meanwhile, raped a woman that resulted in her suicide, then was jailed again for beating a man to death in the streets. Yet once they get to prison, it is the blood-soaked Ariyoshi that is silent to the point of being called effeminate, and relatively white-clad Kazuki who is both defensive of Ariyoshi and dislikes being bossed around by others. That one committed an act of sheer rage while the other performed his based upon a type of boredom and rebellion screamed that they were extremes and therefore not fully developed on their own. By the way, notice how their outfits seemed to be opposites of each other? Same colors, but one in mostly red while the other was in mostly white. I don’t think that was an accident, much like how Kazuki had the same tattoos as the dancing man from the Tropics section. So, we have parallels and connections already. From there, the boys are paired in living quarters, with Kazuki errupting into an outburst in order to earn solitary confinement – this backfires, as he’s kept in with the general population. Even though he and Ariyoshi are sent to different work assignments, the point is that they are together in order to function effectively in the prison system. Kazuki looks out for Ariyoshi, while Ariyoshi gets Kazuki to open up.
They even start out as near-mirror images.
The opening up is the second part of my hypothesis, as it pertains to their discussions of spirituality. The boys retreat to the fenced-in yard, where they watch a rocket ship and discuss the existence of heaven. They view the pyramid as a way to get to heaven, and the rocket ship as a way to reach outer space (a place Kazuki describes as somewhere to escape other people); in essence, they are struggling to find the path of the heart/mind versus the path of science, and which one makes sense to the soul. That they rely on each other for this conversation is telling: Ariyoshi is curious as to Kazuki’s answer, while Kazuki seems obsessed with total solitude. That Ariyoshi sees the sunlight on his chest and gushes blood while being asked, “What kind of man do you want to be?” seems interesting, because Kazuki is not asked the same question; instead, his path is more set in stone, and he is allowed to sleep while this is happening to Ariyoshi. In the end, however, Kazuki chooses death and something outside of the rocket ship: the triple rainbow. Rainbows in Japanese spirituality are connected to a creation story stemming from a male and female being traveling to earth via a bridge to create the world from chaos; this bridge was the rainbow. That he sees a rare triple rainbow not only signifies death and rebirth, but a third, mysterious journey.
This is where it all ties back in for me: in the end, Kazuki chooses to die and instigates his own demise, and is thereby absorbed to become something he already was: Ariyoshi. We don’t get backstory from Ariyoshi other than the fact that he brutally murdered his attacker; we do get backstory on Kazuki, who used to steal jam-filled bread as a sexually abused child. In the end, this same child version of Kazuki is in the prison cell, watching the butterfly and rocket. Kazuki is instructed by the soul of the Warden’s dead wife to “not grieve for her. Forget everything. Start a new life.” His death allows him to move beyond the troubled childhood and adulthood to ascend into something else, leaving behind the angry, combative persona who cries in the confusion of witnessing the bridge between heaven and earth. What’s left is the more quiet aspect of Ariyoshi, capable of extreme violence but also of quiet acceptance of the world around him. Ariyoshi asks, “Will we ever meet again?” as the butterfly – the symbol of the soul’s journey – is electrocuted. It is this version of the self that returns to being a child at the beginning of the film with the red background, the symbol of feeling and wisdom.
The old man declares to the young boy that he sees a whale: “a whale that’s lived for countless years, the master of the ocean, now returning to heaven” before commanding him to “become an outstanding man.” Meanwhile, the child version of Kazuki remains in the prison cell, viewing his rainbows. As the soul does not exist inside of time in many philosophies/religions, the fluidity of moving back and forth between childhood and adulthood is palpable, with the whale as a type of vessel for the journey. The seed of violence is contained within the bars of the psychic prison while life goes on outside. The journey has completed. Ariyoshi can now grow up with the knowledge that this piece of himself has lived and died so that he
can become an outstanding man.
Go be an outstanding man, kid.
I may be dead wrong on this one; it’s been known to happen, and I accept very well that I could be wrong. This is what I took from it. It was moving, it was visually stunning, it was well-acted (sidenote: holy shit is Ando is an effective crier). Miike did it again.
Some quick administrative stuff: I’ll be in Canada for part of the week, so fingers crossed, all will go well and there won’t be any issues with publication (hey, if it’s going to happen to someone, it’ll be me).
I’m coming for you, baby.
That being said, while I’m in the Great White North, I’m sending you guys to Japan. It’s Japan week at The Backseat Driver Reviews! Huzzah! This week, we’ll be taking a look at Big Bang Love: Juvenile A, Ponyo and recommending one of the best movies I’ve seen on a date.
If you wind up liking this whole theme week, let me know and I can make more of it happen.
I’ve already gotten to talk about so many things I’ve enjoyed this week that I’ve decided to share something that I had been trying to find for a little bit: Jennifer Kent’s 2005 short film Monster, which was the basis for The Babadook. I’m linking to TheBlood-Shed.com, a cool horror site that showcases indie horror – comics, movies, music, video games. Bop on over and give it a whirl; you’ll find some treasures, I promise. So, bearing that in mind, I’m linking to Josh Millican’s article on Jennifer Kent, where you can find Monster embedded:
First thought: damn, you can tell right off the bat that Kent worked with Lars von Trier. As I have a love-hate relationship with Lars (beautiful shots, but damn does he get long-winded and up his own jock), that made me uneasy; however, the black and white of this piece works in Kent’s favor, as does her sense of pacing. It’s nice to see where the DNA from The Babadook originated, as well as how she grew in between the short film and the feature presentation. Watching the visual effects and tension of this one, you can see that there’s something special brewing. Kent kicks ass without having to get graphic in her presentation. That to me shows a brain, which is oh-so-attractive. If this was the first draft of a film that was both deep and scary as all hell, I can’t wait to see what else she cooks up.
Well, I covered Planet Terror last week, so why the hell not? Tarantino himself considers Death Proof his worst film, which, really, this one isn’t that bad. If this is him on a bad day – if this is as bad as it gets – then he’s way ahead of the game. This one bombed at the box office, but it’s got a following. If you haven’t seen it, it’s available for rent on iTunes and Vudu. Here are five reasons to head on down and rent it this weekend.
Cars and ladies and violence, oh my!
#1 – The music
Oh, to live in Tarantino’s head. The soundtrack would be totally worth everything else the imagination could throw at me. T.Rex! Pacific Gas & Electric! The Coasters! Ennio Morricone! His movies consistently have fantastic soundtracks. The man has great taste in music. Fun story: this soundtrack is responsible for my youngest child calming down in the car as an infant: the colicky baby LOVED Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s “Hold Tight!”and seven years later, she still loves it. If anything, I owe this film my sanity because it provided me with a few moments of reprieve. If it can appease a perpetually pissed off baby, you’ll dig it too.
#2 – The cars
My dream car is a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Now I may not know every detail of cars, but I do know that for some reason, a ’70 Challenger really does it for me – the shape, the sound… mmm. This film also features a 1971 Chevy Nova, a 1969 Dodge Charger, and a 1972 Mustang. For a girl that digs early-70s muscle cars, the automobiles in this film just make me weak in the knees.
Zoë Bell on a ’70 Challenger! WHOO HOO!
#3 – Actress-gasm
The actresses in this film are enjoyable for me to watch on many levels: Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoë Bell (good Christ do I love Zoë Bell), Jordan Ladd. Pretty? Yes; Bell is totally my type. However, each one can bring the badass and the sensitivity in the correct role. That’s what makes watching them so much fun. That there are so many of them in one place is just marvelous. Giving them a chance to speak frankly about life – complete with swearing up a storm – is something that women aren’t allowed to do all the time in film, let alone real life. We’re expected to be ladies; these actresses get a chance to be real women.
Oh, and for the record – you know how most people name their cars? I named mine Abernathy. Most people think it’s for the Hunger Games (which… no. No, no, no. Never in a million fucking years.). It’s actually for Rosario Dawson’s character in this film. I came close to calling the car Zoë – the ship’s mast sequence and chase is incredible. That she did all of her own stunts proves the woman has balls most men would envy.
#4 – It’s a smart ass
The descriptions of topics ranging from men to cars to work to clumsiness are hysterical. The one that sticks out for me is the description of Shanna’s dad at the beginning of the film. These characters rip on each other and don’t give a shit. You know what that reminds me of? An evening with friends. It’s really funny and endearing in that respect. There’s a level of comfort with the dialogue; it feels like friends more so than characters.
#5 – Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike
I saved the best reason for last. Watching Kurt Russell go to town on this character is so good. I have seen him play a hero, play a dad, play an anti-hero, but this was really the first time I saw him do something creepy. Damn is he effectively creepy. He also perfects screaming in wimp fashion. He needs to play unhinged more often; I would pay to see that. This one was enjoyable.
Scenery chomping with bravado.
I could have gone on about the car crashes and chases, but really, this one has a lot going for it. Check it out.
I’m going to be very upfront about this: Late Phases is not my favorite movie. I could tell where the plot was headed quickly, the wolves weren’t what I had hoped, and the transitions between scenes felt too abrupt. That being said, this one does feature something that’s pretty well-done – something we don’t often get films, let alone in horror: a caring, adult father-son relationship. In a departure from the typically-sensitive mother-daughter relationships, we get to watch son Will (Ethan Embry) care for father Ambrose (Nick Damici) in a manner that is caring, thoughtful and realistic.
Finally, a decent portrait of a father and a son.
The sheer amount of care worked into their interactions is subtle yet effective. When we first meet the pair, the blind Ambrose is searching for a headstone while his son Will patiently waits for him. When Will texts his wife Anne (Erin Cummings) to let her know that he’ll be late, his dad picks up on this immediately and chastises him for texting while driving. A small exchange, but a telling one: dad is looking out for his kid. In return, the bulk of Will’s actions demonstrate a concerned adult child attempting to care for his aging, disabled father. Will equates helping his father get settled into a new home in a retirement community to “dropping you off at prison”; he tells Ambrose that he dislikes Ambrose walking around without his canine companion; he asks if his father has eaten after a long day of dealing with the fallout of the werewolf attack. Will’s wife Anne contributes to the caregiving as well, asking about blood pressure medication and making sure that the blind man doesn’t misplace his life’s savings. Here’s the beauty in this: we don’t hear Will or Anne bitch and moan about how much time they’re spending with Ambrose. No one gripes that he’s costing them time or money. They’re there because they want to be there.
Nice to see that not all parents are treated as burdens.
We’re rewarded with realism, which is something that film only uses for either comedic effect or Oscar-baity drama in this situation. Let’s face it, the realities of caring for an ailing, aging family member are not easy, and there are arguments that go along with it. This film chooses to include them rather than exclude them: we get Will and Ambrose fighting about money; we see Will upset when his blind father pulls a gun on him; we hear Ambrose chastise, “I have to live here” when Will calls the gate guard to the community an asshole. Will also manages to hit a breaking point during the film, but it’s not based around any resentment for caring for his father: it’s based around the unresolved issues Will has with his parents’ divorce and his father closing himself off emotionally. We get the disconnect between these two men: one who wants a loving relationship, and in return, his father asks, “What do you want from me? Hugs and kisses?” When Ambrose interjects that he’s allowed his private thoughts (especially around his divorce from Will’s mother), Will fires back, “That has everything to do with me” before telling him that he’s going to leave and live his own life. These are two men trying to work through a tough point in their relationship, and when Ambrose is injured, his first instinct is to call his son and give him that closure before he dies. He leaves a message telling Will, “Be the man I couldn’t be. I love you boy, and always have.” How does Will respond? He goes to his father, late at night, presumably in his pajamas. Someone who is hard-hearted wouldn’t do that; someone who argues with a parent but really loves that parent and would pull out all the stops for that parent would. Those are moments that can and do happen in real life, and I’m glad that we got to see them. Writer Eric Stolze did a great job in conveying a tricky subject.
On the flip side, we also get to see a type of counterpoint that is both realistic and not what we normally witness in cinema: a mother/daughter pairing that is neither close nor caring. Mother Delores (Karen Lynn Gorney) gets a phone call from her daughter Victoria (Karron Graves), who is trying to get out of a planned visit. Victoria offers a weak, “I didn’t think you’d still be awake” before offering a half-assed excuse as to why she can’t be there, and her mother counters, “I’m not the one who’s confused. If I didn’t remember these things, no one else would.” From there, the subject changes to Delores’s answering machine message, which still has her now-dead husband’s voice on it; Victoria wants her to change it, but her mother protests, claiming that she likes hearing her dead husband’s voice. Victoria suggests a dog for company, then is easily distracted by a screaming child in the background. At this point, death is imminent for Delores, who asks her daughter, “Can you just stay with me for a second? Can you stay on the line with me?” No response. Victoria doesn’t hear the door breaking down and doesn’t call for help for her mother, despite that it’s strange that her mother’s phone line has just gone dead in the middle of the night. It’s Ambrose that overhears the commotion and asks through the walls if she’s alright, and it’s Ambrose – a disabled stranger – who is responsible for the authorities being called to investigate. It’s also Ambrose that treats Delores as a person in his description of her in front the police, whereas Victoria is overheard grumbling, “I just want to get this over with and move on with my life” while giving a statement. There is no expression of having lost her mother at that point; Victoria tells Ambrose, “I should have taken her out of this place as soon as I heard the stories. There were so few options… I swear, I never thought she…” then trails off into tears. The subtext is there: Victoria thought her mother was a pain in the ass, and now she’s rid of her. She’s upset at the disruption to her life. We never hear from this character again, and that’s damning.
Interesting that the mother is the one abandoned.
That we got to see both the everyday nuances of a father-son relationship as well as the complete detachment of an annoyed daughter toward her aging mother touches honestly and sensitively upon how the aging parent interacts with the harried adult child. The relationships normally presented in film are those of the father and son attempting to rebuild after no contact, or the dutiful daughter caring for her other. This presentation shines light on something closer to reality: sons and fathers can and do care about each other: they bicker, they get frustrated, but in the end, they do care. Even if the rest of the film was a wash, the portrait of the relationship of Ambrose and Will is to be commended.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I enjoy the living shit out of Frazer Lee’s film work. His films are like really good music – you wonder why in the hell people are buying shitty pop music when they could have something that actually kicks ass (likening films to underground music is now my metaphor for life). The man knows how to go for a scare without being gory, which is, sadly, an art form that is underused. I find that his work borders on Gothic without being emo; again, a tough chord to strike in the modern age of the “don’t blink until you puke” method of film-making. Most endearing to my little black heart: there seems to be an undercurrent of subversion when it comes to authority and trust. On Edge had it in spades when it came to socioeconomic class and entitlement. Red Lines has it as well, though it goes after something a tad different than the doctor authority figure: this one uses a teacher to drive home the notion that we’re breeding free will out of our children in favor of a rigid school system intent on destroying any non-conformity to its rules, particularly that of its female students.
Since this one is short, I’ll post it here if you haven’t seen it. We need to chat about this one. At just over six minutes, I think you can spare the time.
First off, a shout out to a technical aspect that is by no means easy to pull off, and has relevance to my case: the omission of music from the bulk of the action of a horror film. We get some music at the credits (mostly piano, which… yeah, pianos are deliciously creepy when played well), but for the most part, zip, zilch, nada. Silence/absence of music can be tough, but has a huge pay off if we get some sounds interspersed. We get the sound of writing, the ticking of the clock as Emily languishes in detention, the mimicry of a heartbeat to the sound of a second hand. The employment of this technique adds to the jarring sound of the ghost’s appearances; I’ll admit that the first time I saw it, I jumped (so grateful I wasn’t eating anything or else I would have choked). No music except the bookends of the film, really. It was well-done. Here’s the fun part – what’s the first thing that gets cut in the school budget? The music program. Nevermind that music can improve grades, emotional/behavioral mechanisms and a whole host of other developmental aspects. There are arguments galore about how the stripping of music can be detrimental for students. I found this to be quite fitting in a film set in detention. I have to wonder if this is a deliberate poke at the creativity-killing aspect of the modern educational system. If it is, that’s brilliant. If not… well, it was total serendipity.
So, let’s get to the meat of this one – Emily and her ability to act. I’m not talking about Kirsty Levett, who was very good – I’m talking about the actions of the teenage character, particularly her obedience to directives. When we first meet her, she’s slouching, with her hair in her face and her sweater pulled over her hands (still guilty of this myself when bored); she’s your typical teenage rebellion that’s been busted. When her teacher walks out of the room, she sticks her tongue out, though this action is rather brief. This seems significant because it establishes a pattern of doing what she’s told: Emily has that slight instance of rebellion, then immediately sets to work. Here is what I consider a stroke of genius on Lee’s part: her task is to copy the lines, “I MUST NOT RUN.” All capitals, and very specifically worded. Lines as detention is an art form because you make sure that what the student is doing is so tedious and long that they never want to come back. In the grand scheme of copying lines, this one is very feather-weight (I speak from experience – of the detentions I gave, let’s just say I never had a repeat offender). What I find entertaining is the wording of it: if you’re not paying attention to the semantics, it’s easy to miss. Emily is in trouble for running in the halls, yet she’s only writing “I must not run.” It’s not a directive to stop running in the halls, which would have been longer and a more painful detention; no, she’s directed not to run. Ever. At this point, we start to see that Emily is getting direction to obey her fate as a victim; it’s a type of training, a subliminal brainwashing if you will. She changes obedience to this directive once the ghost appears and gives her a new one: “RUN.” At this point, she tries to escape, then gives up very easily at the locked door. Again, our ghost shows up to direct her to the drawer of trophies (quick sidenote: how fucking clever is Lee for selecting a symbol of both fertility and strength, with the nice child-like bow tied around it – that’s a creepy rabbit hole I won’t jump down this time, but oooooh was that a fun one). What does Emily do? She goes back to her desk and flips through the notepad, presumably to continue copying lines to demonstrate to her teacher that she had been performing the task set in front of her. She wants to maintain the semblance of adhering to the rules so that she is not injured. This backfires, and instead of running away, fighting – anything to avoid being murdered – Emily accepts that her teacher is going to kill her, crying and covering her face when she sees the tarp and rope.At this point, there was a hot debate going on in my head between two options:
A.) This is a horrifically weak female character that wasn’t developed, which is a damn shame.
B.) This was totally intentional and a complete slam against the brainwashing of total compliance of students, particularly that which is expected of girls.
I tend to think it’s choice B. What I know of Lee’s work… it’s not sloppy, and it often has an undercurrent of both caution and subversion. There’s always something else being said, to the point of muttering, “Ow, burn” to yourself because it typically goes after pieces of bullshit you encounter every day. Exhibit A: the battle against entitlement and blind trust in On Edge; Exhibit B: the scathing warning against online transparency and face-saving public lies in Panic Button. Again, the proof is in the semantics and actions: the teacher explains at the start of the film, “You only have yourself to blame for this detention, you know… The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll be finished.” Blaming her and then foreshadowing her fate places blame squarely on the future victim, as though she deserves to be killed for her transgressions. The teacher is clearly the one in charge because his words get the most authority – for fuck’s sake, even the female ghost is unnecessarily polite in her “PLEASE RUN” directive as opposed to the dominant, “I MUST NOT RUN” of the teacher. While Emily obeys both sets of directions, she places far more weight on adherence to her male teacher’s words. The message of not running does sink in, and as her fate is confirmed, she’s silent and does not resist – she covers her ears, covers her face with her hair, cries quietly and does not make eye contact with her aggressor. The last time we see her, she is actively looking down at the ground in subservience. Ladies and gentlemen, this is someone that’s been beaten down and does what is expected of her. In most schools, this type of submission is expected because it makes the day go by faster for the teacher and engineers an adult that will conform rather than ruffle the comfortable system. This is very, very bad because in following said rules, we get an example of a girl that does not have the ability to fight back because she’s expected to obey. This is a kid that does not have the ability to critically think let alone save herself. We watch a girl sit back and accept her death because she has been conditioned to not have the will to function outside of a rigid rule system. As a woman, I cannot tell you how raw of a nerve this one struck. Women are instructed from a young age to follow the rules, from how to dress in a socially acceptable fashion to how to speak and all other facets of behavior. That we see this dynamic in student-teacher form – from the dictation of the verbiage to the fact that the teacher has the literal keys to escape – speaks to what our children are expected to indoctrinate themselves into; we’re asking them to stop thinking to the point of blind obedience and, to an extreme extent, be willing to die in the name of following the rules. Throw in the genders of the characters, and it becomes an even more chilling message that females face on a daily basis: don’t rock the boat, just go with it, don’t be a bitch. Don’t think too hard about it – be a good girl and do as you’re told.
While more subtle than his other works, Red Lines is nonetheless damning of the impact of the expectations of obedience upon the ability to self-preserve. It begs some difficult questions: while the rules are in place for safety, can we really expect perfect submission, and at what cost? Should we have gotten to see more of fight, as most others (especially yours truly) would have done? Is this really what we want for our kids – particularly our girls – in terms of their ability to think and act? In short, are you willing to die to avoid pissing off the man in charge? The ending stays with you, and not just because it’s a creepy ghost story involving a serial killing authority figure and a silent, jarring ghost in the midst of a world devoid of music. It stays with you because, once you strip away the scenario, it can easily become a real-life horror story of how unthinking adherence to the rules cripples not only thought, but the ability to keep oneself alive.
We’ve all had to have that uncomfortable conversation with someone, especially when it comes to explaining sex to kids. Wasn’t bad at all when I had to explain where babies come from to my curious kid, who then laughed her ass off and called it “the funniest thing I ever heard!” It was actually far easier than the time I had to explain to a rather naive man what pasties were (thanks a lot to the two women that yelled, “NOT IT!” and ran). Bearing that in mind, here’s Michael Davies’s short film, What’s Virgin Mean?
Okay, I have fond memories of Kate Isitt from Coupling, even if Sally wasn’t my favorite (that one’s Jeff, always). Which made it wonderful to see her playing a mother having a conversation that quite a few parents dread (really, speaking from experience – lighten up, it’s fine). Mom makes a rookie mistake: she doesn’t ask for context, which turns a mother-daughter birds-and-the-bees talk into more of a question about the different kinds of olive oil. A huge part of the fun is the discomfort and the ensuing joke that we jump to sex first. I knew where it was going; I just wanted to see the expression on her face when she realized that she was telling her daughter about something entirely different. While it’s predictable, let’s face it, it’s funny sometimes when you know where something is going, and frankly, I needed a decent laugh after this week.
And so, happy Saturday! Hope you got a laugh out of it.
I have an unabashed love for the Grindhouse movies that came out in 2007. They were a hell of a lot of fun, as movies should be. Between the fake trailers – really, if Thanksgiving happens, I am so there, front and center, popcorn in one hand and Nerds in the other – midnight movie plot lines and scratched film reels, they’re charming, campy, flashy, melodramatic and just plain fantastic. Tarantino and Rodriguez obviously have a deep love of the 1970s grindhouse, as do I, so I knew off the bat that I was going to love it. Of the two, Planet Terror is my favorite. For as much shit as this film takes for not performing the way that some wanted it to, it’s really a blast. Here are five reasons to watch it this weekend.
Have to admit, this is one that I play when I’m feeling blue.
#1 – Cherry Darling
I will put this out there right now: I chose this film prior to watching Dawn, though it’s a nice segway. Rose McGowan is the goddamned bomb. She’s smart, she’s got heart, she’s honest, and she knows how to laugh at herself. It translates well into the role of Cherry. It takes a special actress to play something straight when it’s that ridiculous. A smart ass go-go dancer that loses a leg and gets it replaced by a machine gun? Doesn’t get any better than that. And there’s no one else that I could picture doing it than her.
#2 – El Wray and the missing film reel
There’s a missing film reel. It’s my favorite part of this movie because the gag is so well done. The first time I saw it, I yelled, “That is the most fucking awesome way to get around exposition!” Between the cut and the realization of what we missed out on… it’s genius. I still laugh at this part. You have to see this. I can’t spoil this because the initial shock is too good of a feeling to miss.
#3 Camp, camp, and – you guessed it – more camp
I adore campy films. So when I get a chance to watch something that combines cheesy dialogue, over-rought acting, obvious corn syrup blood, insane plot lines and psychotic M.O.s, I tend to scream, “Hells to the bells YES!” and go diving for the nearest available seat (regardless of who is already sitting there). Damn does this film have all of the above in spades. Everyone is so goddamned serious, too, which makes it even better. Even the soundtrack is perfect. It’s as though someone said, “Erin, you’ve been good lately. Here’s one for you.”
“Hey, wanna know what I collect?!”
#4 – It goes places you wouldn’t think
While this film is campy, it also does what horror does best: it gives deeper issues a chance to air themselves out. Abusive husbands, broken families, amputation, dead children, attempted rape, government experimentation – there’s some depth there, and you’ll miss it if you get too wrapped up in the camp (see above). Don’t get me wrong, the camp is glorious, but if you stop and think about it, it really does pack some punches.
#5 – The colors
This is just me being a dork. I love color play. I am a sucker for something shiny (true story: someone once deflected an argument by yelling, “Look! Something shiny!” and to this day, I can not remember what we were starting to argue about). You can easily miss some very rich reds, lovely blues and sepia-toned backgrounds if you take these observations for granted. Proving again that if you stop and look, you’ll find something beautiful in an unexpected spot.
Such a lovely shot.
Strange? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Hell of a good time? Oh yes. Give this one a chance.
I was intending to cover Rose McGowan’s Dawn as part of my Saturday Shorts series. However, this is too good for a quickie entry. Entirely too good. The layers, the meaning, the performances, the nuances of the script – this was the equivalent of a damn fine drink (coffee, whiskey – take your pick). “Well-played” is a label I bestow to something that leaves me smitten and wanting more, something that gets me to feel, something that I get lost in and suspend all disbelief that I am watching a film. I have only given two well-played stamps in my (albeit short) tenure of this blog: one to the Lee Pace/Troy Garity pairing of Soldier’s Girl, and the other to my favorite short film, Frazer Lee’s On Edge. Dawn has officially earned the third-ever Well Played from The Backseat Driver Reviews.
If you haven’t watched it, it’s available to view free of charge.
The first thing that will strike you about this film is its use of color. Points to Starr Whitesides for the amazing job of creating a veritable painting on film. From the pastels of the dresses Dawn (Tara Lynne Barr) to the reds of the rebellious girl Mary (Hannah Marks), it was pitch perfect in conveying who was innocent and who was initiated in the ways of the world (sexually, socially, criminally, etc.). Hats off to Mona May for her work in wardrobe: it was age- and period-appropriate without crossing the line into parody. Let’s face it, some films try to come off as retro when you know that they’re just going for cheap Bettie Page-knock off – this film managed to feel authentic in its costuming. Makeup assisted with this believability as well: we get the waxy, aged makeup of Dawn’s mother,effectively marking her as a type of wax doll – a husk devoid of spirit and care. Likewise, the makeup knew when to be subtle, as with the dark red blood running down Dawn’s face after the rock was thrown at her. It’s wasn’t screaming, “Look at meeeeeeeeee” because it didn’t have to. Much like the costuming and makeup, the lighting in the film starts out bright, then moves to a more muted tone, and finally ends in the dark with headlights and just enough twilight left over to light the way. The progression of colors and illumination work to help us realize just how grim the situation had grown, and managed to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. Even though I knew something bad was about to happen, I studied this one like a painting depicting a terrible act. To say this reminded me a bit of the classical depictions of rape and martyring would be accurate.
In that vein, let’s cut to the chase and talk about the plot. With the posting of this film, McGowan described her piece as a cautionary tale. Written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, it could easily have gone south without a skilled director at the helm. At the beginning of the film, we see Dawn’s face being lovingly stroked as she’s being told that she can’t go home again. From there, my first thought was, “Great, some moron killed another moron, and now this poor girl is going to have to sell her ass on a street corner to make ends meet in a new town.” Nope. Instead, we go towards a teenager puppy love story, from smiles and giggles and innocent refusals to sneak out of the house to the embracing of awakening desire through the metaphor of gum. Throughout every interaction, Dawn is always in focus. We get attached to this girl, who is the constant on the screen for us. We follow her as she navigates solo through a crush, and tries to learn through a magazine how to connect and keep her love interest engaged. We are led to believe that it’s a relationship that’s going to come into fruition, so when we get to the point of the car ride, we can see rebellion and start to worry that maybe this isn’t the best idea. After all, Dawn is following Tab Hunter’s advice and is acting the part of the perfect girl. The fact that she gets her advice through the printed word of a man is disturbing: we get to see her shaping herself around how someone else wants her to act, which robs Dawn of her agency. We see her conquering her upbringing, going against the rules designed to keep her safe; we see Charlie (Reiley McClendon) appeal to her sense of loneliness/desire for love and his attempts at forging a nice-boy connection with her – a knight in shining armor – to lure her out of that sense of safety and loneliness. We know that she has to grow up, but still, we want Dawn to be her own person; we want her to do something because she wants to, not because she wants to please someone else. Yet, that’s where she, like so many other teenage girls both before and after her, goes. Her decisions quite literally lead her into a dark place, with people she barely knows, who goad her into drinking and shove flasks into her face while she drinks. Once we get to Mary suggesting a dress change, we know that the shit’s about to hit the fan, and it suddenly takes on a dreadful tone. From there, we see her stripped down, humiliated and abused as a rock is thrown hard enough to cut the side of her head. We’re scared at this point that we’re going to watch this girl get raped, and Dawn has been presented to us as someone we do not wish this fate upon. We want her to remain innocent; we want someone to come save her. We listen to her begging to go home. We hear Charlie snap at her, then lead her off into the woods and kill her off camera. In a terribly chilling turn, Charlie’s voice changes and he tells Joe and Mary, “Just wanted to see what it was like.” In the end, Dawn did not matter as a person. It was all an experiment to see how killing someone felt. We basically watched a lamb get lead to slaughter for no greater reason than ennui.
The plot was effective, but it was aided in the way that McGowan crafts the tale. The use of color, music, and, to a certain extent, incidental noises such as crickets and static, builds the tension to the point of creating a sense of dread in the audience. This type of pacing is difficult to master; I can easily name half a dozen directors that need to take Pacing a Film 101. In particular, the exchange between Charlie and Dawn by light of the headlights manages to become staccato without once having to increase its pace, making it more about audience engagement than about the way that the actors are saying the lines. The real point of terror for me came when Charlie calmly explained to Dawn that she’ll tell someone about their little adventure, and implies that he will kill whoever comes after him in retaliation. He breaks down her home as a lonely place where her family is cold and her siblings have abandoned her. In essence, Charlie is attempting to sell her on the fact that any pain and suffering incurred will be her fault. DING DING DING – ladies and gentlemen, we have the oldest rape guilt trip in the book. It’s her fault because she said yes at one point, and any suffering incurred will also be her fault as well. Mind you, looking at the facts of this film, nothing at this point has been illegal (aside from the underage drinking); no one has been fucked; nothing has been stolen. Really, what is the worst that could happen? On the surface, nothing, aside from a stern grounding and a phone call to parents. However, at this point, we all know that this has been a type of rape for Dawn. She has been placed in a situation where she has tried to fit in, has gone in too deep and now wants desperately to go to the state of existence pre-violation of the costume change. She wants her wishes to be respected, and she’s powerless. Part of this is due to the social pressure to say yes in order to please a man. This whole business is a metaphor for rape, and the expectation that she needs to keep her trap shut. It’s victim shaming, which, sadly, women endure from the clothes they wear to the bodily violations they endure. Without having to go for obvious and explicit, graphic depiction, McGowan gives us a metaphor that we can clearly recognize without feeling stupid. And fuck does it make us angry.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Barr, McClendon, Marks and Michael Moskewicz (Joe). I’m calling it right now: keep your eyes on Barr. What she brought to this was believable and powerful. Everything I’ve seen her in has shown more depth at each turn, and she’s fun to watch. I expect to watch her work for years to come. As for McClendon in particular – if you can make my blood run that cold, you’re a pretty sly little devil. Slow clap right there. Marks managed to evoke a lot of pity in the shot of her face as Moskewicz holds her during the murder. Really, though, the entire thing was well-acted. This cast worked well. I was impressed. This is coming from someone who considers herself a bit of a prick when it comes to critical darlings; I’ll tell them to fuck the fuck off if they haven’t brought their A-game. For this to be so stylish and relevant, to impact me so deeply… you’ve done something right.
My takeaway from this? We need to let McGowan direct more. This was visually beautiful, socially relevant and well-executed. I can compliment, but rarely do I gush. This is me gushing. If Hollywood can put together remake after remake after remake (sorry, “reboots,” which apparently makes hacking someone else’s idea somehow easier at the end of the day), we can afford to give someone with an eye the time of day. Keep swinging, Rose. You certainly hit this one out of the park. I want to see more.